Building Cabinets – Chest of Drawers

Case furniture based on a dovetailed box is found in a wide range of styles and periods. While the details vary, many pieces can be built using similar construction solutions. When I build a case, I work from a firm set of ideas – both traditional and modern – that I’ve found to be reliable and efficient.

The techniques required to make a chest of drawers are common knowledge to most woodworkers: dovetails, dadoes, miters, mortises, and tenons. The complex appearance is the result of a straightforward sequence of simple steps.

At its most basic level, a chest of drawers is a stack of separate assemblies. However, based on moldings (or lack thereof), leg treatments, drawer styles, proportions, and materials, a wide variety of case pieces is possible. This article describes a basic, proven construction approach. The details are up to you.

Carcase and back construction

The case is joined with half-blind dovetails, which are hidden from view. Traditionally, the back consists of shiplapped boards.

Start with a dovetailed case

When preparing your primary stock for the sides of the case, put aside strips to be used later to edge the top and bottom case panels as well as the drawer dividers. Using wood from the same board will give a uniform look to the case.

A chest of drawers begins with four panels: a top, a bottom, and two sides. The strips of primary wood that edge the top and bottom can be glued onto the secondary-wood panels after rough-milling. Match the grain direction of all parts during glue-up so they can be finish-milled as one piece.

The case is joined with half-blind dovetails, so lay them out for strength, not appearance. You may want extra tails near the edges, especially the front, to resist loads that could pop the front shoulder.


Another trick makes the joinery for the back a little easier. Run the rabbets for the back boards all the way up the sides without stopping. Then rip the top and bottom panels to be flush with this rabbet; the back boards will extend all the way up to the top and bottom of the case but will be hidden by the true top, which goes on later. The back boards, lapped in some way to allow for wood movement, will be screwed or nailed to the case.

Drawer-divider frames

Only the front 3 in. or 4 in. are glued to the case, allowing the case sides to move. Choose a frame type based on the desired look and the need for strength.
Stopped dadoes – Basic stopped dadoes offer a clean, contemporary look and the easiest construction.

Stepped dovetails – Stepped dovetails offer a more traditional look and a mechanical connection between the case sides.

Dovetails with hidden dadoes – Dovetails with hidden dadoes not only tie the case sides together but also offer a clean look.

A divider in a stopped dado is inserted from the back. The front rail must be notched to reach the front of the case.

Drawer dividers: three options

Once the case dovetails have been cut, fitted, and dry-clamped, it’s time to work on the system of drawer dividers and supports. For function and appearance, the divider frames must stay flat. Again, secondary wood can be used for all but the front edges. Choose the inner secondary wood for stability. Avoid secondary wood that was significantly bowed in the rough, and make the front divider wide for extra stiffness. I make the fronts 3 and 1⁄2 in. to 4 in. wide, and the less-critical back dividers 2 and 1⁄2 in. to 3 in. The runners can be narrower, about 2 in., because they are held in dadoes. Leave the parts a bit thick to allow for leveling the frame after gluing.
Although there are other divider systems, typically I use one of the three systems shown at left.

For all three types, I prefer to glue up the mortise-and-tenoned frame first and fit the unit to the case dadoes. But you also can fit and glue the pieces together in the case, using the dadoes to align the parts.

One last note: Glue up the case after the dadoes have been cut but before building and fitting the divider frames.

Stopped dadoes – This simple approach offers a streamlined look and straight forward joinery. The main liability is the lack of sound glue surfaces between the frame and the case. Usually this isn’t a problem, but for a tall case or one with unstable wood, you may want one of the other frame systems that use lap dovetails to tie the ends of the case together. The other types also offer the traditional look of exposed joinery.

Start by laying out and cutting the dadoes, which are about 1⁄4 in. deep. I do the layout while the case is dry-clamped, using a story stick to avoid measuring errors. The goal is to get the pairs of dadoes at equal height and parallel to the inside faces of the top and bottom. Square up the front ends of the stopped dadoes at an equal distance from the front edges of the case (about 1⁄2 in.).

The front of the frame should be flush to the case edge, but the back should be inset about 3⁄8 in. from the rabbets to allow the sides to shrink. Gauge the length of the dividers from the bottom of the dadoes, and cut them about 1⁄32 in. undersize to make the frames a bit easier to fit.

To connect the divider frames, I use mortise-and-tenon joints. When clamping and gluing up the frames, take diagonal measurements to check for squareness, and be sure that the frames are flat. A good tip is to level the joints on the top of the frame first. Then, as you test the frame and slide it into the dadoes, you can do all of your fitting from the bottom. The front 3 in. to 4 in. of the frame should be snug, but the rest can be eased to make it slide in the dadoes with less drag. You will need to cut a shoulder in the front of the divider frame so it can extend past the stopped dadoes to the front of the case.

Stepped dovetails – Adding lap dovetails to the front of the divider frame gives it a strong mechanical connection to the case sides. The front rail will resist forces pushing the case sides outward, and it can be used to pull in bowed sides slightly. This traditional solution is called a stepped dovetail because both the dado and dovetail are visible at the front. I like to use this joint with lipped drawers, where the side lip matches the dado depth. Be prepared to spend extra time on these joints, though, because there are many surfaces that must fit at the front edge, and any gaps will be obvious.

This joint uses a shallow (about 3⁄16 in. deep) through-dado, with a lap dovetail at the front extending into the case side.

Start by penciling in the dovetail location on the case sides. This gives the length of the front rail. Before gluing up the frame, notch the front rail to leave the stubs for the dovetails. Now build the rest of the frame and shape the dovetails on the front stubs. This joint will show any gaps, so work carefully and test the dovetail fit as you pare. When you install the frame, rub the rear part of the dado with paraffin wax so that any glue that drags back won’t keep it from floating.

Lap dovetail with hidden dado – The third frame type uses a narrower through-dado that is hidden at the front by the lap dovetail. This dovetailed frame gives the same mechanical strength as the stepped version but has a cleaner look. When used with flush drawers, it has a neat, logical appearance.

This system has another advantage over the stepped dovetail. Because the dovetail covers the dado, there are fewer surfaces that must close up. Use a standard dado size that is 1⁄16 in. or so smaller than the base of the tail, and make the dadoes about 1⁄4 in. deep.

Once the frame has been made, you need to form the tongues, stopping them at the front and leaving extra wood for the tails. Because the tongues and dadoes will be hidden, only the shoulders for the dovetails need to be tight, and the tongues don’t need to bottom out in the dadoes; however, the tongues should be snug in thickness, especially at the front.

Drawers

The two common drawer styles are flush and lipped. On the lipped style, the drawer front covers the gap for a more refined look.
Match the divider to the drawer. The dovetail with hidden dado offers a clean look for flush drawers (above), while lipped drawers look better with the stepped dovetail (below).

Scribe for perfectly fitted dividers

Slide the divider to the front of the dado and scribe the shoulder. Then cut the notch in the front rail.

Dovetailed dividers go in from the front. The dado is cut first; the dovetail housing is cut second.

Slide in the dadoed section as far as possible. Then transfer the layout of the dovetail onto the case side.

Moldings and case top

Molding frames are the best way to attach moldings across the grain of the case sides and the top.

The correct sequence. First, attach the molding frame to the top (above) and then to the case using the elongated holes only. Last, screw all three parts along the front edge (right).

A few tips for the drawers

Once the frames have been fitted and glued in, you may build and fit the drawers by any method you’re comfortable with. Drawer fronts, of course, have a lot to do with the appearance of a chest, so look over the wood and plan the overall grain pattern before you begin.

This article presents two options: a flush drawer and a lipped drawer (see top photo, p. 65). Both types need stops (the fragile lip molding is there only to cover the clearance gaps). One reason why I locate the stop blocks on the rear dividers is that it’s easy to clamp them in place while testing the drawer. Just remember to size your drawers to make room for the stops. But the great trick here is that putting the stops on a floating frame keeps the drawers flush at the front even as the case changes depth through the seasons.

Flat VS rabbeted molding frame

The type of molding frame will determine how much of the top or bottom edge of the carcase is visible.
A flat frame is easier to build and fit. But it shows the entire case edge and must lie perfectly flat.

Rabbeted frame leaves the carcase reveal up to you. And if the frame doesn’t lie perfectly flat, the gap won’t show.

Ease the transitions with moldings

Visually, top and bottom moldings have a powerful effect. They frame the case with their strong horizontal lines and play of light. Their projection at the bottom gives the base a sense of stability and strength. An upper molding provides a transition to the overhang of the top and also balances the bottom molding.

Many times you’ll see old work with moldings attached to the case itself, but these tend to fail over time as the case shrinks. Using separate frames for the moldings will give the same appearance while allowing for case movement. These top and bottom frames can be built using either of two methods (above).

Both methods can use secondary wood for the inner part of the frame. The first is a simple mitered frame with a molded edge. A more complex, rabbeted frame system wraps over the sides and front edge of the case. With this system you can choose how much of the front case edge shows, giving a wider range of effects.

Both frame systems should overhang the back to allow for expansion of the case. Fasten the frames to the case with screws, tight along the front but with elongated holes along the sides and back to allow the case to move.

Flat frame is quicker to build – The first step for the flat frame is to know the exact dimensions of the molding you want, its projection from the piece, and the width of the primary wood. The next step is to glue the primary-wood strips onto the inner-frame stock and then mill the blanks to thickness.

Get the front miters fitting correctly before mortising in the flat, unmolded rear rail. Join the mitered corners with biscuits or stopped splines. Last, mold the desired profile on the outside edge.

Build the rabbeted frame in two parts – The second frame system is built in two stages. The inner, secondary-wood frame is thinner than the molding, based on how much of the case edge you want covered. I build the frame first, slightly oversize, then trim it to fit the case exactly. Let the back edge overhang to hide seasonal case expansion.

Now form the rabbet with the three thicker molding blanks. Dry-fit the parts carefully, making sure the miters come together exactly at the corners of the case, keeping the end pieces long at first to allow room for adjustment. Then glue the blanks to the edges of the frame and mold the profile. The frame is held with screws as before, with elongated holes to allow for movement.

Bases

A strong bottom molding frame serves as a stable platform for attaching the feet, whether bracket style (shown here) or vertical.

Bracket feet – Molded or unmolded, with a wide variety of cutouts, bracket feet are used in many periods and styles. They are glued to the base molding frame (or attached to the case).

Attach the top

The top of the case is often molded on three edges and usually has an overhanging back to hide shrinkage and to avoid a large gap between the case and the wall.

If a molding is used below the top, it’s important to let the case, the molding frame, and the top move independently. All three parts are held tight with screws along the front edge to keep the miters and reveals constant. But along the sides and back use elongated screw holes between the frame and top, as well as the case and frame. People commonly lift cases by the top edge, so all of these connections must be very strong.

Details define the style

This construction system will produce a wide variety of case pieces, depending on the combination of the individual elements. An 18th-century piece (top) combines moldings, drawers, and feet common to that period.

Lipped drawers soften the line of the front. A wide base molding and classic ball-and-claw feet give the piece a broad stance. The top is carefully dimensioned and molded to relate to the rest of the piece.

The bottom chest of drawers has a more contemporary look with harder lines and surfaces, including a flush front. The curved, tapered legs flare outward, broadening the stance without looking heavy. The base and top moldings are beveled to complement the style. And the top is chamfered to make it appear thinner and to match the other elements.

These examples are the tip of the iceberg. You could make the case taller than it is wide, or use a different array of drawers. And consider the effect of other wood species or figured wood for the drawers.

Vertical-grain feet

Vertical-grain feet come in a wide array of styles, from turned bun feet to 18th-century ball-and-claw feet to more contemporary saber feet. Most have flanking transition pieces.

Choose a base

The final bit of woodworking is to prepare a base. For this article, I built the two most common systems, each adaptable to many leg styles. Bracket feet are cut from blanks with horizontal grain and are mitered at the front. The other leg style has vertical grain, which usually features narrower legs, often braced by flanking side pieces.

Bracket feet – Start the flat bracket feet with one long board about 3⁄4 in. thick. The six blanks should be taken out of a single board, if possible, so the grain pattern wraps around the base, matching at the miters. It’s also nice to use the same board here as you did for the base molding to help hide the joint between the base frame and the feet.

The rear feet are braced with secondary wood. The joint at this back corner can be half-blind dovetails or, more simply, a tongue and dado. The miters for the front parts can be reinforced with a spline, but usually it’s enough just to butt them.

Cut and dry-fit the joints before cutting the foot profile. The assembled feet are glued to the base frame. All of the foot and base joints should be reinforced with glue blocks. A single vertical block can cause the foot to crack, so I use three short blocks with 1⁄8 in. of space between them.
Vertical feet with support pieces – The second construction system is seen in the saber leg with flanking transition pieces. Its main advantage over bracket feet is that the vertical grain direction allows a strong foot of a much smaller size.

Generally, a round or square tenon is cut in the top of the foot blanks to match a hole or mortise that is cut through the molding frame. The mortise should be located away from the corner of the frame so that the miter joint isn’t weakened. The transition pieces are tenoned into the foot. As before, these assemblies are glued to the base frame.

This sums up my approach for fine-quality casework, but many variations are possible. In fact, 10 people can use the same information to build 10 very different chests, each one a record of that maker’s taste and skills.

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