Woodworkers are shy people – especially at the beginning of their journey. They make parts or assemblies oversized and then plane, sand or rasp them to fit.
On one hand, this makes sense. It’s easier to take wood off than to put it back on. However, the other hand is already done with the job and drinking a beer. So I tell my students constantly: If you don’t go for a perfect cut on the line, you will never make a perfect cut on the line.
This is especially true with drawers. When I assemble a drawer, I expect that it will fit into its opening like the drawers shown in the photo above. Those two drawers need only a few shavings removed from the drawer fronts so their reveals (the gap around the drawer front) match. So I have about five minutes of work to do on each drawer – instead an agonizing day of pushing, planing and testing.
Building accurate casework is probably a book in and of itself, but here are some of the things I do that make fitting my drawers quick and painless.
Fit the Loose Parts to the Opening
Every drawer opening is a little different, so don’t just rip all your drawer parts to some number on your cutlist. Fitting your drawers begins with ripping and crosscutting the parts so they fit each opening.
Drawer sides should slide in and out of the carcase just as you want the drawer to slide. The drawer front should fit inside the opening with a slight reveal (about 1/32” is what I like). The drawer back is cut to the same size as the drawer front.
Details of the Drawer Back
I think the drawer back is one of the most important parts of the drawer. If its joints are misaligned, the drawer will rack. The same could be said of all the joints in the drawer, but the back is a special case because it’s easy to get its joints cockeyed. Why? Because many woodworkers cut the back narrower in width to allow the drawer bottom to slide in from the backside and to reduce friction at the top of the back.
I do all these things, too. But I do them after all the joints are cut. So I first cut the back to the same size as the drawer front and plow a groove in it as if it were going to receive the drawer bottom.
Doing this prevents me from making mistakes when cutting the through-dovetails at the back. If the groove in the side doesn’t line up with the groove in the back, something is rotten.
After the joints are cut, I rip the back to final size to receive the bottom. And I rip 1/8” off the top edge of the drawer back. This reduces drag and makes the drawer move more easily.
Speaking of the Bottom
Lots of woodworkers struggle with how to hide the groove for the bottom in their dovetails. My favorite method is from antique English chests I began studying in 1993 with my father. A single straight tail at the bottom takes care of the layout problem nicely. And I like the way it looks.
Also, I plane the thickness of my drawer bottom so it doesn’t drag on the web frame or carcase below. Planing away 1/16” or so of the thickness will make the drawer move more sweetly.
All these things help make drawers that fit. But all of this is for naught if your carcase isn’t square and your drawers aren’t square. An obsession with the interior squareness of your assemblies will pay off as you fit boxes inside of boxes inside of boxes.
— Christopher Schwarz
More on drawers and casework. Two good resources on this topic are “The Drawer Book” by Bill Hylton and “Illustrated Cabinetmaking,” also by Bill Hylton. “The Drawer Book” is an excellent compendium of methods for building drawers (many of them power-tool based). “Illustrated Cabinetmaking” is one of my all-time favorite books on casework. It shows how interior parts should go together for all forms of furniture.