Submitted by Furniture Professor
A drawer is really a simple box. It usually consists of four side pieces and a bottom. Nothing to it, huh?
There are a few things, however, that may be added or done to the box that will help determine the quality of the case piece you are considering for purchase. If you just want a primitive dresser, for example, with flat straight lines and a minimum of style then read no further. Unless! You want your dresser, chest or night stand to last more than a few weeks or months. (Learn more about how long furniture should last.) The following are some things to consider when buying case pieces including dressers, chests, nightstands, entertainment centers or just extra storage pieces.
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Let’s just take a look at the most basic drawer. In the least expensive case pieces you will find pasteboard. This is, essentially, a thicker form of the box in which your shirts come back from the cleaners. These drawers are covered with paper. Sometimes the paper veneer will have a wood grain pattern. If you need a dresser to hold your dainties, this will work fine for a short time. Furniture of this sort is usually designed for college students.
A step up is what we call, engineered wood. This is made from waste wood that is ground up, mixed with epoxy glue and formed into the shape of sheet lumber. The best of this product is very finely ground and can be heavier than oak. This medium density fiberboard (MDF) is very hard to crack and will not warp, cup or bow. Another thing that it won’t do is hold a screw as well as real wood. MDF is usually covered with faux wood veneer or painted. Very often, it has what appears to be a dark opaque stain, which is actually paint. The paint hides the lack of grain. This product will last years with normal use. Don’t mistake it for heirloom quality however. If there are drawer glides on the sides or bottom of the drawer, the screws may start to strip and the glides will fall off. Nails or pins used in the joints may start pulling out, too. So, what should you look for in drawers when buying a case piece?
The best drawers are made from solid wood. They may be crafted from softwood or hardwood. There is much more that can be done to enhance drawers when they are made from wood. Stronger joints can be used. Full suspension glides may be added to the sides or bottom. The drawers can be made stronger using better assembly materials and techniques. Let’s examine these possibilities. Learn more about woods used in furniture.
High quality rustic furniture often uses fir or pine in drawer assembly. The wood must be thicker than when hardwood is used because it is softer and will wear faster. Primitive or rustic pieces usually have wood on wood glides or glide buttons made of nylon or plastic. These techniques extend the life of the drawers and help to keep the drawers sliding smoothly.
When plainer pieces of furniture are being made, the joinery is usually simple. The drawer stock may be assembled using butt joints or lap joints. As the name implies, butt joints are simply pieces of wood butted up to each other. Since end grain on lumber does not hold well when glued, the butt joint is usually pinned together to give it more strength and to hold the wood while the glue dries.
A simple lap joint is created by cutting out half the wood in each board being joined leaving the end of the boards looking similar to the lap of a seated person. These joints are stronger than butt joints but still need to be nailed or pinned. There are a number of variations of butt joints and lap joints that make them stronger or more decorative.
The best known wood joining techniques for wooden drawers are the English or “through” dovetail and the French dovetail. These are the most common forms of joinery used in better furniture today. The term “dovetail” refers to the shape of the cutout or pin and the tail piece. The tail piece and the pin will be angled similarly to the open tail feathers of a dove, or a fan shape. The tail slides into the pin holding the two pieces of wood firmly together while the glue dries. There are many variations on the “through” or English dovetail. The French dovetail is similarly shaped but instead of having several pins and tails there is only one pin and one tail per joint. The pin and tail run vertically up the two pieces being joined. French, or “blind” dovetails are often used when the drawer front is shaped. It is very difficult to do an English dovetail in a curved front.
Finally, a well made drawer will have a dado or groove cut on the inside of all four parts of the drawer box. The bottom of the drawer is then slid into the grooves and the back of the drawer is attached. The drawer bottom should then be supported with four to eight corner glue blocks (depending on whether there is a center wood on wood glide).
Speaking of drawer glides, you may notice, when you shop for furniture, that there are many different style glides. Wood on wood is most often seen in well constructed pieces. These glides will last a lifetime. Then, there are Euro-glides. These consist of a wheel that runs in a metal track mounted on the side of the drawer. They can be a little noisy and are often wobbly if the dimensions of the drawer don’t match the framing on the inside of the cabinet. For years makers of better furniture have used full suspension ball bearing glides. These are quiet, smooth and have a long lifespan. Except for the cheap ones. If you buy inexpensive furniture with ball bearing glides, keep a broom and a dust pan handy to sweep the ball bearings up from the floor. The modern day gold standard for drawer glides is the soft close ball bearing glide. It uses a system that only takes a light push to activate. Then a piston slows the drawer allowing it to close quietly. These glides use steel ball bearings and like the full extension glides mentioned above, they transfer the weight of the drawer to the back of the glide to reduce the risk of tipping when the drawer is fully open.
There are many different types of joints used in woodworking. Not all apply to drawer construction. The three styles of joints that I have discussed here are the most commonly used for mass-market applications. If you are interested in joinery and woodworking, I suggest that you get a copy of “The Complete Manual of Woodworking” by Jackson, Day, and Jennings. Be forewarned though, you’ll probably want to start trying your hand at furniture making once you get this book. Woodworking is similar to owning a boat they are both money pits but they sure are fun.