Joinery challenge: making a hardware cabinet

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Words and photos: Charles Mak
Diagrams: Graham Sands

Over the years, I have built cabinets, trays, or boxes of various designs and sizes for my hand tools. But tools are not the only objects that we woodworkers worry about proper storage of. Tired of my disorganised storage of hardware, I set out to design and build my first till of drawers to house some of my essentials. I also set out to use mainly hand tools in this project.



Design and construction

I wanted to house select cabinet hardware such as screws, pulls and hinges, and keep the cabinet’s size and weight manageable to enable hand carrying. Since dovetails offer strength as well as aesthetics, I used them for both the carcase and drawers. Traditional drawers are lap- dovetailed at the front and through- dovetailed at the back. Here, I treated the drawers like cabinet carcases, and put half-lap dovetails at both the front and the back, 16 of them in total – all hand cut.

To house the carcase back, stopped and through grooves are used, while through grooves (used with hole plugs) are cut in the drawers to hold the bottoms.

After giving it some thought, I chose stopped dados instead of through dados on the sides to house the partitions. Such an approach means more work – the partitions being shouldered accordingly – but gives a much neater appearance. Figs 1 and 2 show the construction.

The final design decision was about the handl. A big handle on the top or handles on the sides would seem a bit distracting, if not intrusive. In the end, I settled for a handle-free solution: rubber feet are mounted to the bottom, raising the case high enough to slip my fingers underneath to hold the till.


Preparing the stock

While flat and true stock is what we should always strive to prepare and use, one’s attention to timber quality plays an even more important role when we build fine drawers. ‘(A) fine drawer requires a perfect fit...The sides must be clean, and true, the top and bottom – whether the surfaces of a cabinet or separate frames, must be flat’, James Krenov said. So – examine your parts before you start, especially if there is a significant lapse between the time you dressed the stock and the time you work on the project.

Carcase dovetails

Handcut dovetails show your craftsmanship as well as your taste. It pays to learn how to cut them and use them often enough so they become a joinery choice you can consider without any fear or hesitation.

This article does not cover the step- by-step details of how I mark and cut dovetails. For beginners and seasoned woodworkers alike, the best written guide on the subject I have come across is Ian Kirby’s The Complete Dovetail. It should help you improve or refresh your dovetailing skill.

For starters, I always follow his advice when marking out joints by setting the marking gauge less than the thickness of the wood. One of the key advantages of his approach is that the ends of the joints will be cut below the surface of the carcase, meaning that you can clamp directly on the tails to close the joints, without making any clamping cauls.

Cutting the tails


After laying out the tail boards, I cut them as a pair (photo 1). To start, make a light saw kerf on the waste side of the pencil line across the endgrain. Having the stock held level will help you cut sloping or perpendicular lines more consistently. 


Then tilt the saw in the kerf to cut to the sloping line (photo 2). Use long strokes without forcing the saw down, taking care not to cut beyond the baselines which will spoil the finished look of the joint.


With the tail slopes sawn, use a coping or fret saw to remove the bulk waste from the pin sockets (photo 3). After gang-sawing the tails, I remove the bulk of the waste one board at a time. 


Saw off the outside half pins and clean up the shoulders (photo 4). Use a chisel that is narrower than the width of the socket, and work from both sides to finish the tails cleanly. 


Garbage tails, garbage pins – squareness on the tails is essential and should be checked using a square (photo 5).

Cutting the pins


To mark the pin boards, I use a dovetail alignment board, a jig made popular by British woodworker David Barron (photo 6). In knifing, make three strokes – light, medium, then heavy – instead of one heavy stroke to prevent following the grain line. 



After marking the endgrain, draw vertical pencil lines from the endgrain knife lines down on the pin board, and saw straight down as guided by the pencil lines. Remove the waste and chisel to the lines (photos 7, 8). For thicker stock, drilling is a quick way to remove the bulk waste in the pin sockets. Lastly, dry fit the whole case. I use a butt chisel (honed at 40°), followed by a regular chopping or paring chisel in the final chiselling act. 

Cutting the grooves



Disassemble the carcase, and cut grooves on the interior of the case at the back for the hardboard back. The plough plane is the ideal tool to cut through grooves on the carcase sides. With the help of a chisel and a router plane (and some patience), the plough can also handle stopped grooves which are cut on the top and bottom (photos 9, 10).

Drawer dovetails

It is easier to build a carcase with partitions installed and then make the drawers to fit into openings. However, if you are confident of your precision skills and measurements, you can build the drawers first – and that is a challenge I was willing to take on.



The process of cutting half-lap dovetails for the drawers starts out the same as that for a through dovetail – by first marking out the tails (photos 11, 12). In gang-sawing, tails are marked on one board, and the endgrain lines transferred to the second board with a square. To avoid unnecessary blunders, mark out the waste before you start sawing on the waste side of the line, or splitting the line. 


After sawing the tail slopes, chisel a knife wall on the outside half pins to guide the sawing off of the half pins (photo 13).


Lastly, after forming the tails (photo 14), plough through grooves on the side pieces for the bottoms.


The alignment board is used again to transfer the tails to the pin boards. But this time, the tails (carcase sides) are set back to create a lap (the end wall thickness) on the pins (drawer fronts and backs) (photo 15). To transfer marks, hold the knife tightly against the tail and scribe in three progressive strokes. 


With the pins marked out and vertical pencil lines added, clamp the drawer front in a vice and saw the pins diagonally as guided by the knife lines and pencil lines (photo 16). Tilt the saw and begin the cut on the near corner, splitting the scribed line. 


Use a series of horizontal and vertical chisel cuts to finish the sockets (photo 17). Chop out the waste across the grain first, then chisel away the waste in the socket down the grain. The marking gauge can be used as a super-fine cutting tool to remove just a hair of material. 

Repeat the same steps for the half-lap joints at the drawer backs. After ploughing through grooves on the  drawer front and backboards, glue up the drawers with the bottoms in place.



I put the glued-up drawers in the dry-assembled carcase one by one to mark out the dados for the partitions (photo 18). Scribe the dado baselines across the carcase side using a combination square. 


First, the dado width is scribed on the inside face of the carcase sides and the waste chiseled away between the scribed lines (photo 19). A router plane was then used to cut the dados to proper depth. Dry fit the dado joinery, and aim for a snug fit.


In the last step, mark out the shoulders on the partitions, matching the stopped dados, and cut out the notches. Remember to test fit the whole carcase with the partitions in place.I chamfered the dado edges of the partitions slightly before assembly. 


With so many parts involved (and so much effort invested), carefully plan out your carcase glue-up procedures (fig.1 shows a suggested glue-up sequence), and rehearse everything a couple of times.

For more complex assemblies like this, I use hide glue (bottled form) for its long working time and reversibility. To allow the partitions to move, apply a dab of glue to the front spots only.

Clamp the assembly square, by checking the diagonals. To adjust the diagonals to become equal, shift the clamps in the direction of the long diagonal. While waiting for the glue to set, plug the holes on the drawer sides.

Once the glue is cured, plane everything flush. Here is another reason for setting the gauge slightly less than the thickness of the board: the endgrain of the joints are the reference surfaces, and they tell you when to stop planing each board.

Fitting the drawers is the moment of truth, and will reveal how well you have prepared your materials, cut your joints and put everything together. Here, a handplane with a keen edge gives you better control than any power tool if you need to take off only a minute amount of material.


I applied coats of finish to the outside of the carcase and to the outside of the drawer fronts (up to the very front on the drawer sides, highlighting just the half-lap joints). The final chores are to attach the drawer pulls and the feet.

This till took me a good amount of time to make by hand, but it allowed me to appreciate the Krenovian secret of well fitted drawers – ‘that of method, patience, and consistency’. If you want a project wherein you can employ plenty of hand craftsmanship, test your patience, and show your passion, this is the right one for you!

Charles Mak lives in Alberta, Canada and enjoys writing articles and woodworking in his workshop.


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