What is a wood dowel?

Wood dowels are cylindrical pieces of wood that can be used in woodworking, crafts and other pursuits as pegs, axles and support rods. Available in a variety of diameters and length, dowels can be bought ready-made, or you may make them yourself.

Shapes and Sizes

Wooden dowels are not tapered; rather, they are the same diameter along their entire length, although the ends may receive special treatment. Dowels range from as much as 3 inches in diameter down to an eighth of an inch. Thicker dowels are more expensive than thin ones.

Dowels usually are sold in 3-foot lengths at hardware stores and home centres, although manufacturers produce longer dowels, up to 12 feet in length. Common dowel diameters are a quarter inch, three-eighths of an inch, and a half inch.

Dowels in Joinery

Dowels are often used as pegs to join two pieces of wood. After selecting a dowel of the appropriate diameter, the woodworker drills two holes of a similar size, one in each of the wood pieces to be joined. After checking for fit, the woodworker puts glue on the dowel and inserts it into one hole. Then, after applying glue to the other end of the dowel, the woodworker slides the dowel into the corresponding hole on the other wooden piece. Any excess glue is wiped off. Dowels provide strong joints between wooden pieces without the use of screws or nails. When used by a skilful woodworker, dowels can help create an apparently solid slab of wood out of many individual pieces.

Other Uses

Besides joinery, dowels can also be used for trim, either by being cut in half and attached or by being laid in a groove cut by a special jig. Outside the wood shop, dowels are used in crafts. They can serve as axles in wooden toys or be turned into knitting needles. They may serve as the blanks out of which an artisan carves chess pieces. Inserted through the layers, dowels provide internal support for multitier cakes.

What Are Dowels Made Of?

Just about any kind of wood can be used to make a dowel. Hardwood dowels---made of walnut, oak, or maple---are common, because hardwoods are stronger and less apt to snap than a softwood, such as pine or spruce. You can buy dowels made of poplar, hickory, ash, beech and even mahogany. Some manufacturers offer custom-made dowels created from exotic woods, such as olive, plum, rosewood or holly.

Special Treatments

Dowels may be sold as simple cylinders, known as square cut dowels. However, special treatments are available. You may purchase a dowel with rounded, tapered or pointed ends. A chamfered end is similar to a square cut, only the edges of the dowel's end have been sanded so they are angled. End-bored dowels have a hole bored in the end. A tenoned dowel has a tenon at one end and a mortise on the other, allowing them to be fit together. Short dowels intended to be used in joinery may be either spiral grooved or fluted (grooved from end to end) to provide extra surface area for the glue.

Making Dowels

Some woodworkers choose to make their own dowels. To cut a long dowel rod, they would place a piece of wood stock into a lathe and use a chisel or a router to trim the stock to the proper diameter. Another way to make short dowels to is use a tool called a dowel plate. The woodworker roughs out a piece of stock and then pounds it through the chosen hole in the plate. The sharp edges of the hole cut the dowel to the precise diameter. This allows the woodworker to use short pieces of wood that might otherwise be wasted. However, industrial dowel-making machines are more suited for producing a lot of dowels. A dowel-making machine uses cutting heads of various sizes, depending on the diameter of the dowel being produced. The cutting heads can be switched out when a different sized dowel is to be cut. To cut very large numbers of dowels, manufacturers use machines called wood shapers. Wood shapers are similar to routers, but instead of one bit they use cutting heads above and below the wood. Each head forms half the dowel.

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