Don’t Underestimate the Screw

Back in my early days of working in my dad’s custom cabinet shop, we had a way of determining if the cabinet, table or chair was built adequately. If it was hanging on the wall, the heaviest guy in the shop had to hang on it, too. If it was a dining table, someone had to jump up on the table and bounce around a bit. Chairs? You had to sit in it, tip it back on the rear legs and give it a wiggle. Happily we almost always overbuilt, and there were very few mishaps.

Those lessons still resonate in my memory and I still tend to overbuild things, which proved useful when working on the projects in Arts & Crafts Furniture Anyone Can Make. With the core concept of the book being to keep things simple, the joinery employed is more biscuits, dowels and screws than mortise-and-tenon. The use of “manufactured” joinery tends to start discussions about durability. It wasn’t a concern for many of the smaller projects such as the table shown here (no one should need to climb on this one, so it’s plenty sturdy with screws). But when it comes to chairs, it needs to be considered.

There are three seating projects in the book, and I’m happy to say all passed my tip-and-wiggle testing without any concerns. You may raise the question of how they’ll survive the test of time. Another fair question, to which I’ll respond that my first “screwed together” outdoor Morris chair has survived ten years exposed to rain, sun and snow on my deck. It’s loosened up a bit, but it stills sits just fine.

When used correctly, screws can produce very strong joinery. Screwing into end grain is not going to be the best option, so we designed around that concern. Using the proper length screw to maximize the hold, and even using the proper type of screw (screws with deeper threads provide better grab) is important. Screws used in joinery also tend to get a bad rap because they’re not attractive. Granted, but again design can be used to minimize that, and a matching wood plug quickly hides a screw.

So don’t discount the lowly screw when you’re discussing joinery. It’s not the most elegant answer, and many a seasoned woodworker will consider it cheating. But for any first time builder I believe simple and successful is a better recipe for continued interest in woodworking. Once they’ve caught the bug, they can work on their dovetails. By the way, I’m not what anyone would call a “slight” person, and I personally test all my furniture … I can stand on the bookcase shown here. Enough said. Thanks for listening!

– David Thiel

5 thoughts on “Don’t Underestimate the Screw

  1. Eric R

    Total agreement here.
    There’s nothing wrong with screws when used where they are the best option.
    Especially with the myriad of application choices available today.
    Thanks Glen.

  2. robert

    No less than Sam Maloof used screws in his chairs – but used them correctly. Not into end grain, only to re-enforce joinery.

  3. keithm

    It may surprise you to know that many upholstered furniture frames these days are simply butted and stapled with wide-crown staples. Of course, that’s why I see them; they fall apart. It makes even “hardwood doweled” joinery look robust. I usually glue and screw a hardwood sister over the joint and/or pocket screw it back together.

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