Vintage Wooden Drawer Repair

This week, several of my favorite designer-blogger friends are on Modenus’ Blog Tour Cologne 2013, taking in the culture and Gothic architecture of Cologne, Germany, while learning more about their sponsors’ latest home design products, and busily blogging and tweeting their impressions. There’s no doubt many of us with ties to this vibrant community are perhaps a tad envious (I know I am), but there’s something nice about seeing good friends of mine enjoying their camaraderie, while also deeply engaged in their craft.

Now, if you happen to be looking for bleeding edge interior design and ultra modern home decor here, you’ve really come to the wrong place! But, if your preferences include the timeless workmanship of centuries past (or even just sixty or seventy five years past), then there’s bound to be something here that’ll interest you. Perhaps this story might…

Vintage china closet cabinetry and open drawers below.

Circa 1950 vintage china closet and storage cabinet.

Yesterday, I’d spent most of my afternoon at the Shell-Poole homestead, in Stratford, Connecticut, repairing some very old wooden cabinet drawers, and felt inspired to give a brief account of their simple, but quite effective, traditional design. Perhaps more importantly, I also wanted to demonstrate how readily repairable old work really is, and why I think repairing it is worth the effort.

Removed cabinet drawer and broken bottom panel.

Removed cabinet drawer and broken bottom panel.

These particular drawers (there are three of them, altogether) are part of a large, custom-made, built-in china closet, that had been crafted here, on-site, probably some time in the 1950s. As far back as I can remember, they had always been veritable archives of the cherished and the ridiculous — packed with so much junk, that I never saw them actually function as the day-to-day, working storage they were intended to be. Only the top few cubic inches of each drawer’s volume were ever accessible, and you basically proceeded at your own risk if you attempted diving deeper.

The cabinet's face and web frames.

Vintage cabinetry face-frame and web-frame.

A common malady incurred by all three drawers, in fact, is that their rear, lower corners all had split to varying degrees, with some even shattering. I’d like to think this was due to the ravages of time and wood movement, but no — it was more like the ravages of being forever packed beyond any reasonable capacity. Since the drawers incorporated wood-on-wood slides, they gradually became too difficult to open, and we’d all fallen into the unfortunate habit of lifting upward on the pulls, and sliding the drawers on their rear corners, which is what eventually caused all the breakage.

The broken, lower, rear corner of one of the drawers.

The broken, lower, rear corner of one of the drawers.

Even the bottom panel of one of the drawers (the most heavily loaded one) had completely split in two, lengthwise, along its grain. But however dire this all might sound, the damage was easily repairable, requiring no more than some gluing and clamping (and, of course, throwing away that decades old  junk, before returning the drawers to service — clutter is evil, and thoroughly capable of destroying a house in time; it’s true). I’ll cover the repairs shortly, but first, let’s delve a bit into their traditional design.

The shattered rear corner of one of the drawers.

This corner is even worse, having nearly broken completely apart.

Each drawer consists of five panels: front, rear, two sides, and bottom. The edges of the front panel are halved and beveled all along the perimeter, so it can fit flush against the face frame when the drawer is closed. The side panels are through-dadoed and rabbeted where they join with the rear and bottom panels, respectively, whose edges in turn are cut with tongues to fit the dadoes and rabbets. And the entire drawer assembly is simply nailed together at these corner joints.

Close-up of web-frame mortise and tenon joint.

Close-up of a mortise and tenon joint of the web frame. The "channel" to the extreme right is wear caused by the wooden drawer slider, and the drawer stop is just up against the cabinet side.

Both the web and face frame sections are constructed using traditional mortise-and-tenon joinery, with the mortises somewhat wider than the tenons to allow for seasonal wood movement. But perhaps the most significant aspect of this design is that the bottom edges of each drawer’s side panels function as “sliders” for the drawer, moving back and forth over the rails of the web frame, with a small stop on each side ensuring the drawer moves in a straight path.

Close-up of a mortise and tenon joint of the face frame.

Close-up of a mortise and tenon joint of the face frame, and the drawer stop just behind it.

Of particular note is this small “rise” just at the front of each slider, which has the effect of slightly raising the drawer just as it’s closed, and smartly “locking” it against the face frame. An ingenious example of wood-on-wood engineering, and a design that was commonly employed long before the more recent, widespread use of metal and nylon sliding parts in cabinet making.

The rise just behind, and slightly below, one of the front panels.

The rise just behind, and slightly below, one of the front panels.

Now, for the repair work. Most of the broken or shattered corners were easily enough repaired by injecting some wood glue and then clamping the affected edges, both depth-wise and width-wise. Since many of the rabbeted edges had split three ways, it was necessary to ensure that they were clamped so as to remain reasonably square. But that was about it.

Clamps at one corner

Clamping in two dimensions.

The split bottom panel, on the other hand, required a bit more effort. First, I clamped the two halves together dry, so as to figure out the best possible placement of the clamps when forcing the break back together. Although the break was relatively clean, it had happened a good number of years ago, and the two halves didn’t completely align now without applying some force.

Bottom panel glued and clamped.

The bottom panel glued, clamped, and set upright to clear some floor space. The blue Quick Grips on either side ensure that both sides of the edge are aligned where it's been re-joined.

Next, I scored each side of the break with 60 grit sandpaper, criss-crossing the grain in both directions, to ensure better glue adhesion. I brushed wood glue on both edges, and applied a final bead down the center of one edge. Then, I clamped everything, cleaned the residual glue up (I’ve found those small, plastic, ScrapeRite blades very handy for culling wet glue oozing from joints, BTW), and set the panel aside to dry overnight.

Several clamps on one panel.

The worst shattered side panel required several clamps after gluing.

This morning, I removed the clamps from the bottom panel, scraped away the remaining dried glue, and worked it back into the drawer. Some beeswax applied to the rabbeted edges and dadoes, and a little gentle hammer tapping, got the repaired bottom panel back in place.

A big block of beeswax.

Beeswax is a great natural and non-toxic lubricant for getting wood-to-wood sliding contact to work. I much prefer it over products like silicone sprays.

I also applied beeswax to the sliders, and then re-installed the drawers in the cabinet.

Rubber-and-plastic hammer and repaired bottom panel fitted to drawer.

A little gentle hammer tapping, plus the beeswax, easily persuaded the repaired bottom panel back into the drawer. Two small brads in the back finally secured it.

All this (and no more future overloading of the drawers, of course) has brought them back to a fully functional state, while also making them a pleasure to use once again, and hopefully ensuring their ongoing service and survival for at least another five or ten decades.

Drawers reinstalled in cabinet.

Finally back in business. Eventually, these drawers and the cabinetry will get re-finished when I finally re-finish the entire kitchen and pantry. But at least they're fixed and fully serviceable now.

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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3 Responses to Vintage Wooden Drawer Repair

  1. Clutter is evil. Repair is good. Glad to see you minding your beeswax. And thanks for the blog tour shout out.

  2. Mimi says:

    John, what does one do about a drawer that opens 8″ or so, and then drops forward dramatically? This may be the opposite of the problem your drawers had. Thanks for responding.

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