Polyethylene Versus Wood for Drawer Runners

A discussion of practical issues with ultra high molecular weight (UHMW) polyethylene drawer slides, and the all wood alternatives. April 10, 2008

I have a project going for a client that is basically a desk with drawer banks on both sides of the cabinet. The drawers are relatively small. On one side they are 8" wide and 15" deep; on the other side they are 12" wide and 15" deep.

The drawer boxes will be made of poplar (that is the usual name in the southern California area, but I think the wood is actually yellow poplar or tulip poplar, which I understand is not a real poplar). The project is in a mission style. Initially, the client approved undermount mechanical slides - nothing visible when the drawer is open. Since storage space was lost due to clearance requirements of the slides, she changed her mind and now wants side hung wood runners that run in grooves in the drawer box sides. Also, the drawer fronts will be inset, not overlapping, which makes uneven or large gaps around the drawer fronts an issue.

I know this type of construction is a compromise between tight tolerances between the slide and drawer groove, giving small gaps but potential problems due to wood movement with RH changes and loose tolerances, giving relief from the wood movement problems but allowing a sloppy drawer action and larger gaps. I also understand that wear is a problem with this type of drawer system. I would expect that the optimum configuration would be for the drawer box material to be denser than the slide material, giving most of the wear on the slides, which could be easily replaced at some point rather than having equal wear or more wear on the drawer boxes.

At this point the drawer box material will be poplar and not maple or another dense hardwood so my decision is what to use for the runners attached to the cabinet. I considered various species of wood, but then started thinking about using UHMW material, 3/8" by 3/4", that I have used as runners on table saw sleds. It should give smooth, self-lubricating, drawer action and allow smaller and more even gaps around the drawer faces and eliminate some wood movement issues when using the tighter tolerances.

Have any of you ever used this material for this purpose? Is there a downside? Alternatively, would quartersawn poplar be a good choice for the runners?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor A:
As an alternative suggestion, put a piece of hardwood in a groove in the side of the drawer that runs between two other pieces of hardwood on the sides of the cabinet. These pieces can be replaced fairly easily when worn, and will provide a good action when waxed. Maple wood works well.

From the original questioner:
I think I understand what you are saying - have maple runners attached to the cabinet sides, and a groove in the sides of the drawers, with hardwood inserts applied to the tops of those grooves to provide a replaceable contact surface. I was checking through the shop today and was looking at some walnut stock that had been milled to about 3/8" square and that got me thinking about lining the top of the drawer groove with this stock.

I would certainly feel better about that, with respect to long-term performance, than with the poplar drawer side sliding on the maple.

From contributor B:
I find it hard to believe she told you she wanted "side hung wood runners that run in grooves in the drawer box sides" All she cares about is that she gets bigger drawers I'm sure. You can't let the customer tell you how to build something if you know how to do it better. Forget all that runner business and just fit the drawer to the cabinet. There is nothing like a well fitting, wood on wood drawer. Shellac and wax the sides and it slides like butter! I do all my inset drawers this way, and the customer is always impressed.

From contributor A:
I am not sure how you are constructing your drawer, but you could have the drawer face extend past the sides to hide the drawer runner that is projecting from the side of the drawer; half-blind dovetails set into a rabbet. The drawer front may need to be a little thicker, and obviously, this adds some work to the drawers. You'll gain a way to replace the runners on either the drawer or the carcass, or both, when they are worn. If you don't care about what your drawers will be like in a few years, then don't bother. But many years of repairing antique furniture has taught me that there will be wear, and you want to be able to replace runners and not patch in the tops and bottoms of drawer sides, which is what you or someone else will end up doing if you make them the way contributor B suggests. I would use screws and reversible glue for both the drawer side runners and the carcass runners. Someone will be thanking you in the future.

From contributor B:
That's why we use maple for drawer sides, instead of poplar, isn't it? Hardness and wear resistance?

From contributor C:
Lots of interesting responses to the original questioner's drawer construction methods and customer. However, nobody addressed his main question: Is UHMW (ultra high molecular weight polyethylene) a good drawer slide material? From a past life, I know that UHMW is used as the wear surface for both hip and knee replacements. This means that it is both smooth and tough. That leaves the remaining question: What will it do to the poplar? That I don't know.

From the original questioner:
Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful responses. Obviously, I do not do many of these wood-on-wood drawer projects. Because of the case configuration, the slides will need to be mounted to the case and the drawers will need to have the groove. A French Bottom or other bottom-slide system will not work, as there will be no stretchers.

In this configuration, it would seem to me that if the drawer material is harder and wears better than the slide material, you have the optimum configuration. The way I view the construction, the slide is easily replaceable and that's where the wear should occur. If I go the pure wood approach, since I am committed to the poplar drawer box, I will add a hard insert to the top of the drawer groove and ensure the slide material is softer than the insert. This poplar is dark, so this will need to be a darker wood (walnut, Jatoba, etc).
However, I am still interested in the UHMW material for the slide. It seems to be a reasonable mix of traditional construction and contemporary materials. I'm sure the true traditionalists would disagree. In fact, I would disagree, as well, if a truly traditional construction was what this project is about.

To me, the optimum solution, at this point - one which accommodates the client desires and provides trouble-free service - would be to add the hard insert to the top of the drawer groove and use the UHMW material, appropriately attached to the case. I'm just trying to figure out if there is a downside to this approach.

From contributor D:
I have used the UHMW tape as the slide material on my sliding seat benches for years. These are under very high pressure as only four points are in contact with the rails as a person sits on the seat and slides. I have also used the UHMW tape as the case rail under the drawer side both in new construction and repairing worn groves in antiques.

From contributor E:
Our company is an extruder of UHMW, so maybe I can answer this question. We have several customers that use UHMW as a drawer slide/guide. Having said that, the poplar will need to be well sanded so that it is smooth facing the UHMW. We have run into issues before where splinters actually lodged in the UHMW, making the drawers stick.

From the original questioner:
I really had not thought of that problem. That would be a real shock after setting it all up to make sure the drawers were sliding smoothly!

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor F:
I have used "slick tape" adhesive backed UHMW on wood slides and it worked great. Even a drawer about 12"w x 8"h x 23"l with a 7/8" cherry front, well loaded, slides very easily.