Review By Dean Bielanowski  Miller Dowel Website - http://www.millerdowel.com


 

Miller Dowel System
 Review

By Dean Bielanowski

I must confess that after having the opportunity to review the Dowelmax Doweling System, my affinity for dowel joinery has been revived, so when I came across the Miller Dowel System, naturally I had to give it a go!

As you can see from the photos above, and to the right, the Miller Dowel is certainly not like any other dowel stock on the market. Just the shape of the dowel itself entices interest. Let's first take a quick look at what the Miller Dowel Company claim are the advantages of their product:

  • Simple - fast and easy to use
  • Strong - solid, longer lasting joints
  • Economical - minimal tools required
  • Versatile - use in any woodworking project
  • Unique - the only natural fastener designed for insertion from the outside
  • Excellent results - an appealing and durable alternative to metal fastener

Source - Miller Dowel Co. Website

I think the above stated advantages make great categories to base this review upon and will give us a good idea as to whether the Miller Dowel system can live up to its hype. Before we begin though, let me quickly explain the system. The Miller Dowel system is basically comprised of only 2 components - a special stepped drill bit to match the dowel profile, and the special milled dowels themselves. These are essentially, the only 2 parts you need to construct the joint.

Is it Simple to Use?
Simplicity counts for a lot of points in the woodworking arena, simply because it works for both the consumer and the manufacturer, assuming the product has a valid purpose and it successfully meets the tasks it claims it can do. Simplicity to a woodworker means much less frustration, easier learning curve and faster projects. To the manufacturer it represents a great marketing angle and less 'high-maintenance' customers following a sale.

The Miller Dowel system is certainly relatively simple to use. In a basic example, making a doweled butt joint is performed in the following manner, and this is how we achieved it in our tests:

  1. Take your stock and ensure the butt joint will seat nicely together, by either jointing the board or sanding the end grain of a mating piece etc, preferably both!
  2. Align the pieces and clamp them in the position you would like the joint to assume. Now, you can also glue the joint first and wait for the glue to dry if you do not wish to use clamps, or they are inconvenient for the joint you are constructing.
  3. Next take you drill with the special Miller stepped drill bit inserted and drill through your first piece and into the second piece, stopping at your pre-set depth stop bit or marker. Since the pieces are clamped in their desired final position, the hole we have drilled should match up perfectly for the dowel, assuming there was no movement of the clamp/joint during drilling. For some applications, it may be better and more accurate to use the stepped bit in a drill press for greater accuracy if possible to do so.
  4. Next we take the specially designed Miller dowel itself and put a coat of glue around the middle two fluted/ribbed sections of the dowel and insert the dowel into our drilled hole. We found that we could push the dowel in about 80% of the way (which is a little more than the 75% figure Miller states).
  5. After this you need a hammer/mallet to drive the dowel in further before cutting off any of the dowel head still protruding from the surface with a flush cutting saw

And that's about all you need to do to secure one dowel in your project.

An interesting marketing stance that Miller Dowel Co. takes is the claim that this is only a three step process (drill , add glue and insert dowel). In theory it is, but in reality, I guess they don't count the initial clamping procedure, which is a fundamental step to ensure accuracy in using the system. So essentially, it is a four step process, perhaps even five if you count flush cutting any remaining portion of the dowel head as another. So let's not be swayed on that particular piece of marketing blurb.

Is it Strong?
Well, I can't say I have all the gear to do detailed laboratory testing on the strength of a joint joined using the Miller Dowel. Miller claim the system "compares favorably" to that of a nailed or screwed joint. Certainly after constructing several joints using the Miller Dowels, we found them very tough to break with shearing pressure from just our hands, but we wouldn't expect them to break with such a relatively light force. A step stool we did construct with Miller Dowels supported the weight of a 200lb frame without failing so we can assume it has quite a fair degree of strength as a joinery option. The design and size of the Dowel stock lends itself to providing more strength than a standard shorter dowel, assuming a good glue is used on the dowel and joint as well. There is certainly plenty of surface area to bond to with the Miller Dowel. The ribbed and stepped design decreases the chance of glue being squeezed/pushed to the bottom of the drilled hole as the dowel in inserted and driven home. Even after you knock the dowels home with a wooden mallet, you can feel how the joint is clamped tight, even without glue. It takes a great deal of pressure to force the non-glued joint apart. With glue added to the mix, the joint certainly becomes very strong indeed.

Two factors that lend themselves to producing the strength in the joint are;

a) The stepped drill bit creates a hole that is actually slightly longer than the length of the Miller Dowels. This means that when the dowel is inserted, it will not "bottom-out" and allows a small area for any excess glue to seat.
b) As a result of the first fact (a), the head of the miller dowel is designed to be the first section of the dowel that "bottoms out" in the joint. As a result, and when driving the dowel in, the head seats firmly in its stepped area and the hammering action itself, along with the head of the dowel, creates a clamping action on the joint as you drive it down. This action provides further strength and results in a very 'tight' joint. 

As an all-wood joint, there would be less potential for some of the joint-weakening problems associated with metal-type fasteners, which can include rust, rot of wood surrounding fastener and splitting of grain. Of course, all-wood joints are not foolproof either and have their share of degradation problems over time.

Is it Economical?
Well, in the sense that very few tools are needed to use the system, it is somewhat economical. Given that most woodworkers will already own these tools (drill, hammer and clamps) then the claim, unfortunately, doesn't seem to last the distance. The economics of it all get thrown out the window once the price of the dowels are taken into consideration. In comparison to standard round fluted dowels, Miller Dowels were up to four times as expensive per dowel when we price-matched at various online woodworking retailers. It's certainly easy to see how the Miller Dowels would cost more to manufacture because of their design and size, but in a competitive market with hundreds of products that claim to make joinery simpler and easier (and most do), price considerations play a major role in a woodworker's purchasing consideration. This is not to say that other fastening systems like the Kreg pocket hole system are absolutely brilliant in the economics department either with their custom drill bits and wooden pocket hole plugs which command a high price, however, for woodworkers who are going to employ a particular system for any lengthy period, then the cost of the fastener itself (screw or dowel) becomes rather important. This is the component of the joint you will consume most of during the process, so that component must be priced reasonably for the system to be cost effective over the long term.

One perceivable advantage of the Miller Dowel system over using screws is that their is no need to plug up countersunk screws which saves you the expense of buying plug cutting bits. The Miller Dowel eliminates this step and one less step needed in any process is often a good move forward if their are no, or very few problematic consequences to contend with as a result.

Is it Versatile?
Yes, it certainly is. Whether you are building new joints for furniture, windows, doors or cabinets for example, the Miller Dowel system certainly has a place. It is even better for strengthening existing joints in the above and any other item that is suitable for strengthening with the Miller Dowels. For example, my little ones have a small table/chair set they use for virtually everything and one of the leg joints to the top rail had worked itself loose a touch (simple two-dowel construction). I didn't want to pull the joint apart completely for re-gluing as it would have possibly compromised the adjacent leg joint, so it was a perfect candidate for a Miller Dowel solution. We fixed it up very quickly by adding a Miller Dowel into the equation and hence restoring the joint back to it original strength (and a little more) using this method without having to dismantle the table.

One thing the Miller Dowel system cannot do is join thin pieces of stock, but of course, normal dowels have this limitation as well in most instances, as do many other fastening systems, so no point deductions for that, but it is important to note.

The Miller Dowels come in two varieties which are termed either 1x or 2x which basically reflects the diameter of the dowels themselves. 1x dowels are suitable for working with material up to 1" thick, while the 2x dowels can handle boards up to 1-3/4" in thickness. You could use them for even thicker material my adding two rows of dowels if appropriate for the project.

Because you are using a drill bit, which drills holes in both pieces of wood to be joined, you can drill the hole at any angle, and assuming your material does not move during this process, you should have dowel holes that work perfectly for the dowel stock. Dowels inserted on angles can often provide much more strength than dowels inserted at ninety degrees for particular joints. Of course, you need to have at least a portion of the top head (thickest end) of the dowel inserted into the drilled hole to ensure you do not have a situation where there is a large and unsightly gap on the surface of your joint after flush cutting the head.

Is it Unique?
"The only natural fastener designed for insertion from the outside."
Something inside me tells me this probably cannot be 100% true, but then again, I haven't come across a commercially available product that springs to mind to counter this claim. Perhaps you the reader know of another natural fastener designed for insertion from the outside? If so, email us and let us know. I suppose you could say spline-type joints are an example if you cut your own splines out of natural material, but a little different from dowel-joints in many aspects. Plus, you don't really insert those "from the outside" as such. I'd imagine creating a mortise for these from the outside of the joint only would be a difficult and time consuming task. So until someone can tell me otherwise, or I can remember myself at this present time - almost midnight - I'll stick with Miller's claim and award them a few points for innovation in this area. So, it is certainly unique in this instance, and the shape of the dowels themselves are nothing short of unique in look, but this method/style of joinery (dowel-type joints) are certainly nothing new, so we'll take it overall as 'marketing hype' in the general sense of the term.  

Does it give Excellent results?
In my experience with the Miller Dowels, I would have to say the results are very satisfactory. If you like the through-joint type look, then you will warm to the Miller Dowel system. Time will tell of course as to the durability of the joints we created, and if this website is still around in 10 years time (and we hope it will be), we may be able to provide you with an update on how our joints are fairing at that time, but for the moment we are quite satisfied the Miller Dowel system is achieving what it claims to do.

The Miller Dowel system offers a variety of types of dowel stock from several different species of wood including Birch (standard stock), Red Oak, Cherry, Ash, Walnut and Beech. The variety matches common materials available for woodworking in the USA. Or, you can choose to highlight the dowel joints by selecting a contrasting-colored dowel to exacerbate the look of the joint. Naturally, if you live outside the USA and don't have easy access to these species of woods, then your only option to attain a matching color to 'hide' your dowel joints is through careful staining/color-matching later on when it comes to finishing the piece.

Conclusion
Ok, the system itself, its design and method would indicate it achieves its intended goal of producing a strong joint that is relatively simple to produce. The cost factor of the dowels is a major consideration, particularly if you are located outside the USA. Availability may also be a limiting factor. Regular dowel stock or fluted dowels can be bought just about anywhere. Miller Dowels are harder to find in general, particularly if you don't favor ordering them from an online retailer. I'm 50/50 on the Miller Dowel System. If you are looking to try something different and you can grab the goods locally and don't mind the slightly higher price tag for the consumable components, then take a dive and see how you like (or dislike) the system. I can only tell you my experience and thoughts, often the best review is to give them a try yourself! If you live outside the USA in an area where availability and cost becomes more of an issue, then you may want to consider other options and do some cost comparisons with other methods of joinery before you lay your money (or credit card) on the table.

Available to Order Online through these companies...
Click graphic to go to their direct product page for this item

 
Miller Dowel System
Miller Dowel System

Miller Dowel Starter Kit

 

Miller Dowel Photos
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A Miller Dowel starter pack containing "1x" Birch dowels and the stepped drill bit.


Various wood species available for the dowels including Beech,
Walnut, Cherry and Birch


The unique stepped Miller Dowel.
Not your ordinary 'run of the mill' dowel shape.


You can see the ribbed shape better on this walnut dowel. It is designed to hold the glue while being forced into place.


Stepped dowels need a stepped drill bit, and here it is!


The stepped drill bit eliminates slipping in the drill chuck due to its flat milled surfaces on the shank


After clamping and drilling, we are left with 2 stepped holes in the
edge piece...


...and the other stepped half of our drilling procedure in the end of our face piece.


Using hand/thumb pressure, we were able to push the dowels in a good distance.


Driving the dowels home with
a wooden mallet


Down as far as they will go. Now where did I put that flush cut saw?


Trimming the heads


A nice, tight and flush joint we
have created in a relatively short period of time


Look how the end grain of those dowels really soak up the oil finish and 'pop out' to give a decorative and stylish effect.

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