Wooden drawer slides

This article also available in Spanish (you too can help with translations)

Whenever I build something with drawers, never buy metal drawer slides, but make the drawer slides as an integral part of the drawer, and out of wood. It just wouldn't be right to use metal drawer slides, and for many of the things I build, metal drawer slides would not even be suitable. Metal drawer slides are often not very strong, expensive, and also make it harder to take the drawer out of the cabinet.

This article summarizes different drawer designs I have, and my experiences with these types of drawers. I'm hoping this will help you decide which styles of drawers to make when you do make some.


Hardwood drawer slot rail on hardwood rail

The best sliding and most durable drawer slides are of course if you have hardwood sliding on hardwood. Preferably with a very dense and close-grained hardwood such as maple.

My dad often makes drawers like that on furniture he builds.

I have personally never used this approach though - I don't have my own source of hardwood, and its too expensive to buy just to make drawers.


Hardwood drawer rail in hardwood channel

To economize on the use of hardwood, I have often made the drawers with a hardwood rail sticking out the side, and made that slide in a hardwood channel in the piece of furniture.

I used this approach for a drawer in a TV table. With the drawer only filling part of the space underneath the table, the channel just spanned from the front to the back for the drawers to slide in.

I also used this approach in a drawer chest, shown at left. The drawers go right to the edge of the cabinet, so it was more expedient and space efficient to just attach pieces of hardwood to the inside sides of the cabinet. I just used pieces of scrap hardwood I had lying around, which is why the pieces of wood have odd shapes to them

Each drawer has a bottom guide, and a top guide. The top guide is there to keep the back of the drawer from tipping out if its pulled out more than half way and let go.

A refinement was to make the top rail a little bit shorter on the front. That way, if the drawer is nearly out, rather than have a crazy amount of leverage on the rails and potentially damage things, it will simply fall out. It also makes the drawer easier to insert back in the cabinet if it was taken out, as the back of it just needs to be placed on the bottom rails, and pushed in, rather than aligning it precisely first.
I originally made this drawer chest to slide under a workbench in the basement. But as a nice touch, I spent $20 for quarter inch thick pieces of oak that I glued to the front of the drawer. The whole thing ended up looking so nice, it's now under a desk in my new place.

Hardwood rail on bottom of drawer

A variation of this is to put the slides towards the bottom. I did this with another box of drawers, which for a while, served as desk drawers, as seen at left.

For these drawers, I made the slides higher, but narrower. With the extra width of the hardwood slides, gluing them just to the sides of the drawer was quite sufficient.

The slides actually are the bottommost part of the drawer, and to some extent help hold the bottom in place. Being fairly narrow, they also make this drawer case more space efficient. They do look slightly odd out of the cabinet though, but overall, it's a very practical combination.


   

I used odd shaped pieces of scrap wood for the guide rails inside the cabinet, hence the odd shapes in the image above right.

I had built that drawer cabinet for the basement originally. The plywood case was reclaimed plywood. On a whim, I put bits of oak on the drawer fronts, and the whole thing ended up looking too good for the basement. I combined it with a table to form a 'desk' - see shot earlier. The table part also makes a decent dining table if the tabletop is not mounted off centre. Its like a furniture wardrobe remix!


Softwood drawer slot on hardwood rail

For lighter drawers, I have often used hardwood just for the rails. This doesn't slide quite as well as hardwood on hardwood, but it has done ok so far, and is easier to build and very much economizes on the expensive hardwood.

I used this approach for my disassemble-able desk drawers. With the drawers sliding on maple rails, I left the whole drawer section open, with the rails that the drawers slide together actually holding the drawer frame together. With the whole drawer frame being disassemble-able, this worked out well, both mechanically and visually.

I again used the softwood drawer slot on a hardwood slide method for my disassemble-able dressers. Once again, not needing much of a frame around the drawers worked to my advantage, as I was able to keep the rest of the dresser to a bare minimum.

Other than not being as durable, and not sliding as well, the risky part of this design is that it might result in the drawer getting split apart if its mostly pulled out, and then pushed down on hard. With the rail in the end of the slot, it will put a lot of force on the drawer sides, forcing the top and bottom apart. The middle is weakened already because it has the slot cut in it. I always make sure the sides are very securely glued to the back, so that the back, which has no slot in it, would have to be split apart as well for this to happen.

It's probably a paranoid fear though, because I have never had any of my drawers fail that way, but then again, I don't abuse them.

The drawers splitting apart is not much of a concern for smaller drawers though. Back when I was in high school, I made a lot of wooden drawer boxes to sort all of my electronic and mechanical parts into. The simplicity of this design worked out well, and I never worried about the drawers getting damaged.


The rails that the drawers slide on are only glued to the cases for the front half. That way, the boards of the case, which change in width with humidity, will exert less force on them.

I don't think I'd take the time to make so many drawers again (the shots above show just some of them), but when I was still in high school, I had little money and lots of time. And the wooden drawers do hold up to time better than plastic ones would.


Softwood on softwood

The worst kind of wooden drawer slide is softwood on softwood. This may work reasonably well for light drawers, but for heavy drawers, or drawers that get used much, it's a big no no. Soft on soft just doesn't slide overly well, and wears out quickly. It gets even worse if it has to slide on something cross grained. Its this kind of drawer slide that gives wooden drawer slides a bad name.

For this reason, I have never built anything where I had softwood glide on softwood. I do have one example of such a piece of furniture in my basement though. A boarder left it behind many years ago. Its a fairly space efficient storage unit though, which is why I even took it with me when I moved to my new place.

The drawer sides are made of plywood, so partially, the drawers slide on the end grain to some extent, which would cause additional wear to the cabinet if they were used frequently.

I was able to make the drawers slide more easily though by putting some fairly slippery floor varnish on the cabinet where the drawers slide on, and on the bottom of the drawers. Varnish on the rails doesn't always help make them slide better - it very much depends on what kind of varnish you use.


Centre guide rail

A lot of older wooden dressers have a centre guide rail, often made out of wood, with a wood or metal C channel sliding on it. The metal C channel is not practical for home built furniture, although one can make wooden ones. My dad built used a similar approach.

This approach is useful when the piece of furniture uses a face frame, as its makes it easy to add the single centre rail that the drawer slides on. It also helps reinforce the drawer bottom, so thinner material can be used for that.

It does unfortunately use up a lot of vertical space, as there needs to be a piece of wood to go between the drawers, and the drawers need to have room on the bottom for the rail. The pictures are from a piece of furniture made by my dad. Because I always want to optimize the amount of space inside the drawers, I have never used this technique myself.


No guide rail

A very space efficient way to make drawers is to make with no slot or guide rail at all, and just have the box slide between rails on the side. I used this approach for my Workbench drawers

The advantage of this approach is that you don't need any extra space on the side for the guide rails. The vertical space used by the guiderails is still usabble for storage because the drawer below can be piled higher to use that space, so long as the drawer front is also as high. Otherwise, the contents would scrape against the drawer front of the drawer above when the drawer is opened.

The disadvantages of this approach is that one needs to leave enough clearance above and below the drawers to allow expansion due to humidity changes, especially if one builds the drawers in the winter when the air is drier.

The other catch is that is tricky to make the drawer slide on hardwood. For these drawers, I ended up gluing a strip of hardwood to the bottom edges to make for a hardwood on hardwood slide for these drawers.

A lot of old wooden desks from the 60's and 70's use this approach. They made the front, back and sides all out of hardwood for these, so the drawers already ended up sliding hardwood on hardwood. The drawer bottoms would are mounted in a rabbet in the sides, so that the bottom-most part of the drawer is actually the sides.


I didn't worry too much about how well these drawers on this storage unit would slide though. They are drawers in a way, but in another way, just boxes on a rack. I thought I'd include it because I think it's a neat variation on the storage drawer idea.


Making drawers slide easily

One of the keys to making good wooden drawers is to make the drawers slide easily. The most effective thing to do is to make sure that the drawers slide on hardwood. The next step is to treat the surface to make it glide more easily.

Oil
Putting any sort of oil on the slides makes them slide superbly. Unfortunately, this is not always a good idea, especially if the drawer doesn't have a slot or rails on the side. Just imagine putting your sock drawer down on the bed! The other reason not to use oil though is that oil eventually becomes sticky, as the thinner components of the oil will very slowly evaporate - even at room temperature. So unless you have some wooden slide that is part of some sort of wooden machine that you expect to re-lubricate, avoid oil.

Wax
A less effective, but much cleaner method is to use wax. Just rubbing a candle onto the rails makes a big difference. For added effectiveness, heat the parts up a little with a heat gun before application. The effect is rather long lasting, but even if it does wear off eventually, at least it never gets sticky like oil does.

Varnish
Some types of varnish can help a drawer slide more freely, but not all varnishes. So experiment first. I have had good results with this varnish, but your results may vary. I suspect for heavy drawers, it wears away too quickly, but it seems to work very well for lighter drawers.
If you do use varnish, give the varnish an extra day to harden even after it is dry to the touch, so that you don't wear it off right away.

Gliding button
Another clever thing I see on commercial wooden drawers from the 60's and 70's is some sort of metal or plastic button on the corner of the front that the drawer slides on. But that sort of button needs to be totally smooth for it to be beneficial, and I haven't found a good source of a button like that. I don't think plastic covered thumbtacks would be nearly durable enough, and metal ones would be too rough. So I haven't experimented with this method, though they work well on some old furniture I have.

UHMW tape
UHMW tape, also known as "Ultra High Molecular Weight tape is a relatively new solution to the sliding problem. Its a relatively thick and tough sticky tape, meant to be applied to surfaces that need to slide. I recently bought a roll to try it out.

For drawers that run really rough, such as soft wood and soft wood, it can provide quick and significant improvement in how drawers glide. But I found that it doesn't glide as easily as a smooth hardwood on hardwood glide, especially if it has been waxed. That said, it can be a practical and instant fix for cheap drawers.


Related pages

Box joined drawers

Making drawer handles

Under bed
storage drawers

Refacing drawers

Drawer front repair

Knock down dresser

Workbench drawers

Building Drawers for a mobile tool stand.

Drawers for a storage cabinet
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