Newsletter Article: Make a Traditional Drawer
After mastering dovetails, making a well-fitting dovetail drawer is a must skill for the traditional hand-tool woodworker. A traditional drawer has dovetail joinery, a floating bottom, and perfectly fits the drawer opening with no side to side movement and only a slight amount of top to bottom movement to allow for wood expansion. This traditional drawer design has been perfected through the ages and is bullet proof when considering strength and environmental conditions. If made correctly, it will last for centuries.
I use this traditional drawer design in all my furniture, even in my shop cabinets. It can accommodate any number of drawer front styles and can be used with hardware sliders, wooden inset sliders, or other guides although I typically shy away from drawer slides in favor of a traditional “piston” fit drawer.
A good drawer has two critical components: the cabinet or opening the drawer fits into and the drawer itself. Cabinetmaking is a critical woodworking skill by itself, but beyond the scope of this article. In this article I will focus on the basic design concepts and tips for a traditional dovetail drawer.
A drawer is a five-sided box. The front and back of the drawer are joined to the sides using dovetailed joinery; typically, half-blind dovetails for the drawer front and through dovetails on the drawer back. The tails are on the sides and the pins are on the front and back so that the mechanical advantage of the dovetails resist the pulling and pushing action of opening and closing the drawer. The drawer bottom slides into groves on the inside of the drawer sides and bottoms out in a groove on the inside of the drawer front. With these basic concepts in mind, let’s look at the drawer in more detail.
Drawer fronts show off the piece, so I like to select beautiful hardwood that either matches the wood of the carcass, or for a more stunning look, contrasts with the carcass with beautiful figured grain. For drawer sides I prefer a lightweight and a light-colored wood that will show off my dovetails and keep the weight of the drawer down. Typically, I use Aspen or Popular, but other woods work too. For the bottom I want a lightweight wood; my preference is cedar.
Many woodworkers mill their drawer stock too thick which makes for a clunky looking drawer. I like a thick drawer front but prefer to use as thin of a material for the drawer sides and rear as I can get away with. For the bottom I want a thin but strong enough material to hold the anticipated contents of the drawer.
The drawer sides are my tail boards and I usually mill them between a ¼” to a ½” thick (as thin as I can get away with). I mill up these boards slightly oversized in length and width, making sure the long edges are perfectly parallel to each other. Paying attention to grain orientation (I prefer the grain in each side to be oriented in a common direction) I select and mark my left and right drawer side. I perfect the bottom edges of these pieces on the shooting board then mark them as a reference surface. The height of the drawer sides is the critical dimension. I fit the drawer sides to their opening leaving approximately a 1/16” gap between the top of the drawer side and the top of the carcass to allow for seasonal up and down movement. I then cut the length of my drawer sides, ½” to ¾” shorter than the carcass’ depth. On the shooting board I make sure all the end cuts are perfectly square and that each side is identical in length and height. I now I cut a ¼” deep groove, ¼”’ up from the reference edge, on the inside of the drawer sides.
I make the thickness of my back somewhere between the thickness of my drawer front and sides. ½” to 5/8” thick is typical. Using the shooting board, I perfect the bottom edge of the back and mark this as my reference surface. I continue to refine the fit of the back with the shooting board until it fits perfectly into the drawer opening in the carcass. This is a critical fit; the back must fit into the opening with no slop. Once I get a perfect fit, I will use the back as a template to cut the drawer front.
I typically mill my drawer front 3/4″ to 7/8″ thick. After milling to thickness I place the back piece onto the front and mark it with a sharp knife. Using the shooting board, I pane down to the lines and test the fit until it fits into the drawer opening perfectly. I mark the bottom as the reference edge. I cut a 1/4″ groove on the inside face ¼” up from the reference edge.
I layout half-blind dovetails in the front and through dovetails in the back. On the back piece, layout the bottom half-pins so they are at the top of the grooves in the side pieces. Once the layout is complete then saw off the bottom of the back below the half-pins. This exposes the grooves and allowing you to slide the bottom in from the back of the drawer.
I typically mill the drawer bottom between 3/8” to 1/2” thick. Grain orientation is critical as I want any expansion to be toward the front and back of the drawer, not to the sides. Using a plane, I taper the underside of the bottom so the edges will fit into the groves on the inside of the drawer sides and front. When cut correctly, the taper will seat all the way in the groves, touch the top of the grove and the bottom inside corner, but still slide rather freely. The bottom is glued into the slot in the drawer front only and floats in all the other grooves. This both allows for wood expansion while stiffening up the drawer. The bottom floats in the grooves to allow for seasonal movement. The bottom is held in place with two or three screws passing through over-sized holes in the bottom (to allow for movement) and screwing up into the bottom edge of the back. In addition to allowing for seasonal movement the drawer bottom can be replaced if ever needed.
Fitting the Drawer.
At this point the back and front pieces are identical in size to each other and the two side pieces are identical to each other. Since we milled the sides pieces about an 1/16” shorter than the carcass opening the width of the side pieces is smaller than the width of the front and back pieces. Because of this, when laying out the dovetailed joinery it is important to always use the reference edges. When the drawer is assembled, the top of the front and back will be planned down to allow for seasonal movement.
The secret to getting a piston fit drawer is in laying out the depth of the pins on the front and back of the drawer. You want the depth of the pins to be slightly less (1/32” approximately) than the thickness of the drawer sides. When assembled this layout will cause the drawer sides to sit proud of the front and back of the drawer. We are purposely making the drawer just a tiny bit too wide for the drawer opening. This is so we can carefully fit the drawer to the carcass opening by planing down the sides until the drawer just fits into its opening. Using the top of the front and back pins as a gauge, we carefully plane down to the pins. Once to the top of the pins we check the fit and using a very light cut on the plane (1000th inch) we continue removing material and checking the fit until the drawer slides smoothly in and out with no side to side movement. Its easy to plane off too much so as the fit gets close to perfect take a thinner and thinner shaving until you get that perfect, piston fit. Waxing the drawer sides will help help with the drawer movement.
The last fitting job is to plane down the top of the front and back until you have just enough space to allow for seasonal movement.
If you really want to learn how to make a cabinet opening and piston fit drawer, then I highly recommend Rob Cosman's video on Drawer Making.