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Screw the Gatekeepers October 13, 2023

My last blog post was about cultivating happiness in your life. One of my suggestions was to identify the true desires at the root of your big unattainable dreams, because so many of them are "only partially about doing something, and mostly about being something."

An obsession with "being" something is a theft of joy. In order to convince yourself you "are" something, you often need to win an imaginary competition against everybody else in the world. To be "a real author," you need to prove you're smarter and more talented than other people by publishing works of high literature with only the most prestigious houses. To be "a real runner," you need to prove you're faster and stronger than other people by winning expensive races. To be "a real gamer," you need to play technically difficult video games that "casuals" can't handle, and get 100% of the arbitrary achievements to show off on your profile, and basically have no fun at all.

At extremes, people obsessed with "being" something will skip over the part where they actually do things to prove themselves, and they instead spend their time convincing imaginary competitors that they're inferior. Oh you self-published some romantic drivel for women? You're not a serious writer, then. You're not training for a marathon? So I guess you're one of those "hobby joggers." This person only completed 10% of Bloodborne and stopped after dying a hundred times in the first map? LOL noobs!

Yesterday, I encountered a group of people like this in what I thought would be an unlikely place for elitist snobs: a Discord server about woodworking. What could people who make picnic tables and step stools possibly use to be judgemental and exclusionary?

The answer: pocket hole screws.

Pocket holes are a method of joinery that people without the money for impressive tools or the space for a big shop can use to construct basic projects. You drill out a channel on the edge of one board, then drive a screw through it at an angle into the second board. The jigs are relatively cheap, easy to use, and much less likely to maim a beginner than a table saw or router. Many free plans shared on homemaker blogs and YouTube use pocket holes.

Is it the strongest joint in the world? No, but most of the time you don't need the strongest joint in the world. Pocket holes are like Priuses. Sometimes people need a monster truck to haul a cubic yard of rocks, but most of the time they're just commuting to work or picking up groceries. It would be ridiculous to declare all vehicles should be monster trucks, and nobody should ever drive a Prius to get groceries because Priuses can't handle 2,000 pounds of rocks. Similarly, pocket holes are perfectly adequate for most small projects people tinkering in their garages will want to make.

A beginner on this Discord server said he only had a circular saw and power screwdriver. People told him he needed to buy this, that, and the other thing. I suggested that if he had a tight budget, he could buy a pocket hole jig first to get started.

From the reaction, you'd have thought I suggested he just grab an office stapler and start whacking at pieces of lumber with it.

pocket holes aren't strong enough for furniture

Pocket holes are NEVER appropriate for joinery, FULL STOP

I'm not saying you can't use pocket holes. You can do whatever your little heart desires. But they can't bear any weight. Not a lot of weight, no weight at all.

I was taken aback, because all of these assertions are factually incorrect. All the measurements you can find online show that pocket holes are comparable to other methods for making butt joints that rely mostly on glue for their strength, like biscuits and floating tenons. All of them start to crack at about 90 pounds of force. Unless you're going to use your little pine nightstand to store unsecured bowling balls, or allow a child to use it like a trampoline, that's not a significant limitation. I have an outdoor plant stand made with pocket holes in 2x4s—at least it was supposed to be a plant stand—that many a delivery person has used to drop off 40-pound bags of cat litter for multiple years with no problems.

But facts and common sense had no place in this server, because the objective strength of pocket holes wasn't their true concern. Their complaints quickly turned to "instant gratification DIY culture" and the stupidity of "the masses" with no appreciation for fine furniture.

The true problem, you see, is that if they admitted pocket holes are a legitimate method of joinery, that would mean the millions of untrained plebeians building shoe cabinets in their garages with $40 Kreg jigs are legitimate woodworkers. It would mean their "fine woodworking" projects aren't superior in every way to what those uppity DIYers with ideas beyond their station can put together in a weekend.

Pocket holes must be weak, despite all evidence, because if they're not, that means the members of this exclusive club of Real Manly Woodworkers aren't all that special.

(And yes, there's an undercurrent of sexism in there, too. How dare petite women with nice hair like Ana White make plans for trendy farmhouse-style coffee tables? The gall.)

First, don't be these people. There are 8.1 billion humans on planet Earth. Trying to prove you're better than all of them is as foolish as claiming one particular grain of sand sparkles brighter than all the others on the beach. You're not going to make it true by telling the other grains of sand they're not sandy enough.

Second, don't listen to these people. That's hard to do when they pile on to shame you personally, and present their unverified theories as unassailable facts with the utmost confidence.

Despite all my previous research and certainty in the adequacy of pocket holes, I wondered if these condescending jerks were right, and if I was being unreasonable because I felt disrespected. I wondered if I've been making furniture that's doomed to fail this whole time.

So I spent the evening checking articles from sources like Woodsmith and Family Handyman. They said pocket holes are fine. I read discussions on old woodworking forums and Reddit threads—pocket holes are fine. I watched YouTube videos by carpenters with forty years of experience—pocket holes are fine.

I couldn't find any convincing evidence that pocket holes are not fine. Even when people went out of their way to demonstrate how much pocket holes suck, they showed that these joints can take only 110 pounds of direct pressure from a lever, see?! So, again, if you're making a floating shelf for your bathroom, do you intend to pile a dozen medical textbooks on it? Or if you're building a coffee table from Ana White's plans, do you intend to stand on it to practice tap dancing? No? Then pocket holes are fine.

Despite all this research, when I catch sight of one of my pretty side tables—which I do not in fact use to practice tap dancing—I have the tiniest of doubts that it's strong enough, and I feel the need to find more evidence that pocket holes are fine.

Sadly, there are purists in every community who sew doubt and spread misinformation just to make themselves feel special. Some gardening enthusiasts will claim all non-native species from big box stores are invasive and will destroy the local ecosystem. Some animal lovers will say if you feed your cat any kind of processed dry food, you're basically murdering them.

We had our piano tuned recently, and the next day the tuner asked if he could come back to redo it for no extra charge. He'd been on the piano tuner forums, and they'd convinced him the settings he always used for Yamaha uprights were wrong. He spent an hour re-tuning every note, only to admit sheepishly that there wasn't much difference in the sound.

Humility and openness to new ideas is good for us, but self-doubt isn't. If egotistical people are trying hard to make you feel stupid and inferior, it's probably because they've sensed you're neither, and that makes you a threat.

In the words of a Redditor who responded to a year-old thread I found about snobby woodworking gatekeepers, "pocket hole screw them."


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