Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Fingers In the Till - Lie Nielsen Dowel Plate

A friend was reading my last post in this series, and when he came to the part about why I call  it "Fingers In the Till," he noted that my point was to stick my hand in my tool chest, and discuss whatever tool I pulled out.  He suggested when I stick my hand in my tool chest that I be careful not to cut myself.

Not to worry, as so far I haven't actually stuck my hand in my tool chest as much as pull up some photos that I have already published on my blog.  However, the idea is the same.  That is, to randomly pick a tool in my posession and do a review.  My last post in this series was about my favorite tool.  This post is about a little-used tool in my shop, but a very handy one.  It is the Lie-Nielsen Dowel Plate
Lie-Nielsen Dowel Plate.  Photo courtesy Lie-Nielsen Toolworks Inc.
A dowel plate is supposed to allow you to make your own dowels out of whatever stock you have on hand.  In theory, you could have a limitless supply of dowels that you make yourself.

Does it live up to this promise?  Well, yes and no.  If you have never used a dowel plate before, you may be disappointed with the results.  This tool does indeed make precise dowels, but there will be tear out along the grain.  Most likely it will not be usable as a show surface. 

If you want a good example, there is an episode of the Woodwright's Shop where Roy Underhill builds a hay rake.  He rives his rake tine blanks and uses a home made dowel plate to make them round.

If you have used a dowel plate, you might be impressed with the little details that Lie-Nielsen is famous for.  Being such a simple thing, what details could be included in a dowel plate?  Well, this tool has the hole sizes etched deeply in the plate, for one.  This negates the need to guess.  There is also a slight taper in the holes, which makes it easier for the pegs to come out of the plate.
Here is my own.  I think the discoloration comes from the heat generated.
What I have found the dowel plate works well for is making dowels for pegged tenons.  The long grain of the peg is buried in the wood, with only end grain showing.  I do find it takes a bit of a knack to get good results.

The way I use this tool is to start with a piece of scrap wood of the proper species you need, preferably with some straight grain.  I try to saw my dowel blanks out with as little run-out as possible for maximum strength.  If there is run out the blanks will likely break during this process.  I try to saw my blanks out about the same size as my finished dowels, ensuring to avoid an undersized thickness.

I like the dowel blank to be a good bit longer than I need.  Once I drive them home, I like to have some sticking out on both sides.

I try to saw out about twice as many of these as I need.  Better to have one too many than just enough and one break.  With a lot of extras (which take no longer to make), I can sort through them and pick out the very best for my project.  Not all of these dowels will turn out suitably.

Once I have my blanks sawn out, I put a blunt point on the end either with a pencil sharpener, a chisel, or my favorite, a floor standing belt sander.  This point does not have to be sharp, just pointed enough for the end to pass through one of the holes on the dowel plate.

I clamp the dowel plate over a dog hole, and put a bucket under the bench to collect the dowels as they come through.
Dowel plate in action.
I should have made a video, this is way harder to describe than to see.

If I am making 1/2" dowels, I put the blank on the hole one size bigger.  I try to center it as best as I can, then bash it with the biggest hammer I have handy.  I prefer a metal sledge for this, as they are oversize and the end will be sawn flush eventually anyway.

On a side note, this makes an unholy racket, so keep that in mind if your shop is within hearing of civilization.  This is probably the single loudest thing I do.

Once I get close to the surface of the dowel plate, I don't have to do anything to get the dowel out.  I just start a new one on top of the old.  After a bash or two, it will drop out into the bucket while a new one is being formed.

After running all the blanks through the oversized hole, I run them through the smaller hole.  This usually takes a little bit more force.  Here is where I'm glad I have a big hammer.

Voilà!  There now is a bucket full of dowels.  I inspect them carefully, because some of them likely  have a big flat on one side, as it didn't go into the plate quite straight.

I have made a couple of dining tables using pegged tenons, and this worked perfectly for them both.  I just bash them in (after applying a little paste wax to make it a bit easier), then trim them flush on the show surface.
My walnut dining table with 1/2" pegs having been freshly driven home.
I suppose this post has been about the use of any dowel plate.  It is a simple thing to make one if you have the materials and means to drill different sized holes in a thick piece of scrap steel.
An oak dining table with the pegs clearly visible.
If you are like me, you will appreciate that this tool can be purchased.  Lie-Nielsen's is nice because all the holes are labelled with the size of the hole, and the holes are tapered a bit to make it easier for the pegs to fall out.  Lastly, there are countersunk screw holes on either side of it to facilitate screwing it down to something.

I have to say I haven't experience with any dowel plate besides this one, but it does the job.  I love being able to make dowels rather than have to buy expensive mail-ordered ones or use whatever species the Borg happens to have in stock.  I feel that as long as I plan for a few failures the dowel plate works like crazy.

1 comment:

  1. Brian your are right - a dowel plate is useful! I have one and I used it yesterday when I build in a old kitchen for my brother-in-law. The screwholes for the hinges where worn out and therefore I made some dowels in fir to path the holes - soft wood is for rescrewing better and I don´t know where to buy dowels made of fir - therefore I could make them! I am a lucky man! I like to split the wood with a knife. I am interested what you pull out of your toolbox the next, Alex