A CURVED DRAWER
I want my furniture to be fun. Useful and elegant is nice too, but I love lots of delightful surprises — discovering a secret drawer or some sparkling detail. A tall cabinet I have been working on has many drawers, all of them fun, some secret, some not so secret, three swing out and are a combination lock for a door, and one is curved.
The curved drawer arcs to the left as you pull it out. It’s surprising and unusual. The shape is amusing too — a drawer with sides that appear elastic enough to bend into a curve. Otherwise my curved drawer doesn’t look that complicated— but it turned out to be.
I usually start building a drawer with the pocket made, guides in place, and carefully fit the face first, and then build the drawer to it. Because of the way this cabinet is constructed the interior around the drawer is not accessible later, so I had to build from the inside out. My drawer also had some tight tolerances, fitting within 1/16” of a tambour door that slides by it. An accurate paper pattern seemed the best way to get the tolerances right, and to see how the curve of the drawer felt. I also used it to set the left guide; the right one I could fit after the drawer was built.
For a drawer to work smoothly it has to be a consistent width — parallel sides —so it glides in and out of its pocket without any looseness or snugness. The guides that control it must be parallel too, and in this case the same curve as the drawer sides. I knew that by laminating the sides I could make them thin, strong, and smoothly curved. I cut a pine laminating form to an arc of 20” radius and laminated the two sides on it. With 4 thin laminates, for sides just under 1/4” thick, I got very little springback.
The problem is that these sides were only parallel when right next to one another, and as I unhappily discovered not at all when I built them into a drawer. For my next drawer only 2” wide, parallel sides would have to be arcs of 20” radius and 18” radius. That would require two pretty exact bending forms, and even then I wasn’t sure they would yield truly parallel sides. I worked on other parts of my cabinet while I thought about my next move.
The solution turned out to be easy and accurate. I made a single form to the smaller radius and laminated the “inner” side on it. And then I laminated the “outer” side on top of the first, only spaced with blocks the exact width of the inside of the drawer. Since my drawer was so small I actually did both laminations at the same time. These sides are perfectly parallel, even if they are not exact arcs of a circle (due to springback). Before unclamping my laminations I marked the sides with a line perpendicular to the form, so I could keep them in the same orientation within the drawer.
My sides were wider than I needed. Some of that extra width became the guides. The rest was cut away jointing the top and bottom edges. I use either of two methods (or both) to hold curved parts to joint them. One way is to hold an end in a wooden jawed clamp fastened to my bench. Another is to jam the far end into a “stop” or V slot in a piece of scrap clamped firmly. I occasionally checked the side on my jointer table to see if it stood square.
For my first curved drawer, the one with the same radius sides, I cut half blind dovetails to join the face and sides. It wasn’t easy, but if you lay out the parts together (on that paper pattern) and get the angles accurate for the ends of the sides and the face, those are the surfaces that guide cutting the joint. For my second much smaller drawer I cut a locking rabbet joint by hand. The form was a useful place to support the sides while laying out and cutting the joinery.
The curved bottom and curved groove were further challenges. I’ve used a router with a three wing cutter (cutting a groove horizontally) housed in a rounded “fence” to cut accurate grooves in curved parts. I’ve also made a simple scratchstock cutter to scrape a groove. Then there was the issue of how to slide the bottom in on a curve.
My solution was again simple. In Japan I saw many drawers with a thin paulownia bottom merely glued (and sometimes pegged) to the underside of the sides and face. The drawer rides on the bottom, and since paulownia is very stable, it somehow works. Since I am using as many native woods as possible for this cabinet, I chose curly maple for the bottom, reasoning it was hard, fine grained, and would slide sweetly. Since I can ignore seasonal movement in such a small bottom, for simplicity and strength I ran the grain down the length of my drawer.
I was going to add a fancy face to my drawer, in this case birdseye maple with some inlaid dots, so I hung it down to cover the thickness of the bottom.
The last step was fitting the outside guide. I slid the drawer in, laid a piece of paper as a shim along the outside, moved the guide into position, and screwed it down lightly. After trying my drawer a few times, and a light tapping here and there on the guide to position it perfectly, I secured it with a few glue blocks on the outside. A pine block at the rear is the stop for the drawer.
What’s next? A secret drawer hiding in the back of a larger drawer could be fun.