Hand Tools Archive

Assembling a dovetailed drawer - additional notes

Derek Cohen (in Perth, Australia)
Thanks Bill. This is such an important area in drawer building. I welcome others to post their thoughts.

I suspect (when I think back to my first days and my own anxieties) that one is so focussed on getting the dovetailing right, the forward planning does not take place. Then it is a scramble at the last minute. Or, the drawer fails to fit well, which is followed by "fixing" the poor fit, which never recovers, and remains a poor fit.

The more experience, the better one understands, and the better the forward planning. As in life, forward planning is everything.

Step 1 is to fit the drawer front and rear to the opening. I aim to get these the exact same size, front and back, and this warns you ahead of time whether the drawer case is square. One can get away with the sides being angled, the front and rear need to be the same width for a piston fit. Some like the rear to be 0.5mm narrower (I think that David Charlesworth does this).

My plan is to fit the width exactly, and this is where a shooting board is a great help as you can sneak up on the fit.

Building these lipped half-blind drawers, attention was given to an exact fit to the sides ...

.. and also meeting the centre of the drawer dividers ...

... while keeping the grain running sequentially ...

An adjunct to step 1 is awareness of wood movement. Expansion and contraction is across the grain, which translates to being okay to fit tightly in the horizontal, but the vertical must allow for movement. Generally there is a couple of mm between the top of the drawer front and the upper side of the case.

This was especially a concern when building this drawer ...

I was aware that the height of the drawer was not great, with corresponding small changes expected. What I did was to taper the top of the drawer front. It looks full from the outside, but is lower on the inside. This reduced the area further. In four months since building, which coincides with the wet Winter period here, there has not been any movement at all. Phew.

Sawing the front and rear dovetails: For a piston fit, it is essential that the front/side sections are exactly square. If they are even slightly out of square, the drawer base will rock, and then you will be forced to plane it square. This will remove material from the sides, which will affect the drawer fitting inside the drawer case.

It begins with transferring the (in my case) tails to the pin board. This the rear of the drawer, which is more difficult that the front, as there is often less to align ...

The key, for me, is a wooden square I built to align the sides to the front ...

Fitting the parts: I must point out that I saw dovetails to their exact depth. I do not leave them proud in the marking out. The reason for this is that I want to test fit the drawer (sans drawer bottom) before glueing up. If there is is anything to plane away, it will be from the sides.

Glueing up: If you have done everything right, and all the sides are square and the correct size, when you glue up the dovetails, the last side will just fall into place, dovetails dropping into their sockets without having to be moved left-or-right ....

The drawer (sans bottom) is placed in the drawer case until the glue is dried. This may be a tight fit, and require a bit of a shove, but it will go in.

The advantage of drying in the drawer case is that the fit is better.

Tweak the fit: Once the glue is dried, the fit can be adjusted until it slides smoothly. The drawer bottom is still not yet fitted.

Slips and drawer bottom: Now is the time for the drawer slips to be added ...

The drawer bottoms are then fitted, with particular attention to their widths. Using slips requires that they are also rebated, which adds to the complexity in fitting ...

If there is any tightness when fitting the drawer at this point, I know the issue lies with the drawer bottom. A smidgeon here-or-there comes off with a shoulder plane.

Satisfaction is a drawer that slides smoothly in-and-out, and closes when pushing on a corner :)

Regards from Perth


© 1998 - 2017 by Ellis Walentine. All rights reserved.
No parts of this web site may be reproduced in any form or by
any means without the written permission of the publisher.