Introduction: How to Make Drawers for Cabinets

About: I like to build and make things with my hands. Think it, Build it, and repeat.

There comes a time in any woodworkers hobby to where they are faced with making drawers. I often hear people having trouble with getting everything to work out as planned. I wanted to show one method of making drawers, tongue and dado. Sometime referred to tongue and rabbet drawers. Like many other projects that can seem overwhelming, if you break it down into smaller steps, good results are almost inevitable.

Step 1: Materials & Math

For my method, material selection is important. Not so much what kind of wood, but rather what thickness. 99% of all the calculations I do for drawer making comes back to material thickness. Many drawers are made from solid wood, plywood, 1/2" thick, 5/8" thick or even 3/4". Whatever you decide to go with remember most, if not all fabrication relies on half the thickness of YOUR material. I highlight this a fair amount in the video.

To calculate front and back piece length, take your final drawer width and subtract your material thickness. If you are using 1/2" material, subtract 1/2" from your overall drawer width and that is the length you cut your front and back pieces. Yes, it is that simple.

For drawer height, 1" less than the opening will be suffice. Drawer depth can be affected by the particular hardware you use, but typically 1-2" less that the cabinet interior depth is a good rule of thumb.

Step 2: Milling Your Sides

Tongue and dado drawers are best done on a table saw while using a dado blade. I like to cut the back (full width) dados first. Make sure your dado stack is the exact width of your material thickness. Make these dados 1/2"-1" from the end of each of your side pieces. Only make one full width dado on each of the side pieces.

Switch your dado blade to exactly 1/2 of the material thickness. In my case that is 3/8". Use your material to set the distance of the fence to the dado blade. The left side of the blade should be flush with the thickness of material. Go ahead and make the cuts on the remaining ends of each of your side pieces.


Dado blade height is 1/2 of material thickness in all these cuts and should be kept that same the entire time.

Step 3: Front & Back Pieces

A sacrificial fence is clamped in place and the fence is moved over to expose 1/2 of your material thickness. Make a cut on a test piece and check it for fit with your sides. If it is too loose, lower your blade, if it is too tight or won;t fit at all, raise the blade ever so slightly. Make another test cut. Once you have it perfect, make cuts on the same face of both ends of your front piece. I explain more about diagnosing & solving fitment issues in the article.

The back piece should have been already cut to length & requires no milling at this point.

Step 4: Cutting the Groove for the Bottom Panel

Switch back to a regular blade with it's height again set to half of your material thickness. Run a groove approximately 1/2" from the edge of your pieces. It doesn't matter which edge you choose for the back piece. The front piece it doesn't matter what edge, however you want to cut this groove on the opposite face that you cut the rabbets earlier. The sides should have the groove cut on the same face as the dados but NOTE that you want to make this groove on different edges as to create a left and a right side for the drawer. If need be, take your time and mark the sides accordingly to ensure you don't make 2 lefts or 2 rights.

Once the initial groove has been cut in all the pieces, slide your fence over slightly to widen the groove. Perform this on one piece or scrap and check for fit with the bottom material. If your bottom doesn't fit into the groove, move your fence, make another test cut and check again. You want the bottom to fit in the groove but not to be too loose.

Step 5: Measure & Cut Bottom Panel

Clamp all of your parts together. This not only fill let you know if all your pieces fit together nicely, but it also sets us up for measuring for the bottom panel. If your pieces do not fit properly at this point, make any fixes before proceeding. Once clamped, measure the length and width of the INSIDE of your drawer. Add your material thickness to each the width and length. Hypothetically this would be your panel size, however I like to then subtract 1/8" or sometimes even 3/16" to both the length and width. This gives your panel a bit of wiggle room, I used 1/4" birch plywood for my bottom panels. If you are using solid wood bottoms then this "downsizing" step will allow for any expansion and contraction you solid wood panel may experience.

Test fit everything again, now with the bottom panel in place to make sure everything comes together. DO NOT skip the test fit! Trust me, there isn't enough aspirin available to fix the headache you'll have if things don't fit during glue-up.

Step 6: Sanding

Sanding always seems to be the bane of people's existence. Nothing major to note here, other than the fact that now you have spent a fair amount of time getting all the joints fitting together great. Don't go ruining all of your work by taking off too much material. Removing too much will make your joints loose and weaker. Not to mention unsightly. I like to run a foam sanding pad in the dados and grooves to clean them up a bit. Breaking some of the sharp edges is also something made easier before glue-up. I have been using an edge breaking tool to do this for some time now and it makes the whole process a lot easier. Any edges that will be going into dados or bottoming out on rabbets I go extra light on the sanding. You don't want to add a chamfer to these that will show up in the finished joint.

Step 7: Assembly & Glue-up

Remember when you test fit everything in step 5? If you haven't yet, do it now. If I lost 5 pounds for every time I skipped a test fit & screwed things up during glue-up, I'd be lighter than a helium ballon. People seemed to get frustrated with gluing everything together. If you know everything fits than 95% if your problems are eliminated off the top.

Apply glue and spread it around each joint assembling as you go. Make sure the edges are nice and flush. Once you have 3 pieces together, slide the bottom panel in place and encase it with your final piece. Put it in some clamps and use some scrap pieces to keep the clamps from marking up the wood. If you do get some dents or dings in the drawer, consider checking out this instructable to fix it easily. Snug up each of the clamps. You don't need to put the grip of a gorilla into them, just make sure they are nice and tight.

Wipe up any accessible glue squeeze out with a damp rag. If you have any that had dried, scrape or chisel it off.

Step 8: Finishing

To finish, or not to finish? That is the question. Typically on dresser or night stand I do not apply a finish to the drawers. In this case I was making drawers for a TV cabinet and it will house video game controllers as well. One or two coats of a wipe-on polyurethane will make it a bit easier to wipe away any grime left behind from a child that just finished up a slice of pizza or a sticky lollipop. Knocking down any bumps in the finish is easily done with a finishing pad. If you care to hear an bearded obese man talk for 11 minutes about applying finish to drawers, click here.

Step 9: DONE!

Well hopefully this has been of some use for either experienced or beginner woodworkers. And please keep in mind that are more methods to make drawers than there are kitchen gadgets to buy on TV. This is just a method I like to use because they a strong and fairly easy to master. If you are to try only one method of drawer construction, this one would be it. I will be talking about hardware and drawer fronts in a later instructable.

I would love to here what you guys think and if you have a preferred drawer joint.

Thanks for checking it out!