Woodworking

How to make this bright, multi-purpose, plywood drawer unit

Including detailed dimensions and construction notes

11 Aug 2017 /

Yellow drawer unit in hall

A nice lightweight design, on wheels, with bright Formica-faced drawer fronts / View images

11 Aug 2017 /

I really enjoy making things, and I thought I’d do a lot more woodworking when I retired. But my motivation has been elusive. I actually started working on this drawer unit nearly three years ago, and I only just finished it.

The design evolved as I went along. But with long, long delays — whilst I hated everything I’d made so far, but couldn’t think of anything better.

Eventually I replaced the original (ugly) laminated plywood legs with castor wheels. Then I added half-height drawer fronts, at the very last minute, just before final glue up. After finishing the first drawer I decided to rout a couple of extra handles in it. And then I began to think the design looked quite good, after all.

I made the whole unit as light as possible, out of 12 mm birch plywood throughout. All the joints are simple butt joints, strengthened with Festool Dominos. These are a sort of patented floating tenon joint, made with oval-shaped dowels, and I’ve made these a feature by exposing them in rows on the outside of the unit.

Drawer case in workshop

The case is made entirely from 12 mm plywood, so it’s really light / Enlarge

Drawers in workshop

The drawers are reversible, and can be easily removed and carried like storage boxes / Enlarge

The drawers ended up more like storage boxes than drawers, with three cut-out handles. Their two ends are 12 mm plywood too, but laminated inside and out with bright yellow Formica. One end is half height, so the drawer can be reversed to partly reveal its contents. I’ve never tried laminating Formica before, but this turned out to be quick and easy, using spray-on contact adhesive.

Drawer unit with exposed Domino joints

Rows of Domino joints are visible on each side / Enlarge

Drawer with yellow Formica front

Gluing Formica to the plywood was much easier than I expected / Enlarge

Drawer fully opened

Traditional shelf-style runners support the drawers even when almost fully opened / Enlarge

The drawer’s bottoms are 6 mm plywood, glued into a groove on all four sides, making them really strong and solid. The drawers slide on traditional runners (again made of 12 mm plywood), and I was surprised how easily they open and close, with just a bit of candle wax for lubrication. Each drawer can be easily taken out and carried away, impossible if I’d used modern metal drawer runners.

So in the end, it’s been a worthwhile project, and I’ve learned a lot. Now I’m hoping to make a few more units in the same style, varying the layout and number of drawers.

Dimensions and construction notes

Case Dimensions

Case dimensions in mm / Enlarge

Drawers Dimensions

Drawer dimensions in mm / Enlarge

Runner

Alternative ‘runners’ to replace bottom four shelves, dimensions in mm / Enlarge

The entire project is made from birch plywood, all 12 mm thickness, except for the drawer bottoms, which are 6.5 mm thick.

Cutting list

  1. Case sides: 2 off 850 x 400 x 12
  2. Case back: 1 off 850 x 476 x 12
  3. Case shelves/runners: 5 off 476 x 388 x 12
  4. Drawer sides: 8 off 388 x 172 x 12
  5. Drawer backs: 4 off 452 x 172 x 12
  6. Drawer fronts: 4 off 452 x 86 x 12
  7. Drawer bottoms: 4 off 464 x 376 x 6.5

Construction notes

  1. I made the case first, and then adjusted the drawer dimensions to suit the actual runner and opening sizes, allowing 1 mm clearance vertically, and 2 mm clearance horizontally.
  2. I reduced the weight of the bottom four shelves by assembling them from four strips of plywood, leaving a ‘hole’ in the middle, and ‘runners’ at each side. I’m not sure why I did this*, as the overall weight doesn’t really matter, but it was interesting to see how light I could make the case, without sacrificing strength or rigidity.
    *I just re-read this paragraph, months after writing it, and I realised that the ‘hole’ might be needed to reduce drawer friction.
  3. All the joints are Festool 6 x 40 Domino joints, cut right through to expose the Domino dowels on the outer surface of the case and the drawers. This is also a bit unnecessary, and quite a lot of extra care is needed to stop the Dominos from de-laminating the outer layer of plywood as the joint is closed. But I think it looks nice!
  4. I cut the drawer fronts and backs exactly to size before gluing oversize pieces of yellow Formica on each side. It was easy then to trim the Formica using a router with a bearing-guided cutter. I bought a single sheet of yellow Formica and spray-on adhesive from Morlands in the UK (and I’ve got lots left over to make more yellow things).
  5. The bottom of each drawer is glued into a slot routed into the sides, back, and front of each drawer, about 6 mm in from the base edge. This turned out to be a fiddly process, and extra care is needed to make sure each drawer is exactly rectangular before the glue sets. (I ended up checking each drawer mid-way through glue-up, by taking all its clamps off, pushing the assembled drawer into its slot in the case, and then carefully taking it back out and putting all the clamps back on again.)
  6. It was quicker and easier to sand almost every surface before glue-up.
  7. Then, after glue-up, I wiped on a couple of coats of Osmo Hardwax Oil, a ‘good enough’ clear finish that’s fast and easy to apply.
  8. I routed out most of the drawer handles after the drawers were glued up, but before applying the Osmo oil, using a bearing-guided cutter and a thin plywood template.
  9. Finally I screwed a castor wheel on to each corner of the base. I chose wheels with brakes, as I thought that the whole unit might roll around whenever a drawer was opened. But in practice there is little friction from the candle-wax lubricated drawer runners, and it might have been neater to have brakes only on the back two wheels.

More woodworking posts, coming soon…

In my about this website page I’ve said that I want to make my hobbies accessible. To encourage others to have a try at things that I’ve discovered, and enjoyed.

But here I am, in my very first woodworking post, beginning with one of the trickiest things I’ve ever made. Tricky, not because this drawer unit is complicated, but because it demands a high level of accuracy. If you can achieve this accuracy, everything fits simply and easily into place. But, if you’re new to woodworking, this project could be a nightmare!

So, this probably wasn’t the best place for me to start writing about woodworking. But at least I’ve begun, and I’m now planning to focus my next few woodworking posts on:

  • How to get started making plywood furniture like this
  • What tools are needed — including some cheaper alternatives
  • Some strategies to achieve accuracy and repeatability

And in the meantime, you’re welcome to ask me a question, or let me know what you think, in the comments below.

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