Making Lipped Drawers with a Dovetail Jig
THESE STYLISH DRAWERS ARE EASIER THAN YOU THINK
you can do more with your half-blind dovetail jig than meets the eye. You’ve probably used it to make drawers with plain, inset fronts, but it’s really quite simple to make lipped drawer fronts, too. Even though most dovetail jigs are basically the same, some of their manuals don’t go into much detail about how to make this variation of the basic drawer (they often call it a rabbeted drawer, which is confusing). Whatever kind of jig you have, here’s a foolproof process for making lipped drawers from beginning to end.
If this is your first time out with a dovetail jig, try making some standard half-blind joints to familiarize yourself with the process and to fine-tune the settings of your jig. Make a sample
Cut rabbets to form lips on the top and ends of the drawer front (usually there’s no lip on the bottom). The precise width of the rabbets affects the fit of the drawer front in its opening. Fine-tune the fence setting so there is 1/16 in. or less total side play between the inside of the drawer front and the sides of the case.
Cut a groove for the drawer bottom in all the drawer parts. If you’re using plywood or hardboard for drawer bottoms, the groove must be slightly less than 1/4-in. wide for a good fit. Fine-tune the width of the groove by making two cuts with a standard saw blade. Cut a single saw-kerf groove in all the drawer parts first, then move the saw fence over a bit and groove all the parts a second time.
corner and use it to work out these two important design details:
Ideal drawer widths. Design the case around the drawers. Figure out the width of the drawer sides first, then size the openings of your case on paper. Why? I think drawer sides look best when there’s a half-pin at the bottom and the top (Fig. B, page 105). Their ideal widths are multiples of one number: the distance between pin centers. That’s typically 7/8 in., but some jigs are slightly different.
Location of drawer-bottom groove. No matter how many different drawer sizes you’re making, for workshop efficiency it’s best to have this groove in the same location for every drawer. Center the groove on the lowest socket of the drawer front. On your sample corner, mark the edges that you placed against the jig’s stops. Measure the distance from that edge to the center of the first socket.
Once you’ve worked out the details, build the case. Then cut all your drawer parts to fit the actual box. Make the sides and back the same width. The drawer fronts are wider than the sides by the height of the lip, generally about 1/4 in. The fronts are longer than the backs by the width of two lips. Finally, set up your tablesaw to cut a 1/4-in.-deep drawer-bottom groove and follow Photos 1 through 10.
Check the fit of sample dovetails made with your jig. Use the same species of wood as your drawer parts for test pieces. Wood that’s too soft gives a false reading. Adjust the router bit up or down until you make two parts that fit together with hand pressure alone. Adjust the jig’s template in and out until you make two parts that fit flush. The position of the template affects the depth of the sockets.
Place both drawer sides in the dovetail jig, inside out and front side up. Use the groove in the drawer bottom as a reference guide. It faces toward you and lines up with an outside finger of the dovetail template. The bottom edge of every drawer part butts up against the stops on the jig.
Rout dovetails in the drawer sides. Move the router from left to right for best results. Use backer boards behind the drawer sides to prevent the backs of the tails from chipping out.
Saw a rabbet in the end of the spacer board. Match the rabbet’s height to the length of the lip on the drawer front. The width of the rabbet isn’t critical, but it should be about as wide as the lip is thick.
Place the drawer front in the jig. One end of the board is cut on the right side of the jig. The other end is cut on the left side. Again, use the groove as a reference guide. This time it lines up with the outside slot of the template.
Align the drawer front using a shop-made spacer board (Fig. A, at left). The end grain of the rabbet must be exactly in line with the front edge of the jig so the dovetail is cut to the correct depth. Cut dovetails in both ends of the drawer front.
Rout a profile on all four sides of the drawer front. A 1/4-in. round-over is typical. Raising the bit up a little to create a fillet adds an attractive shadow line. You really can’t rout this profile before cutting the dovetails because you need square edges (not round ones!) on the sides of the drawer front. These sides bump up against thin indexing stops on most dovetail jigs.
Glue up the drawer with care. The drawer side and rabbet should end up flush. The lip of the drawer prevents you from easily evening up the joint with a plane or belt sander, so the time it took to set up a perfect joint in the beginning pays off now!
Dovetail one drawer side and back as a pair, making a standard half-blind joint. As in Photo 4, one pair is placed in the left-hand side of the jig and the other pair in the right-hand side. You won’t get parts mixed up if you remember that the grooves always go nearest the stops of the jig. Sand all the inside faces of the drawer before gluing.
A half-tail at the top of a drawer looks awkward and unbalanced. To avoid an unbalanced look, check out the dovetail spacing of your jig first, then design your case. However, both joints will be plenty strong.
Lipped vs. Standard Drawers
The idea of putting a lip around a drawer probably dates from the early 1800s. While there’s no record of why cabinetmakers went to the considerable trouble of adding lips to drawers, here are our guesses. All of these reasons are as valid now as they were 200 years ago. Lips make fitting easier. Standard drawers require careful measurement and individual fitting to minimize the clearance gaps around their sides and tops. Lipped drawers always appear to fit well, no matter how large the clearance gaps. Lips are drawer stoppers. They prevent the drawer from going too far back into the case. Stoppers for standard drawers can be awkward to make and install. Not so for lipped drawers. Thin, fragile lips, however, may break off if a heavy drawer is slammed too hard. Lips seal out smoke, dust and vermin. Homemakers of 200 years ago must have appreciated a new design feature that would help keep clothes cleaner.