Review By Dean Bielanowski  Dowelmax Website - http://www.dowelmax.com

Dowelmax Doweling System
 Review

By Dean Bielanowski

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Dowels? Dowels you say... What are they!

It's true. Dowels have almost become a thing of the past for many woodworkers who have converted to biscuit joinery or even pocket hole systems for joining tasks - which are usually a little faster to achieve - but dowels are still fairly common and doweling jigs still seem to see daylight as an option for the beginning, intermediate and advanced woodworker who doesn't need to churn out furniture or wooden items at record speeds.

You can count Dowel Jigs in your sleep!
There are a hundred and one (and maybe even more) different types of dowelling jigs that have been manufactured and marketed over the years. Almost every big woodworking tool or machinery manufacturer has probably produced one at some stage in their company's life cycle. All claim to speed up the process by making it easier to quickly align and drill dowel holes for accurate joinery. Sadly, the majority of dowel jigs cannot achieve this, or can achieve it, but with a bagload of frustration thrown in. The construction and manufacturing of these jigs also left a lot to be desired. Many simply couldn't last the distance.

In my travels surfing the web, I came across the subject of today's review - The Dowelmax Jig. After reading through their website at www.dowelmax.com and noting that the jig itself looked pretty strong, sturdy and useful, we decided to give it a go, and a review on this website, so here we go!

The Marketing Blurb
According to the Dowelmax website:

"DOWELMAX is not a "gadget", it is a precision engineered professional hand tool, designed to aid all woodwork enthusiasts, whether beginner, advanced, semi-professional or master craftsman.  There are no limits for DOWELMAX. Any joint configuration can be achieved in mere minutes with no expensive machinery, no set up, no measuring, all you need is your drill and your DOWELMAX JIG"

I must say, most doweling jig product blurb states a similar thing, but few have lived up to the raves they claim. Lets see if the Dowelmax can make the grade.

Construction and Build
Ok, we are looking for a "precision tool"... When I first received the Dowelmax jig, the box it came in felt quite heavy considering its size. Naturally, I got stuck into the packaging, pulling everything out of the box for the initial inspection. The old saying that you cannot judge a book by its cover held little weight upon initial inspection and handling. Picking up the Dowelmax unit for the first time is a small delight! It is constructed of
clear (silver) anodized 6160 aluminum, appears to be precision engineered and looks more like an expensive part to a larger piece of machinery than a cheap off-the-shelf doweling jig. The addition of brass clamp knobs and threaded screws adds to the 'flavor', functionality and 'look' of the jig. It's pretty solid and will certainly take a beating over time no doubt.

Ok How Does It Work?
Well, that really depends on the type of joint you are trying to make, the width of material you are using and how many dowels you need to put into that joint!

One of the design features of the Dowelmax that makes it easy to use and accurate is the fact that the 5 drill guides are equidistant from each other, and from the sides of the jig as well. This means the jig can even be reversed on the workpiece and accuracy will be maintained. This among many other design features provide the dead-on accuracy that many other jigs in the past have failed to achieve.

Ok, for starters, let's say you want to butt-join two 3/4" rails for a door or a face-frame for example. Using dowels will certainly be much stronger than a joint stuck together with glue only. 3/4" material is pretty standard these days, and so the Dowelmax ships in the 3/4" material setting configuration. Now, I decided to test this capability first, and you can follow the process with me by viewing the sequence of images running down the right-hand column on this page.

All joints you make using the Dowelmax first require some marking of the reference faces. Now, this is not absolutely necessary, but you would probably soon change your mind if you were joining some nice expensive piece of exotic hardwood and drilled the second mating piece on the wrong side, or the wrong end! The Dowelmax has reference marks etched into the jig  to match your marks you have made on the wood, which ensures you will never get it wrong. So use some common sense and follow the instructions included for best and hassle-free results.

Ok, firstly, we take our pieces to be joined and find which ends and faces are the most suitable to join. Just dry-fit them and check your options. Once you have that sorted out, you mark a "tick" on the faces that need to be flush at their joins. You mark an "X" on the face/surface of the pieces that will be drilled into. Once you have achieved this, your marking tasks are virtually all completed.

The next step is to clamp either of the workpieces into a vice and set the Dowelmax jig on top. The aim is to line up the ticks on your workpiece to the ticks on the dowelmax jig itself. It's pretty easy to do. For this particular joint, we also reference the side face of the jig marked with the tick to the side face of our workpiece. If these are flush, and set flush on both pieces, then we will achieve a perfect result.

With piece number 1 in the vice and the Dowelmax jig clamped to the workpiece and referenced correctly, you can go ahead and drill the holes as needed. You can choose any of the five drill guide holes on the Dowelmax, as long as you use the same guides on the second piece to ensure the dowels will align perfectly later on.

With your holes drilled (you need to use a drill bit depth stop to get snug holes for the dowels), you can unclamp the first piece, take your second piece, reference/line-up the Dowelmax jig and again, drill your holes and that is basically it for a piece of stock that is not too wide. Now you can remove the Dowelmax, place dowels in the drilled holes and dry-fit your pieces to check they are ok before you apply the glue and seal it up for good.

Spacers
Now, if you had wider/thicker stock to join, you can use the 3/4" drop-in spacer included in the standard set to make multiple rows of holes on your pieces. The other spacer blocks are available in
3/4", 3/8" and 1 5/8" widths and easily attach to the jig by seating themselves over the larger threaded screws, which are then held in place by the brass clamping knobs. These spacers are used when working with thicker stock or for offset joints.
 

Creating a Double Row of Dowel Holes for Extra Strength

Begin by drilling the first row of
holes normally...

Next, just drop in a spacer to offset the drill guides for the second row.

With spacer inserted, proceed to drill the second row of holes. Eight dowel holes... Now that joint will have to be strong!


Offset Joints
Ok so not every joint you will make will require flush mating surfaces. What about joining rails to leg pieces, say for a table or chair construction? Easy, you start by marking your surfaces as normal. You can drill the dowel holes into the rail piece. To create the offset in the leg for the drill holes, you simply insert one of the spacer blocks (depending on the offset distance you require) between the reference plate and reference block and tighten the clamp screws and again drill your holes. Because the top of the leg and the top side of the rail piece will end up flush, these are the surfaces the Dowelmax is referencing its drill holes from. All you have done with the spacer block is offset the distance from the adjoining end. Its a little tricky to understand without an array of pictures or diagrams, but trust me, it works well and proved itself accurate again and again throughout our testing period.

Box Type Joints
These are simple butt joins, but pose a different challenge to joining with dowels simply because on one piece, you are drilling into the end grain, while on the other, you are drilling into the widest face of the board. As a consequence, you also need to change the configuration of the Dowelmax jig to drill those holes in Workpiece B (as indicated in image to the right). This requires the biggest modification to the Dowelmax jig, but it is still fairly quick and easy to achieve.


Modifying the Dowelmax jig to enable drilling of dowel holes into surface of our board to create a right angled joint with a second piece of timber.

Dowelmax can also be used to join mitered joints as well for
picture frames or other applications.

Accessories for Joining Long Boards
Included in the Dowelmax standard set are the Indexing Pin and Distance Gauge tools. These tools allow you to accurately line up dowel holes on both mating pieces no matter what length of timber you are working with. If you only want say a couple of inches between your dowel holes, then all you will need is the Dowelmax and the Indexing Pin. The process is quite simple...

Configure your timber pieces for the best join, then mark your reference faces as normal with ticks and crosses at one end only. Next, drill your first hole in the first piece using drill guide 1 and then drill a second using drill guide 5 for example... Now, release the Dowelmax clamps and insert the Indexing Pin into the first drill guide. Slide your Dowelmax along the face of the workpiece until it slots into your second drilled hole (drilled with drill guide 5 on the first pass). You have now indexed the Dowelmax jig and can drill your second hole in any drill guide you desire... in this case, guide number 5 would give you a set consistent distance between your dowel holes. As long as you continue to use the same drill guide holes in both pieces, they will line up perfectly. You continue along with the same process of indexing, drilling, moving and indexing again until you have drilled holes along the entire length of the workpiece. Take your second workpiece and set the Dowelmax into its first reference position as marked by you and then follow the same steps. Assuming you complete the process correctly on both pieces, they must line up perfectly and their reference faces will be exactly flush with each other, resulting in a very clean join.

Take a look at the following brief sequence of pictures to give you a better idea of the process:
 

The indexing pin (seen inserted into Drill Guide 1 above) slots into your last drilled hole to aid in lining up the next hole along the length of timber. Here we have used the indexing pin to drill equally spaced holes along the length. These will exactly align with the dowel holes in our mating piece thanks to Dowelmax
If you want a larger spacing between your dowel holes, the distance gauge can be used to set the Dowelmax jig the same distance every time from the last drilled hole - Handy! The results speak for themselves. Perfectly aligned holes that will join these short-width boards to make a wider one. Both end and surface faces aligned perfectly when dowels where inserted and boards were glued up.

Alternatively, as the manual suggests, you can use a square to draw lines across two pieces stacked next to each other (like you might do for marking biscuit slots) and use those lines as reference points to line up the edge of the Dowelmax jig before drilling. This also worked ok for us during testing, but we found that you need to be very precise in lining up the Dowelmax to get a positive result. the use of the Index pin was preferred and recommended. It was also faster in use as we only had to mark the ends of our pieces rather than setting our marks right along the edges of the timber.

Dowelmax Manual
Included in the package is a 36 page manual in both English and French (18 pages per language). The manual is black and white with line-art type drawings. The design of the manual won't win any awards for layout and style, but it does do what a manual should do - that is, explain how to use the item properly, effectively and without hassles. Instructions are straight-forward and to the point. The Dowelmax is a pretty easy jig to get the hang of, but often you need a quick reminder of how to configure the Dowelmax jig for a joint you may not come across that often.

Dowelmax 6mm Drill Guide Accessory (Added May 2010)
Well, it has been about 5 years since I first reviewed the Dowelmax tool, and I am happy to say it still is used often in my workshop and is still working as accurately as ever. It is one of my favorite woodworking jigs and in my opinion, still the best doweling jig ever made.

Just recently, however, I had a need to make a face frame for some inbuilt storage cupboards out of thin 11mm pine. Since I only had the standard 3/8" drill guides for the Dowelmax I couldn't use those because of their size on this thinner face frame pine stock. I didn't want any of the joints to show on the outer edges, so half lap joints were out of the question. My Kreg jig cannot be used on this thin material either, so dowel joints were the logical answer to create the strong butt joints needed for the job. I checked out the Dowelmax website and yes they did have optional drill guides to fit the Dowelmax. They have 1/4" as well as 6mm and 8mm options. Since I live in Australia I opted for the 6mm kit, and the folks at Dowelmax also sent me 10mm drill guide parts (which are usually apart of the 10mm Dowelmax full kit, and not available separately). I can source 1/4", 6mm and 10mm dowels here quite easily, but since I live in a country using the metric system, I figured the 6mm kit would be the best to use for the joints, and given this is slightly smaller than the 1/4" drill guides, it gave me a little extra room on each side of the dowel hole for error (not that I think I needed any room for error using the Dowelmax anyway!).


Parts in the 6mm drill guide accessory kit

Since I was on a bit of a deadline, and the 6mm accessory kit hadn't arrived as yet, I needed a doweling option to suit. I knew none of the cheaper doweling jigs available were really that hot, so I opted to try a small 6mm doweling kit that came with 6mm brad-point drill bit, depth stop, four 6mm dowel centers and about 30 or so 6mm fluted dowels. I went to work constructing the face frame out of the 11mm pine. After the first joint, I knew it wasn't going to work terribly well. The drill bit in the kit wasn't even running true and the 6mm holes ended up being more like 7mm or 8mm. As a result, the dowel centers didn't fit snugly into the holes, introducing error into the equation, not to mention the dowels themselves fell out of the holes easily and didn't help one bit in alignment when I tried to glue and clamp up the joint. I could have made some kind of drill bit guide block for drilling the holes more accurately, but that would be fiddly at best when working with thin material. I scrapped that project and decided to wait until the Dowelmax 6mm kit arrived and start again. Luckily it did only take about 4 business days to arrive in Australia from Canada.


Replacing the standard 3/8" drill guides with the new 6mm guides.

Note that the Dowelmax jig can be ordered as the standard 3/8" kit, or it can be ordered as a metric 10mm model as well. 6mm and 8mm drill guide kits are available as accessories to both the standard or metric Dowelmax jigs.

Included in the 6mm kit are five 6mm internal diameter drill guides to drill the 6mm holes required for the dowel joint These hardened drill guides simply replace the 3/8" guides in the Dowelmax and are screwed into the Dowelmax jig block. So changing between the 3/8" and 6mm guides takes about 15 seconds all up. You get a high quality 6mm twist drill bit with depth stop collar, an appropriately sized spacer plater (see main review above for its use and application), as well as a new indexing pin and distance gauge base with 6mm diameter pins (again see main review above to find out how and what these are used for).

Now with the 6mm drill bit guides inserted and the drill depth collar set for half the length of a 6mm dowel (plus a fraction more so the dowel doesn't bottom out and create an open joint) I was ready to get to work on my 11mm thick pine face frame material... but hold the phone... a problem. Because the 11mm pine is pretty thin, when I set it in the dowelmax jig (after making the necessary tick and cross marks as outlined above in the main review) I realized the drill guides were not centered on the 11mm pine. Naturally I needed them to be centered. The Dowelmax 6mm kit does come with a spacer plate which should resolve this issue if required, but for my 11mm thick pine, there would have only been about 1mm clearance on one edge which was a little too close to gamble on the drill breaking through the face (even though I tested this later and this wasn't a problem) so I had to make myself a small spacer block from hardwood to set between the clamp face of the Dowelmax and the pine stock. This would center the 11mm stock under the 6mm drill guides. Once that was taken care of, I could get to work drilling for the joints.


Drilling into the end grain of the thin material. The Dowelmax drill
guides allow precise and perpendicular drilling of dowel holes.

Because the 11mm stock is relatively thin, I had it clamped in my Triton Superjaws before placing, aligning and securing the Dowelmax to the material. Once that was done, a quick drilling of two dowel holes before swapping out for the mating piece and aligning and drilling those two corresponding holes saw me ready to add some dowels and perform a dry fit to check the accuracy. I was pretty confident I would have no problem, so I didn't even bother with testing on scrap material first. The Dowelmax has never faulted me previously with alignment accuracy... (well, there was this one time... but it was the fault of the silly user who's brain was fried from pulling an all-nighter writing reviews the night before... and was no fault of the Dowelmax jig itself)... I digress... With dowels inserted I dry fit the joint and naturally, it was a near perfect fit with both faces of material being very much flush to each other. With that said, I continued and completed the project with no trouble at all and after gluing up and clamping joints for about 6 hours, the face frame came out of the clamps requiring only an obligatory light sanding before taking the primer coat prior to painting with white acrylic top coat.

The 6mm accessory kit retails for US$80.


Holes drilled, and a dry fit in progress. The result was as expected - a pretty much perfect fitting and aligned dowel joint.

Conclusion (Updated May 2010)
Well, what can I say... Without sounding like a kid on Christmas morning, the Dowelmax is perhaps one of the best jigs I have ever used, for any task. [UPDATE] - I still firmly believe the Dowelmax is the best doweling jig on the market. No other I have seen or used thus far comes close to the accuracy of the Dowelmax.

Even though doweling may not be the choice of the majority of woodworkers today, who may favor other methods, it still remains a strong and effective method of wood joinery, and the Dowelmax jig has restored my faith in the possibility and usefulness that dowel joints offer. As you can see by my updates above, there are still joints where doweling is the best option available and tests have proven them to be as strong, if not stronger than traditional mortise and tenon joinery, which, in my opinion, does take longer to achieve and can be more difficult to construct than a joint constructed with the aid of the Dowelmax.

I have never seen another dowel jig that is as accurate, as simple to use and as uncomplicated as the Dowelmax system. The precise engineering of the system is something other jig makers should really be ashamed of. I can certainly recommend this system with my highest praise. It is solid, it has proven to do what it says it will do, and it is great fun to use.

[UPDATE] Since my initial review some years ago, the Dowelmax has inevitably increased in price, due to increases in raw material cost of aircraft grade aluminum and other components, as well as increases in general living expenses which undoubtedly have forced the manufacturer (who is not a large scale manufacturing business or company) to raise the price. It is now priced at US$310. It is a large amount of money to pay for a doweling jig, no one is doubting that, but you are certainly buying a top quality item that I'm sure will take some punishment and still be plowing out dowel joints in 30 years time. I am certainly still getting great use out of it over five years on.

Since the initial review here on OlineToolReviews.com, there have been many other magazine and end-user reviews posted in various print and online media and they all too give the Dowelmax great reviews. I thought my initial enthusiasm for the product may have been slightly "over the top" but five years on, I still have that same enthusiasm for the tool, and it appears many others do as well, so I think my initial excitement for the product was certainly well justified.

Highly recommended.


Dowelmax Photos
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The Dowelmax System


The Dowelmax jig is SOLID in construction.


You can see the precision in the decisgn and manufacture here. note the 'tick' markings which help you correctly orientate the jig to the workpiece for drilling.


The drill guides are threaded and removable to make it easier to remember which drill holes to use, or for replacement if they ever wear out. Smaller sized (1/4") drill guides are also available if needed.


Ok, here we have reference marked the surfaces for our joint. our marks are a little over-exaggerated so you can see them clearly in the photos.


We are going to make a butt-joint like this using the Dowelmax jig with dowel construction.


Clamp the Dowelmax jig to the first workpiece, ensuring the face of the timber marked here with a tick and the end face of the dowelmax jig
are flush.


Drilling two dowel holes.


First piece is drilled... onto the mating piece.


Aligning and clamping the Dowelmax to the second workpiece, again ensuring our check marks on the timber line up with the refernce marks on the Dowelmax jig.


Drilling the dowel holes in the second workpiece, ensuring we use the same two drill guides.


Both pieces drilled, and by the
look of it, I think they will
match up just nicely!


In go the dowels...
the moment of truth...


Dry fitting the pieces to check accuracy... and its perfect. Flush on both the top and end faces marked with the ticks...


SO let's now slap some glue on the dowels and the joining faces for a tight bond.


Clamped up and ready to dry. Nice flush surfaces that will require
little (if any) sanding. This joint is not going anywhere in a hurry!

 

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