A New Old Idea: Pocket Screws

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.

IMG_1681 jp

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.

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22 Responses to A New Old Idea: Pocket Screws

  1. Rachael Boyd says:

    I have been do my pocket screws that way for a couple years now the only thing I do a little different is I use a chisel the make a stop cut at the screw head shoulder, other than that we are doing it the same way. after doing a couple you can do it by hand a lot faster than using a jig.

    • Rachael Boyd says:

      the one thing I forgot to add is you should use a flat head screw (like a reg. pocket screw) otherwise if you use a wood screw ( trumpet head ) you could blow out the shoulder.

  2. disneytodd says:

    I have been looking for a set of in Chanel gouges for some time but only found them sold individual if I can find them at all.

    • bpdean says:

      Ah, the old “must buy a set” disorder. I know it well. Some day I may be able to cure myself of it but I fear I have a fatal case that not even attempting to follow the ‘way of the Schwarz’ will cure. In the mean time, Tools For Working Wood carries Two Cherries in-cannel gouges in sets. Look under Other Chisels, Straight Gouges.

    • Rachael Boyd says:

      I had an old set of lathe tools so I took the 3 gouges to a machine shop and had them change them to incannel gouges. they come in handy for so many things.

    • tsstahl says:

      If you ever get a chance, look at the chisels Mary May uses in any given project.
      The only clearly matched set you will see are the ten fingers she was born with.


      • Will Myers says:

        Ed Lebetkin at the Woodwright’s School tool store usually has a supply of these. Ebay is a good source too. An out cannel gouge can be re-ground.

  3. Donald Kreher says:

    Thanks for this. It explains why I collected and restored an in cannel gouge I found at at a garage sale.

  4. Keith says:

    Another way is to use a Forstner bit in a drill press, if you have those and not the gouge.

    • tsstahl says:

      Stole my thunder, so I will add a mortise chisel does well in a pinch. 😀 Just make sure it is sharp and don’t use the big mallet.
      The gouge cut pockets look much more elegant, though.

  5. therealdanh says:

    Nice little tutorial Will, thanks. I usually use wooden buttons to attach a top. I will try this method the next time I make a table. Would it be possible to see what the finished side tables look like?

  6. Dan says:

    Mildly relatedly, any recommendations for manufacturers of decent wood screws? The local hardware stores all seem to stock junk that shears off if I look at it funny. Is there a screw equivalent of Rivierre nails? Or at least a brand that’s more reliable than what the Big Box guys carry?

  7. volzwgn says:

    Why not use a brace and bit? A wood block with an angled hole will make a jig that can be used for multiple pockets, Jennings bits work well (closer spacing on the flutes) and a stop on the bit will limit the depth. I always thought they were done this way. Now I know I can use my incanel chisel as well! Thanks for the tip!

    • Donald Kreher says:

      I agree. I too thought they were done this way, but look at that center photo of the vintage tables. Clearly it was done with a gouge.

    • Will Myers says:

      Think: simple and fast. If you were building a dozen tables then jig it up, it would be the quicker method. Building two tables as I am here changes the equation, the marking gauge and gouge are easier and much faster. I can cut the pockets by hand in less time than it would have taken to make a jig.

  8. Bill Barr says:

    Perhaps use screws that are flat under the head and skip the countersinking step?

  9. Bob Easton says:

    One more method, if you don’t have incannel gouges, but do have Fuller drills. Yeah, maybe that’s a small population. Yet, the countersink collars that come with Fuller bits also do a great job of making the pocket, and shaping the countersink at the same time.

  10. Servesh says:

    Thanks. Seems to be Very effective and cost saving solution…

  11. fachento says:

    Great post, Will! I think my sole in-cannel gouge is a little to large of a radius to make this work for the projects I work on, but definitely a technique to keep in the arsenal!

    Also — when are you going to break the news about your class(es) in Earlysville, Virginia???


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