Drawer construction

High-quality, cost-effective methods of drawer construction, and tips on joinery. March 28, 2001

What methods of drawer construction are cost-effective yet durable? Is dovetail joinery mandatory for high quality construction?

Forum Responses
I really believe that dowel construction is every bit as good and as durable as a dovetail joint in a top quality drawer.

Dovetails are not mandatory for high-class. However, many perceive the dovetail as an indicator of high-end construction.

There are many production and semi-production dovetail systems that work well, are easy to set up, and can be easy to own. I don't have experience with the full-bore, dedicated machines (Dodds, for example) but we've used the semi-production, dedicated equipment, like the Omni-jig, that make turning out a kitchen's worth of drawers a straightforward process.

In 1997, AWI modified their standards to allow dowel construction to be equal to dovetail as Premium Grade. When one considers how much of AWI work is commercial (often laminated product), it is easy to see why dovetail (with more labor and time investment) was becoming an area where profitability was harmed, and in the case of laminated (HPL or melamine) production, dovetail format was--for all intents and purposes--not do-able. So from the standpoint of quality issues, dowel construction is equal to dovetail, and much faster.

While it is true there is a preference for dovetails at the high-dollar end of cabinetry, if you are not partaking of the high dollars, you are providing what a customer has not purchased out of a misguided belief that you cannot sell otherwise. This is not true and never will be. Look how many companies sell metal drawer systems that are neither dowel nor dovetail, at an up-charge over conventional drawers.

Find any saleable system that works for you and stick with it.

A few years ago, a trade magazine working with a cabinet association surveyed a number of customers who purchased custom kitchens within the year. Most of the interviewed clearly understood that they paid between $500 to $1000 more for a kitchen with no visible staples! Knowing this fact alone, I would find a way to build such a kitchen--and I would raise every kitchen bid from then on by at least $800.

Jon Elvrum, forum technical advisor

I take drawer stock and mill up #1 maple with a groove for the drawer bottom. Then I cut my sides to length and pocket hole my front and back. I screw the front on first, slide the bottom in and install the back. The side is very clean-looking--no nails, only slides if side mounts are used.

The biggest fault with drawers is fronts coming off. With these drawers, you would have to break the screws to pull the front off.

After your customer agrees to spend X on their new kitchen, they will often agree that paying another few hundred to get dovetails is money well spent. Here's a little advice for those who want to produce dovetailed drawers as cheaply as possible:

Assuming your hardwood supplier has a moulding facility, order your side material (I use hard maple) milled to 7/8" thick, with a tongue and groove joint.

Edge-glue the material into about 3 1/2' wide blanks. This eliminates any waste and the glue joint makes indexing the boards easy. A 3" wide paint roller comes in really handy for spreading the glue.

When you’re ready to produce some drawers, rip down the blanks as needed and mill to final thickness (I use 5/8"). Sand both sides and crosscut as needed.

Before I start dovetailing, I always visually inspect each piece. Using a black magic marker, I put a line at the bottom of each part on the inside and a small squiggle in the face of the parts which will be the fronts and backs of the drawer, taking care to hide any undesirable grain or knots.

Once everything is marked, lay the parts out on the bench with all the sides in one row and all the fronts and backs in another. All parts should have their insides facing up, with what will be the top of the drawer facing the same direction. This is important, as the dovetailing is a bit monotonous and you can end up making mistakes as you place the components into the jig.

Once everything is dovetailed, groove the bottoms. I have a dedicated horizontal router setup with a slotting bit for the purpose. Stack two slotting cutters together to produce a groove that's a scant 1/4".

When grooving for the bottoms (which the magic marker line tells you where to groove), make a through cut when you do the sides, but make a stopped cut when you groove the fronts and backs.

Cut your 1/4" bottoms and clip the corners as needed to allow for the stopped cut you just made.

Assemble the drawer. I use an assembly aid made of a piece of melamine (for easy cleaning) with two pieces to buildup attached at right angles and a small toggle clamp screwed to the bottom piece of buildup.

Clamp down one of the sides to the fixture, glue and assemble the fronts and backs, slide in the 1/4" bottom and attach the other side. If you’re careful how you glue, there should be little or no squeeze out.

Once the drawer is assembled, I pin the joints together through the front and back (where the pinholes won’t be seen). Then, placing the drawer upside down on the melamine fixture, square it up and pin it at two corners. Next, you should hot glue around the underside of the perimeter.

If you have a stroke sander, make a fixture, which holds the drawer at 45 degrees, and sand the top flush.

Measuring for the drawers in the first place is easy if you use a story stick. I use Blum undermount slides, which call for a drawer to be 3/8" narrower than the cabinet opening. The stick is exactly 3/8" thick, so it's simply a matter of laying the stick in the cabinet opening and taking a measurement (no subtraction needed!). The stick also has lines indicating the "optimal drawer heights", i.e. drawer heights which won't result in a "half tail" at the bottom of the drawer.

Once I have my list of finished drawer sizes, I enter them into an Excel spread sheet I wrote, and I'm given the quantity and sizes of all the components I'll need. It will even calculate the 1/4" bottom size needed (assuming the groove will be 1/4" deep).

I use 3/4" material and a simple but joint. But I back up the joint with a 1.5" headless trim screw, which is very easy to putty when finishing. I have been building this way for 18 years with no problems. I have a one-man shop running a modified 32mm system. I can turn out about 15 to 18 cabinets per day--cases only, not doors and drawer fronts.