I just completed a pair of side tables copied from one I measured at Hancock Shaker Village last year. The top of the original table, dating to around 1840, was attached with pocket screws. The first thing that comes to mind when the words pocket screw are thought of is the modern Kreg Jig. Pocket screws are actually quite old; they existed long before Craig Sommerfeld came up with an apparatus to bore them in 1986.
The early pocket screws pockets are chopped out with a gouge instead of bored. The majority of the old ones always look pretty much the same: a gauge mark at the bottom and a coarsely chopped pocket. In most of the vintage ones I have measured, the bottom of the pocket is 3/4″ to 1″ from the top edge of the skirt.
These are quite easy and fast to cut. About the only special tool needed is an incannel gouge. No need to be particularly neat either – the old ones aren’t. They are also nice because there is no other hardware needed besides screws. I can cut the pockets faster (about three minuets per pocket) and less time spent doing laying than using Z clips, figure-8s or buttons.
To lay out the pocket, start by laying a screw the length you will be mounting the top with on the edge of the table skirt. Let the screw overhang the skirt the amount you want it to penetrate the top you will be mounting. In my case here, I had a 5/8″-thick top, so the screw projects past the edge of the skirt 1/2″. When the screw is positioned, mark the location of the screw head. This will be the location of the bottom of the pocket.
Set a marking gauge to the pencil line and gauge a line at each location you need a screw.
Next, using a gouge, start cutting down to the gauge mark, taking light cuts until the bottom of the pocket is slightly wider and deeper than the diameter of the screw head. The gouge I am using here is about 1/2″ wide. A more narrow or wider gouge will work, too. If the sweep is too wide cut from ether side of the pocket this will make the back of the screw pocket a bit V-shaped, but it works just fine. A more narrow one just requires a few more licks.
Once the pockets are cut bore thru for the screw and then cut the countersink for the screw head.
Last, align the table base on the top and bore the pilot holes thru the pockets into the top. To allow for expansion an contraction of the top, elongate the screw holes a bit where they exit the skirts. Screw on the top.
Give them a try sometime, the work great!
— Will Myers
Below are a few photos of vintage tables using pocket screws.