Can you make pocket holes without a jig?

Whenever I use a pocket hole jig I get a few comments asking why I need the jig at all. Can’t you just drive screws in at an angle?

Yes, you most certainly can, but to get strong joints, the answer is a bit more involved.

Why use pocket hole joinery?

First, it’s helpful to understand how pocket hole joinery works and why it creates a strong connection. Pocket hole joinery is used in places where driving a screw straight on is impractical or impossible. Often this is when you need to join pieces at a right angle or flat pieces that would require a really long screw.

For example, It’s tempting to butt join these two boards together by drilling a screw in through the face grain of one board into the end grain of the other. The problem here is that the end grain of a board has very little holding power. The screw is going into the wood the same direction that the wood fibers run.

I’m not going to lie and say this is always a bad idea. Sometimes you don’t need a lot of holding power, say on decorative objects,  and screwing into end grain works fine. But on furniture or other projects that will be subjected to a lot of weight or handling or movement, those screws will eventually loosen up to the point where they get stripped and can’t be tightened any longer. You may have seen this happen on inexpensive cabinet drawers that get a lot of use.  

The geometry of a pocket hole and why they work

A pocket hole is a regular hole drilled into a board at an angle, but at its mouth, there is a much wider diameter hole that goes partially through the wood, creating a flat bottom. Looking at this cross-section you can see that it’s like a flat bottom cylinder with a hole in the bottom. This feature is critical to how a pocket hole gets its strength. Typically this hole is drilled with a specialized stepped bit that drills the narrow part of the hole and the wide part of the hole at the same time. It’s important to note that this hole only bores into one board, not the receiving board.

But the pocket hole is just half of the equation. The other half is the pocket screw. A pocket screw is a specialty screw that has a wide flat underside to its head. This is the part that sits in that flat bottomed pocket. This is critical for pocket hole joinery to work. The head and the flat shoulder of the hole create a lot of surface area for the screw to pull the two boards together.

The other component of a pocket skew is its self-tapping point. Basically, the tip of each screw acts as a drill bit and helps the screw bore into the receiving board and draw the two pieces tightly together. This is important since the pocket hole is only drilled into the first board.

Isn’t this the same as toenailing?

No. I’ve seen some advocates for simply foregoing the pocket hole altogether and just driving screws in at an angle. This is called toenailing…even though screws are used. This is a common, traditional method for pounding nails into wall studs to attach them to a sole plate when framing a wall. This works well for this kind of construction because walls are mostly subjected to downward force, not side-to-side. Except for earthquakes of course. 

Furniture is a different story and each connection can be subjected to forces and movement in many directions.

To toenail boards together without any pocket hole jig, just start drilling a hole downward to get it started, then tip your drill to angle it toward the other board. You’ll still want to clamp the pieces together when you drive the screw in place to keep them from slipping apart.

But there are a couple of problems here. Mostly, this is a weak connection…not much stronger than simply drilling into the end grain.  

  1. First, you have to use a regular tapered head screw so the head can sit below the surface. And without that flat shoulder and flat head of a pocket screw to draw the two pieces together, this joint is substantially weaker. The board is more likely to split too with the head of the screw acting like a wedge.
  2. Second, it’s difficult to drill angled holes at consistent angles. You might end up with the screw entering the receiving board with very little material.
  3. Third, it’s difficult to know when to stop driving the screw…it will never feel fully tight. You might just plow all the way through.

In general, I don’t recommend toenailing screws for woodworking projects.

But can you make pocket holes without a jig?

You sure can. I’ll leave it for you to decide whether it’s worth it. You just need to drill an angled hole, then drill a wider hole.

Start by toenailing the small hole…just like I showed before. Drill straight down, then tip the drill at an angle, trying to get the bit to exit as close as possible to the center of the board’s thickness.

Follow this up with a wider bit to make the pocket. This is the trickiest part. Mostly, you have to be careful not to go too deep or the screw will go in too far.

This method will take some practice to get it right, but it is viable. If you only have a couple pocket holes to make, it might be worth it, but this would be very time consuming if you had a lot of pocket holes to make.

Probably the best budget solution and a great compromise is to get a mini pocket hole jig. This one comes with the stepped drill bit and collar for 20 bucks. It takes longer to use because you have to clamp it in place for each hole, but you will get clean, accurate pocket holes.

Bottom Line

If you only have the occasional pocket hole to make, you might want to save some money and use one of these alternative methods. What a pocket hole jig will give you is accuracy, precision, and consistency. If I had a lot of pocket holes to make, it would be a pain to have to make them by hand. And a lot more time-consuming.

And while I am an advocate for saving money, and as hobbyists we are not usually in any hurry in our shops, this is one of those instances where I prefer to use a tool that will save me from monotony and tedium. Worrying about making the proper angle and how deep to drill on every hole seems frustrating.

Ultimately, if you want to avoid mechanical fasteners altogether, start exploring the world of traditional woodworking joinery. Learning how to cut dovetails or make mortise and tenon joints is a time honored pursuit that you might enjoy!

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