Chip-free dovetailing in plywood

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Building dovetailed plywood drawers without chipping; European and American approaches. April 24, 2002

I typically use 1/2" Baltic birch plywood for drawer sides and backs on dressers, night stands, etc. but don't like the way the boards chip out while dovetailing. I like the stability of the plywood even on better furniture. What wood is everyone out there using for drawer construction to maintain long term durability?

Forum Responses
We build our drawers from 3/4" pre-finished plywood, edgebanded and assembled with #20 biscuits. We use plenty of glue in the biscuits and scrape the finish off of the plywood at the joint. Have never had one come apart.

You really shouldn't be getting any chip-out. Are you scoring the drawer side with a climb cut first?

Chip-free dovetailing is possible. We used a variety of hardwoods for drawer sides for many years: maple, birch, cherry, oak, ash and poplar. It's a great place to get rid of material that didn't make the grade looks-wise in the exterior of the piece and the matching wood increases the overall value, in my opinion.

From contributor M:
In Europe, we only dovetail solid wood drawers. No plywood because of chips. If you need to sand the chips away, you will sand through the top layer and that's a real mess.

Very durable drawers are made out of oak (lasts up to 350 - 450 years) and beech (the red one, which last up to 200 years). Cheap drawers are made out of pine.

In industrial furniture, we take mostly aluminum drawer parts on rails. Just plug it together - very solid and lasts up to 10 or 15 years easily.

If you are having a problem with chip out, perhaps your knives are dull on your dovetailer. We use aspen and cedar and have no problems with chip out or durability.

From contributor R:
Uni-directional plywood is the product to use for chip-free dovetailed sides. Standard bi-directional ply for fronts and backs.

From contributor J:
Contributor M, I admire anyone who builds drawers like you describe. I have built a few solid furniture pieces with dovetail drawers on wood guides. They have a nice feel when done right. Our shop builds mostly kitchen and built-in cabinetry so we crank out lots of machine dovetailed 5/8" thick maple drawers on Blum Tandem Plus. Our customers think they are great. You are right - they will only last 10 - 20 years. Even on the high end we are a throw-away society. Tell us more about your shop, machines and the kind of jobs you do. We have several Euro machines in our shop and have always been impressed with the quality and engineering.

From contributor M:
Certainly it depends on the jobs you do. We often build the drawers for kitchens and panel furniture the same way that you do (almost). But for the real old-fashioned and rustic cabinetwork and for restoration, we do it all manually (that's apprentice work over here), the same way they did it 500 years ago.

I would never build a drawer with metal slides and without hand cut dovetails into "old" historic cabinets. That's breaking the style.

About machinery and the difference in Europe: When I saw cabinet shops in the US and Canada, I felt that the equipment Americans have is far worse than that which Europeans have. I am talking about the quality, type and variety of common machines and power tools.

On the other hand, you guys really know how to use high-tech stuff like CAD and CNC much better than Europeans. You power the money into high-tech machinery and innovation and you hate doing handcraft, and Europeans power the money into common machinery, all kind of tools and education of employees.

So, even a one-man show in Europe needs to have a hot-press and full veneer equipment, heavy-duty shaper, planer and whatever plus truckloads of tools - much more equipment than in America.

The competition over here is 10 or 20 times greater than in the US or Canada. In addition to that mess, the economy in Europe is very bad and it is really hard to calculate good pricing to earn money.

I think to be the owner of a shop over there, it is much easier to make money than it is in Europe. Better prices, less equipment, less demanding customers, less problems receiving payment. 60% of European shops break because customers do not pay. Millions of restrictions created by law and extremely difficult-to-deal-with Unions in Europe are giving a very hard time to shop owners. Finally, we have to guarantee 30 years on anything we make. Even for hardware that is included on the furniture. That means you can be sued for almost anything you built in your life.

How does the apprenticeship program work over there? It’s nonexistent here.

From contributor M:
Apprenticeships depend on countries. Some countries (like Sweden) have no apprenticeships and work like the US, and some (all the German-speaking, plus Italy and France) have a 3 or a 3.5 year apprenticeship program.

When young guys want to become cabinetmakers (or anything else), they must go to a one-year fulltime school where they learn how to work with wood 2 days per week and 3 days they learn the other theoretical knowledge. At the end of the year, they have to take tests in both theoretical and practical, which last a whole week. If they pass, they can take that certificate to a shop for an interview. They sign up for a contract of 2 or 2.5 years as apprentices. They start the apprenticeship and get around $350 in the 1st and around $450 in the 2nd year/month. They work in the shop 4 days and on 1 day must attend school for further vocational training, and every 2nd week one additional day for practical training in school. (In some states they work a whole week and must go to school 6 weeks in wintertime - carpenters in Bavaria, for example.)

Shops and schools have a plan which is required by law that an apprentice has to undergo all kinds of woodworking from A - Z. From solid woodworking to panels, from sanding to staining and finishing and spraying, all kind of styles of cabinetmaking and all the epochs. And within these two years, he has to go for 3 weeks of machinery training in a woodworking school. At the end of the apprenticeship, he knows how to design and build cabinets, windows, staircases, ceilings, doors and work with plastic. Then he has to undergo a theoretical test, which is 1 week, and has to do a difficult practical test, which is 2 or 3 days, and has to design and build his "Gesellenstück", which means "journeyman's-furniture or cabinet", which has to be built in 3 or 4 weeks in the shop.

An apprentice must build everything manually, without any machinery, in 1st and 2nd year, and just in the 3rd year he is allowed to use machinery.

If he is good in all 3 parts of "Gesellenprüfung" test, he gets the journeyman's license (Gesellenbrief) and he will be "spoken free", which is an old ceremony by a guy from the trades headquarters. Then the contract of apprenticeship is fulfilled. If he didn't pass the test, the contract will be lengthened for 2 X half a year, with a new chance to make the test. If he doesn't make it then, he cannot get a license anymore

In most countries, he can open his own business now, but not in Germany. There he has to work 3 - 5 years as a journeyman (it depends on the state) in a cabinet shop until he is allowed to sign up for another woodworking school (Masterschool), which lasts between 1 and 2.5 years. At the end, another very difficult theoretical test has to be done. Also a very difficult practical test and also a "masterfurniture" has to be designed and built. That often takes 6 to 9 months. If he passes all 3 parts of the test, he will undergo another procedure of becoming "free-spoken" and he gets the right to be a "free-citizen" (sounds terrible but that's how it is named). After another year, he gets his Masterdegree (Meisterbrief) and he is allowed to open his own shop. He will be monitored if he has a clean record - if yes, he is allowed to train apprentices then - if not, he can't become a "Meister".

After 50 years being a master, the government changes the "Meisterbrief" into a "Golden Meisterbrief", which is just a kind of ceremony with a short article in the newspaper.

If the apprentice belongs to any of the construction trades (carpenter, bricklayer or whatever) he can (but doesn't have to) go for a "Walz" which means that he must go for 2 or 3 years throughout the world to work in different shops. He is a "journeyman" then and he gets some substitutes within those years. He isn't allowed to come closer than 50 miles to his hometown and he must always wear the clothes that are required by his trade. All trades have their own costume over here.

Every shop owner has to give him work and accommodation for at least 1 day when the guy says a special and secret poem to the shop owner when knocking on his door. These poems and songs are absolutely discreet and none of the other trades or other people are allowed to know them.

The guys have to wear a special earring with a long chain and sign of his trade. If he isn't a good worker and messes up something, the shop owner is allowed to tear this earring out of the guy's ear. So, if one day knocks a guy with a carpenters-costume at your door, saying a poem, you must give him at least one day of work and accommodation. But take a look at his ear first. If there are many scars, he is not a good worker - but still, you must give him some work.

See how easy it is for you guys over there?

From contributor J:

Contributor M, why all the veneer equipment? Do small shops do all their own panels? We use a vacuum bag for the small amount of veneer work we do. Are the small one- to five-man shops over there specialized in one product or do they do it all - doors, millwork, furniture and built-ins?

We do not have CNC in our shop but are moving in that direction. Our shop probably does more variety than most in the US. We are in a high-end rural area and do mostly custom casework, and some doors and special millwork.

From contributor M:
Due to high competition, the small shops have to do it all. Even a 6-man shop has more equipment than most 30 - 40 - 50 man shops in America. The veneer equipment is necessary because in Europe we have to sew the veneer ourselves because of the grain and the face of the veneer. That means we take solid wood for the frames or veneer with straight face for the frames and a veneer with symmetric "flower" for the fillings which go inside the framedoors, etc. (The part that goes between frames - I don't know the English word, but call it filling.)

We glue 2 or 4 or 6 or 8 pieces of veneer symmetric on the panels. If no stain will be painted on, we flip each veneer-board over so the "picture" of the veneer will be almost symmetric and look like a candle flame. It has to be symmetric and the gaps must be symmetric within the frame, too.

Large 4ft x 8ft veneer sheets with a 1/16 laminate on the back are not available over here, because of too wild and asymmetric grain-direction and different colours from sheet to sheet (customers wouldn't accept that). But certainly we can buy the pre-veneered panels (mostly 3/4 thick) with all kinds of veneer, but we cannot use those panels for visible parts (we call it blind-veneer).

The veneer is cut layer by layer with the knife-cutting method, not like the turning-method where the veneer gets cut like on a turning machine.

Customer's demands are much higher than in the US. If we make cabinets, they look even inside the cabinets to find a little chip. To avoid chips we often run certain parts first on the saw and then again on the shaper. If there is just one little chip, you must take it all back to the shop and to do it again.

A shop without a 60 K widebelt sander has no chance anymore over here. Most shops have two, a common one for solid wood-boards and a CNC-one for the veneer sanding jobs. Sanding with a small $40 sander like is common in America is absolutely impossible here because of the little microscopic scratches in the veneer. Customers wouldn't accept that.

A high tech dust-collection system is required by law, which costs even for a 2-man shop more than 80K, and a spray-cabin with air-cleaning unit, etc. I forgot about the high-tech and low emission heating, plus a cutting machine to heat with the waste. Cheapest ones start at 90K. Heating with oil or electricity is impossible because of costs.

There’s something I’m not getting. You seem to be telling us: It takes years (while earning no money) of work for a cabinetmaker to earn his “Gesellenbrief”. Once he does, he then has to go out and spend a fortune in tools to get started. Assuming he gets his business off the ground, he then has to face scores of overly picky customers who refuse to pay him.

What I’d like to know is:

1. Where do these guys find the money to purchase all of these tools in the first place?

2. Why do shops over there insist on “Doing it all”? Given the circumstances you describe, it would seem beneficial for shops to specialize (i.e. doing veneer work for other shops). Over here many shops farm out things like raised panel doors and dovetailed drawers.

3. Finally, what in the world motivates someone to go through all that training and spend all that money on start up, only to be rewarded with cantankerous clients?

From contributor M:
I am sure that probably every craftsman in Europe asks those questions himself and hasn't found the right answer.

Americans are better businessmen than Europeans and have a very good ability to make money. Europeans haven't got that ability because it's been forever that you must go through the special apprenticeship and stay your whole life in the same profession. There's no way to adjust or change your profession. It is absolutely impossible to do anything else or get a job in another profession except if you start at zero as an apprentice in another trade, for example.

1) In America, almost every good guy with some money has the opportunity to start his small cabinet shop. Not here. The guys who own shops inherited the money, sold a farm or overtook the cabinet shop from family.

2) Almost every shop has all the equipment to do it all and almost every shop has the knowledge to do it all. In Europe, we are hard competitors. We do not have enough work to fill every shop, so you need to do it all.

3) If you do not go through all that kind of vocational training, you can sleep under bridges your whole life because you will never get a job. Having no education means to exist on social welfare. I have a Masterdegree and am a master of cabinetmaking, am a CAD technician, vocational teacher and carpenter and I hold a degree in business administration. I spent my whole life in fulltime and part-time schools plus apprenticeships, college and courses in the evenings and weekends.

I don't dovetail my drawers because most people don't want to pay the extra cost.

I build my drawers out of 1/2" birch b-2 plywood butt-joint style. Each drawer has a total of 6 pieces, including the drawer front. Cut the sides to total length to hide end-grain (front and back). Glue and nail or staple the 4 sides together, then glue and staple the 1/4" luan to the bottom. Remember, glue is the key. I then round the top edges of the drawer with a rounding bit and sand them. This tends to lessen the effect of the plywood core. Glue and staple the drawer front to this assembly. I love the European bottom mount drawer slides. The bottom of the drawer cannot possibly cave in or fall out.

I know this sounds like boxmaking 101, but I will stack this construction method against any dovetailed drawer in the world. I have tried to tear these drawers apart and you will absolutely tear the wood to pieces. Bottom line? The joints held. Also, the staples or brads that show when you open the drawer are filled and sanded. I like to do things the right way also, but in this day in America, you must be inventive.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
If you really want to use Baltic plywood, try to use a clear wood glue mixed with sawdust. Fill in the chip and sand over until smooth. Dirty but effective. The way I do it takes same time as dovetail. Use solid wood sides and back/front. Set 1/4" router bit at 1/4 raise over the router table to make a mortise (mortising machine even better) into the sides. Stop 1/4" before the top and bottom edges. Use the same to make the groove for the bottom plywood on the inside of each piece. Run the back and front on the dado machine to take 1/4" off on 4 sides of each end of the piece. Glue together and clamp. This makes a very quick mortise-tenon joint without showing any holes or nails. In theory this can be done on Baltic too.

Comment from contributor D:
I made a set of Baltic birch plywood drawers for my woodshop and did box joints in them using a Porter Cable dovetail machine. They presented the same problem of tearout described above. I resolved the problem by inserting pieces of scrap behind and in front of the piece I was cutting and had no more tearout. The sacrificial pieces were reusable for the entire project. The alignment of the front board wasn't crucial as long as it was within a 1/16th of an inch, and the rear board just stayed in the upper portion of my jig throughout. It’s simple but effective.

Comment from contributor S:
I normally make drawers out of solid stock but when I have used plywood I scored the board on the tail side where the tails would end using a plywood blade. I scored it enough just to clear the first ply and it solved my tearout problem.