Dowel Key Miter Joints

This one-day build was meant for the sole purpose of checking one item off the honey-do list. My wife requested some kind of box organizer for the top of our daughter’s vanity. Something to hold all of the hair products, brushes, toothpaste, and anything else that is commonly used when getting ready or before bed. Coming into this project I didn’t really have a game plan or a design in mind.

I did know I would be using reclaimed lumber for this project. This is a pile of walnut from an old piece of furniture. I have no idea how old it is or what it was in its past life. I do know that it was too clear and straight to go to the burn pile or the landfill. Step 1 is to break down the pieces to have a better idea of what I have to work with.

Some of the boards had too much metal in them to worry about pulling the metal. Just cut those sections off instead. This image is a great example of how having a light on a miter saw is much better than a laser. In my opinion, of course.

By now I’ve only decided on a pair of boxes. What size? I’m not sure. Whatever the material yield is. Whatever is convenient. Ripping to rough length and getting rid of more junk at the bandsaw.

Followed by jointing and planing to see the wood grain for the first time. There was a layer of finish as well as who knows how many years of dirt and grime.

The final width was established at the table saw. Again, just going with whatever dimension worked for the material.

Three boards for the front, back, and sides and one board for the bottom panel. This was everything needed for the larger box. Or so I thought…

Whatever material was left would be used to make the smaller box.

A dado was cut 1/4” in from the bottom face of all the pieces for the bottom panel. A router table makes much quicker work of this compared to the table saw. That is, when an exact 1/4” width is needed. Anything larger or thinner is more convenient at the table saw.

I settled on mitered corners for the box joinery. That’s actually one of the only predetermined details of this build that I had before starting. I wanted mitered corners and to reinforce them with dowel keys. There are many ways to make mitered corners but my go-to method is the table saw. One of these magnetic digital angle gauges makes a quick and accurate setup of the table saw.

First, every piece gets a miter to establish one side of the joint.

Then stop blocks are used to cut matching pairs. Starting with the larger box, I made two pieces longer and two pieces shorter. I have no idea how long and how short because I wasn’t measuring. It’s kinda fun to wing it like this sometimes.

During the first dry assembly, I realized a problem. The panel I picked out for the larger box wasn’t wide enough. Luckily I had another panel ready that was wide enough. During the milling process, I went ahead a milled this extra board but was trying to avoid it because it had some nail holes in it.

With all of the large box pieces accounted for I started on the smaller box. For convenience, I made the smaller box square. All of the sides were the same length. I also made sure to check that the bottom panel would work with this one before I started cutting.

Now the bottom panels can be cut to width and length. When dealing with a mitered corner box it’s really easy to size the bottom panel due to the exact width and length being shown in the exposed joint.

A little sanding to remove any fuzz or tearout on the inside of the joints. Also, every time I use this little hand sanding pad I get asked what it is and where you can get one. It’s a ShopSmith brand sanding pad I bought at my local Lowes nearly a decade ago. It’s a hook and loop pad the same size as 5” random orbit sandpaper and has a hand imprint on the other side. I can’t find them locally anymore.

Now for the coolest part of a mitered box, the assembly. If you’ve never made a mitered box I encourage you to do so. Simply for the assembly process. It’s interesting and satisfying. Start by clamping a straight edge to the table for reference. Then lay out all of the pieces inside facing down, bottom facing the straight edge.

Then “clamp” each piece together with tape. You’ll see blue painters tape used most commonly here but I’ve had great results with quality packing tape. The tape is strong and doesn’t leave any sticky residue. First smaller pieces at each joint.

Then a longer piece to stretch the entire length.

When adding glue it’s important to not go crazy and add too much. The way I determine how much is to add less than what you think is needed, fold up the box to gently close every joint, and then open it back up again. You can see how much glue was absorbed in the end grain and how much coverage you have. If you need a little more than you have time to add and spread. This method lets you know when you have complete coverage but allows you to be a little tidier and not get a ton of squeeze out on the inside faces of the box.

After closing the joints for the final time have a piece of tape ready for the initial “clamp” on the final joint. When the joints look good add another piece to the final joint for good measure. Again, I’ve had no problems with using quality packing tape instead of blue painters tape. I actually prefer it because it’s cheaper and is wider so it covers better. And it resists breaking apart more.

The same process is completed with the smaller box.

With the boxes in “clamps”, I could think about how they would be joined. My wife didn’t give me any direction with how she wanted this to look. Just make it was the only request. I settled on having the smaller box as a top box and cantilevered over the bottom box. A simple support piece in the back is all that is necessary.

The large box height + the small box height + a couple of inches in between = the length of this support board.

I didn’t want to add any screws or nails to this build so the idea was to make to large lap joints on this support piece. That was done carefully at the table saw with a regular blade.

Here you can see how it will attach to the boxes.

By now the structure is complete and it’s time to add some visual interest. Dowel key miters technically add strength but I think it’s completely unnecessary. Glued mitered corners like this are much stronger than a lot of people think. In this case, I’m adding them purely for visual interest. To do so I’m using the Rockler dowel key corner jig. It has bushings for different sized bits.

For repeatability for each joint, I added a stop block to the jig.

Special drill bits are used with this jig. They are longer and more precise than standard twist drill bits. I’m starting with the 1/8” bit closest to the edges.

The jig is clamped to the box wherever you want a dowel at the joint and you drill the hole. Super easy. The stop block allows me to go all the way around the box and have a consistent spacing without dealing with marking each location.

Between the 1/8” dowels I wanted a larger dowel. The bushing on the jig was switched out to a 1/4” and a 1/4” bit can be used.

Again, a stop block makes it all repeatable without worrying about marking lines.

Rotate all the way around the box to add the 1/4” holes. Easy peasy, right?

Wrong. I goofed up somewhere and turned one of the 1/8” holes into a 1/4” hole. Oops! The solution was to cut the box shorter and repeat everything until I had each joint with 1/8” holes near the end and 1/4” holes immediately inside those.

For dowels, I went with a black phenolic rod. This is pretty inexpensive and easy to work with. The brown you see in the drawer is called natural brown canvas phenolic. The black is a double black linen phenolic. Phenolic rod is common in the pool cue making industry. I get it from cuestik.com.

So what glue should be used with a phenolic rod? I’m not sure what is the best choice. But I’ve used a bunch of glues over the years and never had a failure. Epoxy is what is used for pool cues. I don’t think it is necessary here so I went with hide glue for its lubricating properties. It worked just fine.

One of the things I wanted to put greater emphasis on when building my current shop was sanding. I knew I wanted a large horizontal belt sander and now that I have one I use it all the time. Here’s a great example of where they shine. The box sides and dowels were cleaned up quickly with a few seconds per face. There’s a common saying with belt sanders that if someone closes their cabinet shop the belt sander is the item that is held onto the longest. They are just so darn handy and convenient.

The final assembly is just to add the vertical support. A little glue is all that is needed. This isn’t too large of a joint to worry about cross-grain expansion and contraction.

An oil wax blend was used for a finish. This is going to be used and abused daily so going with a finish that is easy to repair if necessary is a good idea.

The bottom panel does have some nice figure to it. Unfortunately, it will never be seen.

So that’s it. A quick one day build and a quick check in one of the honey-do list boxes. The design is a little more modern and rigid than I would typically go with but it fits the criteria. And the wife is happy, which is the most important part.

15 COMMENTS

  1. Great approach, I’ll have to stand in front of my scrap pile and do what I actually saved the pieces for . . . see what I can make out of them!!
    Love your content and family, as they grow they will cherish these times.

    Dave
    Pensacola, Florida

  2. Oh man, that is an antiquated inefficient design for a systainer…just join Team Green!
    Naw, just funnin’ ya.
    Good video and technique.
    Thanks.

  3. Jay,
    Had a question….I actually have the dowel jig and the rockler drill bits. I have made several Purple Heart wood boxes as well as a simple pine box, but every time I use the jig I get tear out around the drilled hole. I have tried putting tape on before drilling, but that didn’t help. Any suggestions????

  4. Cool design, Jay~! That’s a pretty cool jig and the dowel-keyed corners is a nice look. Might have to add that one to my Rockler collection. Nice work~!

  5. Hey, Jay. I loved this video and I appreciate the remarks that you made re: Patreon. From now on, I will be watching your videos on your web site.
    This video took me back to ‘The Old Jay’, the guy whom I love to watch make “Trash to Treasure” projects. Remember the salt/pepper shakers made from the framework of an old, discarded box springs. I copied that design and gave s/p shakers for Christmas gifts that year.
    Again, I loved the video and the cool project for your lovely daughter.
    Stay Safe
    Ed

  6. Jay, excellent video and it gave me an idea to use the Rockler corner system on a couple of cigar humidors I want to make for a friend as gifts.
    The dowels you used were not wood, I don’t think. What was it? Maybe it was Ebony and is there dowels that can be bought?

    Thanks, Darwin

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