1680s cupboard, Massachusetts Historical Society

The lower case of the cupboard houses 4 drawers. I started making them in the last few days. They are all oak, some period drawers have softwood bottoms but these use thin oak boards running front-to-back. 

The drawer sides are 3/4” thick and join the fronts with a half-blind dovetail on three of the drawers.  At the back, a rabbet joint. Both joints are nailed. Yes, right through the dovetail. The bottoms tuck behind a rabbet in the drawer front. (I’ve yet to make the deep drawer, it has through dovetails front & back. Who knows why? Not me.)

These, like most 17th-century drawers in case furniture, are side-hung. Meaning there’s a groove in the outside faces of the drawer sides that engages a runner set between the front and rear stiles. First step after prepping the stock is plowing the groove in the sides for the drawer runner. Mine’s 1/2” wide, set roughly in the midst of the drawer side’s height. It’s about 5/16” deep. 

plowing the groove in the drawer side

Me showing step-by-step of dovetailling is absurd. Go see someone who actually does it more than every other year or two. After plowing the groove, I laid out the single dovetail on each drawer side. I estimated the angle based on photos of the originals. Steep. Then sawed that out,

single dovetail

and transferred it to the end of the drawer front. Chopped that out. 

Some back & forth fitting the joint. Below is good enough for me. All it needs is a rabbet in the drawer front, then nails through the dovetail.

Like this. Next step from here is installing the bottoms.

As I said, the bottoms run front-to-back (some 17th century shops ran them parallel to the drawer front). I rive out thin oak boards, aiming for 6″-9″ wide. I rough-planed them, then aired them out in the sun to dry for a couple of weeks. Then I re-planed the top/inside surface and hewed and scrub-planed the bottom surface until they were either 3/8″ thick or slightly less. The boards for the top & bottom drawers are about 20″ long. For the smaller recessed drawers about 16″ long. At this point, I just nailed boards to each end of each drawer – these serve to keep the drawer square & solid while I rive and plane more of this thin stock. Below I’ve lined up the board just inside the drawer side and bumped up to the rabbet in front. This board has not been squared off to its edges, so I set it in place and scribed the front end to trim it. Then I nailed it in place and trimmed the back end.

Here’s the top drawer in place. I’ve been recording some videos about the drawers – it’ll take a bit of doing. But in the end it will include the runners/grooves and the vee-shaped tongue & groove between the drawer bottoms.

Then I went & rived some more thin stock.

(pt 19 Essex County cupboard project 2021)

10 thoughts on “Drawers

  1. So much work! I had forgotten which drawer it was/is that had/has the dovetails both fore and aft. The earliest completely dovetailed drawer in Anglo-American work of which I am aware.

  2. Wow, those are some proud dovetails. If the front is made from quarter sawn or riven wood one doesn t need many dovetails.

  3. So, how do put the runners on the inside of the case, in the right place?

    Is it using measurement or superimposition? Is it a loose fit, so that the main fit is still the drawer front in the opening?

    • I’m no expert, but I do it by making a spacer block slightly wider than the distance from the top of the groove to the top of the drawer side. I then place that block against the underside of the drawer divider at the top of the opening, and mark for the runner. This approach is described in an article by Michael Cullen in FWW #247 (May 2015). The “slightly wider” sets the gap between drawer side and drawer divider.

      Cullen makes stopped grooves in his drawer sides, while Peter’s example (like many early pieces) runs the groove through and uses the drawer front itself as the stop. The latter is quicker to build, especially for grooves done with a plane instead of a router.

  4. From my limited experience with side-hung drawers: i used measurements for placing the runners. The key fact to remember when taking measurements is this: in operation the only contact occurs where the top of the runner meets the top of the groove.

  5. Well, more than one way to skin a cat. I’ve located that notch for the drawer runners many different ways. My favorite is to take the drawer side (not the assembled drawer) and position it inside the opening, snugged up against the stile’s inner face. Then just mark the drawer side’s groove on the stile’s inner face. I bump it down just a hair so the drawer’s upper edges don’t rub against the rail above. Then carry that layout to the rear stile w a framing square.

    • That’s another reason it’s a quicker build if you run the groove all the way through! Very efficient :-)

  6. Wondering why people ever stopped making drawer slides this way. Is it the extra steps involved? I have old desks with the conventional drawers that the drawer and carcass have worn tracks. Hard to repair. With side hung drawers it might be easier?
    Thanks for the great education here Peter!

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