The Basics of Making Dovetail Drawers

  • 01 of 10

    Introduction

    Dave White/E+/Getty Images

    One of the most fundamental skills of cabinetry or fine furniture making is building dovetail drawers. A well-built dovetail drawer is not only incredibly strong and long-lasting but is aesthetically beautiful. One way to identify a woodworker's skill level is to check and see how well they build the dovetail drawers in their projects.

    In this article, we take you step-by-step through the process of building dovetail drawers. Once you understand the basics, you'll be able to consistently make beautiful dovetail drawers for your woodworking projects. Some of the same skills can be used for dovetail joints used in other applications, too. 

    Difficulty Level

    • Moderate

    Finishing

    • Paint or stain,  and polyurethane

    Time to Complete

    • 2 Hours

    Recommended Tools

    Materials Needed

    • 1 x 4  poplar or pine for drawer sides
    • 1/4"-thick plywood for the drawer bottom
    • 1 x 6 stock for the drawer front
    • Drawer handles
    • Tape measure
    • Pencil
    • Woodworker's glue
    • 1" wood screws
    • Paint or stain in color of choice
    • Sandpaper
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  • 02 of 10

    Cut the Sides to Length

    (c) 2007 Chris Baylor

    The first step is to cut the four sides of the drawer to length. Drawers typically are built from 1x stock, but the widths can be dependent on the height of the drawer required.

    1. Rip the stock with a circular saw or on a table saw to the desired width.
    2. Then, cut the four sides to the finished lengths as required by the project's plans. The two sides of the drawer should be the same length, and the front and back should be the same length. For instance, for a drawer that will have a finished box size of 18" wide x 12" deep, you will need to cut two 18"-long pieces and two 12" pieces.
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  • 03 of 10

    Cutting the Dovetail Tails and Pins

    (c) 2007 Chris Baylor

    Once the sides of the drawer are cut to the appropriate lengths, we'll turn our attention to cutting the dovetails.  While traditional dovetails are cut by hand with a dovetailing saw and chisel, we're going to use a dovetail jig and a router.

    • TIP: Be sure to follow the step-by-step instructions that accompany your dovetail jig for perfectly fitting dovetails, as each dovetail jig has a different set of steps for cutting the tails and pins. For this reason, the following directions are general instructions; your actual process will vary a little depending on your jig. 
    1. For best results, always cut the tails first--the center portion of the joint that is shaped like a fish tail. It is much easier to take a bit more off of the pins than to adjust the tails. Set up your dovetail jig for cutting tails, and place the end of one of the two side pieces into the jig. Center the jig appropriately and cut the tails, again following the instructions that accompany your dovetail jig).
    2. After the first tail has been cut, turn the stock 180 degrees and place the opposite side into the jig. Be certain that the side of the board that was facing you when you cut the first set of tails is the same side of the board that faces you now.
    3. Once you've finished cutting the tails on both ends of one side piece, complete the opposite side piece in the same manner.
    4. Change your dovetail jig to a pin configuration. You'll also likely need to change the bit to a straight-cutting bit. Align the back piece of the drawer box into the jig at the appropriate location and cut the pins.
    5. Remove the piece from the jig and test the fit with one of the tail boards. If you are satisfied with the fit, rotate the stock 180-degrees, and cut the opposite pins.
    6. Cut the pins into the fourth side of the box in the same manner.
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  • 04 of 10

    Cut the Grooves for the Drawer Bottom

    (c) 2007 Chris Baylor

    With the pins and tails properly cut in the four sides, we'll turn our attention to cutting the groove in each of the four drawer pieces to accommodate the drawer bottom.

    1. Begin by dry-fitting all four sides of the box together. Make a small pencil mark on the inside lower section of each of the four sides, to denote on which side of each piece the groove should be cut.
    2. Set up your router and router table with a 1/4" straight cutting bit and fence. The bit should be adjusted to a 3/8" height above the table, with the fence 1/4" from the back-side of the bit.
    3. Next, verify the thickness of the four pieces of stock. If you used 1x stock, the thickness would likely be 3/4".
    4. Measure this distance away from the edge of the bit along the fence, and make a pencil mark on the fence on each side of the bit at this distance. This will denote the start and stop points for the groove.
    5. Wearing proper eye and hearing protection, turn on your router. With the side of the stock to be cut facing the table and the bottom edge against the fence, place the butt end (opposite the end at the bit) against the table, with the leading edge just over the bit. Align the end of the board with the far pencil mark and carefully angle the stock down onto the bit.
    6. Slide the stock forward while holding it firmly down onto the table and against the fence until the back edge reaches the first pencil mark. Then carefully angle the stock and lift the back edge off of the bit.
    7. Cut the grooves in the other three pieces of stock in precisely the same manner.
    8. Cut the 1/4" plywood bottom to size. The dimensions of the bottom should be 1/2" longer (in each direction) than the inside dimensions of the dovetail drawer box. For instance, on the aforementioned 18" x 12" box, the bottom should be cut to a size of 17" x 11". This will allow the drawer bottom to float within the grooves, with a small amount of play. 
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  • 05 of 10

    Begin the Assembly of the Drawers

    (c) 2007 Chris Baylor

    Before we move onto the final assembly, it is a very good idea to dry fit the entire dovetail drawer box. If any adjustments are going to be necessary, it will be much easier to address before any glue is applied to the assembly.

    1. Dry-fit one of the two sides with both the front and back of the drawer assembly. Then slide in the drawer bottom, and dry-fit the fourth side. When you're confident that the fit is perfect, disassemble the five pieces.
    2. To begin the final assembly, apply a drop of woodworking glue into each of the dovetails, as shown in the picture. Spread the glue with either a small bristled brush or a thin piece of scrap stock that will fit into the tails easily. Coat all three edges of each of the dovetails with a thin, even layer of glue.
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  • 06 of 10

    Attach the Pins to the Tails

    (c) 2007 Chris Baylor
    1. With the tail glued properly, slide the appropriate pin board into this dovetail and tap with a rubber mallet, if necessary, until the joint is seated properly. Immediately wipe off any excess glue that may have squeezed out of the joint.
    2. Repeat these steps with the opposite tail on the sideboard, and attach the pinboard to this opposite tail.
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  • 07 of 10

    Insert the Drawer Bottom

    (c) 2007 Chris Baylor

    With three of the four sides of the drawer assembled, insert the drawer bottom into the grooves. There should be no glue used to attach the drawer bottom, as the bottom should be allowed to slide freely in the groove to accommodate seasonal movement in the stock.

    Simply set the side of the dovetail drawer on your woodworking table with the two pin boards extending vertically, and slide the drawer bottom into the grooves of the pin boards. Ease the lower edge of the drawer bottom into the groove of the tailboard at the bottom.

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  • 08 of 10

    Attach the Fourth Side of the Drawer Box

    (c) 2007 Chris Baylor
    1. With the bottom of the dovetail drawer in the grooves, apply glue to the tails at each end of the second tailboard and slide the tails onto the pins of the pinboards to complete the drawer box.
    2. Ease the drawer bottom into the groove and tap the drawer side into place with a rubber mallet.
    3. Immediately wipe off any excess glue that may have squeezed out of the joints.
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  • 09 of 10

    Clamp the Drawer

    (c) 2007 Chris Baylor
    1. With the four sides in place, clamp the tail boards together with some long pipe clamps or bar clamps to hold the unit while the glue dries. Be sure to cross-measure to check the unit for square before setting it aside to dry. Adjust the dovetail drawer box if it is out of square and re-clamp.
    2. Set aside the assembly to dry.

    TIP: Always clamp the drawer with a couple of clamps on the bottom and at least one clamp on the top of the drawer. Check the four joints to make sure they are properly seated. Tap the joint with your rubber mallet to tighten the joint if needed. It is also a good idea to use a couple of pieces of scrap stock between the jaws of the clamps and the tail boards to prevent any scarring from the clamps.

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  • 10 of 10

    Sand the Assembly and Attach the Drawer Front

    (c) 2007 Chris Baylor

    Once the glue in the joints of the drawer box has had time to dry, we'll prepare to complete the drawer.

    1. Begin by sanding the box and the dovetail joints with progressively finer grits of sandpaper until the joints and drawer box are smooth. Set the box aside.
    2. Measure and cut the drawer front as designated by the plans for the project you are building, and apply the decorative edge with the appropriate router bit if necessary. Sand, the drawer front, again employing progressively finer grits of sandpaper.
    3. Place the decorative drawer front onto the front of the drawer box and position it into the exact required location. Clamp the drawer front in place and attach to the dovetail drawer box with a few countersunk wood screws.
    4. After the appropriate finish has been applied, attach the drawer pulls in their proper locations. Be sure to pre-drill the holes for the drawer pulls.