Are "High-End" Drawer Joints Worth the Trouble?

Cabinetmakers discuss the processes involved in dovetail joints, box joints, and simpler drawer construction joints. Will customers see value in a "better" drawer joint? February 26, 2007

I've been wondering if customers know or appreciate the difference between a through box joint and a half blind dovetail. I like the look of a box joint better. Especially a .25 box joint. I'd be using them in the occasional kitchen and entertainment centers, desks, etc. I'm thinking of offering them at a price point between dovetails and basic boxes. Any words of wisdom?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor F:
I don't think most customers know a lot about different drawer joinery. I am surprised that box joints would be less expensive for you to produce than dovetails, though. I would think the order from lowest labor to highest would be butt joint, dovetail, 1/4" box joint. I am pretty sure that 1/4" box joints would be the strongest, though.

From contributor D:
Personally, I like the box joints, too. In my area customers are not very educated about drawers in general, and thus most shops are just using epoxy slides and Baltic birch butt joint or melamine drawers and they are just happy getting them. I think you will do fine offering box joints.

P.S. If you call them high end box joints, you can raise the price 200 percent.

From contributor B:
I agree that box joints are typically more work. So I question the pricing below a dovetail joint. Properly done, it is stronger than a dovetail joint (more glue surface area). I agree also that it looks better. I would guess maybe 1 out of 100 customers would care.

From contributor T:
I have had many customers that know absolutely nothing about cabinetry, but when they see that dovetail, they automatically think quality. Right or wrong, it's a fact.

From the original questioner:
I agree, but do they see a dovetail and a box joint the same way? I think they look for an interlocking joint and see quality. It's an extreme example, but I'm thinking along the same line as they don't see the difference between an 8 degree dovetail and a 14 degree dovetail.

As far as cost structure goes:
Basic box - Pocket screw butt joint, anyone in the shop can do this. And I think it's still plenty strong for almost any drawer needs.

Box joint - We cut them on the tablesaw or shaper. We use a commercial box joint jig and I can teach almost anyone in the shop to use it. Fairly low skilled. It's also fast; less than 5 minutes per drawer to cut the corner joints and the bottom dado. Corrections are easy if the wood is not held tightly. Just re-cut.

Dovetail - We use a dedicated hand router and a dedicated jig and it's a pain to get and keep set up. Each time the material is cut increases the risk of ruining a drawer. It's also somewhat slower. Not much, but a minute or two per drawer by my studies, depending on the operator. It also takes more skill because of the constant setup. It's either me or my full timer that does this.

Please keep in mind that it's a small shop. I've given up on finding quality long term employees. I have me, one full time and one part time. I've found that my part time person can cut box joints but has a hard time getting dovetails right.

I've looked at outsourcing drawers and I have a hard time justifying. For the current job, a kitchen, the drawer estimate was almost $600.00 delivered. That was priced at the low end (plywood, unfinished, unassembled). I can rip the stock, pre-finish, cut and assemble all drawers using cut-offs and scrap for much less than $600.00. And I'm all for tossing less wood into the dumpster.

And that is what it's really coming down to. Cost to produce. But I still like the look of them better than dovetails. And Home Depot does not do box joints. For those that do make their own dovetail drawers, what equipment do you use?

From contributor F:
Less than 5 minutes for a box jointed drawer box with bottom groove. Less than two minutes for a half blind dovetailed drawer box.

From contributor M:
I do half blind dovetails on an inexpensive Porter Cable jig, and used to do them on a Leigh jig. I gave up on the Leigh jig since I could only cut either one side or front at a time with that. With the PC, it is pretty quick once it is set up. But I find that the quality of the fit is not as good as the Leigh.

I used to think the dovetailing was so time consuming, but after doing a few kitchens worth, it's not so bad. But what I found for me was that the time to set up and cut the dadoes for the bottoms, make the bottoms, glue up the drawers, sand them out, and spray a couple of coats of varnish, sanding between coats, and notching for slides makes for a fair amount of labor.

I can order pre-made and finished drawers for about $60-65 each, and that is less than I can build them for. With a shop rate of $55.00 per hour, I would have to be able to complete a drawer in less than an hour with finish and notches for slides, to be equal to what I can buy. Right now I cannot do that, so I outsource drawers for any job over 6 or so drawers.

As far as box joints versus dovetails, I don't think customers would look down on that at all, if that is what you're worried about. I think if someone asked you to build a period style piece of furniture, that would be one thing, but for nice cabinets, the box joint would be great.

I agree that when people see a dovetail, they automatically assume it was difficult to do, but I think they would think the same of the box joint, especially 1/4". When you do these on your tablesaw, do you use a special dado cutter that does not leave the little wing tip kerf cuts that many of the dado sets leave? Just curious.

From contributor A:
Here is what we do. I use a Forrest dado blade that has been resharpend, so maybe the points are not as sharp. We use one of the Woodsmith box joint jigs. It works just as well on the shaper if you would rather use a router bit than a table saw.

I just cut a 4" kitchen drawer. We have all the drawer sides cut and stacked up on a cart. I pick up a stack of 4, cut one side, flip end to end, cut other end. Repeat 3 more times and on the 4th, flip and rotate so the joints match. Turn saw off and dry fit.

Total time this morning from picking a drawer stack off the cart to dry fit - about 3 minutes, 45 seconds. I can set up my small onsite table saw and cut the bottom dados in all four drawer sides in under one minute.

I'm careful to adjust the height of the blade so I don't have to sand the poo out of it. One trip per side through the sander and it's ready to assemble (once drawer bottoms are cut). Glue and clamp, quick sand as needed and finish.

If I really want to cut time, I can buy pre-finished drawer sides. More importantly, I can have my lower skilled employees make drawers. No, not less than 2 minutes for a dovetail. It's at least 2 minutes more than a box drawer. In reality, it seems I spend almost 10 minutes per drawer using an older PC dovetail jig. And I wind up getting a side in the jig that moves during the cut and then the side is screwed up.

Hope this helps you understand how we do it. What really made it faster is the Woodsmith jig.

From contributor J:
I use half blind dovetails in solid maple. I agree that when a client sees a dovetail, it pretty much sells itself. Don't know about the box joints since I haven't played with them much.

I use a P/C router with the Omnijig to knock them out a pile at a time. They're not always perfect, though, and I'll usually have to clean the top edges with a block plane after assembly. After dovetailing I cut a 3/8" groove in the sides for the bottoms, then make a relief cut (both on the t.s.), to bring the thickness of the sides under the bottom to 5/8", which allows it to fit the Blumotion slides. I do a kitchen at a time, so it goes smoothly once the machines are set up.

It's not quick by any means and I could surely buy them cheaper, but for a one man shop, I try to build as much as I can in house. And as far as cost goes, my average paint grade, shaker style kitchen is also in the 20k range.

On a side note, one of my newest clients asked me if it was true that we (cabinetmakers) all bought our doors and drawers, and so were basically all the same. I informed her that the industry is definitely headed in that direction, but that I still built everything myself. I don't know if that made the difference in her deciding to choose me, but it certainly gives me pride in what I do.

From contributor D:
It isn't what most people are doing, but I switched to Tandembox a few years ago and it is almost never that a customer requests a wood dovetail drawer over these. I had one job with teak cabinets in a music room last year where the customer requested dovetail maple and I gladly did it, but the customers I deal with really love the smooth operation and soft close and that is what sells them. If they ask about strength, I explain to them that they carry a lifetime guarantee and explain with the ball bearing slides and soft close, drawers do not get the stress on them that they used to when dovetails were invented.