There are a myriad of ways to make drawers. But generally, I use only one way to make drawers. The sides are tapered on the inner face, but the outside stays square. This type of construction might be attributed to the Shakers. The Shaker’s were making drawers this way over 100 years ago. I think the main reason this type of drawer never caught on is because it is not very friendly to machine methods.
There are some good reasons for using tapered drawer sides, such as the increased wear resistance of the wider bottom edge, a more pleasing narrow upper edge when the drawer is open, a thicker cross section where the groove for the bottom panel is plowed and they save time and labor during construction. Making drawers with tapered sides is no harder and requires no more work than straight side drawers. About the only difference is that during construction you have to do some careful layout.
There is one other thing that also stands out about my drawers, the smoothness of their operation. Many people are surprised to find nothing but wood to wood contact between the drawer and cabinet. The ease at which they open and close is achieved with careful attention to fit, both during construction and with the final fit to the drawer pocket.
Making the Parts Fit
A well fitting drawer is easy to achieve when all of the parts of a drawer are pre-fit to the opening it’s going into. And it is absolutely essential when making drawers that slide with wood on wood. This does not mean cutting the parts to a cut list, but actually using the opening to size the parts. Work to fit, not measurements.
Most of the time I use 3/4″ stock for the fronts and sides of my drawers and 1/2″stock for the back. Small drawers use slightly thinner material. The length of the back piece should just fit the opening and it should be a little over an inch shorter than the opening is tall. Trim the side pieces to the proper height, 1/8″ clearance is sufficient for 5″ or 6″ drawers. Make adjustments for shorter or taller drawers. Next, I cut them to length, generally 5/8” shorter than the drawer pocket. The sides need to be this much shorter than the opening to account for the joinery and to allow for movement of the carcase sides. Drawer fronts are cut to the same height as the sides, but should only just start into the openings.
By cutting all of the parts this way, you have far less to do during the final fit of the drawer and results in a better fitting drawer.
Marking Out the Tapers
Once all the parts are fitted, I mark the sides either R or L at the outside top edge. Fronts and backs are marked for easy identification later.
To lay out the taper on a drawer side use a marking gauge set to 1/2″, scribe a line down the top surface of each side. Make sure to use the outer face of the drawer side as a reference for the fence of the marking gauge. Using the scribed line on the top edge and the bottom inside corner of the drawer side as a reference points for a straight edge, scribe a line on the end grain between these two points. This sets the angle of the taper. Make sure to mark both ends of each drawer side. Don’t bother with an adjustable bevel, as it’s more hassle than it’s worth
Plane the Tapers
I use a scrub plane to cut the tapers. It’s quick and easy to knock off the waste with a scrub plane then clean it up with a jointer plane. I find that darkening the tapered scribe line with a pencil is very helpful when doing this. It makes your line much easier to see on the endgrain.
Plowing the Bottom Panel Groove
Prior to cutting the dovetails I plow a groove for the drawer bottom. This helps you lay out the dovetails by ensuring the groove exits in a tail and not in a pin or between them. You want the groove to come out of a tail so that it does not show on a finished drawer.
Placement of the groove is also important to ensure there is clearance below the bottom panel to install a drawer stop. For the 1/2″ bottom panels I use on an average size drawer, the top of the groove is placed 1″ from the bottom of the drawer resulting in 1/2″ clearance for a stop. When plowing the groove make sure it is parallel to the square outside of the drawer, not the tapered inner face.
Keeping All the Pieces in Order
I have a simple way to do this. I lay all the parts out and number the corresponding corners in the groove for the bottom panel. This way the marks don’t show later nor do you have to remove them. For the back piece I mark the lower edge where the bottom panel will conceal it. This also helps with glue up, as there is no guessing which part goes where during the heat of the moment.
Marking Out the Dovetails
Before I cut the tails, I use the side pieces to mark the tapered baselines on the front and back pieces. I lay the front on the bench with the top edge facing away from me, the outer face of the board downward. Take the appropriate side piece and stand it up on the inside of the drawer face, align the groove for the drawer bottom and make sure the outer face is flush with the end grain of the front, then scribe the taper.
For the back piece line up the marked bottom edge with the top of the groove in the side piece and, once again, make sure the outer face of the side is flush with the end grain of the back piece.
When marking the back piece, carry the scribe line around to the face side with a square and straight edge. On the drawer front, instead of carrying the taper to the face side, you mark the endgrain with the same marking gauge you used to scribe the length of the tails on the drawer sides. The fronts are attached with half blind dovetails, so there is no need to scribe the taper on the face.
Cutting the Dovetails
Now is the time to layout all your dovetails. I no longer make any more scribe lines than I find necessary. If you are more comfortable with scribe lines, by all means use them, I am just used to working with very few of them. I cut dovetails by eye and with practice you will find that this is not very difficult. This is one place I differ from dovetails on larger work, as I do not use dividers to set spacing of the tails on drawer parts or other small pieces.
After you have marked all your drawer parts, it’s time to put them into a vise for cutting. The flat front and back are not a problem, but for the tapered sides you need to make some adjustments. Take two tapered sides and clamp them into the vise at the same time. This forms a rectangle that your vise will easily hold. Remember when you are putting these parts into your vise you must stagger them so you cut the tails in only one piece at a time. What you need to ensure is that saw cuts are square to the outside face of the drawer side, not the tapered inner face.
After you have gotten to this point, cutting the dovetails is pretty straightforward. Just make sure you follow the tapered scribe lines. Since I have already gone over how I cut dovetails in another chapter I don’t think it is necessary to repeat myself. What I have included here are things that differ from regular dovetails. For more on dovetails just refer back to the dovetail section in the Carcase Joinery chapter.
Pre-fitting the parts allows me to take only a few passes with a plane after glue up to get a piston fit. To make planing easier, I fit the drawer to it’s opening prior to fitting the bottom panel. I use what is called a drawer board. This is just a board that hangs off the bench and allows you to plane any side of the drawer without placing it into a vise. Not having the bottom panel installed is the key to making a drawer board work. By using a drawer board instead of a vise you will save a lot of time as you move between the carcase and your bench.
I keep things simple and use a 1/2″ thick panel in the bottom of my drawers. I use Western Red Cedar most of the time because it has a nice subtle scent and when I want something with a stronger scent I use Eastern Red Cedar. The panel floats in the groove and is attached at the back with a screw. The screw fits in a slot to account for movement. And, no, I never glue in the bottom panel.
Drawer stops serve two purposes in my cabinets. They stop the drawer from hitting the back of the drawer pocket and they also determine the setback of the drawer front. I use a setback of about 1/16″.
To fit the stops, the bottom panel is still out of the drawer. I use two stops per drawer, fastened to the crosspiece just behind the drawer front. These stops just clear the bottom panel of the drawer when it’s installed and are about 2″ long, 3/4″ wide and 3/8″ thick.
The easy way to fit these is to place the drawer into the pocket. Apply glue to two of your stops and place them on the crosspiece through a partially open drawer. Hold them down from below or above and close the drawer until the drawer front has the proper setback. After the glue starts to set up, about 2 minutes, open the drawer and apply a C-clamp to keep it in place while the glue dries. Be careful not to shift the stop as you tighten up the clamp. If you feel the need you could add a screw later for extra strength.
The most important thing about pulls on drawers is consistent placement. Drawers are usually stacked and any error in placement stands out like a sore thumb. Straight edges and plumb lines are an immense help when laying out pulls.
I always match the pulls between drawers and doors when both are used on the same piece of furniture. The Making Doors chapter goes over a good way to make pulls. Another thing to keep in mind is to make pulls that are in proportion to the size of the drawer it is on. When matching pulls on doors and drawers, you may need to make some of them smaller even though they are the same style.
Another alternative is to cut the pulls into the face of the drawer. The possibilities are almost endless when you cut the pulls this way. Just make sure that no matter what you use for pulls, they fit in with the rest of the cabinet.