Rabbeted, half-blind dovetail drawers

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This article is from Issue 81 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Delicate but durable. In the finished bureau, partial overlay drawers display a delicate composition of beaded edges, framed by legs, rails and dividers. Dovetail joinery provides strength and long term durability.

You can build these difficult drawers with help from power tools and proven tips.

Dovetailed drawers have long been a standard feature on fine furniture. Within this category of drawer construction, rabbeted, half-blind dovetail drawers are among the most challenging to build. The top and sides of the drawer front are rabbeted to overlay the drawer opening, and a delicate bead extends around all four edges of the drawer front. These are the drawers I had to build for the Shaker counter shown on p. 36. It’s hard to believe that woodworkers once built these drawers with hand tools alone. The techniques I’ll explain here will give you the look of hand-cut, half-blind dovetails, but with power tool assistance that saves time.  

I usually build drawers entirely from solid wood. When thinking about drawer construction, I make allowances for the type of joinery at the front and back of the drawer. The joinery in the front is always the show joinery, while the joinery at the back is usually hidden. The drawers featured here have through dovetails at their back corners which I make using some of the same techniques applied to the front of the drawer (see drawing, facing page).


Go to our website for a dovetail sled technique video.

Start with the front

The drawer sides, bottom and back all derive their finished dimensions from the finished size of the drawer front, so it’s important to get the front dimensions right. To do so, measure the opening where the drawer will fit. In this case, I plan to rabbet the drawer front so that it overlays the opening by 1/4" on the sides and top. So I add 1/2" to the opening’s horizontal measurement, and 1/4" to its vertical measurement.

To prevent binding when the drawer opens and closes, I allow for 1/16" of clearance between each side rabbet and the opening, and slightly more clearance at the top rabbet.

Rout a roundover. Use a 3⁄16" radius roundover bit to rout all four outward-facing edges. Aim for a 1⁄8" fillet.
Scribe for the rabbet. Set your marking gauge 1⁄16" shallower than the point where the flat edge meets the radius. 

Rabbet on the table saw. Bury the dado cutter in an auxiliary fence, and rabbet each front’s top and side edges.

Creep up on the perfect fit. Here I’m checking to make sure that I have 1⁄16" of clearance between each side rabbet and the opening. I’ll cut the top rabbet with slightly more clearance (between 3⁄32" and 1⁄8") to allow for greater cross-grain wood movement.

Order of Work

  • Cut drawer fronts to size and rout outside edges.
  • Rabbet drawer fronts, then rip drawer sides to finished width.
  • Complete front dovetails in sides.
  • Complete pins in fronts.
  • Cut sides to finished length.
  • Cut backs to finished size and complete side-to-back joinery.
  • Rout grooves for drawer bottom in fronts and sides.
  • Assemble your drawers.

Now for the sides

When all drawer fronts have been rabbeted, you’ll be able to rip drawer sides to finished width. The rabbet’s depth gives you the base line to scribe on sides for their dovetails. After scribing all the sides, lay out dovetails with pleasing proportions (my tails are cut at 14°). Even though I’m making drawers in three different sizes, the bottom-most pin in each drawer will always be the same size. This enables me to mill the bottom groove in all fronts and sides with the same setup.

Scribe baselines on the sides. Your marking gauge should have the same setting used to scribe the depth of the rabbets that you cut in your drawer fronts.  
Saw perfect tails with a sled jig. A dovetail jig saves time and ensures precision, whether you’re making one drawer or many. The adjustable stop that runs in a fence-mounted T-track enables you to set up repeat cuts in matching sides. Use these same techniques to cut the through dovetails at the back of your drawers.

Cope with the waste. Cut slightly above your baselines, so that you can finish the joint by paring to the line with a narrow chisel.

Make shoulder cuts where half-pins will fit.  Make these cuts with a fine-cutting dozuki or backsaw, and stay on the waste side of the baseline. 
Pare with care. Place the chisel’s bevel in the scribe line, and pare in from both sides, tilting the blade to create a slight back bevel.

Scribe, rout, and pare to make the pins

Creating pins that match your dovetailed sides begins with careful scribing. After darkening scribe lines with a pencil, you can rout sockets that require a minimum of paring, using a dovetail bit that matches the angle of your tails. Complete each joint by paring for a snug fit. 

Mark sharp. Clamp side and front securely so you can concentrate on scribing the pin layout. 
Stay inside the lines. Clamp a square across the front to act as a stop for the router base. Use slow, steady pressure to control the cut as you rout the sockets. 

Chisel to fit. Pare away the waste that remains inside your layout lines, then test-fit and adjust as necessary. 

Make the bottom fit, then finish the job

A solid wood drawer bottom requires more work than a plywood bottom, but it’s consistent with traditional drawer construction. Drawer assembly begins by gluing the sides and front together. The back goes on next, then the bottom.

Rout some raised edges. A horizontal panel-raising bit does a good job of reducing the edge of the drawer bottom to fit in the grooved sides and front of the drawer.
Tap it tight. The reward for good joinery work comes when it’s time to assemble your drawer. Slide the bottom into place after joining the sides to the front and back. 


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