Peg versus Pin versus Dowel

In my career as an antiques dealer, antique restorer, furniture-maker, and championship winning driver of a state-of-the-art racing car (built from the ground up using the latest CNC machinery), I have encountered both pegs and pins in woodwork and metalwork – respectively. I only mention having a foot in each camp to assert I am not a complete wood Neanderthal!

Yes, it’s the steel pin vs. wooden peg nomenclature thing that has me wound up!

The centuries-old practice of draw-boring needs little introduction here; its use is widespread and its description is scattered across the web with a couple of prominent on-line woodworkers ‘discovering’ it – to the benefit of all I might add. However, and possibly as part of this resurrection, there’s a blurring of nomenclature to do with a key part of making a draw-bored mortise and tenon joint.

Steel draw-bore pins have been used by carpenters in the framing of timber buildings for centuries where heavy, immensely awkward timbers are initially drawn into place by the use of a large steel draw-bore pin (fig. 1).

“…the principal tools used in the rougher operations of carpentry… the draw-bore-pin, or hook-pin, for draw-boring”.[1]

Fig. 1. Hook-pin. (Heemschut v.z.w)

Once the large timbers have been aligned, the steel pin is withdrawn using a long lever (fig. 2) which either engages a hook at the end of the pin, or a similarly located steel ring. The steel draw-bore pin is subsequently replaced by a stout oak peg which permanently secures the tenon in the mortise.

Fig. 2. Withdrawing a steel draw-bore pin. (Morris Rosenthal)

I can find no reference to steel draw-bore pins use in cabinetmaking prior to the second quarter of the nineteenth-century (coincidently, this was a period when Gentlemen Cabinetmakers were availing themselves of every tool that the tool companies could dream of and publish in their voluminous catalogues… much like the present day really).

“Hook-pin, or draw-bore-pin, a piece of steel in the shape of a fustrum of a cone, rather tapered, and inserted into a handle, with the greatest diameter next to the handle, for driving through the draw-bores of a mortise and tenon, in order to bring the shoulder of the rail close home to the abutment on the edge of the style”.[2]

The wooden-handled variety of steel draw-bore pins (fig. 3) are intended for dry-assembling framed carcasses and door frames etc. to check the fit prior to committing to finally hammering home the wooden pegs.

Fig. 3. A cabinetmaker’s draw-bore pin by Sorby of Sheffield.

Having said that, cabinet frame joints are easily assembled by hand, so the need for steel draw-bore pins in cabinet-making somewhat eludes me. How do cabinetmakers manage dry assemblies when the mortise and tenon joints aren’t to be draw-bored? And in the event one wanted to temporarily assemble a frame, wouldn’t a few pegs with a little extra length to enable their withdrawal suffice?

Perhaps it’s this use of pre-assembly steel draw-bore pins that has lead to the confusion of nomenclature and the use of ‘pins’ to describe the actual wooden pegs.

The sole purpose of a draw-bore peg is to augment the tenon’s tenure within the mortise. To that end, draw-bore pegs are split from straight grained wood and benefit from not being perfectly round in cross section: Their corners afford them superior grip to machined round dowels in much the same way wrought and cut nails grip better than round wire nails. The pegs are not glued in place and therefore a 100% mating surface is not required (though slightly over-sized pegs will uniformly fill the holes).

“The tenon is seated tightly into the mortice, and the two are secured in place by means of a wooden peg (formerly called a ‘trennell’ – a colloquial contraction for ‘tree-nail’). These pegs were always made from riven wood, not sawn, since this was less likely to break. They were cut to shape with a chisel, or whittled with a knife, so they usually assume a slightly square or faceted cross-section. This helps them grip the sides of the hole when they are driven home, unlike the modern smoothly-turned dowel”.[3]

Dowels on the other hand are the joinery in a modern dowelled joint. The entire length of their cylindrical surface must be a tight fit in their respective holes to affect (in conjunction with glue) the best possible joint.

Pins are steel, pegs are wooden, and pegs are not dowels and vice versa. Semantic soup? Maybe. Tell me I’m wrong.


[1] Rudimentary Dictionary of Terms by John Weale, London, 1860, p. 83.

[2] A New Universal Etymological Technological, and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, by John Craig, John Craig, London, 1849, p. 941.

[3] Oak Furniture: The British Tradition, Victor Chinnery, Antique Collectors’ Club, 1986, p.109.

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
This entry was posted in Furniture Making and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Peg versus Pin versus Dowel

  1. Olly Parry-Jones says:

    Very interesting article.

    You said:

    “Having said that, cabinet frame joints are easily assembled by hand, so the need for steel draw-bore pins in cabinetmaking somewhat eludes me. How do cabinetmakers manage dry assemblies when the mortice and tennon joints aren’t to be draw-bored? And in the event one wanted to temporarily assemble a frame, wouldn’t a few pegs with a little extra length to enable their removal suffice?”

    Well, the obvious answer is to use sash cramps though, I’m sure I didn’t need to mention that!! (Or have I missed the point?) Of course, these make handling a dry-assembling frame rather awkward so, I can understand your suggestions of using longer pegs.

    If you wanted to remove a wooden dowel then, depending on the thickness, you could drive a screw in most of the way and lever it out with a claw hammer. Obviously, this would render some part of the dowel as useless.

    Draw-boring is a great way to save time. Once the dowels are in, you can usually take the clamps off straight away and use them elsewhere. I’ve found that the offset between the two holes needs to be at least 2mm. If it’s too small, the dowels won’t pull the shoulders up as tight. Too much, of course, and you’ll never drive them all the way home and probably split the timber if you keep trying!

    So, erm, I don’t know what the answer is… But it has reminded of these Pinch Dogs:

    http://www.getwoodworking.com/albums/member_photo.asp?a=4753&p=95667

    Some people swear by them for small panel glue-ups, where you’re joining boards edge-to-edge. I guess we would need something that follows the same basic principles, but also doesn’t mark the work….

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    Olly.

    Like

  2. KC says:

    Draw boring in furniture made from green wood!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Where are the Pins? | Pegs and 'Tails

  4. Gunnar says:

    I have a question re: pins and pegs, though off topic perhaps, if you don’t mind. We own a heavily carved Italian side chair, made circa 1600-1620. The entire chair is pegged. Each corner of the seat however is attached to the seat rails via metal pins. These aren’t nails in the common sense. I suppose they could indicate later repairs, but I also remember reading somewhere that 16th and 17th century furniture sometimes WAS made with metal pins, in addition to wooden pegs, so here is a different “pins versus pegs” conundrum. Any insights to offer? Thank you.

    Like

    • Jack Plane says:

      I too have encountered metal pins in place of wooden pegs, but all have been repairs. Iron was expensive and not readily available in long bars of consistent diameters (as steel is nowadays). Pairing pins with drill bits was not, therefore, straightforward.

      JP

      Like

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