Whether it’s a tiny drawer in a jewelry box or the wide, deep drawer of a dresser, all drawers are little more than a box that slides into an opening. There are nearly endless combinations of construction methods that can be used to build that box, but a few stand out as the best blends of beauty, strength, and efficiency.
Drawers can be made of solid wood, plywood, or a mix of both. Drawer fronts often become the focal points of a piece, showing off spectacular figure in a board or sheet of veneer. They can be flush to, recessed into, or overlapping the front of the case, and they can be decorated using beads or profiles. Corner joinery, at both the back and front of the drawer, can range from simple butt joints to variably spaced dovetails. Drawer bottoms can be made from solid wood or plywood.
The drawer joinery and materials you choose should fit the type of furniture you want to build – quick-to-make joints and inexpensive materials for drawers in a utility cabinet, finely crafted joints and quality materials for drawers destined for an heirloom piece. Regardless, when it comes to building a drawer, the most important joint is the one that connects the
sides to the front.
As you can see, there are a number of great ways to build a drawer. A utility or light-duty drawer (top) might be a simple combination of a pinned rabbet joint at the front, a back that’s dadoed into the sides, and a plywood bottom. A high-end drawer (bottom) could have hand-cut half-blind dovetails at the front, through-dovetails at the back, and an elegant raised-panel, solid-wood bottom. And sliding dovetail joints (middle) fall somewhere in between. Read on to learn how to balance elegance and efficiency for the job at hand.
The joinery at the front corners of a drawer determines the overall look and often differs from the joinery at the rear corners. Below are nine common methods used to connect the front of a drawer to the sides. Whether you’re looking for a quick joint that gets the job done or a long-lasting, hand-cut detail, there’s a joinery option to fit your tastes, needs, and skills.
PINNED RABBET. The rabbet is easy to make, but it’s not very strong. It should be reinforced with some kind of fastener, such as recessed screws, cut copper nails, or wooden dowels or pegs, which offer a clean, handmade look.
DOVETAILED RABBET. A dovetailed rabbet is stronger and more attractive than a simple rabbet joint. This type of corner joint also should be reinforced with pegs, brads, or some kind of mechanical fastener.
TONGUE AND RABBET. Though it takes a few more tool setups, a half-blind tongue and rabbet adds built-in mechanical strength to the joint. For this reason, it’s usually not necessary to reinforce this joint.
SLIDING DOVETAIL. Sliding dovetails are a quick, strong joinery option and often are used on drawers designed with overlay fronts and on flush drawers that use mechanical slides.
FINGER JOINT. The finger joint has a series of narrow knuckles that lace together and offer plenty of long-grain glue surfaces. Because the tool setups are the same, if you use finger joints at the front of a drawer, use them at the back, too.
BOX JOINT. The box joint is the beefier cousin of the finger joint. If you’re using box joints at the front of a drawer, it’s efficient to use them at the back, too, because tool setups are identical.
THROUGH-DOVETAIL. If you like the look of exposed joinery, the angled tails and pins of a through-dovetail create a secure joint that resists pulling and racking forces. Through-dovetails also can be used at the back of a drawer.
HALF-BLIND DOVETAIL. Many regard the half-blind version as the king of dovetail joints. For concealed joinery with superior strength, half-blinds are a good choice.
LIPPED HALF-BLIND DOVETAIL. For overlay drawers with excellent strength, use lipped half-blind dovetails. With this joint, the front is rabbeted and joined to the sides with dovetails.
Most stresses on a drawer occur at the front corners – after all, a drawer is opened by pulling on the front. Any action that isn’t straight in or out of the drawer pocket also causes racking stress, which hits the front-corner joints hardest. For these reasons, front-corner joints should be as strong as possible and have some mechanical reinforcement. This mechanical connection can be as simple as pegs or pins in a rabbet joint, or it can be the interlocking strength of the classic half-blind dovetail.
At the back corners of a drawer, aesthetics are less of a concern because these corners are rarely seen. Even though the back corners suffer less racking and stress than the front corners, you still want to choose a sound mechanical joint. Often, the rear-corner joints are different from the front-corner joints. If you are using a machine setup to cut the front joinery, however, it makes sense to use those same setups to cut the back joinery. Some rear-joint options, such as the dado and the sliding dovetail, allow you to create a drawer with built-in full-extension slides so you have access to the entire depth of the drawer.
For both aesthetic and structural reasons, the back corners of drawers need not be joined in the same fashion as the fronts: The rear corners are less visible than the front corners and suffer less racking and stress during use.
BUTT JOINT. Because the joint itself is seldom seen, a simple nailed or pegged butt joint is sometimes used at the back of drawers that see only light use. Adding biscuits is a good way to strengthen this otherwise rudimentary joint.
DADO. A simple dado cut in the drawer sides is an easy and effective means of attaching the back to the sides. When using a dado at the back, you can leave the sides long, creating in essence full-extension slides that will give you access to the full depth of the drawer when it is opened.
DADOED RABBET. The dadoed rabbet helps keep the drawer square and is easier to fit than a simple dado. You rabbet the back to fit the dado, as opposed to trying to match the dado width to the thickness of the back. Leaving the sides long at the back will give you access to the full depth of the drawer when it’s open.
SLIDING DOVETAIL. The sliding dovetail has built-in mechanical strength (instead of glue
alone) to help hold the joint tightly. As with the dado (above), leaving the sides long at the back will give you access to the full depth of the drawer when it’s open.
As with the corner joinery, the choice of material and design for the drawer bottom depends on the style of drawer you are building – whether it’s a quick-and-dirty shop drawer or a drawer for a high-style reproduction secretary.
Solid wood and plywood are commonly used for drawer bottoms. Solid wood is the traditional choice, and aesthetically, it’s hard to beat. But you must allow solid wood to expand and contract with changes in humidity. In most cases, solid bottoms are either raised or rabbeted to fit grooves in the drawer sides and front. Align the grain so that movement occurs front to back; doing otherwise could cause the drawer to bind. Typically, the bottom slides in from the rear and is screwed to the back via a slotted hole that allows the bottom to move without cracking.
Plywood is a much more stable choice for a drawer bottom because it does not expand and contract with humidity changes as much as solid wood. Though reproduction builders and a few purists resist using plywood bottoms, it’s easy to argue their superiority. A plywood bottom can be housed in grooves in the sides, back, and front, or it can be slid in from the rear and screwed to the drawer back.
Solid wood and plywood are the most common materials used for drawer bottoms. A solid-wood panel will expand and contract with humidity changes, so it must be sized and installed to allow for that movement. A plywood bottom offers a more stable (and simple) option, but traditionalists see it as thin and bland.
SOLID-WOOD BOTTOM. Traditionally, solid-wood panels slide into place after the sides, front, and back of the drawer have been assembled. The back is cut shorter, allowing you to slide the bottom in place, and the bottom is screwed to the back through an elongated hole to allow for wood movement. Building a drawer in this way allows you to take it apart for repairs.
PLYWOOD BOTTOM. Though reproduction builders and a few purists look down their noses at plywood drawer bottoms, they are more stable than solid wood and have great strength. A ¼-in.-thick plywood bottom can carry all but the heaviest loads. Plywood bottoms can be slipped in after assembly, just like solid-wood bottoms, or fully housed in grooves, as shown above.
BEVEL EDGE. A bevel edge can bind or rattle in its groove because it doesn’t sit on the groove bottom. The extra thickness in the middle allows the bottom to carry a heavier load.
RAISED PANEL. A raised panel creates a flat on the edge for a better fit in the groove. The flat is usually cut using a router or shaper. The raised area provides a traditional look, and the extra thickness in the middle allows the bottom to carry a heavier load.
RABBETED. The extra thickness of the bottom offers the same strength as a beveled or raised panel. Aligning the rabbeted edge parallel to the drawer parts makes squaring the drawer easier during assembly.
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Though it takes a few more tool setups, a half-blind tongue and rabbet adds built-in mechanical strength to the joint. For this reason, it’s usually not necessary to reinforce this joint.