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Our staff offers simple, strong and fast ways to make this important furniture component.
In woodworking magazines, books and plans there’s almost always an omission that’s big enough to drive a truck through: How to build the drawers for the project.
Usually the woodworking author (always well-intended, I can assure you) writes instructions such as: “Build the drawers using your method of choice.”
Well that’s all well and good unless you’re like a lot of woodworkers who have never actually chosen a method of drawer-making. To remedy this problem, we’ve come up with four good techniques for building drawers that our editors have refined after years of shop work.
Each method has its pros and cons. But based on your skill level and your particular set of tools, there is likely something here you can use for your woodworking. Before we discuss the differences of each method, here are the similarities.
When designing a drawer and coming up with a cutting list, here are some rules we follow.
In general, the drawer front should be 3⁄4” thick – unless it’s a drawer with a “false front.” False-front drawers are a simple drawer box with the front screwed to the box. It’s a handy way to fit drawer fronts in projects where the drawers run on metal slides.
The sides and back of the drawer should be 1⁄2” or 5⁄8” thick. Use thinner stock for smaller drawers and thicker stock for big ones.
The bottom is usually 1⁄4“-thick plywood for small drawers or 1⁄2“-thick material for bigger drawers, or drawers that will hold heavy objects.
The bottom should slide into the drawer in 1⁄4” x 1⁄4” grooves milled in the sides and drawer front. If the bottom is thicker than 1⁄4” you’ll need to cut a bevel or rabbet on its edges. The back of the drawer should be 1⁄2” narrower than the sides to allow the bottom to slide into place at the rear.
Sliding Dovetail Drawers
Sliding dovetails aren’t just for building bookcases. This technique works extremely well for constructing drawers that will be mounted with mechanical drawer slides.
When you follow these instructions you’ll end up with an inset drawer that has a perfect 1⁄2“-wide space for a drawer slide. By merely putting the socket in a different place you can create an overlay or lipped drawer, too.
A couple notes on this technique: You need the right-size bit for the joint. The common 1⁄2“-diameter dovetail bit is too big when using 1⁄2“-thick drawer sides. You’re better off with a 3⁄8“-diameter dovetail bit, which is commonly available.
Also, you need to take some care when making the test cuts on the male portion of the joint. If your drawer uses a different species of wood for the sides than for the front, check the fit of the male portion of the joint in a socket in both species. This might sound a bit odd, but different species react differently to a cut. It might just be .002″ difference or so on each side of the joint. But with sliding dovetails, even small amounts matter.
Finally, cut all your parts 1⁄16” wider than your finished size. The router bit will tend to blow out the grain when it exits the work. After you mill all the joints, run each long edge over your jointer to remove the inevitable tear-out. — CS
Sliding Dovetails Step-By Step
This tricky technique uses only two setups on your router table to cut very strong drawers that are perfect for a project that uses drawer slides. That’s because it automatically creates a 1⁄2” space for side-mount drawer slides.
The drawers go together like a puzzle, and the interlocking nature of the joint ensures their longevity. The downside to the technique is that you need to be very persnickety in setting up your tools; sliding dovetails do not suffer fools lightly.
The thickness of your materials must be dead on (check it with a dial caliper) and you must make a couple more test runs on scrap with this technique than the others. But once you master it, watch out. You’ll use it all the time.
This is a time-consuming but rewarding way to make a drawer. There is no stronger, beautiful or individual technique than cutting dovetails by hand. Like all good things, it requires practice. But once you have a couple drawers built, you’ll find your saw and chisel skills improve exponentially.
A couple notes on this technique: There are entire books written about dovetailing, so we couldn’t possibly cover everything that’s involved. However there are a few basic principles and tricks that make the process easier.
Use good tools. A sharp well-tuned saw and chisel make all the difference. Cheap, inaccurate or dull tools will make the learning curve much steeper. Before you try this technique on a drawer for a project, try it out on some scraps first. Even experts need to “warm up” with a test joint or two when dovetailing.
Hand-Dovetailed Drawers Step-By-Step
This is the traditional, and many would argue, the strongest way to make a drawer. Traditional drawers have through-dovetails at the back of the box and half-blind dovetails at the front.
Our favorite technique is to make the drawer sides, front and bottom using 1⁄2“-thick stock and then glue on a 1⁄4” -thick piece of veneer for the front. This technique allows you to cut through-dovetails at all four joints (which is easier) and to stretch your supply of good drawer-front material.
This method is the most time-consuming of the four in this article. But that’s the cost of strength and endurance.
Some woodworkers swear by the router. And why not? It’s a great tool for many applications − including making drawers. By using a drawer lock bit in a router table it’s a simple process to quickly create dozens of hardwood drawers (plywood isn’t advised) and end up with strong, attractive joints. It doesn’t matter how deep, wide or tall your drawer is. With the bit set, all you do is run the inside edge of each side – no adjustment necessary.
There’s always a trade-off, and with drawer lock bits it’s price and set-up. Though you’ll need only one bit, it can cost as much as $55. Once you have the bit, it’s critical to get it set correctly in your router table for a tight, accurate fit.
While the following steps walk you through the setups for a simple inset drawer, the bit can also be used for overlay drawers and also allow clearance for mechanical drawer slides. By first rabbeting the necessary clearance on the backside of the drawer fronts, the same bit will once again do all the joints for any of these drawers.
Drawer-lock Bits Step-By-Step
This specialty router bit allows you to cut all the corner joints with one router table setup. With minor adjustments the bit will even mill the groove for the bottom. Drawer-lock joints are easy to assemble and attractive. The interlocking design is strong and offers significant gluing surface.
The downside to this method is that you need to make several test cuts to get the settings perfect, and you need to purchase a fairly pricey router bit – about $30 to $55 depending on the brand.
Rabbets and Brads
This drawer method is so simple it should be illegal. With one table saw setup and a dado stack you can build drawers all day long.
Two critical accessories are required. You need a stacking dado set. You’ll only use the two outer blades of the dado set to cut 1⁄4” rabbets. (If you don’t have a dado set you could also use a single 1⁄8“-kerf blade. This would require some set-up changes, but the concept is the same.) You also need a zero-clearance insert for your saw, which supports your work during the cut.
On a finished front drawer as shown here, rabbet the front and back. On a false front drawer, rabbet the sides. We recommend shooting brads through the sides into the rabbet. These brads will add some strength and reduce the clamping necessary to build these drawers.
Rabbets and Brads Step-By-Step
When we need to make drawers fast, this is the way we go. You can cut all the joinery for your drawer (including the bottom groove) with just a stack dado and one setup on your table saw.
It’s a fairly forgiving technique that beginners master quickly. It’s only real downside is that it’s the weakest of the four joints. While the drawer is plenty strong for most applications, it’s not in the same league as a traditional dovetailed drawer.
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