Should You Use Wood Glue, Screws, or Both?

So, back in the day, I did a whole experiment to determine which was stronger: wood glue or screws? Spoiler alert – given you have enough surface area for the wood glue to bond, it’s wood glue.

But that doesn’t always mean it’s the best choice.

Choosing between wood glue and screws is dependent on a lot of things, including the type of joint used, whether you need the piece to easily disassemble, if the wood requires movement, the amount of time you have to secure the pieces, if there are gaps in the wood… I could go on.

But the down and dirty is this:

Both wood glue and screws should be used to secure butt joints, which is when two pieces of wood butt up against each other. For other woodworking joints, wood glue alone is enough. Screws should only be used without wood glue if you intend to disassemble the piece.

There are a few other things you might want to consider, though!

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Joint Type

Joint type is the single biggest consideration for whether you should be using wood glue or screws. Wood glue is more than enough for most specialty woodworking joints (miter joint, dovetail joint, finger joint…) – that’s literally why it exists!

But if you’re a beginner woodworker, some of those fancier joints might be outside of your skill level, if for no other reason than they often require pricier tools, like a table saw or router.

Which leaves beginners with the butt joint, aka, a joint that looks like this:

5" pieces of wood joined by a butt joint

Wood glue isn’t very effective on these joints, because A) there’s not that much surface area for the glue to stick to, and B) wood glue does a really poor job on the end grain of wood.

Therefore, in addition to the wood glue, screws are necessary to add support to butt joints. You basically have two options:

1. Countersink the screws and then wood fill and paint over them. This is cheap and easy, but requires you paint the piece or be okay with ugliness.

I did this on this organizer, because I really wanted it done quickly:

Screws in organizer
Finished organizer

2. Use pocket holes. This is probably the best option for beginner woodworkers. You can build almost anything with just a pocket hole jig, and the pocket holes are rarely obvious.

I am not ashamed to say that most of my pieces use pocket holes, because as lovely as beautiful joints look, I have a full time job, and pocket holes get things done quickly.

This outdoor sofa is one of my favorite pocket hole projects:

Cedar outdoor sofa with white cushions

Regardless of what option you choose, you should use both wood glue and screws!

Disassembly

Another thing you might want to consider is if you need to disassemble the project.

Screws are easy to take apart. Glue is not.

Glue is often considered “stronger than wood,” meaning if the wood glue is at full strength, the wood will break before the glue fails.

I put this in quotes, because I have taken apart 50 year-old furniture multiple times that comes apart with no problem because the glue is too old/has been exposed to extreme temperatures/etc.

So, glue isn’t foolproof, but given you’re working within its lifespan, wood glue is stronger than the wood itself.

All this to say, if you expect to disassemble your piece in the future, use screws.

Gaps

Wood glue is thin. You probably already know this. But it’s an important thing to consider when deciding whether to use it.

If you’re trying to glue two pieces of wood that have significant gaps between them, wood glue is a poor choice, because it won’t span those gaps.

If you need an example, check out this DIY wood slice wreath.

Wood slice wreath that says "Ho Ho Ho"

All the wood slices were slightly different widths, which main them a pain to glue together, since there were significant gaps between the pieces.

If you’re wondering “when would this ever happen in woodworking,” well, I have a tough answer for you.

When you mess up, and your joints don’t fit together well.

Here was my first attempt at a miter joint in my cat tree project:

Miter joint with gap

This was actually the best joint… the other three were so bad, I didn’t want a picture.

I didn’t know any better at the time, but wood glue was a poor choice for the project. It hasn’t fallen apart, because the base of these trays was secured with pocket holes, but liquid nails would’ve been a better alternative.

Liquid nails is a great option when there are gaps to fill, because it’s more voluminous than wood glue.

It’s not quite as strong as wood glue when gluing two pieces of wood together, but it does a decent enough job for most projects, and is certainly stronger than wood glue that doesn’t actually touch both pieces of wood would be.

Movement

Finally, lets chat about movement.

Wood moves. It’s inevitable. Here’s what the tabletop of my coffee table currently looks like:

Mismatching wood on coffee table

See those uneven edges? That’s because the wood has swollen since I built this two years ago, and it didn’t swell evenly.

Lesson learned – I’ve quit building tabletops like this.

Regardless, this is relevant when talking about glue as well. If you need the wood to be able to move, wood glue is a poor choice.

This isn’t relevant when we’re talking about joints. If you’re here specifically for information about joints, don’t worry about movement.

But it is relevant if we’re talking about inserts.

Think something like these drawer bottoms, which slide into a groove:

Drawer bottom

These panels will expand and contract, and they need to be free to do so. That means they shouldn’t be glued into place.

Similarly, the panels on this end table will expand and contract as well. If they’re not able to do so, they might buckle or crack.

Black end table with burlap inserts

So glue is a poor option in these cases, but if the pieces need to be secured somehow, a few nails or staples would be a good choice.

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