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  • Shelf Pin Jigs and Methods

    Greg Portland shares a number of options for shelf pin jigs and methods.


    Background and History
    My interest in shelf pin jigs and tools started when I was planning a large library project for my house. Both my wife and I are avid readers and we determined that twelve floor-to-ceiling units (8' tall + base & crown) would be required to hold our hardback books. Doing the calculations, I determined that if I used a standard 32mm or 1 1/4" spacing between shelf pin holes that I would need 240 holes per shelving unit. With 12 units that meant that I'd be drilling ~3000 holes. For past projects I had used a cheap plastic guide for my drill. This guide required that I "shift" it for each set of holes and hope that everything aligned when I did my case assembly (lest I end up with uneven shelving). I ran a test on a 8' long board and it took me 2-3 minutes per jig setting and ~3 seconds to drill each hole. With the 24" long jig that meant 4 settings per each row of holes * 2 columns of holes per board. If I was able to drill all the holes in a row it would take me ~6.5 hours with no breaks and a possible loss of sanity. This is of course assuming perfect alignment and zero mistakes during the drilling process. Confronted with this painful task, I began to research better methods of creating shelf pin holes.

    Methods for creating shelf pin holes
    The primary tools used with jigs are drills and routers. I am a fan of the plunge router + downcut spiral bit because it results in a very clean hole on every cut. The plunge base assures a straight hole into the workpiece versus a drill which could accidentally be tilted. With the drill, you would want to use brad point bits to ensure a clean cut. If the bit catches & tears out wood you may need to redo the entire board (or at least perform some repairs). This is quite possible with a low quality guide or dull bit. The third method is a dedicated line boring machine which can cut multiple holes cleanly and accurately. At a certain work volume these machines become cost effective but I will not cover them in this review.

    Test Setup
    I ended up purchasing or borrowing most of these jigs to discover the fastest and most accurate method of drilling shelf pin holes. My test was to drill 2 columns of holes on an 8' board and observe any skew between the final holes. If there was a misalignment then the shelves would be wobbly once I assembled the carcass. I also timed my efforts to take into account any template re-setting as well as the time it took to drill each hole. I include a link to the products but no specific pricing information due to forum policy.

    Drill Based Jigs
    Pegboard


    It doesn't get cheaper or easier than this option. Simply align the board to your workpiece and use the holes to center your drill bit. Problems occur because the peg board does not perfectly guide the drill bit. The action of drilling can slightly enlarge the hole in the pegboard which leads to inaccuracies on future cuts. Additionally, nothing is forcing the drill to be vertical while drilling. A slight hole angle can cause the shelf pins to be tilted which will result in wobbly shelving. If you focus on keeping the drill vertical and only use each section of holes a few times then pegboard does a reasonably good job as a template. However, for thousands of holes it is far from an ideal option.

    Rockler JigIt!


    There are numerous variants of this style of jig. They all feature a template with multiple holes and an indexing point where you can place a shelf pin in a previously drilled hole. This allows you to step the template along the board. While there is no inherent length limitation with this jig, you are compounding any error with each stepping of the template. Also, to cut the holes on the other edge of the board you will -rotate- the template. If the template is not accurate (equal distance to the first guide hole) then you can end up with wobbly shelves... not good! I have tried the Rockler JigIt and have had no accuracy problems with my 8' test case. Rockler recommends a special self-centering bit (5mm or 1/4") with their kit that ensures an accurately drilled hole as well as longevity of the template (i.e. the bit does not contact the jig). Some commercial and DIY options do NOT use this style of bit and the result is inaccuracy as the template is stepped along the workpiece. The inaccuracy is due to poor centering due to either bit wander or an enlarged template hole. Although the Rockler bit fits snugly into the template and avoids this problem it also results in an extra second or so to align the drill to the template hole. For small cabinet projects this is a non-issue; for thousands of holes the extra time can add up quickly. The Rockler template uses 1 1/4" spacing between holes (not a true 32mm system).

    Rockler Pro Shelf Drilling Jig


    The Rockler Pro Jig is a typical example of the double column jig approach. Each column of holes can be a variable distance from the edge of the board and the jig is stepped in a manner similar to the JigIt. Inaccuracies with this style of jig can occur if the 'frame' can be racked (left side slightly higher than the right side, etc.). This jig can also suffer from the same accumulative error found in the JigIt. Rockler uses the same style of self-centering bit in the Pro Jig as the JigIt so inaccuracies are limited. I had no problems in my test case except for the time it took to align the drill to the template hole (the same extra second as the JigIt). The Pro Jig is limited to board widths between 8.25" and 25.25" which is enough for most common cabinet projects. Additionally, the template is based on 1 1/4" hole spacing (not a true 32mm system). This may or may not be an issue depending how closely you are following 32mm construction principles.

    Veritas LR32 system


    At first glance, the Veritas system is similar to the Rockler except it's more expensive. However, upon closer examination, we can see that it is a complete system for LR32 work. This will assist you in locating and drilling hinge mount locations, drawer slides mounts, and dowel holes for carcass assembly. While you step the jig in a similar manner to the Rockler Pro Jig, you instead use a movable bushing to center the drill. This may result in slightly better accuracy but you will need to move the bushing template for each hole (an extra 1-2 seconds to move the bushing and re-center the drill bit in the bushing). I found the Veritas LR32 system very versatile but also slower when compared with dedicated shelf-pin hole jigs. This speed penalty may be worthwhile if you want a full blown and flexible LR32 system. The Veritas template holes are cut at exactly 32mm spacing but they also include 1 1/4" labeling. With the deluxe system you can handle 24" wide panels, otherwise you are stuck with a 12" limit. You can drill holes for about 30" before repositioning the template. Again, there were no accuracy problems during the testing.

    J+R System 3200
    This is a heavy duty aluminum shelf pin jig that is dedicated to drilling 5mm holes spaced 32mm apart. You use a special bushing bit for alignment and I found it to be the fastest of the drill-based options and faster than most of the router based systems. The rails slide on dovetailed ways so there is minimal racking and a high degree of accuracy. You can drill about 30" before repositioning the jig and you can handle boards up to 24 5/16" wide. This is only for drilling shelf pin holes and does not include extra holes for LR32 work (drawer slides, dowel assembly points, etc.).

    Woodhaven Kurka Jig


    This jig should also be under the router section because it allows you to use either method. I found drilling with a self centering bit to be faster than dropping the router + guide bushing into each template hole so I'm including it here. This is another LR32 system and it includes all the template holes for drawer slides, wing plates, and shelf pins. The system comes with two sides so you can setup the jig for left and right side operation and have 2 people working at once. This is the fastest AND cheapest LR32 system that I tested but you give up some minor flexibility for that speed. If Woodhaven adopted the hole shape of the J&R system then it would also be the fastest shelf pin jig that uses a drill (I only found the WWA router jig to be faster for shelf pin holes). The jig can accommodate a board 30 1/4" high in one pass but you'll need to put the rails on the front of the jig if you want to step it for tall shelves.

    Router Based Jigs

    MEG Products 32mm line Boring Guide


    MEG produces a few different line boring jig options at different price points. The cheaper options are smaller and are made from baltic birch ply while the more expensive options are larger and made of aluminum. All work on the same basic principle: You use a router bushing to center the bit in each template hole. A plunge router is used to cut the hole with your choice of spiral bit. Some people like an upcut bit because it clears the chips from the hole; I prefer a downcut because it produces the cleanest hole. I find this to be a significant issue on plywood that is prone to tear out (splintery veneers or Melamine, etc.). MEG recommends a 2-flute straight bit. All the options work very well when the bit is sharp but I prefer the downcut spiral as the bits become dull. For each hole, you need to align the bushing to the hole, plunge the router, and then move onto the next hole. This sounds complicated but you can build up a rhythm after some practice. I found this method to produce a very clean pin hole and you can move even faster if you have a plunge bar on your router. MEG's largest stock jig is 30" in length but they are willing to create custom templates for you. I have seen 1" and 32mm hole spacing options offered for sale on their website. The clamps work well for simple shelf pin holes spaced in from the edge of the workpiece. If you want to drill holes toward the center then you'll need to clamp the jig into place. Centering pin locations are available for stepping of the template or for placing the template toward the center of a workpiece. Like the Rockler JigIt, this single-column of holes can be prone to stepping and rotation errors. However, I did not experience these problems during my tests.

    Festool LR32 System

    The Festool system operates similarly to the MEG system in that a router steps along a rail with pre-determined hole locations. Festool devotees have written articles showing very detailed ways of using this as a full LR32 system for drawer and shelf dowel placement. Unlike the MEG, you do not need to lift the router each time; you simply push the rocker arm and slide the router to the next slot and plunge the router. The Festool system uses long rails (55" or 95" options) so stepping errors are rarely an issue. Additionally, there is no rotation of the rail so that type of error is avoided. I found the Festool system LR32 system to be slightly faster and more versatile than the MEG system but at a significant price premium.

    WWA Shelf Pin Jig


    The WWA jig is unique in that the bit or bushing is not entirely captured by the jig. This allows the user to move the router quickly between holes but can cause errors if the user is not careful. The details of how the jig works and maintains it's accuracy is a bit more complex than the other jigs described in this article so it's best if the reader goes to the URL above for more information. The jig is created from scratch to handle a single hole spacing pattern (it could be a mix of whatever suits the user). I use this jig in my shop and have 2 different sets of rails (one 8ft and one 4ft). I chose 32mm hole spacing but you could create your own set of 1 1/4" rails or any other spacing you choose. Smaller hole spacing and pin holes can appear more pleasing with small cabinets and this system allows for that variability. I have also added a plunge assist bar which allows for easy one handed plunge operations while allowing the other hand to control the base of the router. For setup, you clamp the jig onto the board and can then do the entire panel in 1 pass. This avoids any jig stepping or rotating errors. In terms of speed, I can approach 1 hole per second but typically go slower to ensure accurate work. The cost of this DIY system ran about $50 for the void-free plywood & plungebar.

    Conclusions and Recommendations
    Overall, any of these jigs will work accurately out of the box. Only the peg board will exhibit issues as the holes wear out, in which case you just use another piece. If speed is not a concern, get the cheapest option unless you want LR32 functionality. For LR32 shelf and drawer slide drilling the Kurka jig is the clear winner in terms of cost and functionality. If overall speed is critical to you and you can't afford a line boring machine then build the WWA jig & get a plunge assist bar. You will be able to drill 1000+ holes per hour with minimal fatigue and a high degree of accuracy.
    Comments 10 Comments
    1. frank shic's Avatar
      frank shic -
      very thorough and comprehensive review, greg. thanks!
    1. John Grossi's Avatar
      John Grossi -
      Greg, thanks for that report. Drilling holes for shelf pins seems like one of the easiest parts of a project to do but can turn out to be frustrating. I built a quick and easy one hole at a time jig based on a dowel pin. Works great for small projects. However, I will look at the WWA jig for my bigger projects. thanks again.
    1. Roy Fleming's Avatar
      Roy Fleming -
      Great article and the timing could not be better as I am currently building a large entertainment center that will have many adjustable shelves. I am going to try the WWA jig.
    1. Greg Portland's Avatar
      Greg Portland -
      Thanks for the comments everyone! Feel free to PM me with any questions or clarifications that you might have.

      Greg
    1. Jim Koepke's Avatar
      Jim Koepke -
      Nice report comparing the options.

      I rarely use shelf pins since my preference is fixed shelfs.

      For one project my wife wanted adjustable shelfs. My solution was to make a tee-square with 2 rows of 4 holes spaced at 2".

      After the first row was laid out and drilled, a dowel was inserted into one and the square moved up to align the next row of holes.

      jtk
    1. Dave Gaul's Avatar
      Dave Gaul -
      Very nice comprehensive review! I've used the pegboard method with a shelf-pin drill bit before, but that was for a small project only.

      Anyone know how the Woodpecker's version compares?
    1. Greg Portland's Avatar
      Greg Portland -
      The Woodpecker version looks similar to the Veritas system. From the pictures it would seem that the Woodpecker version has a better clamping system (thickness limited though) & is available in 32mm or 1.25" spacings. It can also be used with a drill or router. The Veritas deluxe system has the cross-rail for drilling drawer slide holes, can be used on very wide pieces (single rail mode), is a drill-based jig & is more expensive.
    1. Peter Kelly's Avatar
      Peter Kelly -
      MEG Products seems to have gone out of business. Their website shows zero stock on most items and no one answers the phone. E-mailed them an order and no response.
    1. glenn bradley's Avatar
      glenn bradley -
      Very thorough and well written. It is great to have such an array of products reviewed at length by someone who actually got their hands on them. Thank you. I will add a comment on the statement "Only the peg board will exhibit issues as the holes wear out,". The Rockler jig suffers damage if more than a few holes are drilled at a time. Their drill bit/guide becomes hot enough to melt the thin plastic. The result is that it deforms the hole or sticks to the jig and pulls small fractures of material away as the bit/guide is withdrawn. I found it less than satisfactory as it costs around the same as others in its class. I have solved the problem by converting to router use. In use I would prefer a 1/4" thick template and a plunge router. Not as fast as a drill but, accurately repeatable.

      P.s. As long as I'm picking on them, the non-flush heads of the "fence" screws add an accuracy issue when the jig is required in that position. This is not always the case and can usually be worked around but, an unnecessary bit of fussiness.
    1. fred dodson's Avatar
      fred dodson -
      Quote Originally Posted by Greg Portland View Post
      Thanks for the comments everyone! Feel free to PM me with any questions or clarifications that you might have.

      Greg
      Hi Greg,

      I read your survey of shelf pin jigs with great interest. I have a small cabinet shop and have used the Delta 13-spindle but sold it to create floor space. I'm now using a plastic jig and drill but am looking for something that is more accurate and incorporates 32mm. With your review in mind, and since you've used both, would you prefer the Festool LR32 or the Kurka Jig if there were not a price difference (I have to buy the Festool rail anyway).

      Thank you,

      Fred