Finishing Dovetail Drawer Fronts

A furniture builder gets help figuring out how to finish the fronts of some dovetail drawers in a custom piece. August 14, 2007

I'm building the dovetailed drawers, the last part, of a bow-front sideboard, and I realized I have no idea how to finish these. The fronts are mahogany (curved) and the sides are European beech. All of the literature I have read shows how to build the fronts proud and plane the drawer smooth, but do I then take the drawer apart to dye/stain the front and finish the sides/bottom/back? Or do I glue it up, then plane it smooth, and play a game with tape and masking to stain the front without marring the sides? (My finish for mahogany is generally a red/brown alcohol dye, followed by a gel stain to even the color, then a lacquer topcoat.)

This is a deliberate "try-piece" for a good client - I am trying to stretch my skills and make something special for the dining room of a client who has already bought a kitchen and most of a bath from me.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor S:
I have tried the "take it apart and finish the pieces separately" method. It makes a nice contrast between the front and sides, but to get the joint nice and smooth, I have better luck gluing, filling, sanding, then finishing.

I think the easiest way to get the contrast is to use contrasting woods, glue and sand the box, then finish them with the same methods. If you want to finish them with different methods, I think your best bet would be to finish them separately. If you try to mask the dovetails, it would be difficult to keep the lines clean and uniform. I hope someone else has a better answer.

From contributor T:
My advice would be to take the drawers apart. Dye and color the fronts. Finish the inside of the parts, masking off the tails. Assemble with glue and then finish it all together. Several controlled steps will provide you with the finish your work deserves.

From contributor D:

I assemble and fit the drawers first. If I'm using a pigmented stain, I just slop it onto the pins. You can then sand the drawer side with 220 grit paper. It will take the stain off of the drawer sides without removing enough material to change the fit of the drawer. The end grain of the drawer fronts absorbs the stain more deeply than you will be sanding, so you're left with a nice contrast. If I use dye, I stain only the front, and apply oil to the sides. Again, the end grain of the drawer front absorbs much more than the face grain on the side, and gives a nice contrast to accentuate the joint.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the shared experience. I think the last method of dyeing the fronts and then oiling the drawer sides and the face sides together, is the simplest - did some tests and the end-grain oils up to almost as dark as the dyed front. A seep line on the side where the dye penetrated around worries me - I am doing some more tests this morning to see how to get around this.

From contributor P:
Whatever you do, do not use oil on the drawer sides. It will never dry and your case will smell like oil for the next 50 years. After you assemble the drawers, you can shellac the sides, then go ahead with your finishing schedule. If you get finish on the sides, wipe it off. I usually just wipe the finish across the ends of the pins and tails up to the scribe line, if you have one. Or you could tape off the pins and shellac the sides, then go ahead and finish so that the end of the fronts will have some more color. On traditional pieces the ends were wiped with finish, and usually not too carefully. When you are all done, finish the inside of the case with shellac and the drawers as well. Rub out with 0000 steel wool and apply some paste wax to the drawer sides and runners.