Drawers are in our furniture and our cabinets. What makes some drawer work great, and others not so much? There are three things that effect drawer quality; materials, construction and sliding mechanisms.
Let’s start with materials. The highest quality drawer boxes are made from hardwoods such as maple. On high end work you may even find solid wood drawer bottoms, although veneers are the norm due to their strength and stability. One step down are boxes made from veneer plywood such as Baltic Birch. This type of plywood is not only is it strong, but the edges look good. The lowest quality drawers are made of some version of “twas” wood (thanks Walt). It twas wood, then it was ground up, mixed with glue and pressed into a board. This is the most likely to fail due to the lack of internal strength.
The next measure of drawer quality is construction. The best drawers will be assembled using dovetail joinery. It is strong and attractive, and when done well, they can’t fail. There are several methods of interlocking joints that work well but they are not as strong. The bottom of the barrel is a butt joint, two pieces of wood butt together. They are usually glued and nailed, but this is a very weak joint and usually doesn’t last. One more thing, the bottom should sit in a groove in the sides and drawer front, not just nailed on the bottom. Over time the weight of the items in the drawer will wear on the nails and eventually will cause the bottom to fall off.
A high end piece may work very well without any mechanical assistance but generally slides are required. It could be something simple like a wood on wood slide or a mechanical slide. These are generally used on dressers and larger drawer, so the need to stand up to a fair amount of wear and tear. Mechanical slides fall into two basic categories; rollers and ball bearings. Rollers are more popular due to their lower cost. Ball bearing slides are considerably stronger, smoother, and allow for over travel. Most drawers only open ¾ of the way making you reach in for items in the back. Over travel allows the back of the drawer to extend beyond the face frame.
Keep this information in mind the next time you buy a piece with a drawer in it, you’ll know what you’re getting into.