Building Drawers: Understand Options for Drawer Joints, Mounting Methods and Fronts

There are three main elements to the anatomy of a drawer. Understanding them is the secret to building drawers that glide smoothly, hold their weight and never jam.

Cabinet Construction: Straight Talk for Today's Woodworker

“Cabinet Construction” by the editors at Skills Institute Press is a woodworking guide with all the technical information you need to succeed, written in language anyone can understand. 

Cover Courtesy Fox Chapel Publishing

Content Tools

The world is complicated enough; that’s why your woodworking information shouldn’t be. Cabinet Construction (Fox Chapel Publishing, 2011) by the editors at Skills Institute Press provides technical woodworking information in the plain-spoken language you would hear from a trusted friend or relative. The following excerpt on building drawers is taken from Chapter 3, “Drawers.” 

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Cabinet Construction.

Building Drawers 

In essence, a drawer is nothing more than a box without a top—a front, a back, two sides and a bottom. Individual examples, however, belie this simplicity. They run the gamut from the modern kitchen drawer slamming shut on metal slides to the drawer of a well-made Victorian desk whispering home with a nearly airtight sigh. The former is often an anonymous, interchangeable unit with a false front. The latter may be a finicky individual precisely fit to an opening in a particular piece of furniture, its unique face blending beautifully with the grain of the wood surrounding it.

Pulled open, a drawer reveals more of its personality. Each of its five pieces may be cut from a different wood. The front, which shows most, is chosen for its species, color and grain; the thinner sides for long wear; the back for strength; the bottom for stability.

Not only is the front the most visible part of a drawer, it also takes the most abuse. Keeping it attached to the sides requires a durable, solid joint.

A drawer’s most basic function is to hold things. But it must also slip in and out of the piece of furniture housing it without jamming or chattering. As with joinery, mounting a drawer offers many choices. Every method must support the drawer, prevent it from tipping as it is pulled out and stop it as it slides home. The perfect drawer will glide nearly out, then hesitate a bit; drawer stops prevent the unit from being inadvertently pulled all the way out or pushed too far in.

Different types of furniture demand different methods of mounting drawers. In carcases, drawers can be side-mounted: grooves routed in their sides slide on thin strips of wood attached directly to the cabinet sides. They can also be supported by a U-shaped frame with runners at the sides and a rail at the front. Here, the drawer slides on the bottom edges of its sides—a traditional technique called bottom-run. In frame-and-panel cases, drawer supports sit on strips attached to the frames only.

Commercial metal drawer slide runners—like those found on file drawers—provide a wheeled side-mounting option. One-half of the hardware attaches to the carcase and the other half to the drawer sides. Used extensively in kitchen cabinetwork, metal slides can support great weight and provide access to the very back of the drawer.

Whether meant to hold pajamas in a quickly made child’s chest or nightgowns in an heirloom highboy, drawers will form an integral part of many of your cabinet construction projects. Each of the thousands of times someone opens one of these drawers, he or she will be reminded of the care you took to build them.

Anatomy of a Drawer 

Drawer-making consists of three distinct steps: joining boards together to form a box, mounting the drawer in a piece of furniture and installing hardware. Each step must be performed precisely if a drawer is to combine grace and strength, gliding smoothly in a piece of furniture while being sturdy enough to bear the weight of its contents.

Although virtually all drawers share the basic features of the one shown below, there are an array of variations. Before making your first cut, consider the options for each step. For example, from among the joints listed below, there is one to satisfy virtually any requirement. Each joint has different characteristics in terms of strength and durability, level of difficulty, and appearance and suitability for different types of stock and furniture. You can allow personal preference to guide your selection, but make sure you choose a strong joint to attach the drawer front to the sides. This is the part of the drawer that endures the most stress.

The success of the drawer-mounting operation hinges on how well the drawer has been put together. Three different methods for mounting a drawer in a carcase are shown in this chapter as well as one technique suitable for frame-and-panel cabinets. Although each method permits some adjustment, a drawer out-of-square by a wide margin will be almost impossible to install.

Visit the Image Gallery for illustrations of the anatomy of a drawer, or click on one of the titles below to navigate straight to the listed image. 

Drawer Fronts 

False Front Drawer
Lipped Front Drawer
Flush Front Drawer 

Drawer Joints 

Rabbet Joint
Through Dovetail Joint
Half-Blind Dovetail Joint
Dado Joint
Double Dado Joint 

Drawer-Mounting Methods 

Side-Mounted Drawer
Commercial Slide Runners
Bottom-Run Drawer 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Cabinet Construction: Straight Talk for Today’s Woodworker, published by Fox Chapel Publishing, 2011.