Build a Terrific Tall Bureau

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This article is from Issue 78 of Woodcraft Magazine.

This svelte drawer case is a great exercise in classic dresser construction

Here is a compact dresser that provides plenty of storage while not taking up a lot of space. Its small footprint and six graduated drawers make it perfect for a guest room or college dorm. It’s a fun build and provides a woodworker with an excellent opportunity to make and fit inset drawers. In addition, the piece is a great exercise in classic dresser construction, with its drawer divider web frames fit into dadoes in the case sides, and the drawers fit directly into their openings without commercial slides.

All of the exposed parts are solid cherry, with cherry-edged poplar used for the case bottom. I used poplar for the interior web frame members and plywood for the case back. The drawers are separated and supported by simple web frames that are joined with stub tenons in classic fashion. As for drawer construction, the cherry drawer fronts connect to the pine sides with machine-cut, half-blind dovetails. Consider adjusting the height of your drawers to suit your dovetail jig, as I explain in “Mastering Machine-Made Dovetails,” on p. 44. This might also mean adjusting the dadoes for web frames that establish drawer openings.

Symmetrical sides, joined by web frames

Despite appearances, this piece is actually efficient to make because of its many identical parts. The two sides mirror each other, and the five drawer-divider web frames are exactly alike. The web frames connect to the case sides with tongues housed in dadoes.

Order of Work

  • Mill the stock for the parts.
  • Build the web frames.
  • Make and dado the case sides.
  • Make the crest and base rails.
  • Glue up the case.
  • Make and fit the drawers,
  • and then install the knobs.

Stacked and stickered. Stack the rough-milled parts with wooden stickers between them to allow air circulation. Let the pieces sit for about a week to “relax” before milling to final sizes.

Flat parts for a good start

Since there is a significant amount of solid wood in this piece, mill all the material to rough size, and then sticker it for about a week to let any latent warp express itself. (See “Dressing Stock” at Online Extras.) Then mill the web frame rails to final size, and edge-glue boards to make slightly oversized panels for the case sides, top, and bottom. Don’t forget to edge the poplar case bottom with cherry at the front.

Web frames constitute the core

The case is essentially built from the center outward, beginning with the web frames. Start by milling the rails to the dimensions shown in the drawing on page 37. Then plow a groove down the center of each front and rear rail. Next, cut the side rail tenons as shown, and glue up the frames. Finally, saw the assembled frames to precise size on the table saw to ensure they’re all exactly the same size. At the same time, saw the case top and bottom to final size. Finally, sand all of the web frames flat to ensure good drawer operation.

Shoulders first. Using the miter gauge to feed the work, and the rip fence as a stop, saw the tenon shoulders on both ends of the side rails.
Cheeks next. I use the bandsaw to cut the cheeks. A thin stop-board clamped to the rip fence restricts the travel of the work to cut just the cheek.
Web frame glue-up. For proper drawer operation, make sure that the glued-up frames are square and flat under clamp pressure.
Horizontals ready to go. When finished, the web frames will all have a cherry front rail, the case bottom will be edged with cherry at the front, and the case top will be solid cherry.

Make and dado the case sides

Cut the side panels to final size, and then lay out the dadoes to accept the web frames. For the drawers to fit and work properly, the web frame dadoes must be perfectly square to the cabinet front, with each pair of dadoes at exactly the same opposing locations on the case sides. To ensure this, I made a jig to guide a router that is fitted with a template guide and a 3/8" straight bit. Using a 1"-diameter template guide allows enough extra space around the bit to easily eject the dust and debris that might otherwise accumulate and impede smooth router operation. After laying out the dadoes, you can cut the rabbet for the case back, and then rout the dadoes.

Dado guide setup. The slot in this router jig is exactly wide enough to accommodate a 1"-O.D. template guide. A short crossbar at one end allows clamping the jig to the front edge of the case side. Also make sure to secure the overhanging opposite end, using a clamping riser block as shown. I began the dado work at the top of the case sides.

Precise placement with a spacer. To ensure that matching dadoes align perfectly on both sides of the case, use a carefully squared plywood panel as a spacer when setting up on both the right and left case sides. Use a different-size spacer to align each pair of dadoes.

Cut the tongues and you’re ready to dry-fit

At this point, the major case parts are built, and you’re almost ready to dry-assemble them. But first, cut the tongues on the ends of the web frames and on the case top and bottom panels. I did this on the table saw using a dado head, cutting the tongues a bit fat, and then adjusting their thickness with a shoulder plane to create a snug fit in the case dadoes. Also, cut back the leading end of each tongue as shown. Then dry-assemble the case top and bottom and web frames to make sure everything fits well.

Cut-back tongues. Cut the leading end of each tongue back to allow the front edge of each web frame and panel to sit flush with the front edge of each case side.
Dry-assemble the case. After dry-clamping the case sides to the top and bottom panels, slip the web frames into their dadoes to make sure everything pulls up tight and that the front edges of all the parts align.

Saw the tongues. Use the table saw to cut the tongues on the side edges of the web frames and the case top and bottom. Use the rip fence to register the length of the tongue, and set the cutter height to establish the thickness.

Make and fit the crest and base rails, and glue up the case

With the case still dry-clamped together, make and fit the crest and base rails, leaving them a bit oversized in length at first. Shape the crest rail as shown in the detail on page 37. The base rail has a simple arch that you can lay out with a spring stick and then cut on the bandsaw. After sawing both rails to shape, crosscut them for a snug fit between the sides. Then attach the backer strips for the base rail as shown, and glue up the case.

Laying out the crest rail. After drawing out the crest rail shape, lay out a 11⁄2"-dia. hole at the center, tangent to the top of the rail curve. I interrupted the hole by cutting through it on the bandsaw while sawing the gentle curves. Then I sanded both cuts smooth on an edge sander.
Glue on the base backers. While the case is still dry-clamped, glue on a couple of 3⁄4"-square backer strips to fasten the base rail.

Glue up the case. When everything fits well, you’re ready to glue up the case. But first, rehearse your assembly and clamping procedures, gathering up all clamping cauls, and positioning supports to allow clamp access underneath the case. First glue the case sides to the top and bottom panels and web frames. Then glue the crest piece to the back edge of the top and the base piece to the backers.

Distinctive drawers: dovetail construction & integral pulls

Mark the width of each pair of drawer sides directly from their opening, and cut the fronts for a tight fit also. To make sure the parts were the same length, I used a table saw sled with a stopblock. After assembling and fitting the drawers, drill the 3/8"-deep recesses to the diameters shown in the drawing on page 36. For clean holes, I used Bormax bits on the drill press. For the center through hole, I used a 3/8" brad-point bit. Turn the pulls to the profiles shown. (Like the round recesses, the pulls are also graduated in diameter.) Make the 3/8"-dia. tenons long enough to extend slightly past the inside drawer face.

With the construction done, all that’s left is to fit the drawers, install the pulls, and apply a finish. First, plane the sides of the drawer boxes until they slide into place smoothly. If a drawer front sits slightly cocked in the case, plane it until it’s flush with the case front. Once the drawer fronts line up, glue rabbeted drawer stops onto the front drawer web rail, just behind the drawer fronts. (See page 18.) Using a handsaw, cut a kerf into the tenon on each pull, and glue it into its hole, inserting a wedge in the kerf from the inside of the drawer. Make sure the knob shoulder is well seated against the drawer face. After allowing the glue to set, cut the protruding tenon flush, and sand the inside drawer face.

Consistent crosscuts. I use a crosscut sled set up with a stopblock to crosscut all drawer parts to exact lengths.
Dadoes for drawer backs. Use a dado head at the table saw to cut the dadoes in the drawer sides to accept the drawer backs.

Snug and square. With well-fit joints, there’s no need to use clamps to glue up the drawer boxes. However, do make sure that they are dead-square while sitting on a flat surface to dry.

Pretty pulls. I used a collet chuck on the lathe to support each pull blank for shaping, which provides access for sanding the top afterward.

Plane-perfect fit. For a snug fit in its opening, plane each drawer’s sides just enough for the drawer to slide easily without wobbling. To avoid tearout, plane inward from the front and rear of the drawer. You’ll also need to remove a bit from the top and bottom edges of the drawers.

Waxing elegant. Topping several coats of varnish with a final coat of wax imparts a lovely sheen to the bureau. Cherry will look even better with each passing year.

Final fit and finish yields a beautiful bureau

After everything is assembled, finish-sand the entire dresser. I began with 100 grit, moving through 220 grit, while completely washing down the surfaces with denatured alcohol between grits. This ensures removal of any residual particles that could cause fine swirling scratches. It also highlights any flaws I might have missed in the early stages that will prove glaring later. Finally, apply your favorite finish. I wiped on several coats of varnish, then applied a coat of wax.


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