Devilish Dovetails and other daring details

A drawer. We don’t give it much thought. Its just a box- with a knob- for stashing stuff. We don’t think about a drawer until it sticks and can’t be opened; or comes apart spilling the contents over the floor. But building a proper drawer isn’t easy, or quick, as we discovered a few weeks ago. In fact, it took the group all weekend to nearly complete a single small drawer.  But what a drawer! This one is crammed with small, challenging details. Dovetails are tough enough on larger projects using thicker material. On this drawer, the tiny dovetails were treacherous. And it wasn’t just about the dovetails.

These dovetails had to be precise and perfect to withstand close scrutiny.

The miniscule lock and escutcheon had to be precisely installed- before the drawer was assembled, otherwise the tight interior space would prevent later installation. And there were slender, interior partitions and dividers; all neatly fitting into the sides and intersecting smartly.

The small partitions had to die neatly into the drawer front and sides.

Success depended on careful measurements, crisp marking out, sharp tools, and exacting chisel work. The drawer bottom had to be carefully planed down to 5/32”. It’s edges were then “feathered” to 1/8” thickness along 3 sides to slide into a narrow groove cut along the drawer front and sides. When assembled, the drawer box had to be perfectly square, lie flat on the workbench, and not quite fit into the desk opening; well, not initially anyway.

Mario coaches John on his dovetails. They turned out perfectly!

With the completed drawer built just a tad oversize, it was then planed to barely slide into the case. Each attempt to seat the drawer was followed by a few very light plane strokes, bringing it closer to a perfect fit. The box was supposed to slide in easily, with the front lining up neatly with the case, and the lock operating smoothly. This required patience as well as sharp tools and a steady hand.

The completed drawer was built slightly oversize, then planed to a snug, but smooth fit.

A thick-sided, cumbersome drawer wouldn’t work on this piece. It had to be light as a feather, yet strong and square. And it had to almost “play” like a musical instrument, imitating the light, delicate sound similar to that made when tapping a violin.

The drawer contains lots of neat details often found on period drawers.

By the end of the weekend, this part of the lap desk project turned into a valuable lesson in the proper design and construction of a fine drawer. I think that once a woodworker builds a drawer like this, he will never build another fat, clunky one again.   Mario