4.1 Building & Installing Drawers
Building & Installing Drawers
In this lesson you will learn:
- How to cut and install spacer strips for mounting drawer slides.
- How to build drawer boxes to fit the openings in your cabinet.
- How to mount drawer boxes on mechanical slides.
- How to cut and install drawer faces on the drawer boxes.
Even a small cabinet project can require a surprising number of drawers.
There are many ways to build a drawer. Some traditional approaches – with hand-cut dovetail joints and solid wood bottoms – are beautiful but time-consuming. There are other ways to build very good drawers and save a lot of time. And even these simplified drawer designs can be quite elegant. The instructions here yield drawers that are much better in quality than what you’ll find in ready-made kitchens. Study the drawing to see the design approach I recommend.
One of the best ways to speed construction and improve quality is to use mechanical drawer slides. They work so very well, easing drawer construction and making drawer operation much more reliable than wood-on-wood designs. With mechanical slides, you never have to worry about a drawer becoming sticky over time or in a humid summer. Strictly speaking, mechanicals are not traditional, but they are a true improvement on older methods. I happily use them on cabinets. If you don’t like the look of exposed metal slides, you can choose models that are completely hidden underneath each drawer. That’s what I do.
In a nutshell, here’s my recipe for building practical, honest and effective kitchen cabinet drawers. I use 1/2"-thick birch-veneered plywood or Baltic birch ply. It’s ideal for making the sides, fronts and backs of the drawer boxes. It’s strong enough for even the largest drawers, thin enough to look elegant, and ready to use without planing or jointing. For drawer bottoms, I use 1/4" veneered plywood set into 1/4" x 1/4" grooves. I cap the top edges of the drawer boxes with strips of a plain hardwood, such as birch or maple, to hide the plywood laminations before drawer box assembly.
Even if you’ve never made drawers before, you can do it successfully. Watch the video up next to learn how.
Later on, when you’re finishing up the drawer-box construction, add a decorative solid wood drawer face onto the front of the box, anchored with screws from the inside. For now, the main job is just making boxes of the right size.
Simple as these drawers look, they’re far superior to drawers I’ve found in typical kitchens, even high-end installations. You’ve got the option of going even fancier with finger-joined or dovetailed drawers, if you like. But no matter how you build them, building precisely the right size of drawers is key, and some version of the method you’ll find here applies.
The overall width of the assembled drawers is critical for drawers that run on mechanical slides. That’s because slides are designed to work with a very specific amount of clearance between the side of the drawer box and the mounting surface for the slides.
Successful drawer building begins not with the boxes, but with preparations you need to complete on the inside of the cabinet.
The inside face of the plywood side panel of each cabinet is typically recessed back from the edge of the face frame. This is because face frames are usually 2 1/4" wide and cabinet bodies are made of 3/4"-thick plywood.
This means your first step is to prepare spacer strips of solid wood to create a level surface that extends back flush from the inner edge of the face frame. These spacers serve as a mounting surface for the mechanical slides that’ll support the drawers later.
The thickness of the spacers will be, in theory, 3/4" – but only if your face frames are precisely 2 1/4" inches wide, the plywood is precisely 3/4" thick and you centered it perfectly on the face frame. Of course, no one is that perfect so you must actually measure the distance between the inner edges of the openings of the face frame and the face of the plywood forming the cabinet body. Then prepare 2 1/2"-wide pieces of wood thick enough to fill this space.
Secure these strips with screws only, in case these spacer strips ever need to be removed later. With the inner surfaces of the cabinet leveled out with spacers, now’s the time to tackle the drawer boxes themselves. There’s a video coming up next that explains all this, but read through the key points of the process first.
Almost every type of mechanical drawer slide on the market requires 1/2" clearance between each of the outer sides of the drawer box and the inner dimensions of the drawer opening. So in other words, the drawer box needs to be exactly 1" narrower than the opening it sits within. Check your hardware instructions just the same, but that’s probably what you’ll find.
Before you go on, begin to prepare drawer box parts. The front to back length of each assembled drawer should match the length of drawer slides you’re using. This length is also the length of each drawer box side piece in my design, so you can cut these parts to final length now. For now, rough-cut the drawer box front and back parts to match the width of the drawer openings. This is a little more than you’ll need in the end, but it’s a simple way to work. You’ll trim to final length later (the width of each drawer is critical, and I’ll explain how to handle this challenge below).
The height of each drawer box isn’t crucial, as long as it’s somewhat less than the height of the drawer opening. The finished height (including any solid wood strips that hide plywood laminations on the top edge) should be an inch or so less than the height of the drawer opening.
To cap the plywood with solid wood, first cut strips of solid wood 1/4" to 3/8" thick (choose the thickness that looks good to you) and 1/16" wider than the thickness of the veneered plywood you’re using for your boxes. This should be 9/16" wide with 1/2" plywood (do measure it to be sure). Next, spread a continuous bead of wood glue on the top edges of the drawer box parts, then use clamps or masking tape to hold the strips onto the plywood.
Make sure there’s a small amount of solid wood edging overhanging the plywood on both faces before setting the assembly aside to dry. When the glue is dry, sand away the overhanging strip material so the edging is flush with the faces of your sheet goods.
Be careful when you’re sanding solid wood edging on plywood. The veneer on plywood like this is less than 1/32" thick, so it’s easy to sand right through. Go gently and slowly with your belt sander, doing everything you can to focus the sanding action on the overhanging strips, not so much on the veneered face. I find this operation works best sanding cross-grain on the box parts at first, to work down the overhang of the solid wood strips. Next, sand with the grain to remove cross-grain scratches as a second step. A partially-used 120-grit belt is about the right coarseness, but use a light touch. This same edging and sanding process is also what you’ll use for cabinet shelves later. Tip: the first warning signs of sanding through veneer is a steady darkening of the colour of the surface. As soon as you see this darkening, stop sanding. Things are only going to get worse.
Remember how I told you that the width of drawer boxes is critical for the proper action of most mechanical drawer slides? Well, here’s a trick for getting that all-important drawer width just right. It works perfectly if you’re using any kind of butt-joined drawer box construction, with the drawer sides overlapping the ends of the drawer box front and back pieces.
Start by preparing a 1"-thick spacer (that’s two times the 1/2" clearance required on each side for most mechanical slides; adjust this spec if needed for your slides). Place the 1" spacer and the two drawer side pieces, which you’ve already cut to the required length, face-to-face and tight against one inside edge of a drawer opening. Next, measure the distance left between the three stacked pieces, and the opposite side of the drawer opening. This measurement is the exact length of the drawer front and back you need to allow the correct side clearance for your slides. To see how this works, watch the video up next.
Cut the drawer box front and back parts, and then dry-fit the parts in the opening again, just to be sure. If this checks out (and it almost certainly will because of the spacer you used), mill a 1/4" x 1/4" groove in the inside faces of all drawer box parts. This groove – also known as a dado – houses the drawer bottom panel you’ll make from 1/4" plywood. Before cutting the groove, measure this plywood because it’s almost always slightly thinner than 1/4". Custom cut the grooves (matching the plywood’s actual thickness) with a couple of passes over the tablesaw. You can also use a table-mounted router with a router bit sized specifically for 1/4" ply.
There’s no need to stop these grooves on any of the box parts. Run them right through from one end to the other. The visible end of the groove will be hidden at the front by the drawer face; at the back of the drawer box, it’s facing inside the cabinet. This small compromise greatly simplifies drawer construction.
Next, cut each drawer bottom panel to fit into the grooves when the drawer parts are dry fit together. For the final drawer-box assembly, use glue and 1 1/4" finishing nails or brads to secure the corners.
Immediately after you bring the box parts together, check and adjust the drawer boxes so they are square. A tape measure is the best tool for determining if the drawer box you’re working on is square. When opposite sides of a box are equal in length, and measurements taken across diagonally opposite corners are equal, then the corners are square. You can only make adjustments, however, before the bottom is completely secured.
When your drawer has the bottom panel in place, is adjusted to be square, and is sitting upside down on a workbench, run a generous bead of glue along the inside corner, where the bottom panel meets the drawer sides, front and back. When this fillet of glue dries it locks everything together while also preventing the drawer bottom from rattling during use. And since the glue is on the underside surface of the drawer, no one ever sees it. Let it dry and you’ll have a very solid drawer that’ll stay square forever.
Following any instructions that came with your drawer slides, mount them in the cabinet and then mount the drawer box on the slides. Next, cut a solid wood drawer face for each drawer box. I recommend giving a light 1/16" clearance on all sides between the drawer face and the face frame.
You’ll find attaching the drawer face to its box easiest to do if you use double-sided tape to hold the drawer face in just the right location for equal clearance all around. Finish up by opening the drawer and driving four screws from the inside of the box to anchor the face.
If you don’t like the look of mechanical slides, you’ll be especially interested in the next video, which shows how one type of hidden mechanical slides fasten to the bottoms of drawers to provide smooth action invisibly.
Now that you have finished this lesson, you have learned:
- How to build and install drawer boxes in their openings on mechanical slides.
- How to cut and mount drawer faces on their drawer boxes.
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