Many woodworkers are uncomfortable making drawers. They’ll tackle just about anything else, but when it comes to making drawers, or anything that requires drawers, they shy away. Perhaps that’s due to the sheer monotony of making a bunch of boxes which are all the same; or it might be because they’re unsure they can make a drawer which will both fit and look nice.
But making drawers doesn’t have to be complicated. They can actually be quite easy to make, especially if you start out with a drawer box kit. As for them being boring to make, kits can help out there too.
One thing that people regularly mistake about drawers is not separating the drawer box and the drawer front in their minds. While there are exceptions, especially with small drawers, such as those in jewelry boxes and roll-top desks, the drawer front is not always part of the box. In the case of drawers that fit flush with the face of the cabinet, the drawer front will be part of the box. But in the case of cabinetry and some pieces of furniture, where the drawer front overlaps the drawer frame, the drawer front is usually attached to the front of the box, making it easier to build.
For those cases, you can actually buy pre-made drawer fronts from the same companies which manufacture replacement cabinet doors. This allows you to keep consistency in your set, should you be buying cabinet doors for a remodeling project or to make your own cabinets.
Ready-made Drawer Box Kits
The absolutely easiest way of making a drawer box is to buy a kit. Kits come in a variety of sizes and are available either with the front included or without the front. Those without the front are less than $20 each, while the ones that include the front vary considerably, depending on the style of the front and the material used.
A basic drawer box kit, without the front, consists of the four sides and the bottom. In most cases, the bottom is inset into the sides, in a track, much like the drawers that come with IKEA furniture and other assemble-it-yourself brands. Cheaper ones only have a 1/8” thick masonite bottom, so you want to make sure you check out what materials are used. That thin bottom won’t support a lot of weight.
On the good side, some of the better drawer box kits have dovetailed corners, making them as good as anything you could do yourself. I’m not that good at dovetails, so I’d have to say those are better than anything I can do myself. With a ½” thick plywood bottom, they’re strong enough for anything I need.
Another option is to buy just the individual pieces, so that you can make the drawer any size you want. While not as common as the full kits, there are some companies which offer individual pieces, so if you need an odd-size drawer, this is still an option.
Making a Simple Drawer Box
You don’t have to get fancy to make a simple drawer box. The whole thing can be made out of ½” plywood, without any special cuts. To make a good drawer, I’d recommend using a quality hardwood plywood, like applewood or birch; but you don’t even need to have AB grade, a BC grade will do.
The drawer box consists of five pieces; the four sides and the bottom. For the simplest drawer box, the bottom doesn’t have to be inset into a track. It can be attached directly to the sides. Doing this also allows you to make the deepest drawer possible.
To start, you’ll need to figure out how big your drawer is going to be. If we’re talking cabinets, drawers in kitchen cabinets are usually 22” deep and bathroom vanity drawers are usually 20” deep. Both of these dimensions leave a little bit of unused space in the back of the cabinet, but are necessary in order to match up with drawer slides.
The width and height of your drawer is going to be determined by the opening you have available. Metal drawer slides are typically ½” thick, so you’ll need to make the drawer one inch narrower than the opening. Height isn’t quite as picky. Anything less than the opening will do, but it’s common to make the drawer box about an inch less than the opening. So, if you have an opening that’s 18” W x 6” H, your drawer box will probably need to be 17” wide and 5” tall.
While the entire box can be made the same height, it’s common to make the sides of the drawer box shorter than the front and back. The main reason for this is so that you don’t have to worry about aligning the corners exactly. The sides of the drawer box typically overlap the front and back, so that when the drawer front is installed, there aren’t isn’t any end grain exposed.
Next you’ll need to calculate the size of the drawer bottom. If you’re making the drawer out of ½” plywood, it would seem that you should be able to make the drawer bottom one inch shorter and one inch narrower than your overall drawer size. Unfortunately, that’s not going to work. The 1/2” plywood thickness is a nominal thickness; the actual thickness of a sanded sheet of ½” plywood is 15/32”, so you need to measure exactly how thick it is and calculate the size of the bottom based upon your measurements.
To assemble the drawer box, simply start with the bottom, attaching the front of the box to it with wood glue and finishing nails. If you have an air nailer, so much the better, as it makes it extremely easy to attach the pieces together, without any risk of them slipping while you are nailing them. After the front, attach the sides, then finally the back, nailing each piece to its neighbors and the bottom as you go. Allow the glue to dry before doing any further work with the drawer box.
Stepping it Up a Bit
If you want to make your drawer box a little stronger and more secure, that’s easily done by insetting the drawer bottom into a groove cut into the sides of the box. In order to do this, you’ll need a dado blade for your table saw.
The slot is usually cut ¼” to ½” above the bottom of the drawer. This allows material from the sides, below the drawer bottom, adding strength to the drawer and making it possible to put more weight into the drawer. However, you will lose that same amount of space in the overall height of the storage space the drawer provides; not a problem in most cases.
You’ll also need to increase the overall size of the drawer bottom a bit, so that there is enough material to go into the grooves on the sides. Typically, these grooves are cut ¼” deep, so you’ll want to make your drawer bottom 3/8” to 7/16” wider and longer. The small amount of difference leaves room for expansion.
Putting Drawer Fronts On
Installing the drawer front to the drawer box is extremely easy. The drawer is set on the bench, with a spacer underneath it. This can vary, depending on the dimensions of your drawer box and the drawer front; but 1/2” is typical. That gives room for the drawer face to overhang the bottom of the drawer opening, hiding it.
You don’t want to glue the drawer front to the drawer box. Rather, attach it with nails or screws. If you are installing a drawer pull, the screws for the pull can also act to help hold the drawer front in place. By avoiding the use of glue when installing the drawer front, you save yourself from having any problems, should you decide to replace the drawer front some day.
What About Improved Corners?
Finer quality furniture doesn’t just use squared corners, like we talked about making above. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I wouldn’t expect to see a piece of furniture, where the drawers are made like that, lasting 100 years or more. For that, you’ll need some better corners.
In olden times, drawer boxes were all put together using dovetail joints, even simple furniture. While dovetail joints are challenging to make by hand, they become easier with practice.
The big advantage of dovetail joints is that they interlock in such a way that they can’t just be pulled apart. While it is possible to take a dry dovetail apart, once glued it’s almost impossible. The wood isn’t just held together by the glue, but by the wood of the separate parts pulling against the wood in adjacent parts. This makes for a considerably stronger joint.
There are two keys to making good hand-cut dovetail joints; having a dovetail marking gauge to lay out the dovetail and being able to cut accurately. This gives a lot of us trouble, as we are not accustomed to cutting things with hand saws, but rather with power saws.
A simpler way of making dovetail joints is to use a dovetail jig and a router. The router would have to have a dovetail routing bit installed in it. The router bit uses a bearing, which rides on the jig, controlling the positioning of the bit and preventing damage to the jig. It is important that the right size bearing is used, so as to provide the right spacing for that jig.
Dovetail jigs vary considerably from company to company, but they provide the necessary pattern for laying out a consistent dovetail joint. These differ somewhat from the dovetails you would cut with a saw and chisel, as they are intended to be cut with a router bit. Even so, once assembled, you really can’t tell the difference.
It is possible to make a homemade dovetail jig. But unless you are a really good woodworker, I wouldn’t recommend it. The key here is accuracy; both in the layout and the cutting. Any errors in the jig would show up in every drawer you tried to make.
As time went on, furniture factories needed something simpler to use for assembling furniture than dovetail joints. This was still before the time of dovetail jigs and the router. Cutting dovetails required skilled craftsmen to make. Finger joints could be accomplished by less skilled craftsmen, saving time and lowering labor costs.
The finger joint or box joint is a modification of the dovetail, in which all the cuts are made perpendicular to the end of the board. Since the cuts aren’t angled, like those of a dovetail, they are easier to cut by hand. They’re also easier to cut with a table saw.
Probably the easiest way to cut finger joints is on a tablesaw, using a dado blade. Basic finger joints have all the fingers the same size, on both pieces to be joined. In order to stagger them, they are cut from one end on one board and are reversed on the other board.
To maintain the spacing, some sort of jig is useful; specifically some sort of replacement for the miter gauge that will index the board the right distance to equal the size of the dato being cut. With the board mounted vertically to the jig, cuts can be made and the board indexed to the next position, ready for the next cut.
While basic finger joints are consistent in size, they don’t have to be. The simple design of the finger joint and the ease of cutting them, allows for an infinite variety of spacing. One side could have wide fingers and narrow slots, to match up with narrow fingers and wide slots on the connecting board. This flexibility of design can make the finished project more attractive.
Assembly of drawer boxes with either dovetail joints or finger joints is essentially the same as for a simple drawer box. The one difference you’ll find is that it takes longer to apply the glue to the joints. You’ll also need some sort of hammer or mallet to drive the pieces tightly together when joining them, as the little bit of space that the glue takes up will make it difficult to just push them together.