Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 156, August 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Do Real Woodworkers Use Screws And Nails?

This is a relatively broad generalization, but it is pretty accurate… if you are male, aged about thirty-five or younger, you have likely never actually had a haircut by a real barber in a barbershop. Instead, you have had four-minute, seven-dollar haircuts, in a franchise or chain unisex hair-cutting store that leaves you looking exactly like what you got… a four-minute, seven-dollar haircut. That's okay. It will grow back (at least when you are in your thirties and forties). But if you can find a real, old-fashioned barbershop, you owe it to yourself to get a real haircut. Even more importantly, you owe it to yourself to once, just once, get a real barbershop shave.

A barbershop shave is special. It is incredibly close, your skin will feel perfectly smooth and clean, and the entire experience is as relaxing as a massage. Among the several distinct differences between a barbershop shave and your current morning ritual, you will notice the barber whipping up shaving soap with a badger-hair brush… there will be no artificially foamy canned shave cream in sight. This is a key difference. It takes a little bit longer, is a little bit more work, but amazing. I wonder, though, does the barber use canned shave cream at home? Or, gads, an electric razor? It's possible, I suppose, but I cringe at the thought. Ease and expedience are the selling points for canned shave foam, but after a barbershop shave, you will have doubts whether the few seconds saved and the ease of pushing a button are sufficient trade-offs compared to "the old-fashioned" hand-whipped shave cream.

Now here comes the woodworking analogy. We can spend time meticulously forming "fastener-free" joints, or go for the ease and expedience of using screws and nails. It's shaving soap whipped into luxurious lather with a badger-hair brush versus foamy soap squirted from a can.

As a youngster, someone (and I honestly don't remember who), commented to me, "Real woodworkers never use screws or nails." Holy cow, did that ever have an impact. To this day, I still feel guilty when I use a fastener, like somehow I am "cheating" or "short-cutting." I even get a little guilt-stricken when I pull out the Festool Domino machine, and before that technological improvement, the old biscuit joiner gave me a case of "the guilts." What a lasting impact an adult can have on an impressionable youth!

The fact is, though, I do sometimes use fasteners. The 23 gauge pinner is a real time-saver. It allows me to position small parts during glue-ups without clamps. A well-placed (read that as "hidden") screw can often quickly and easily strengthen a joint. There is no actual shame in using fasteners, but for some reason I still do feel shame. Can't shake it. If there are any psychiatrists that are also hobbyist woodworkers reading this, please help. Because, rationally, I know that mechanical fasteners are "okay." Apparently, I am not.

My self-help formula for overcoming guilt and feeling better about screws, nails, biscuits and the like, has been to convince myself that it really takes skill to use fasteners well. It does. Really.

Figure 5 - Pilot hole too small or an over-driven screw can split the wood. Uh oh… time
to start over and make a new piece!
Screws offer incredible mechanical advantage, have great pull-out resistance, and are fast… but they can also create problems if not used properly. A perfectly sized pilot hole is critical, otherwise wood can split. Properly positioning a screw is also important. Countersinking a hole so the head is flush with or slightly below the wood surface may be important, depending on the application, and the correct counter-sinking of a hole is an art. Driving a screw straight, and to the right depth, is also critical. And, of course, choosing the right screw for the job is imperative.

Likewise, using a 23 gauge pinner requires some technique and forethought. The pins must be driven to a depth sufficient to allow subsequent sanding and finishing without the pin becoming visible in the finished product. Testing on scraps of the same wood used in the project is the key to getting the drive depth set correctly. Placement, or the location of the pin, is also important. The pins are tiny, but there is a limit as to how small the head of the nailer can be made, so you have to get a feel for the pinner you are using and exactly where the pin will be after pulling the trigger. Because the pins are tiny, they are also flexible. Drive a pin too close to the edge of a board, and the grain inside that board can easily direct the pin out the side of the board, even though you are shooting straight. In curly hard maple, I have actually seen a 23 gauge pin make a "U-turn" in the wood… go straight in and poke back out right beside the entry hole. Practice is key. Take a good look at the wood itself, understand the internal grain pattern and the density of the wood, and practice.

Fasteners are acceptable and sometimes very useful tools in the arsenal of woodworking. Using fasteners judiciously and correctly can enhance and speed up work. Over-using fasteners can turn an otherwise attractive cabinet into an IKEA-lookalike. Using no fasteners at all might be noble and pure. Using fasteners when and where appropriate might be smart. Therefore, the use of fasteners is personal choice and largely dependent on the situation. Perhaps, just like using canned shave cream. When I am home and have time, whipping up shave cream from a bar of shave soap with my precious badger-hair brush is the path to a perfect shave. When I am thousands of miles from home shaving in a hotel bathroom, a can of shave soap and a disposable razor gets the job done. Expedience and practicality… fasteners or no fasteners… real woodworkers can choose, and the old guy who gave me many years of latent guilt was wrong. Real woodworkers do use screws and nails. Forget the psychiatrist… I am cured!

Turns out, I used a mix of conventional woodworking joinery, a fair number of screws, and even a few 23 gauge pins building the Cedar Garden Potting Bench project. For more tips on the proper use of fasteners, be sure to check out the latest installment of the video series by clicking here.

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life). Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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