First indoor furniture - help on deciding on joinery

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Forum topic by Graem Lourens posted 11-29-2017 01:35 PM 5409 views 0 times favorited 21 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Graem Lourens

36 posts in 1441 days

11-29-2017 01:35 PM

Hi everybody.

I’ve been experimenting a lot with building all sorts of things, but mostly for outdoor usage, and mostly with screws, nails, pocketholes etc, so not very advanced or beautiful joinery.

I’ve set my heart on building a standalone cabinet with 2 doors and 3 drawers. I have been experimenting with various woods and have chosen Alder (its the cheapest i could find locally that is moderately suitable for indoor furniture)

Currently i’m making the detailed plans, and greatly struggling what kind of joinery to use. Its a modern type solid wood cabinet. The top and bottom are 4cm (1.5”) thick, and the walls/panels/back etc are 2cm (little more than 3/4”).

I have not settled on grain direction, because i think it will influence the joinery as well.
For example a Dado (Groove across the grain) will not glue up well (assuming the top is running the grain lengthwise) as you only have multiple endgrain-connections. Making the top with graindirection on the short width, will be more difficult to make and maybe not look as nice.

Images of the rough size is here:

The arrows are marking the areas i’m trying to figure out how to join.

Here are my current thoughts:

Finger/Box-joint: Probably not sensible for longer pieces? Its also not the look i’m going for at the edges
Dovetail: too advanced for me currently for my first solid lumber furniture project.
Dowels: (through or hidden): A viable option but i’m worried about the stability, as the weight of this cabinet will be substancial.

Furthermore i’d like this cabinet to be nicely finished everywhere, so it could theoretically free-stand in the middle of the room. I will exclusively use solid wood (warping of door panels is still scaring me, but i’ll probably reinforce them in some way)

All other available traditional joinery options are either not applicable for joining boards at a 90 degree angle or i have not understood them yet correctly.

I’d appreciate any hints or directions or comments that would help me decide on what route to go. I have been thinking for weeks now, and need a nudge in the right direction.

Thank you a lot in advance.

Kind regards, Graem

-- Novice woodworker and passionate astrophotographer

21 replies so far

View jdh122's profile


1163 posts in 3591 days

#1 posted 11-29-2017 02:04 PM

Most common way to do this is to have the grain running up-down on the ends and join them to the top and bottom using whatever method you want. Often the top and bottom are half-blind dovetailed into the sides, and then a finished top screwed into it, you can replace the hidden top by 2 boards. You could dowel the top into the sides as well, or use regular dovetails or a box joint if you favor the look of exposed joinery. The back is usually made either as a frame-and-panel construction or from plywood (if it’s going to be visible) or with shiplap or tongue-and-groove boards (if the back will not be seen form the outside). Regardless of the back construction it goes into a rabbet cut into the sides and top.

Edit: You don’t generally need to rabbet the top.

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

View bondogaposis's profile


5789 posts in 3125 days

#2 posted 11-29-2017 02:27 PM

That is an odd design for solid wood. It looks like a plywood design. If it were mine I would build the carcase from plywood and use frame and panel joinery for the doors, that will save you a lot of frustration over wood movement issues.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View Robert's profile


3747 posts in 2255 days

#3 posted 11-29-2017 02:34 PM


I think frame and panel construction (like a cabinet door) is a good way to build this cabinet. If you want to have a flat look as depicted, I would use plywood.

The sides can be joined to the front and back in various ways: Biscuts, dowels, tongue and groove, or rabbet. In any of these methods the vertical grain glue up will be an extremely strong joint so no fasteners will be needed, just clamps and glue.

The bottom can be of plywood and fastened via rabbet, dado or again, T&G.. The top can fastened in any method that allows for movement. (Buttons, slotted holes, figure 8 fasteners, gussets etc.)

If you’re interested in frame and panel using T&G method, Mark Sommerfeld presents a very good technique for frame and panel cabinet. Here is the link.

Knowing what tools you have would help a lot.

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View Graem Lourens's profile

Graem Lourens

36 posts in 1441 days

#4 posted 11-29-2017 02:40 PM

Thank you for your feedback! I’m having a hard time following your recommendation Jeremy. Is there any link/post/image you could provide so i can maybe understand your suggestion better?

Bondo: Yes indeed, and i’m not sure if i’m maybe going down a dark road here. I have borrowed the design from the following image. Its description states that its solid wood. I did see that the doors are reinforced on the inside to prevent warping and i was going to do the same thing.

We really don’t like the frame and panel look for this application and would prefer the smooth, edge-less-look and i’m trying hard to figure out how to make it, so it doesn’t become a disaster.

Kind regards, Graem

-- Novice woodworker and passionate astrophotographer

View jdh122's profile


1163 posts in 3591 days

#5 posted 11-29-2017 02:47 PM

Take a look at this article:
If you want a top that’s flush with the sides just don’t add the extra top. If you want flush with no exposed dovetails cut a mitered joint and and add glue blocks inside.

I see no reason why the carcass of the chest can’t be made out of solid wood, but it’s true that those large doors are pretty likely to warp if made from solid wood.

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

View jdmaher's profile


468 posts in 3353 days

#6 posted 11-29-2017 02:56 PM

There are many options, of course, but let’s continue Jeremy’s “usual and customary” theme. However, I’ll offer some suggestions that are simple and make the task easier and might fit well with your experience.

Ususally, the grain on the sides is vertical, cathedrals pointing up. I would rabbet the interior of the top and bottom of the sides. Then fit top and bottom boards to those rabbets, and screw them in. For the top (a “false” top, not the show board), I’d use plywood; it’s sturdy and cheap and won’t be seen. Just to play safe, you can expand the screw holes in the top plywood for all but the front screw. For the bottom, I’d probably use finish wood (the alder), because the wood will show in the doored compartments. BUT, I would still install it as a “false” bottom (i.e., the externally visible “show” bottom would be a separate board). Grain runs horizontally, so again, no worries about wood movement: sides and bottom lumber will expand / contract front to back.

Same on the back, but here the dadoes are at the back of all 4 pieces of the box. Again, I’d suggest plywood and not worry about wood movement.

Using rabbets like this will help align the pieces for assembly, and you wind up with a basic box carcase to which you then attach the “show” top and bottom and doors.

You don’t mention the size of the overall piece, or the interior construction (e.g., vertical dividers on either side of the drawers). And it may be a bit more complicated. For example, you might want an interior top rail of alder so that when the doors are opened you don’t see the side “grain” of the “false” plywood top. You’ll want to figure all that out so that you can make any cuts in the basic box carcase before assembly.

-- Jim Maher, Illinois

View Graem Lourens's profile

Graem Lourens

36 posts in 1441 days

#7 posted 11-29-2017 04:18 PM

Thank you all so much for your feedback! So nice to have help close by.

I am aware that most projects probably would consider some kind of plywood or other manufactured wood but i would really like to design this project from solid wood from top to bottom. I am aware that this is a steep jump from what i was doing before, but this is the point of this project. To go where i haven’t been before, no matter how long it takes (i can take a half a year for this project, no issue)

I’d like to generally not use screws at all and do classic joinery.
Furthermore i’d like to not use plywood or anything else than Alder. I absolutely love plywood, but i’d like to do this project without if possible? Or is this a road to absolute failure and i should generally reconsider making a combination of plywood and solid wood?

Having a false top & bottom is something i really have to think about and is new to me. Thank you very much for this hint.

The size of the whole cabinet/chest will be 160cm(63”) long, 44cm(17”) deep and 60cm(23.5”) high

Inside i’m planning two simple dividers that would be fitted in dadoes top & bottom.

On a second thought with dovetails or box-joint: Would this even work combining the 1.5” thick top with 3/4” thick sides? It would be a extremely strong joint

I’m now also considering a through-dowel joint (that would be visible from the top and trimmed flush) but i’m not sure if it would provide enough strength for example during transport etc? The dowel size would also be very limited as it would go into 3/4” thick material.

Kind regards, Graem

-- Novice woodworker and passionate astrophotographer

View Aj2's profile


3084 posts in 2572 days

#8 posted 11-29-2017 05:39 PM

That’s a similar design of a Alder cabinet I made. One thing to consider is it will be very heavy and flexible.
You main goal will be to get a square opening so your doors and drawers fit well.
You might get some sagging from the leg design so consider that when you choose your bottom.
Here’s some pics of my piece. Back without frame and panels.
Carcass without top.
Finished piece

-- Aj

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Graem Lourens

36 posts in 1441 days

#9 posted 11-30-2017 05:41 AM

Thank you Aj!

Yes i have estimated the weight of this project to be very heavy :) I have figured out that building lightweight is one of the trickier things of this business… I’m taking it step by step and ignoring the weight for this project.

I have been thinking the whole evening yesterday and have come up with a potential solution, even if maybe not very elegant. Dovetails would be a way to go, but what about this approach:

There is a dado for squaring things up and keeping them that way, and a approximately 1.5×1.5” piece that would hold a lot of glue strength. Alternatively i could also make the dadoes further in, and then the 1.5×1.5” would be the one filling the dadoes instead of the sidewall.

Is this an approach that would make sense and be stable? (it would be done in all 4 corners). The 2 dividers in the middle would be resting in deep dadoes, and give lateral strength (is that the right word?) if a force would push sideways. This would allow me to not have a false top/bottom (assuming i can handle the warping & wood movement issue)

Thank you for your thoughts.

Kind regards, Graem

-- Novice woodworker and passionate astrophotographer

View Woodknack's profile


13392 posts in 3154 days

#10 posted 11-30-2017 05:57 AM

Just a piece of advice, you are trying to be a designer and have no idea what you’re doing… rather than trying to learn woodworking piecemeal, read Tage Frid Teaches Woodworking or something similar. It will answer questions you don’t know to ask and teach you about choosing joinery for different situations. It’s basically a college course in woodworking boiled down to 3 books. At least get a book like Bill Hylton’s Cabinetry which is basically an encyclopedia of how to build nearly any piece of furniture. Also get a good book on finishing, I like Flexner but there are others. Those 2 things: Tage Frid and Flexner will put you way ahead of the curve.

-- Rick M,

View Loren's profile


10477 posts in 4422 days

#11 posted 11-30-2017 06:01 AM

I would use dowels. You could drill and
assemble the case using a Jessem jig
in about an hour.

That corner joint may be difficult to fit
accurately on all four corners. There’s
nothing wrong with using it structurally
but dowels offer deeper penetration and
the dowel joint is quicker to drill than all
the fussing you’ll have to do with cutting
and fitting that t&g joint.

View jerryminer's profile


960 posts in 2215 days

#12 posted 11-30-2017 08:30 AM

I d like to generally not use screws at all and do classic joinery.

- Graem Lourens

You want to do “classic” joinery on a very “un-classic” (i.e. modern) piece.

The “classic” method would be dovetail joints (but you don’t want to use those) with the back done in either T&G boards or frame-and-panel

I would not use the square cleat you show in the drawing—you would be adding a cross-grain piece and creating problems. (You could, I suppose, use a series of short glue-blocks, but I would caution against a continuous cross-grain cleat)

Side-to-top and side-to bottom could be dowels, biscuits, Dominoes, mortise-and-tenon (loose or fixed), or sliding dovetail.

If you can live with a T&G or frame-and panel back, the corners can be butted (and glued) or mitered. I would not make the back a solid slab in either vertical or horizontal grain orientation as it would cause a conflict somewhere.

-- Jerry, making sawdust professionally since 1976

View Graem Lourens's profile

Graem Lourens

36 posts in 1441 days

#13 posted 11-30-2017 05:44 PM

Just a piece of advice, you are trying to be a designer and have no idea what you re doing…


Rick, you are absolutely right obviously, and this is the exciting thing for me. I’m reading and watching anything i can get my hands on, so thank you very much for your literature recommendation. I’ll definitively read it. Until now i’ve mainly been searching & reading about specific topics, and most general literature has been about the classic furniture style, that doesn’t always help me much with this project, but the more i read, the more chance there is that i pick up the important information at some point.

I would use dowels. You could drill and …


Thank you Loren for your advice. Currently dowels do seem like the simplest solution, even if i am wondering if it will have enough strength. I assume they will have to be pretty deep and a few of them (as i’m probably limited to 1/4” dowels?

You want to do “classic” joinery on a very “un-classic” (i.e. modern) piece.

- jerryminer

Hi Jerry, thank you very much for your comments! Indeed it seems i’m maybe trying something unsensibe but for the time being i don’t want to give up yet with finding a solution :)

I will have to re-think the dovetails. I have respect because i’ve never done them before and they seem advanced, but maybe i should try with a few scraps how accurate i can get the fit. Maybe its not as scary as i think.

Your concerns about the cross-grain piece are because of the opposite grain direction and that it would crack as both pieces would expand in different directions?

Concerning the back. You’re saying it should not be solid wood – what would you do, assuming you’d like the back to be as nicely finished as the front (so it can free-stand in a room) ?

Thank you all for your patience with these probably very rudimentary and novice questions.

Kind regards, Graem

-- Novice woodworker and passionate astrophotographer

View Loren's profile


10477 posts in 4422 days

#14 posted 11-30-2017 05:57 PM

I don’t know why you would be limited to
1/4” dowels. I use 3/8” most of the time.

There’s nothing “very weak” about glued
dowel joints. The don’t have the mechanical
advantage or glue area of dovetails but they
are plenty strong for casework joints in most

View Woodknack's profile


13392 posts in 3154 days

#15 posted 11-30-2017 07:18 PM

The dowels don’t have to be too deep because they are resisting shear, not tension. I would use dowels in partnership with rabbet joints, not alone. Most wood joinery is designed for shear, not tension. Dovetails resist both.

-- Rick M,

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