A Different Drawer

Woodworking writers love to get to the end of the story where they can simply state: Build the drawers in the usual manner and apply your favorite finish. And enjoy!

This is, by the way, a bit of laziness or secretiveness. Some writers don’t want to reveal how they really finish a piece. Finishing is still a state secret for some professionals.

As to drawers, this morning I finished up work on the drawer for a Charleston table reproduction from the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. And let me tell you this drawer was a lot of fun to construct because it is not built in the usual manner.

What’s the “usual” manner?

1. Through-dovetails at the rear of the drawer.
2. Half-blind dovetails at the front.
3. The drawer bottom slides into the drawer box from the back and rests in a groove in the sides and drawer front.

For this early 18th-century drawer, here’s what we’ve got:

1. Through-dovetails at the rear.
2. Half-blinds at the front.
3. A drawer front that is wider than the drawer sides.
4. A bottom that is nailed onto the drawer’s sides and back.
5. The bottom edge of the drawer front is rounded over, on both the inside and outside corners.

I have a theory. Wanna hear it?

The rounded-over drawer front is the same profile used on the stretchers at the bottom of the piece. Perhaps it was a conscious design decision. Or perhaps the drawer front was originally planned to be a stretcher.

In any case, I had to be wary of wood movement with this drawer. If I’d simply glued the bottom on the drawer frame the bottom would likely split or ruin the drawer frame. So here’s what I did: (Man what’s with all these lists? It’s like I work for USA Today.)

1. Glued the drawer bottom to the backside of the drawer front.
2. Glued the bottom to the drawer sides – but only for the first 4” or 5”.
3. Nailed the bottom on with 4d cut headless brads.

(Edit: Robert Lang, who measured the piece, had Megan Fitzpatrick call me to tell me I forgot a rabbet in the backside of the drawer front. And yup, I did. There is a rabbet behind the drawer front that the drawer bottom rests in. Below is Bob’s drawing of how it should look.)

The glue will keep the drawer bottom tight at the front. The nails will flex and allow the bottom to expand and contract.

I hope.

Now I just have to apply my favorite finish (green or blue?) and turn a knob.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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10 Responses to A Different Drawer

  1. Jim says:

    When you say, “A drawer front that is wider than the drawer sides,” what do you mean? It looks, from the picture, as though the drawer front is planed flush to the sides. Are you talking about its thickness?

  2. Mark says:

    I’m sorry I missed the whole nailed furniture thing at WwIA this year. It’s really a nice table and well done, even the nailing. The round over on the drawer front is a nice surprise with the nailed on bottom. I know this is more or less a reproduction piece but I’m not sure what to take from this. I’ve been making a number of drawers myself of late, with grooved sides for the drawer bottoms as well as messing with drawer slips and solid wood glued up bottoms, both with nice results. And honestly, I didn’t find either method to be all that difficult although the drawer slips took some extra time. Maybe I should just wait for the book but why would someone from that time period choose to simply nail on a bottom? Speedier production? No plow plane? Marketing to more common folk? I’ve seen enough nails in furniture, some well done but in most cases, loose, broken and well ravaged by time. Maybe I’m just becoming a furniture snob.

    • John Cashman says:

      For me, the epitome of period furniture was the Newport pieces of the Townsend-Goddard school. and many of those great pieces had drawer bottoms that were simply nailed to the sides. It still wake up in a cold sweat just thinking about it.

      I’ve noticed that whenever someone asks a question that includes “why,” the answer almost always includes “money.”

      • Gary Roberts says:

        Think houses lacking central HVAC, heating by fireplaces or stoves, air conditioning by opening windows, etc. A lot less drastic climate change made for a lot less drastic wood movement or, those pieces that failed the wood movement test didn’t survive to be seen at the MFA.

  3. Steven says:

    How difficult has the cyprus been to work. Has there been much splintering or lifting of the top layer along cathedral grain. The past few times I have used cyprus, this has been a concern. I have caught overlooked splits and checks at the last moment before assembly or joint layout.

  4. Steve Barnhart says:

    Are there any runners for the drawer to ride on?

  5. Paul Fowler says:

    Jus nitpickin……..

    I think the end grain of the front & bottom should run same direction!


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