Simple and Fast Rabbeted Drawers

Along the road to comfortably referring to yourself as a “woodworker,” there are a few important milestones you must reach. One of these is building your first drawer. For some reason, this project causes more antacid-popping than almost any other project.

A drawer is just a box. The tricky part is that the box must fit accurately into a hole and move smoothly. There are three steps to a successful drawer: precise measuring, accurate joining and careful fitting. This article shows you the tricks we use to successfully complete all three steps.

Measuring Like a Pro
Let’s say you’re building an end table with a drawer. Knowing the size of the drawer’s hole is the first critical piece of information. Seeing how that space is made and understanding how the drawer will “run” in the table is the next step. In traditional case construction, the drawer is just slightly smaller than its hole (which is the technique we’re showing here). In modern cabinets, the drawer is considerably smaller than its hole to make room for mechanical slides or glides.

When building a drawer with a captured bottom, clamps are placed to apply pressure in both directions with the bottom in place. Note that the clamps are placed just behind the rabbet to apply as much direct pressure to the joint (without interfering with it) as possible. Brads add strength.

When building a drawer with a captured bottom, clamps are placed to apply pressure in both directions with the bottom in place. Note that the clamps are placed just behind the rabbet to apply as much direct pressure to the joint (without interfering with it) as possible. Brads add strength.

In our traditional case, the drawer hole must be clear of obstructions or corners that the drawer can hang up on. For that reason, the sides of the drawer are traditionally kept in check by “drawer guides,” which are simply pieces of wood inside the carcase that are parallel to the sides of the drawer. Essentially, the guides create a smooth sleeve for the drawer to run in and out of.

With the guides in place, you’re ready to measure the opening for the drawer. You want to build a drawer that fits the largest part of its opening.

First measure the height of the drawer opening at the left side, right side and in the middle to make sure your case is square. The drawer for the “Simple Shaker End Table” on page 16 is an “inset drawer,” which means the drawer front doesn’t have a lip that covers the gap between the drawer and case. (Drawers with a lip are called “overlay” drawers, by the way.) Because this is an inset drawer, you should end up with a small gap all the way around the drawer front, called the “reveal.” The reveal must be equal on all four sides of the drawer front. Next, measure the width of the drawer opening at the top and bottom. Finally, measure the depth of the drawer space.

The first step in fitting the drawer is to trim the height. A simple block plane can be used to take off a little bit at a time until the fit is perfect.

The first step in fitting the drawer is to trim the height. A simple block plane can be used to take off a little bit at a time until the fit is perfect.

Now comes a tricky decision: Do you build the drawer to fit the space exactly and then trim it down with a hand plane to allow for proper movement? Or do you trust yourself to build the drawer so that there is exactly 1/16″ of space between the drawer and its guides?

We like to err on the side of caution. Build your drawer to fit the opening exactly and trim it to fit. If your drawer opening happens to be out of square, trimming the drawer is the easiest way to compensate. So build to fill the space, then work down to a smooth operational size.

One Setup Cuts All the Joints
Now that you know the size of your drawer, you’re ready to build it. Mill all your stock to size (see the cutting list on page 18 for the Shaker end table drawer), paying particular attention to its thickness. The thickness of the sides and bottom must be exactly 1/2″ for this operation to work well.

We’re going to build our drawer exactly the size of our opening, except for the depth. The drawer’s depth will be 1/2″ shy of the depth of the opening to allow us to fit the drawer flush with its opening, which we’ll explain shortly.