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

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“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. 
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Set off by the simplicity of a metallic single-pull handle, a solid wood drawer glides smoothly in and out of a frame-and-panel cabinet. Grooves routed into the drawer sides run along supports attached to the frame of the cabinet.
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False Front Drawer: A separate front is nailed over the structural front; conceals end grain of drawer sides.
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Sized to fit between grooves cut in the sides of a drawer, a plywood bottom panel slides into position. The panel will bottom out in a groove in the front and be nailed to the back to secure it in place.
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Lipped Front Drawer: A rabbeted front creates a lip that serves as an overhang; useful for concealing commercial runners when the drawer is closed; lip performs double duty as drawer stop.
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Flush Front Drawer: Allows the drawer to fit entirely within the cabinet; also known as an inset drawer.
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Rabbet Joint: For back-to-side joints on most drawers; also strong enough for joining the front to the sides if reinforced with screws or nails; suitable for solid wood or plywood.
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Through Dovetail Joint: Strong, decorative joint for any drawer corner; end grain of drawer sides can be concealed with false front; appropriate for solid wood but not plywood.
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Half-Blind Dovetail Joint: The traditional joint for connecting the front to the sides; conceals end grain of sides; suitable only for solid wood.
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Dado Joint: Can be used to join the front to the sides and the back to the sides; for solid wood or plywood.
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Double Dado Joint: For any corner of small, light-duty drawer; conceals end grain of sides and front; suitable only for solid wood.
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Side-Mounted Drawer: Wooden slides screwed to carcase side panels run in grooves routed in drawer sides.
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Commercial Slide Runner Drawer: Metal slides screwed to drawer sides mesh with runners screwed to carcase.
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Bottom-Run Drawer: Drawer slides on rail and runner assembly. Twin tenons at ends of rail are glued into double mortises cut into carcase panels; one edge of runners is rabbeted and fits into groove cut into panels.
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1. Drawer Slide: Sits in groove routed in drawer side; screwed to carcase side panel. 2. Bottom Panel: Typically 1/4-inch plywood; fits in groove routed in drawer sides and front. 3. Drawer Side: Joined to front and back with any of a variety of joints; groove shown meshes with drawer slide. 4. Drawer Back. 5. Drawer Front: Typically thicker than sides, back and bottom; may be covered by a false front.

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.