The Rubber Meets the Road: The Drawer Joinery

And here we are.  There’s no putting it off any longer.  After weeks of occasional practice at cutting dovetails, it’s finally time to do this for real.  A lot of my satisfaction with this project hinges on how the drawer construction turns out.  These are the first hand-cut dovetails I’ve done as anything other than practice. I don’t intend to belabor all the details of the construction; there’s probably more written about the subject of cutting dovetails than any other topic in woodworking.

Pins-first or tails-first? That’s one of the most argued topics.  I learned pins-first, and I’m sticking with it. First step was to take a marking gauge, set it to the thickness of the drawer side,  and mark layout lines on the inside face (only) of the drawer front.  Remember: the front dovetail is half-blind. It doesn’t go all the way through the board, so it’s not visible on the front.  Then I cut the ends of the drawer sides to the required 3 1/2 degree angle (the last cut like this I’ll be making for this project), and inscribed the layout line on all four sides of both ends of the sides and the drawer back. Pin layouts (pencil)

Then I clamped the mesquite face of the drawer vertically in the vise, and drew the layout of the four pins for the half-blind dovetails with a pencil.   Pin layouts (knife)I started with a pencil and not a marking knife, so I could see how the layout looked to my eye before committing myself to the irreversible step of cutting in the marking lines.  This was a good thing – because I originally intended to do the spacing slightly differently, and I didn’t like the way it looked. So I cleaned the pencil lines off with some denatured alcohol (works better than an eraser), and started over. The second pass looked much better.  I went back with my little 8-degree gauge (the angle of the dovetails), inscribed the pencil layout lines, and carried them down to the layout lines in front.

Then I walked away for about half an hour, started some laundry, sent a couple of emails, and played with Angus while I worked up my nerve.

There comes a time when you just sigh and start cutting the wood.  This was it. The angles of the dovetails were cut out with my little Veritas joinery saw (which I dearly love for detail work).  Came out pretty well, with one slight overcut about 2mm long in one place.  I couldn’t use the dovetail jig I described in an earlier post, because these cuts weren’t square to the face of the wood, but at a downward angle.Half-Blind Dovetails

I clamped the front of the drawer down to the bench, and chopped out the first set.  Because the dovetails are wider at the bottom, I had to be extremely careful to not damage the upper edge of each one as I pried chips out, or to ding the edges with the chisel.  I switched to a narrower chisel, so I could angle it slightly into the cuts. The first set actually looked pretty good. I switched to the other side, repeated the layout, and discovered that my chisels were too dull to cut butter, much less mesquite.  The heavy downward chopping had trashed the edges of all three chisels I used, practically folding them over in a couple of cases. So I had to stop and resharpen.Through Dovetails

The second set went about like the first, with comparable results.  Then I clamped the first side down, placed a 1-2-3 block against the face of the drawer front, and set both across the end of the first drawer side.  I transferred the angles of the pins to the drawer side with a sharp pencil, unclamped it, and carried the lines around the other side of the tails.  Cutting the tails is always where I get into trouble.  This is one instance where practice paid off.  They weren’t pristinely perfect, but looked pretty good. They fit into the first pins with only minimal paring.  I also rubbed some pencil lead on the inside of the pins, and started tapping them together until they started to jam.  The transfer of pencil lead to the tail board showed me where the high areas were that needed cutting.  Switching to the lyptus for the inside was an incredible relief from the hard mesquite – in fact, chopping one set of the pins for the drawer front took longer than all the rest of the drawer joinery combined.

Once the tails for the front were finished, I switched to the back.  The back corners are simpler, 3-pin through dovetails. One set came out perfectly; it tapped into place with no gaps or irregularities, and no paring or trimming. That was a really, really good moment.  The second set wasn’t as good – I had missed a cutline, and had a gap that would have to be patched later.  Fortunately, that’s not terribly difficult, and will look fine when it’s finished.

Groove for drawer bottomA 1/4″ recess for the drawer bottom had to be cut in each piece.  The best way to align it was between the lowest two pins in the drawer front – that way, the groove isn’t visible from the front of the drawer.  This was a simple operation – because I did not attempt to do it by hand. I did it in two 1/8″ passes on the router. There are hand tools specifically for cutting grooves like this, but it happens I don’t own any of them, and the thought of attempting to do it with a dovetail saw and a chisel just didn’t do it for me. It probably would have been a disaster.

Once completed, I dry-assembled the drawer. The bottom is two loose panels, with a small half-lap groove halfway through the thickness of each panel where they join, so you won’t ever be able to see light between them if it contracts.  The fit of the bottom was deliberately slightly loose, because I don’t want the drawer to tear itself apart if the lyptus panels expand in the humidity. Problem is, although they have expansion room, they rattled. To stop the rattle, I cut a couple of small strips from a rubber bracelet and set them in one of the drawer grooves. It stopped the rattling, and the drawer bottom can expand into the groove against the rubber if needed.  You can’t glue the bottom in place – expansion of the wood in the bottom will literally tear the drawer apart. The same goes for the top of the table; when it’s mounted, it has to be attached with allowances for changing humidity.Clamped

I knocked the assembly apart again, and brushed glue on the tails and into the pin sockets.  The drawer was clamped up in parallel-jaw clamps, with two angled blocks faced with sandpaper (saved from the base assembly) against the drawer front.  I measured the diagonal angles of the drawer, and almost fell over in shock – they were the same to within about 1/32 of an inch. Not bad.

I let the drawer dry overnight, and turned my attention to some touch-up work on the legs. I had missed some machine marks when I sanded the legs.  The easiest way to remove them is with the best-of-all finish tools – the humble card scraper.  Really just a rectangular piece of metal, sharpened with a burr along one edge. It takes minimal time to learn to sharpen and handle, and takes wonderful thin shavings.  I’ve found that placing a refrigerator magnet on one side helps stop the transfer of heat to your thumbs, and makes working with it more comfortable. In about 5 minutes, I had the areas I had missed on the legs completely cleaned up.Scraper shavings

Next morning, I took the drawer out of clamps.  There was some touchup and cleanup to do in the dovetails, but not much (more on that next time).  I clamped down the drawer, and planed the top and bottom of the drawer front down to the required 3 1/2 degree angle followed by the legs.  I clamped the frame for the drawer rails into the base, placed the drawer in position, and adjusted the frame up and down slightly until the space above and below the drawer front was where I wanted it, squared to rails to the top of the aprons with my Odd Job (another great tool) and shifted the clamps holding the rails in place. I was originally going to glue the frame in place, but I didn’t want to risk getting glue smeared around on the lower part of the top aprons… and this gave me a chance to use a new toy.  My family got me a Grex headless pinner for Christmas this year, and I’ve been itching to use it. It’s wonderful; I had the rails firmly attached in about 30 seconds.  I added two strips along the sides of the rails, against the aprons to prevent the drawer shifting laterally as it moves. Then I attached a stop block to the rear of the frame so it doesn’t try and slide in too far.

SuccessAll in all, I’m happy with how this part went. Next is touch up and minor repairs, finishing the top, the copper fills, making the knob, and final assembly and finishing.  Stay tuned… this is going to be fun.


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