Inset drawers and doors

  • Advertise with us

« back to Woodworking Skill Share forum

Forum topic by Bernie posted 11-02-2011 05:08 AM 9003 views 0 times favorited 15 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View Bernie's profile


422 posts in 3890 days

11-02-2011 05:08 AM

I’ve always been eager to try new things but was always afraid of making that big leap from overlay face frame cabinets to inset doors and drawers. Everything I read about the subject and everything fellow wood workers have said was scary stuff. It is rather intimidating because the 4 space around the door or drawer have to be equal and the front plane has to be level with the frame. But for my latest project, I made the big leap.

Although it has been a lot more work, it hasn’t been as scary as I thought. Shims have saved the day. And very thin shims are available and at my finger tips. I have always used craft sticks to stir my paints and mix my compounds so I buy a bag of them. They are 1/16 inch thick, a perfect gap around my drawers. For the panel doors, which are larger, I thought I would need 3/32 inch gaps, so I used craft sticks and a piece of veneer which happened to be 1/32 inch thick.

By very carefully measuring my drawer cavity, I would cut my face exactly 1/8 inch thinner or shorter. The only problem I had was that some of the milled lumber was a smidget off, so I would figure where the discrepancy was and would slowly and meticulously shave that down to size with my cabinet scraper. The end project is coming along nicely and I’m pleased with it.

I was wondering if anybody could give me a pointer on how to make the job easier. There’s a lot of talent on this forum and I have room to learn. What works best for you?

-- Bernie: It never gets hot or cold in New Hampshire, just seasonal!

15 replies so far

View thebigvise's profile


191 posts in 3954 days

#1 posted 11-02-2011 05:21 AM

I did my first insets a few months ago and it sounds like our experiences were similar. I used false drawer fronts so that there was complete separation between fitting the drawers themselves, then fitting the drawer fronts to the face frame openings. I used shims as you did, and double-sided tape secured the false fronts long enough for me to slip in a couple of screws. I’m sure you agree that they really do look slick. Well worth the trouble!

-- Paul, Clinton, NC

View ,'s profile


2387 posts in 4600 days

#2 posted 11-02-2011 05:32 AM

We do overly, but occassionally have req for inset and we are always successful. Now I am no pro @ all with inset but we manage.

First, i subtract 1/4” from opening height/width. That gives me 1/8” gap all around. I fear any variation in size would be much more discernable if I went with 1/16 gap.

When building anything from doors to drawer faces the most important thing is saws being set up to perform perfectly square cuts. For exame the miter saw must make a perfecy square cut on your rails to make assembling a perfectly square door easier. Ensuring everything is cutting square, I then find efficiently and paitiently assembling doors without rushing allows for good square assembly. Of course the face frame members must all be straight and square @ the corners. When all things are dimensioned correctly and are perfectly square and “flat”, then inset works flawlessly.

Aside from these things, using the card scraper as you described is a good technique for any minor adjustments.

-- .

View maljr1980's profile


171 posts in 3510 days

#3 posted 11-02-2011 06:07 AM

we use 1/16th inch gap at work, and sand/scribe to fit for any variances. some woods work better than others, dont use hickory it shrinks and swells way to much, doors will rub and you will trim to fit then when it shrinks you will have huge gaps

View ajosephg's profile


1897 posts in 4615 days

#4 posted 11-02-2011 01:34 PM

While I don’t claim to be an expert, here is how I did the inset drawers on this project, using false fronts.

Jerry’s advice to make everything square is great, but with my present skill set, it’s impossible. While the openings on the above project are almost square, they are not perfect, the fronts had to be fine tuned to fit the openings.

1. The gaps are about 1/16 inch.
2. I used a hand plane to adjust the fronts to the non-squareness of the openings with the plane blade set as thin as possible (probably taking about a half a thousandth off with each stroke. I would mark the side of the front where material needed to be removed (with a pencil) and very carefully plane away. For example, if I needed to remove 0.010 from one end, I’d start planing about 2 inches from that end, and then work back until the fit was perfect.
3. This results in each front being mated to a given opening, so it’s important to mark the back side so you don’t forget where it goes. In my case this needed to be done anyway since the fronts were all grain matched and cut from a single board.
4. I used these draw front adjustment screws to mount the fronts to the drawer box. So, I then drilled 4 quarter inch holes in the drawer box. (I used four holes in the large drawers to make sure the fronts would not warp.)
5. With the drawer box installed I put a 1/4 inch dowel center in each hole.
6. I taped a shim to the bottom and one side of the drawer front, and then inserted the front into the opening and pressed it against the dowel centers, making a mark on the inside surface of the drawer fronts.
7. Then I drilled the pilot holes for the screws and attached the fronts to the drawer boxes with the screws just tight enough to allow the front to be adjusted. When the adjustment was to my satisfaction the screws were tightened the rest of the way. (I drilled these holes on a drill press because I didn’t want a hand drill to get out of control and drill completely through the front.)

-- Joe

View Bernie's profile


422 posts in 3890 days

#5 posted 11-02-2011 02:32 PM

Everything is fitted to my satisfaction but I haven’t attached the fronts to the drawers yet. Question… is there any reason why I can’t glue my fronts to the drawers? I’ve pre-drilled my holes for the drawer pulls on the fronts and I was going to temporarily screw my fronts to the drawers. I see everyone is screwing their fronts onto the drawers. Nobody has mentioned glue. Is there a reason for this?

-- Bernie: It never gets hot or cold in New Hampshire, just seasonal!

View ajosephg's profile


1897 posts in 4615 days

#6 posted 11-02-2011 02:36 PM

If you get it wrong, or if something changes in the future, you’re totally screwed.

-- Joe

View thebigvise's profile


191 posts in 3954 days

#7 posted 11-02-2011 03:41 PM

I agree. I use screws just in case I later need to make an adjustment. By the way, my preference is to place the screws near the middle of the vertical dimension so that there can be slight movement with moisture changes, especially when the species are different.

-- Paul, Clinton, NC

View Bill White's profile

Bill White

5349 posts in 5014 days

#8 posted 11-02-2011 03:51 PM

DON’T GLUE!!!! Did ya get that? Big Vice has the reason. Rember that the wood will move. An applied drawer front, either overlay or inset, wil “wiggle some over time. I also allow the wood to equillibrate to the environment as best I can. Either in the shop or some other controlled temp/humidity situation. Kinda like letting the flooring stay indoors for a couple days.
Oh, I use applied drawer fronts all the time. Much easier to get ‘em right.

-- [email protected]

View Bernie's profile


422 posts in 3890 days

#9 posted 11-02-2011 04:07 PM

I’m glad I asked… I WILL NOT GLUE. I might even wait and get some of those drawer front screws. Thanks for the info and interests. Folks like you make this forum.

-- Bernie: It never gets hot or cold in New Hampshire, just seasonal!

View DS's profile


3727 posts in 3474 days

#10 posted 11-02-2011 07:38 PM

For me, the key to a successful inset application is tolerance. If each step in your process is “sloppy”, the tolerances will usually add up to something inadequate for inset applications.

Running a tight ship is important—meaning all the tools are cutting true and square and all the small numbers are accounted for, e.g. Realizing the shaper head is cutting 0.425 instead of 7/16” tenons resulting in slightly larger doors than the cutlist indicates.

If tolerances are properly accounted for, an inset job goes together with very little manual adjustment after the fact.

I also tend to utilize 6-way adjustable hinges and drawer glides with adjustable clips to ensure the fitment can be made quickly and easily. (Though some repro pieces require old-time finial hinges, etc.)

I’ve been criticized by fellow woodworkers saying, “This isn’t Rocket Science, you know.”
For them, I say, keep building sloppy work and leave the insets to me.

Mel Gibson had a line in the movie “The Patriot” that has stuck with me: ”Aim small, miss small.”
This is good advice with inset jobs.

-- "Hard work is not defined by the difficulty of the task as much as a person's desire to perform it.", DS251

View sarahss's profile


258 posts in 3703 days

#11 posted 11-02-2011 07:59 PM

@ maljr1980—we are planning on using hickory to make inset drawers/doors—any advice other than “don’t”, as we’ve already gotten the lumber??? would it work to leave just a slighlty larger gap? building in the winter/spring, will the wood be at it’s smallest? how much expansion is to be expected in the summer humidity? any advice you can offer would be most welcome.

View dbray45's profile


3408 posts in 3830 days

#12 posted 11-02-2011 09:14 PM

I have done both false fronts and dovetailed fronts. If all the drawers or doors are the same size, make one out of mdf or inexpensive anything. fit it tightly but do not glue it – this will be a template for cutting after you have it fit together.

If you ever watched New Yankee Workshop, Norm always made a “model” that he used to make the final pieces. THis way all your mistakes are inexpensive and the material is stable.

Wood moves – how much depends upon the grain, the cut, direction, moisture content, and if the material next to it is moving the same or counter to what you are doing. Did I mention the size? THere are charts for this but I can’t remember where I saw them. I am sure there is someone here that has the charts or formulas.

-- David in Palm Bay, FL

View Bernie's profile


422 posts in 3890 days

#13 posted 11-03-2011 05:30 AM

Project is almost done but I do appreciate and thank you all for your time. David, I don’t watch much TV but did have a few scarps of wood laying around and figured using them as prototypes. It was a great method in figuring what was wrong with the final fit. As stated, I used my card scrapers to make some final adjustments.

All comments have been appreciated. Thanks for teaching things I didn’t know and thanks for steering me in the right direction. Even Sarahss has reminded me the of the great benefit of belonging to this site (hope you get your answer).

I will post a picture of this project when I’m done. The only problem is that my sister is a very fussy person and I had her pick and stain the cabinet. The doors have flat panels and I had her stain the before assembling the doors so no white lines will be showing in the future. As you will see, she chose to stain this beautiful maple wood with a redish stain.

Another thing… I assembled the carcass using half blind machined dovetails. I didn’t pay much attention to the joints as long as they were tight and strong. I had intended adding molding to hide the minor imperfections. She liked them so much, she asked me to leave them be. Had I known this, I would have made my dovetail joints a more natural look besides bveing more careful to minor details. – Thanks again LJ

-- Bernie: It never gets hot or cold in New Hampshire, just seasonal!

View timbertailor's profile


1594 posts in 2478 days

#14 posted 07-18-2014 10:21 PM

I will be tackling this same problem again and I will not have the luxury of a false front for the drawers or known final widths of the jointery used.

The drawers will be flush mounted with the frame, as is.

So, my second tip of the day.

1) Assemble the drawers using whatever jointery you can concoct, but make sure the panels for the drawer fronts and rears are a couple of inches wider than what you need.

2) Measure the final drawer width after assembly and subtract the width you need from the front and rear panels to get your final dimensions you need to fit inside the face frame.

3) Cut one end off the front and back panel to the final length required and rejoint.


It works for all joints. Half blind, through, box, double doubles, etc. , especially when you will be reversing the tail and pin board positions so the joints can be seen better.

Hope this helps someone.

-- Brad, Texas,

View Derek Cohen's profile

Derek Cohen

514 posts in 5022 days

#15 posted 07-19-2014 04:46 PM

Hi Bernie

Once the carcass is completed, ready for the drawers, cut all the fronts and the backs so that they fit exactly, fit the sides, then dovetail together. Not much to it.

It helps to use a shooting board and shooting plane to size the parts. Trying to do this with power tools is more difficult.

See here for an example:

Regards from Perth


-- Buildiing furniture, and reviewing and building tools at

Have your say...

You must be signed in to reply.

DISCLAIMER: Any posts on LJ are posted by individuals acting in their own right and do not necessarily reflect the views of LJ. LJ will not be held liable for the actions of any user.

Latest Projects | Latest Blog Entries | Latest Forum Topics