Drawer construction

If you make cabinets, you gotta make drawers. Lots of drawers. A lot of shops are buying their drawers from specialty shops now but most of us still make our drawers in house. I, for one, don’t see any reason to give the work to someone else, especially now when things are a bit tighter than they have been in the past.

I have always preferred to build my drawers out of solid stock. I’ve done a lot of jobs where budget constraints called for plywood drawers. But, for the most part, I favor solid wood with plywood bottoms. The big question is always what joinery to use. More often than not, dovetailed drawer joints enter into the conversation.

Most people suffer under the delusion that dovetails represent the highest order of fine craftsmanship. But in truth, dovetails require only that the craftsman be able to accurately cut to a line with a chisel and saw. Those are (or should be) pretty basic skills. The real reason dovetails became ubiquitous for drawer construction had much more to do with the unreliability of the available adhesives than with any desire to exhibit high levels of skill. When woodworkers were limited to animal hide glue, the question was never if the glue would fail but when. So a mechanical interlock was necessary to prevent the drawer from simply falling apart once the glue gave up.

Also, drawers were typically of much heavier construction and the weight combined with the friction of the wood runners resulted in a lot of force being exerted on the joints that held the front and sides together.

Once we got to the point where we had more dependable adhesives and steel ball bearing hardware glides, these concerns were no longer an issue. But the practice of dovetailing drawers has persisted and, even though 99 percent of all dovetail drawer joints are formed with routers and jigs, people still see the dovetailed drawer as an indication of a quality piece, regardless of how cheap or low quality the thing actually is.

The joint of choice for drawers in my shop is the rabbet and groove. Over the last 20 years I have made thousands of drawers with rabbet and groove joints and I have yet to have one fail. In fact, they are virtually impossible to take apart without destroying the drawer. These joints are very easy to make and do not require any tooling other than a small straight cutter for the groove and a bigger one (or a rabbeting bit) to make the rabbets. I like to stop the groove a quarter of an inch from the top of the sides and “nip” the tops of the tongues formed by rabbeting the sides. That way, you cannot see the joint. Also, I will often make the sides a half inch or so taller than the fronts and backs and run a small ogee along the top edge of the sides which creates a very nice looking drawer.

I use the same joint for all four corners. Some shops will use dados to let the backs into the sides and nail the joints but I could never see any advantage to using a different joint for the backs. Maybe if you were hand-cutting dovetails, the dado at the back might make sense. But for machined joints, it never made sense to me to have to go through a bunch of different setups.

Now that I have totally “dissed” dovetails, I should add I do use them. But only on my best work and then they are always hand cut and always with very small pins so that there is no way they could ever be mistaken for machine made joints. OK … there is one other condition under which I will make dovetailed drawers. If the customer insists on it and if I really want the job and the issue of drawer joinery becomes a deal killer, then I’ll haul out my dovetail jig.

D.D.

COMMENTS

  1. Danny Hellyar wrote:

    David,
    I’m totally with you on this one.I personally enjoy making drawers and, like you, have usually used the tongue and dado or rabbet and grove, whichever it is most properly referred to. I’ve even used this joinery in particle board drawer construction before, although I wouldn’t recommend it as the tongues are weak and have a tendency to snap off during assembly if your not careful. In fact I can say that I’ve never cut a dovetail, by hand or machine. I’ve outsourced my drawers only when there’s been a time constraint. I’ve more often outsourced my doors, which is a whole other story.

  2. Don wrote:

    I am with you on the joinery. I use a blind mortise and tenon joint on the front and back of my drawers. This joint is every bit as strong as a dovetail joint. Also, using baltic birch and edge banding the drawer makes for a very strong, stable and very nice looking drawer. I let the bottom into the front, back and sides using a full dado for the 1/2″ bottom of the drawer. The whole thing is topped off with Blum Tandem slides with Blumotion and I’ve not had an unhappy customer.

    I build my drawers in house from 5/8″ prefinished BB and prefinished maple edge banding so I can control quality better. With my CNC machine I can make the joinery and cut out drawer parts from a sheet of BB in less then 10 minutes. Edge band the parts, assemble and I have a drawer in about 20-25 minutes.

    I am getting ready to add a jig (similar in concept to my brand new, unreliable, non-repeatable Porter Cable Omni Jig) to my CNC machine that will enable me to use it to make dovetailed joinery for drawers.

  3. Michael Garrett wrote:

    You already know that any joint that we put on a drawer other than a dovetail is probably going to outlast any other joint by far in structure many times over in comparison to simple joints!

  4. John Eugster wrote:

    David, I’m pretty sure that I agree with you on this issue. I’ve been using an ancient Craftsman dovetail jig with an equally dated, dedicated router. It’s noisy, time consuming, tends to tear out the material, and can’t really think of too many positives except clients “like dovetails”. I like your method of stopping the groove short of the top and will start doing it too. Hand cut dovetails will be used for those high end clients, wish I knew where they are right now!
    Thanks, John

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