Make up the modular design of these drawers to suit your own space or creativity
By Matt Stafford
I have constructed this project to demonstrate the concept of modular design for a set of drawers.
A modular concept allows you to design drawer space to fit your needs. You can add on or change the layout to suit, or you could mix them with shelves to make up modules to fit an awkward space or just to express your creativity.
Some years ago I built a similar system for my daughter who was flatting as a student. The drawers were lighter than a full cabinet and more portable so that whenever she changed addresses it was a relatively easy matter to up sticks. It also allowed for different configurations of the basic components and I realised then that this could be taken further.
Of course, the sizes and number are limited only by your own imagination. For simplicity, we have devised the dimensions both for utility and in order to get the carcases from the one sheet of MDF. I like MDF for its stability and uniformity. It is quite straightforward to work with and takes a paint finish well. In this instance, I have clashed the end grain with recycled kauri.
First, mark up the sheet of 18mm MDF and cut it lengthwise into 400mm wide sections.
Trim the lengths to size, making them slightly oversize, enough for each carcase at once but allowing a little extra for trim. Cutting them to carcase-size makes for a manageable length. It also allows you to add the clashing in a complete strip to ensure that the clashing grain and colour matches all round. The clashing has been ripped from recycled pieces but I have ensured that the pieces are long enough to provide continuity in the grain direction and colour.
I rip the 20mm-wide kauri stock into 10mm strips.
It is attached with glue and masking tape and I like to put a small panel pin in one end to prevent it from sliding everywhere with the glue. Once the glue is set, the clashings can be sanded to size. The beauty of a paint finish is that you don’t have to worry too much about sanding through a veneer or scratching a melamine surface. Should you opt for either of these options, it is safer to use a block plane or scraper to take the clashing within a hair of the surface and then to sand the rest carefully.
I rout a 6mm trench in the rear of the cabinet for the cabinet back. You could cut a rebate on the end, but MDF is quite soft on the edge and the locked-in back will help to hold the case rigid and square. I have inset the trench 10mm from the edge to avoid delamination of the MDF which can occur when you cut rebates or mortises too close to the edge.
Now the fun begins.
Set up your table saw to trim one edge of each piece at 45º. Ideally, you cut the clashing first to eliminate any possibility of tearout. Once all the pieces have been cut one side, set your fence to the exact width and turn the pieces to cut the alternate bevel. The cut will now begin from the back of the piece and exit at the clashing, so it is wise to use a sacrificial piece here to prevent tearout. Take your time and set up the pieces so you can’t accidentally cut the bevel the wrong way
These cabinets could be made by simply gluing them together, but biscuit joints will ensure that the cabinets will be able to stand up to some load.
If you use No 20 size biscuits as I have (simply because they are what cabinetmakers use most) set the fence so it doesn’t cut through the stock. Alternatively, you could use different size biscuits.
At this point, it’s not a bad idea to dry-assemble the carcasses to ensure that everything will fit together and to make any adjustments prior to installing the drawer slides. Assuming everything fits, it is now time to place the drawer runner hardware.
There are many types of drawer hardware. You may choose to use a system you are more familiar with or opt for a simpler system using plastic slides. But we have gone for full-extension slides.
These particular slides are Hettich but Häfele and others produce similar quality hardware. I have developed a simple jig for placing the case hardware.
The sides of all these carcases are conveniently 200mm wide, so the jig will work with all the side pieces. I have set the carcase hardware dead centre too, which eliminates the problem of checking the correct orientation of each piece. Drill the holes to accept the hardware screws. Dry-fit a few of the pieces to ensure the fit is correct. The front end of the drawer slide mechanism should be set back from the front by 18mm to accommodate the flush-mounted drawer front. I usually draw a line through the centre of the holes and terminate it at the carcase front to assist in aligning the hardware for the drawer sides later.
Assembling the parts is a fiddly job that requires all four of your hands at once.
It’s also wise to move fairly quickly as the biscuits are swelling from the moment they contact moisture. I find it easiest to do these in two parts (one side and one top together) and then fit the two parts. The last join is the fiddliest.
Once they are together, apply clamping pressure evenly to the joints to close up the mitres and the edge-joins. As this piece is to be painted, I don’t worry too much about the glue squeezeout. If the piece was made from veneered or solid timber that was to be stained or oiled, I would mask the edges and be far fussier about squeeze-out. The glue, though non-staining, can be absorbed enough to prevent stain or oil finishes taking wherever it lands. It has to be either sanded, never an easy job, or removed with MEK or thinners.
The main objective in clamping is to achieve a carcase that is reasonably square and has no gaps in the mitres. Clean up the squeeze-out from both the outside and inside of the carcase with a damp cloth, trying not to oversaturate the MDF with water.
Now assemble the drawers.
The drawer sides and front are made from 12mm stock and the rear is cut from 18mm MDF. The sides are 160mm x 366mm to allow a 15mm gap at the top and a 5mm clearance at the bottom of the carcase. The ends are cut to allow for a 25mm clearance on either side, to allow for the thickness of the sides and the 12.5 mm required for the slide mechanism. The base of the drawers is trenched 6mm about 10mm from the edge to allow for the drawer base.
These drawers are intended to be constructed quickly. I don’t believe in spending a lot of time on parts that aren’t visible, so I am simply glueing and stapling them. But you could, of course, use any of the traditional drawer-making joints, even dovetails if you desire. Glue and staple the drawer components. Insert the base piece and staple this into the rear of the drawer. Don’t glue this piece in, as it needs to be able to move a little with humidity.
While the drawers are setting, you can install the hardware on the insides of the carcases. It is now that you will appreciate the line we drew previously through the centre lines of the drawer hardware.
Drop some spacers into the base of the carcase until the drawer fills the carcase, flush with the front. Fit the drawers with a 5mm gap at the base. A little trick here is to take a small wedge and measure 5mm across its side. Mark that point all round. Now, when you insert the wedge in place, you will have a 5mm clearance exactly. With the drawers in place, transfer the centreline mark from the carcase. Fit the drawer side hardware and mark its position and drill these holes to take the small pan head screws. Set the screws into the slots that allow for some lateral adjustment. It is best to mark these all individually because there will inevitably be some inaccuracies and out-of-square carcases which we can deal with next.
Fit all the drawer side slides and check that they fit in their carcases. Mark out and drill four holes for the false front attachment.
Fitting drawer fronts
It is inevitable that some or all of the carcases will be slightly out of square. Everybody has their own method of dealing with it. This is mine.
With the drawer fronts cut exactly to size, see if they fit. If they do, congratulations. If not, try to fit one corner and mark off the deviation at the opposite corner. Draw a line between this and the “good” corner. If it is not too severely out, I usually find I can adjust the difference by sanding on the stationary belt sander. But an alternative is to carefully trim this off on the table saw.
Before cutting all four sides again for the reveal and while the front fits snugly in the carcase, it is a good time to mark the holes for the drawer front attaching screws.
Insert slightly oversize screws in two diagonally opposite holes so the points are just projecting, and then fit the front to the carcase.
With the drawer in place, apply a technical tap and open the drawer. This is easier with the screw for the drawer pull in place. In case you don’t have a central drawer pull, leave a spacer in the bottom of the carcase so the drawer doesn’t disappear completely. With the points marked, drill two holes to fit the attachment screws and proceed to trim all the sides for the reveal.
Trim the sides on the table saw to allow for a 1-2 mm reveal all round. I generally ease the edges of the carcase and slightly radius the edges of the drawer fronts to remove any sharp edges where paint could build up. Now attach the front to the drawers for the final time.
After the screw holes have been located, I usually drill the original holes, used to mark out the screw positions on the back of the drawer front, oversize (4mm dia). This allows for some last-minute adjustment. Screw the drawer front to the drawer through these holes and test the fit. Adjust as necessary to get an even reveal and then screw home the other two screws to fix the drawer front.
Mark out the mounting holes for the drawer pulls and drill these now. Now all that remains is a spray paint and some finish on the timber.
We have set the pieces out with an 18mm spacer painted black to create shadow lines.
Simply attaching the carcasses on top of each other, although an option, tends to double the thickness of the walls and makes it look a little dense in the middle. The spacers give the piece a sense of lightness. There is no limit to how big or small or how many of these you can make. The advantage of this modular concept is that it can become quite organic and grow with your needs. You can add new units as required, or change the configuration to your tastes or environment.