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Building wooden furniture drawers

and the options for various slides

Build or buy

Many woodworkers "outsource" their drawers as well as their doors - buy factory made drawers for their furniture. Excellent quality drawers are available from many vendors, with a huge variety of materials, shapes, sizes, and features. At first I bought drawers if I need a large number of drawers, but now it doesn't take many drawers to make me buy rather than build. See my separate page on the buy vs. build analysis. I can still make drawers - for example if the visible drawer front is an integral part of the drawer (rather than attached to the front of the drawer box), I probably want to make it out of wood from the same batch as other wood in the project (better color and grain matching).

One of the vendors that I have used is "Western Dovetail", which has a 36 page catalog that you can download from their home page, with numerous hints and suggestions. My current favorite vendor is WalzCraft in LaCrosse Wisconsin which has more options, at a very attractive price, and reasonable packing and shipping.

Metal drawer slides

Metal drawer slides are appropriate if the drawer will be opened many times per hour (perhaps a kitchen drawer), if a drawer will have a very heavy load (books, pans, or tools, rather than just clothing), or if full extension is required - you must have direct access to the back of the drawer. Good quality slides can add significant cost to a project, and take room away from the storage area of the drawer. Cheap drawer slides will reflect badly on your project forever.

Single Track slides

Single track slideIn my youth I built a couple kitchens using single track slides. My apologies to those who bought my houses. The simple rollers at the front of the drawer opening, and the single track under or above the drawer, with a wheel attached to the back of the drawer, is a really cheap solution. I promise never to do it again.

Center Mount Slides

Center Mount SlideThe center mount slides are very similar to the ball bearing side mount slides described below, but are used horizontally rather than vertically. They have limited load capacity and extension, and don't have the nice feeling of a wooden slide, so I regret having used them. They are often mounted on the bottom center of a lightly-loaded drawer. They are typically 3/8 inch thick and 1 3/8 inches wide. I don't consider these "every day" drawer slides.

Bottom Mount or Euro slides

Bottom mount slidesThe bottom mount slides are what I call contractor-grade... they have good specs, and work well... for a few years, but plan to replace them at the 10-15 year point. I have had to readjust or replace many of these slides in homes I have bought. I have seen vendors who sell them in a minimum quantity of 100 pairs, and prices as low as $1.00 per pair. You get what you pay for. If you are still interested these Euro Slides are available from Amazon.

Side Mount slides

Side mount drawer slideThis is the workhorse of the metal drawer slides. Inexpensive versions have two parts with ball bearing rollers and extend 3/4 the length of the drawer. Full extension slides have an intermediate carrier (3 parts) and extend so the back of the drawer is accessible. Recently "over-extension" slides extend an inch or so farther, so the back of the drawer is not hidden by an overhanging counter. The primary vendors are Accuride and KV, but many imitators of all quality. For example, consider these Full Extension Drawer Slides from KV. There are many variations in the catalogs, but most are 1/2 inch thick (on each side of the drawer, thus costing an inch storage width), about 1 1/2 inches high, have a 100 pound load rating, "catch" when closed so they don't vibrate open, and will support a drawer up to 48 inches wide without center support (over 36 inches wide, use a heavy duty version of the slide). Drawers need the full 1/2 inch clearance on each side, but there are no restrictions on the height of the drawer in the opening. The drawer box can be slightly longer or shorter than the slide. They cost $5 to $25 per pair, depending on size and volume purchased, and are now available (for a few dollars more) with "soft close" made popular with the undermount slides.

Undermount (soft close) slides

Undermount slidesThese are "invisible" slides that hide under the drawer. Many models have soft close - slam the drawer and is slows down and gently closes for the last inch or so. They are definitely the top-of-the-line, at $25 to $40 or more per drawer. A clip is installed under the drawer at the front on each side, and a notch and hole are required at the back of each side of the drawer, cut to a depth that is even with the outside bottom of the drawer. Drawers must be the length specified for the slide, which is normally about 3 inches less than the depth of the cabinet. The slide mounts on the side of the cabinet (or with an optional bracket, mounts at the front and back). The drawer itself is placed on the slides, with a pin on the back of each slide that goes into a precisely placed hole in the drawer, and the front of the drawer slide snaps into the clip that was installed under the front of the drawer.

Tandem (Blum) is the primary vendor, but other brands are also available. There are many special models for extra heavy drawers, or drawers with extra thick sides, but the common model 562 full extension series handles drawers similar to the side-mount slides above and has these characteristics:

Although these "invisible" slides are very attractive (and show off your dovetail joints) they do waste space above, below, and on the sides, and usually require an overlay drawer front to hide these spaces. Despite the horrible price, I am surprised how many customers who want metal slides choose this upgrade. I would use them myself if I built a high-end kitchen for my home - they are really that nice! See the Amazon listing of Blum 562 Series Full Extension Concealed Undermount Slides.

Wooden drawer slides

Wooden slides are remarkably durable, and when built well, add a feeling of smoothness and luxury that the sound of ball bearings will never provide. Everyone refers to the antiques that are hundreds of years old, but they don't get much use in a museum.

Closer to home, in 1964 I paid $15 for a big old "worn out" oak office desk that was being discarded by the phone company. I used it for several decades, and my son used it in college and in his home, until he finally sold it in 2009 (to someone who was going to continue to use it as a desk). The drawers all worked perfectly, with the wooden drawer sides, made from a fairly soft mystery wood, running on wooden slides - including big heavy drawers for file folders.

Another example: I inherited a desk, also with wood-on-wood drawer slides - it was an antique abandoned in a house my parents bought in the 1950s. This desk has issues with bad modifications made over the years, but the original drawer slides are still working fine. These examples make me wonder about my own suggestion to use metal slides for heavily used drawers and drawers with heavy loads!

Web frame runners and kickers

Web and dust panelMany cabinets are built with a "web frame" between each drawer. That consists of a front piece, typically of the primary wood, flush with the sides of the drawer opening, and attached to the sides by dadoes, dowels, biscuits, or sliding dovetails. A similar piece goes across the back, made from secondary wood. At each side, a runner goes from front to back. If the sides are solid wood, the distance from the front of the cabinet to the back will vary with the seasons, so the side pieces are normally built with mortise and tenon glued at the front, but with a loose tenon at the back, leaving perhaps 1/8 inch for the tenon to slide in and out. For clothing cabinets, a groove is often placed in these four pieces, and a thin plywood "dust panel" is installed, so dust and lint from one drawer opening doesn't fall onto the clothes in the lower drawers. The drawer itself can ride on these side pieces. (I make the side pieces about 1/16 inch thicker than the front piece, so the drawers don't wear the front show piece). If there is a face frame or the side panels are floating, the drawer cannot slide against the side of the cabinet, so a small strip can be glued to the drawer slide, to keep the drawer from shifting from side to side. The "kicker" - the board above the drawer slide to keep the drawer from tipping down as it is pulled out, can simply be the web for the drawer above. Of course, the height of the drawer must be close to the height of the opening; I suggest a gap of 1/8 inch or less, and certainly less for smaller drawers. The load carrying capacity of this arrangement is very substantial.

If you leave too much space between the drawer and the side of the cabinet or guide rail, the drawer will skew and will stick as it is slid in and out. The ideal is as little space as possible... in premium custom furniture, the drawers are sometimes built as wide or wider than the opening, and then the sides are hand planed until they slide smoothly. Think in terms of 1/16 inch or less divided between the two sides. The solid wood sides of the drawers will expand and shrink vertically, so start by allowing about 1/8 inch above the drawer (more for very tall drawers, less for short drawers). Needless to say, if the drawers are not identical width in the front and back, the back has to be narrower (DAMHIK). Some text books even suggest that the back be slightly narrower, to reduce the chance of binding when the drawer is pulled out.

Drawer runners

Wood runner groove in drawer sideAnother approach, that does not require a web frame between each drawer, is to cut a groove, about 1/4 inch deep, in the side of the drawer, from the back almost to the front of the drawer. (For most of my drawers, the groove is 3/4 inch wide.) Then screw a board about 5/16 inches thick and just under 3/4 inches wide to the side of the cabinet. If you have a floating panel, the runner can be screwed to the stiles, without touching the floating panel - if the sides are solid wood, you must allow the sides to shrink and expand with the seasons - The wooden slide can be firmly attached at the front, but the screw attaching the slide at the middle and back of the slide must be in a slot that allows the side of the cabinet to move. Vertical alignment is critical... I find that it is far better to use a scrap of wood cut to the required distance, rather than trying to get an accurate measurement. This simple slide in the side of the drawer works for small to medium size drawers, but I have not seen it recommended (nor have I tried it) for very large, heavy drawers.

Since a frame isn't required between all the drawers, the drawers themselves can be mounted almost next to each other, using drawer-side runners or metal slides, making more use of the space in the carcase. I insist that there be a cross-support in a cabinet, preferably about every 30-36 inches, but certainly no more than 48-60 inches. (When I build a bookcase, I normally make a fixed shelf about 30 inches off the floor, and really would like at least one web someplace near the middle of a chest of drawers that is typically 4 feet high.)

Center Track

Center TrackSome people want a center support for the drawers, in addition to, or instead of, side drawer supports. One approach used by cheap furniture makers (who don't admit they are cheap) is a T-shaped piece of wood that runs under the drawer, with a plastic clip on the back of the drawer. It provides direct support when the drawer is closed or less than half open, but as the drawer is pulled out, the front of the drawer wants to tip down, so the back of the drawer is lifting off the rail, rather than leaning on it. The piece of plastic attached to the rear of the drawer, to keep it aligned with the track, holds it down on the rail when it wants to tip. Sooner or later the piece of plastic breaks. In fact, it breaks so often that even Home Depot has the replacement plastic pieces in an assortment of sizes. The bedroom set I bought when I was married in 1970 uses this approach. Each plastic piece has been replaced several times. I have never made a drawer that needed a center support, and if I did, I wouldn't use this! But if you are repairing Amazon has a Replacement Drawer Track and Hardware.

Drawer front construction

Most historical drawers have four sides (duh), whether the drawer front is inset or overlays the frame a small amount. Most modern cabinets (note I said cabinets, not necessarily fine furniture) have five side drawers (oh?). The drawer box is made with four sides, but with metal slides beside or under the drawer box, and perhaps a space required above the drawer box, there is a fairly large area to cover, so a separate drawer front is made from the primary wood, and screwed to the drawer box. Some writers call this a five side drawer (yes, I can count to five as I am making sides for each drawer). The European "frameless" cabinets traditionally hide the entire side of the cabinet with the drawers and doors, so have an even larger fifth (front) side.

Flush/inset drawers

A flush or inset drawer with wooden slides can often be made with the front of the drawer box itself out of the finish wood - no fifth side. Some furniture makers prefer a perfectly flush drawer-front, while others (including Sam Maloof) like the drawer inset a small amount to add character and to hide minute alignment issues. For an example of flush/inset drawers see the first lingerie chest.

One issue of a flush or inset drawer is how far it goes into the cabinet. A stop at the back of the drawer may move slightly with the seasonal wood movement. A trick I like is a small rectangular piece of wood, mounted on a singe screw at the top center of the opening, that stops the inside front edge of the drawer. That same piece keeps the drawer from being pulled out too far. A small notch at the top back of the drawer box allows the stop to be rotated to remove the drawer.

An inset drawer with metal slides might be a challenge in a four side drawer, but is easy with a five side drawer.

Overlay drawers

A small overlay with the front of the door overlapping the sides and dividers between the drawers on 3 or 4 sides makes drawer alignment easy, so overlays are popular. Some dovetail jigs even have facilities to cut half-blind dovetails into an overlay door where 1/2 inch of the thickness of the drawer front is inset to allow 7/16 inch deep half blind dovetails. These traditionally assume the front will be 3/8 inch larger than the drawer box on each side.

Shaker style drawers are a special case of overlay drawers, where the overlay is normally rounded, as well as inset at the back, giving a light appearance to the drawer. That style is so popular that there are special hinges to allow a cabinet door to be inset about 3/8 inch, with a 3/8 inch rabbet on the back of the door... make the door 1/2 inch larger than the height and width of the door opening, and make the drawer fronts to match.

Full overlay suggests that the drawer front overlaps the sides of the cabinet, as in the side drawers of this vanity dresser. With this larger amount of overlay, the five side drawers make sense, with the fifth side attached to the drawer box after the drawers are installed. One challenge of applying a separate drawer front is knobs and handles, which are normally shipped with screws that assume a 3/4 inch drawer front. The handle screws have to be countersunk in an applied drawer front (with a Forstner bit for the round head screws), which may leave the screws too long.

Drawer box construction

Drawer front

Whether one or two pieces (the fifth side of the drawer), the front has to endure the strain of opening the drawer. Therefore a simple butt joint, even with glue and brads or staples, is rarely adequate. Dovetails are the "standard" for quality drawers (even in factory made drawers), but other types of joints that involve interlocking wood in addition to glue are likely sufficient. There are special "drawer lock" router bits that cut an interlocking joint for drawer fronts, or a similar cut can be made with an easy but clever setup on a tablesaw. The Festool domino accomplishes a wood joint (that does not depend exclusively on glue) that can be used to attach drawer fronts. A biscuit does the same thing (but is totally hidden so doesn't give user confidence).

Factory dovetail machines and inexpensive dovetail jigs make evenly spaced dovetails that

  1. Constrain the height of the drawers ... for example, one company offers standard drawer heights of every inch from 2 1/4, 3 1/4, 4 1/4. ... 18 1/4, but it is quite expensive if you want them to make an intermediate size.
  2. The even spacing yells "machine made," not hand craftsmanship

More expensive dovetail jigs allow variable spacing, but still cannot make a pin smaller than the diameter of a router bit. Some craftsmen hand cut very narrow pins (some as thin as a saw kerf), either as an artistic expression or to prove the dovetails were hand cut.

In a four side drawer, most designs don't want to show the dovetails on the outside front of the drawer, so half blind dovetails are used. Most craftsmen consider cutting half blind dovetails by hand more difficult than cutting through dovetails. If there is a fifth side that will be attached, either half blind or through dovetails (machine or hand cut) can easily be used on the front.

If the drawer is very short from top to bottom, it may be hard to make room for traditional dovetails. One solution is to use a sliding dovetail, with the drawer sides slid into the drawer front from the bottom.

Drawer back

The back of the drawer can be built with the same type of joints as the front of the drawer, especially if you are using a jig that is already set up for a particular drawer height. However, since the stress of pulling the drawer open isn't involved, it is quite common to simply use a dado for the back.

Drawer backDrawers on wooden slides don't normally have full extension... how do you look directly into the back of the drawer without pulling the drawer out? Answer, make the back of the drawer a few inches in from the end of the sides. It may sound tacky but I have recently seen that approach used on a number of pieces of super premium furniture. When the drawer hits the stop, the back is apparently there, but a couple inches of side continues farther back to keep it from tipping out. Want to be clever? Have the bottom continue beyond that back, to the real end of the drawer and put another back there. Call it a hidden compartment (it is), and sell it as a feature. In fact, I do this on coffee tables, since they are often only a foot or so in front of a chair or sofa, so when the drawer is opened for coasters, napkins, or remote controls, you don't want them to have slid to the back of a deep drawer... the first stop is about a foot out, and the rest of the drawer is the hidden compartment.

Drawer bottom

The drawer bottom is a place where plywood is so superior, that I recommend it for all drawers - even in furniture that wants "no plywood." The stability of 1/4 inch plywood (actually as thin as 3/16 inch) is so great that I have no reservations using it even for large clothing drawers (18 inches front-to-back and 36 inches wide). The slot for the panel is about 1/2 inch above the drawer bottom to provide strength, but in small (light load) drawers, it can be as little as 1/4 inch above the bottom, or even glued into a rabbet at the bottom.

In a toy box (where children may climb inside) I do go to 3/8 or 1/2 inch plywood for the bottom, perhaps glued into a rabbet. The cleanest construction is with the drawer bottom captive in all four sides (installed as you glue the drawer together); if you are afraid of rattles, include space balls near the corners (not in the middle where they could push the side of the drawer out over time).

If you want a solid wood drawer bottom, the panel has to have room to expand. Be sure the grain goes across the drawer, and glue or nail in the front so the expansion is towards the back. The back of the drawer is left shorter so it only reaches the drawer bottom, rather than capturing it. A front-to-back slot for a screw is cut in the drawer bottom, so the bottom can expand and contract while the screw keeps the bottom attached to the back of the drawer. A solid wood bottom may be thicker than the 1/4 inch plywood - use a panel raiser or similar cutter to taper a thicker panel to fit in a 1/4 inch slot.

Drawer slip and pullA drawer slip is an extra piece glued to the side of the drawer, extending into the drawer an inch or more. In the picture at the right it is the piece of walnut glued to the maple drawer sides. The slot for the drawer bottom is in the slip rather than in the side of the drawer, so the drawer side is not weakened by the slot for the drawer bottom. Presumably that makes the drawer stronger, and gives more surface area for the drawer to slide on. I have done it. You can also see it from the inside of the drawer in the picture of the drawer back, above. I haven't seen the advantage in practice (just in theory). I don't plan to do it again unless a customer specifically asks for and pays for it.

Notches in back/bottom undermount slidesThe metal undermount drawer slides require a couple notches in the back of the drawer, flush with the drawer bottom (in addition to a precisely positioned 1/4 inch hole). Rather than make the notches, I just make the drawer back shorter, and slide the drawer bottom in (held with a few screws) even if it is plywood, and could have been captive. This saves a lot of work cutting the notches in the drawer bottom. The 1/4 inch hole still needs to be placed precisely.

Knobs and Integrated pulls

As noted before, knobs and handles often assume the drawer front is 3/4 inch thick, and provide screws for that purpose. With a four sided drawer, that is rarely a problem... screw the knobs in from inside the drawer. With a five side drawer, a place has to be carved for the screw head. I often use a forstner bit to countersink the head, and clip the screws 1/8 inch shorter.

Rather than using knobs, many people like the "clean" look of no handles. In a table, it is fairly easy to have a slight overlay on the bottom of the drawer, to hide the drawer support. Then a cove can be milled into the back side bottom of the drawer front to define a handle to pull, perhaps with a matching cove in the support. See the picture above showing the drawer slip, which also shows a finger pull. If there isn't room for finger pulls, try a slope on the sides of the drawer front. A slope of 12-15 degrees is plenty to open a door, and ample for many drawers.

Your help is needed

Many of my web pages are based on answering similar questions repeatedly, so I have heard the questions and have practiced explaining my answer. This page is different - it is a new tutorial, based on requests for a tutorial, not on specific questions. Please let me know if you find any parts that are incorrect or unclear, so that I can improve this web page. Thanks for your help.