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Drawer Design and Drawer Bottoms

Well my wife's brother and family left for home (in New Zealand) yesterday and I managed some hours in the shop today. I have the weekend and then back to work on Monday.

The focus is the large drawer in the lower section of the armoire. This is approximately 30" wide by 7 1/2" high by 17" deep.

My time today was in preparing the boards - with the exception of a tablesaw for ripping and a bandsaw for resawing, everything has been done with handtools. A few pictures of the dimensioning ...

I loved this one of the beads scraped onto the drawer front ...

Here are the sides ..

.. and the drawer bottom (clamped with cawls as do with all boards that are left overnight) ..

Now the focus of my enquiry is actually the drawer bottom. The dovetails are straight forward - half blind on the front and through at the rear.

I am curious to know what you do when attaching their drawer bottoms, both generally and in a situation such as mine.

Essentially there are two methods I would consider. The third - nailing and glueing to the underside of the drawer - is not up for consideration.

The two other methods are sliding a panel into a groove in the side boards, or sliding a panel into a slip.

It is interesting that in an article in FWW "Drawer Bottoms" by Alan Marks, he refers to slips as the "French Method", so named as it appears to have originated in France.

Christopher Schwarz described using slips several months ago on his blog ...

Marks refers to the panel-into-a-groove as the "Kitchen drawer", so called as it was "the cheapening of quality construction to the extreme".

I have used both methods in the past, and my choice is to go down the slip route. This is a decision that is essentially made for me as the side panels are 3/8" thick (the front and rear panels are 3/4").

I am also interested in what thickness others would use for the drawer bottom, keeping in mind the dimensions (noted above). I am using pine here and my plan is to dimension the bottom to around 5/8" (it is presently a nominal 3/4").

Discussion from Wood Central forum:

Bob Hackett: Just a thought. For those designing something that uses the drawer bottom as a wood runner for the drawer,would it make sense to make the slip extend to the full width of the drawer as opposed to adding a piece on to the inside?
My thought is that drawer sides are usually made from a secondary,less durable wood and using a piece of more wear resistant wood that served as both a slip and a runner that was fixed to a shortened drawer side might add strength to the bottom and durability to the runner in one shot.

Am I overlooking one or more important points?

Derek: Good point. I am using Jarrah for the slip, and this will also act as a durable runner.

Ellis Walentine: Slips and questions. According to my old pal Ian Kirby, not a Frenchman by any means, slips are primarily intended to increase the bearing surface of the drawer in the housing. Greater bearing area increases sliding friction, so a paraffin rub is definitely in order. In my experience, a reasonably waxed slip/runner interface wears pretty well, although I avoid softer woods for sides and runners.

I don't claim to have the theory down pat though. For example, I've always wondered about the relative wearing characteristics of different woods for sides (and slips) and runners. I know that all the drawers I've made with denser hardwood bearing surfaces have shown almost no signs of wear. On the other hand, softer wood sides, such as poplar, which we have in a couple old dressers, have worn considerably.

To be on the safe side, I'd go for hardwood sides and runners, and slips to spread out the wear.

Wiley Horne: Drawer design and drawer bottoms. I'm a little late to the party, partly because of making a computer replacement, but also because his question caused me to do a little reading as to what past practice has been in the matter of drawer bottom affixing.

Intellectually, I am persuaded by Bill T's description of ruts cut into mahogany drawer dividers (the blades actually) by hardwood drawer sides running on them over and over. So load-spreading through the use of slips certainly would be helpful. And if one is using the really thin 'English' drawer sides, then the slips avoid the need to cut a 1/8" groove in a 1/4" drawer side, thereby creating a weak place precisely where the weight of the drawer is felt. The slips would also be easy to make, since one could just groove several feet of stick, and cut to length. And drawer construction would not be made more complicated, especially if the drawer front were slipped also, as Derek was contemplating doing. So it's hard to find an argument against.

On the other hand, I wonder when slips came into being. I don't believe they ever did come into widespread use in America, unless it is happening right now! So all those early generations of cabinetmakers in America did without. And from Bill T's observation of imported case goods, apparently it was not standard practice abroad either. Perhaps Richard Jones, or someone from the UK, could tell us when drawer slips came into use, and whether the practice became universal, or high-end only.

John Townsend, working in Newport RI in the second half of the 18th century , nailed drawer bottoms into rabbets cut into the drawer sides and drawer front, and for larger drawers, he glued and nailed runner strips onto the drawer bottoms ["John Townsend, Newport Cabinetmaker", p. 70; Morrison Heckscher, Metro. Museum of Art, 2005].

John and Thomas Seymour, working in Boston roughly 1785-1815, brought their methods from their native England ["Furniture Masterworks of John and Thomas Seymour", pp. 124-5; Robt. Mussey, Jr., Peabody Essex Museum, Salem MA, 2003.] They set the drawer bottoms into grooves cut directly into the drawer sides, even on small letter drawers in secretaries. But then, in all but the very small drawers, they placed glue blocks on the underside of the drawer bottoms, up against the inside of the drawer sides (beneath the grooves). These glue blocks were fairly elaborate. They were used along both the drawer front and drawer sides. They were strips a few inches long, which were kerfed at close intervals, so as to mold themselves readily to variations in the bottom and sides, as well as the curvature of some of the fronts. Once the glue dried, they were planed flush with the bottom of the drawer sides and front, thereby providing some load-spreading where the drawers wore on the dividers. So, in effect, these glue blocks were acting as primitive slips, except that they rigidly fixed the drawer bottom to the sides, and this did result in splitting of some of the drawer bottoms, as the wood moved with the weather.

The book "Connecticut Valley Furniture", Kugelman and Kugelman, Connecticut Historical Society Museum, is a study of various furniture-making groups in the second half of the 18th century. During this period, drawer bottoms were either nailed into rabbets, or inserted in grooves in the drawer sides and front. No mention is made of runners, where the bottoms were nailed on.

One other piece of data. Jeffrey Greene's book, "American Furniture of the 18th Century", says that drawer sides and backs were 3/8" to 1/2" in thickness. He illustrates the groove in side and front method, with no discussion of any options.

All in all, the evidence seems to be that slipped drawers, and thin drawer sides, were a British (or English) innovation. Does anyone know when the practice began in Great Britain, and how widespread it was?

Bill Tilldate: Drawer bottom thickness. The reason to use thin drawer sides, which leads to what I call the "English drawer construction" to accommodate the thin sides, is to lessen the weight of the drawer. That being the case, a drawer bottom of 5/8" seems too thick to me. Faced with a similar situation I make pine bottoms in drawers this size at 3/8". Unless one intends to stand in them a 3/8" bottom is plenty strong. The weak part of the drawer is the dado for the bottom, not the bottom itself.

Derek: Hi Bill, I came to the same conclusion and spent some time today making a new drawer bottom. 5/16" thick Karri Pine, which is the same wood as the drawer sides (front and rear is Tasmanian Oak). This is a beautiful, straight-grained, light wood.

Here is JK blessing the panel.

I am toying with the idea of using slips on the front as well as the sides. I was going to groove the front board but in the end realised that I could save an awful lot of mucking about this way. What doyou think?

In the mean time I made the slips ..

And this is how they are positioned (just one to show the size and placement ...

Tomorrow I will make the drawer ..

Richard Jones: Drawer slips were in common usage in high quality British furniture in the 1700s Wiley, or at least that is what I've found in the restorations I've done over the years. Country furniture and lower quality stuff all the way through to modern work often uses a groove in a thick drawer side... which is the same as in most American furniture, even the antique American furniture that's highly rated by those that are supposed to be in the know.

Contemporary British furniture makers almost exclusively use drawer slips in high quality work. They are common or garden drawer parts around here. Drawers without drawer slips, except in the smallest drawers, are generally considered of inferior quality suitable for workaday furniture, kitchens, workshop drawers, that kind of thing. As long as the side is thick enough it will handle a groove. The problem with thick drawer sides is reckoned to be their inherent ugliness. I have always found it a bit odd that truly attractive American cabinet furniture, whether new or old, usually had within it some drawers with thick drawer sides, 1/2" or more sometimes-- they almost always look heavy and out of proportion to my eyes, but I guess that's just me.


I would not use Derek's idea for a drawer slip on the back face of the drawer front for the following reasons.

You run the drawer bottom groove in the drawer front and the drawer slips one after the other using the settings needed to do this with whichever tool you do the job with. The end result is that the groove is inset the same distance up from the bottom edges of all these parts.

The slips are made with a tenon at the front end that coincides with the position of the groove. This tenon fits into the groove on the back face of the drawer front, ergo, all the grooves line up thus ensuring the drawer bottom slips in easily.

Replace the drawer front groove with a groove in a slip that is attached to the back face of the drawer front, and then ask yourself, "What lines up all these parts?" When that question's answered most people drop the 'slip attached to the drawer front' idea pretty quickly; it's additional work for no good reason and messes with installing and setting a drawer stop which usually sits right at the back of the drawer front. Slainte.

Derek: Hi Richard, Thanks for your input here.

Perhaps you can comment on this - in my understanding there are essentially two types of slips (I am not including the style, such as bevelled, rounded over or flush). Theses are either tenoned or non-tenoned.

My intention is to use non-tenoned slips. These are simply glued to the panels. I fail to see where there is likely to be a problem with alignment. Perhaps I am missing something here. Can you clarify your recommendation.

I ask for interest as I am on course and cannot turn back!

Richard Jones: Drawer Design and drawer bottoms. Derek, there are two types of drawer slip in common usage, but both typically include a tenon at the front end to locate the slip in the drawer front groove. You can make the slips, of either pattern, without the tenon, but that just makes it harder to line up the drawer side slip groove with the drawer front groove.

The difference in slip pattern is down to the drawer interior requirements, ie,
**1- do you want the top face of the drawer bottom flush with the top face of the slip?
**Or, 2- do you want the drawer bottom to sit below the top face of the slip?

If it's the latter, 2, your slip looks like:

With an end result as in these images which incorporates a 6 mm (1/4") thick drawer bottom:

If, on the other hand, you want the inside of the bottom flush with the slips you use a thicker drawer bottom and utilise an offset tongue on the front edge of the drawer bottom-- the upper face of the tongue is on the same level as the rest of the upper face of the drawer bottom. This is to allow for shrinkage of a solid wood bottom and the tongue formed like this prevents a gap showing when shrinkage occurs. The sketches below should show it. I don't happen to have a drawer to hand with this type of slip configuration, so I'm afraid the sketches will have to do. I imagine the sketches will allow you work out what goes on.

And maybe it's time I created a new web page to explain all these differences. I have a ton of images, but I'm really too tied up with another major writing project to deal with it at the moment. Slainte.

1. Flush drawer bottom/slip configuration viewed from the back-- notice thickness of drawer bottom.

2. An exploded view of the flush slip/drawer bottom/groove configuration viewed from the front right hand corner.

This has been an amazing discussion, with many providing wonderful contributions. My thanks to Richard for such invaluable information. For all comments see

Regards from Perth


January 2010