AW Extra 6/12/14 – Restore a Chest of Drawers

restore chest 5F00 lead AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

Restore a Chest of Drawers

Make broken-down drawers
fit and work like new

By Tim Johnson


At first glance, the
broken-down chest
of drawers looks like a lost cause—a wreck
even by garage-sale standards.
After all, it’s been sitting out
in Uncle Ed’s garage forever,
and the drawers haven’t budged
for years.

Surprise! A closer look indicates
that this chest is a perfect
candidate for rescue. Its solid wood
case is sound.The joints
are still tight and there’s no sign
of dry rot. The top isn’t badly
warped or split. It needs cosmetic
repairs, but more than
anything, the drawers need
rebuilding,and you can do that.


Wooden Drawers Wear Out

Lots of great old dressers are available at reduced
prices, just because the drawers don’t work.
Knowing how to make repairs makes it possible
for you to get a fantastic piece at a bargain

Although they may look quite a bit different
than the dresser shown here,most old chests of
drawers share similar simple construction on
the inside. All of the parts (drawer sides, runners,
guides and stops) are wood.

On 19th-century American pieces, these
hidden parts are usually made from woods
chosen for economy or workability, rather than
durability. Even when the cases are made of
hardwoods like walnut and cherry, the
secondary woods are almost always pine, poplar
or basswood—lightweight woods that wear
down with use.


Rebuilding Drawers is Satisfying

Rebuilding four worn-out drawers is a time-consuming
project. But making those cantankerous
old drawers open and close effortlessly
is highly satisfying. So is rescuing an heirloom-quality
piece of furniture.

Drawer-rebuilding and problem-solving go
hand in hand. Be prepared to do things a bit differently
than we show, depending on how your
chest of drawers is constructed. First, we’ll
rebuild the inside of the chest (Photos 1 through
7). Next, we’ll repair the drawers (Photos 8
through 13). Finally,we’ll fit the repaired drawers
into the rebuilt chest (Photos 14 through 20).

We’ll use a combination of hand and power
tools to do the job, including a tablesaw and a
Japanese-style pull saw, a plunge router, a hand
plane and sharp chisels.A carpenter’s square, a
try square and a sliding-bevel square are necessary
for layout. Our replacement pieces are
made from straight-grained hard maple, so
they’ll last much longer than the original components.


First, Remove the Top and Back

Repairing the drawer runners and guides is
much easier when the chest’s top and back are
removed. Tops are usually fastened with screws
through the chest’s top rails (front and back).
You may also find screws pocket-holed through
the sides.
If nails have been added, you’ll have to pry the top loose after you’ve removed the screws. Once
you’ve gotten the top off, pull the nails out
through its bottom side. Don’t try to back them
out through the top. Their heads are likely to
blow out the surrounding wood.

Opening the back of the chest can be as easy
as knocking off nailed-on boards. Be sure to
mark them first, for reassembly.

If the back is glued to the sides, the joints may
not break cleanly. Gently pry each joint apart,
while soaking it with hot water to soften the
glue. Take your time.


Remove Worn Interior Parts

Many old pieces are made with simple internal
joinery that’s fairly easy to knock apart. Most
often the rail is glued at the front and nailed at
the back (Photo 1). It may help to remove the
drawer guide that sits atop the runner first.
Make repairs if the tongue-and-groove joint
doesn’t break cleanly.

Next, remove the old support blocks. You
can usually knock them off with a hammer,
but if they’re firmly attached, it’s better to saw
them off. Once they’re gone, remove the glue
and flatten the surface by planing or sanding.


Repair the Drawer Dividers

The drawer dividers take a beating from use,
which shows as worn-in grooves.A new,more
durable wear surface is a must. Hard maple is
the best choice for longevity, even if your chest
is made of cherry, walnut or mahogany. However,
when you apply finish, you’ll have to disguise
the maple by adding color.

With a square, mark the divider for a dado
that’s wider than the groove, and as wide as
your chisel (usually 3/4 in. to 1 in.). Saw the
inner shoulder while holding the blade flush
against a clamped-on guide block (Photo 2).
Hold the blade against the face frame as you cut
the outer shoulder. Here, the unbacked portion
of your Japanese saw works best.

Once the shoulders are cut, create the dado
with a sharp chisel (Photo 3). Then, glue in a
hard-maple patch, cut so its grain direction
matches the divider. After the glue has dried,
pare the patch flush (Photo 4).


Rebuild and Install the Runners

Examine the runners to decide whether to
repair or replace them. If the wear isn’t severe,
the runner can be repaired (Photo 5). However,
if the wear on the runner’s top extends
below the tongue on its front, the runner needs
to be replaced. When making new runners, cut
the tongues on the tablesaw, using a miter gauge
and a stop block.

Fabricate, locate and fasten new support
blocks for the runners inside the chest (Photo
6). Thick blocks are best—just make sure they
don’t interfere with the drawer opening. Once
the support blocks are in place, install the new
or repaired runners (Photo 7).


Repair the Drawer Sides

Breakage often occurs at the drawer-bottom
dado,because it creates a weak spot in the drawer
side. The best repair reinforces the drawer side
with stronger wood on both sides of this dado.

Rout a clean, straight edge,parallel to the top
of the drawer side and at least 3/8-in. above the
drawer-bottom dado. Set the router’s plunge
depth to match the thickness of the drawer side
and rout to full depth in several shallow passes
(Photo 8).

Cut your hard-maple replacement pieces extra
wide and mill them slightly thicker than the
drawer sides. They’ll be cut down and planed
flush after installation. If you’re restoring a handmade
drawer, check the thickness of every side.
They’ll probably vary.

Before marking each replacement piece
(Photo 9), orient it so the grain runs from front
to back on the outer face and also on the bottom
edge. This makes final hand planing easier and
safer. Planing from front-to-back (with the
grain), you won’t risk blowing out the drawer

Cut and dry-fit the replacement piece. Then,
from inside the drawer,mark the location of the
drawer-bottom dado (Photo 10). Remove the
replacement piece and extend the marks indicating
the dado to its front and back edges. Use
these marks to set the tablesaw fence. At the
back, the top of the dado aligns with the notch.
Your reference lines may not be parallel to the
edge of the replacement piece. If they aren’t, use
a shim to align the dado correctly before cutting
(Photo 11).

Handmade drawer bottoms may be different
thicknesses, so don’t use your dado set to cut the
dado. Instead,use a regular blade and cut the top
edge of the dado first. Then reset the fence and
make additional passes to widen it, using the
drawer bottom itself to test the width.

After gluing on the replacement pieces (Photo
12), plane them flush (Photo 13).


Level the Chest

It’s common for an old chest to sit crooked,
because its feet have worn down unevenly. For
the drawers to operate smoothly, the chest has
to sit level. Before fitting the drawers, set your
chest on a flat surface. Gluing shims under the
worn feet is the easiest way to level it.


Fit the Drawers

Cut the drawer sides down in width so they’ll
just fit inside their openings (Photo 14). Leaving
the sides a bit wide has two advantages.
First, it lifts the drawer front off the divider,
for smoother operation. Second, it allows finetuning
of the drawer’s position in the opening,
so you can reduce the gap at the top. (Old
drawers, especially wide ones, often have
shrunk, leaving an unsightly space.)


Add Drawer Guides and
Stop Blocks

Clamp a couple boards across the drawer opening,
one at each end. Install the drawer and
mark the runner (Photo 15). Remove the
drawer and draw a line from your mark to the
edge of the face frame. Use this line to locate the
guide (Photo 16).

You’ll find drawer stops in different places on
old chests, but usually they’re mounted on the
divider, behind the drawer fronts.

Make sure your replacement stops are thin
enough for the drawer bottoms to clear. Don’t
try to clamp right away—clamp pressure will
cause the stop to skate around on the wet glue.
A “rub” joint is better. Apply glue and seat the
block, rubbing it side-to-side a couple of times,
while holding it snug against the back of the
drawer front (Photo 17). Let it sit for about five
minutes (until the glue tacks) and then add a
clamp. Check again to make sure there hasn’t
been any movement.

Extend the Drawer Bottoms

Widening the shrunken drawer bottoms is easy
(Photo 18). Use screws to fasten the bottom to
the drawer back, so it’s easy to remove. The
tongue-and-groove joint at the front allows the
bottom to expand and contract. It’s best to do
your final fitting with the drawer bottoms
installed,but not fastened, so they’re still easy to


Final Fitting

First,make adjustments so the drawer fronts fit
well in their openings. If you live where there are
seasonal changes in humidity, plan to leave at
least a 3/32-in. gap at the top, for expansion.
Super-wide drawers may need more space.You
may also have to make this top gap wider to balance
the gap at the bottom. If these situations
require additional tablesaw cuts, you’ll have to remove the drawer bottoms.

Next, check from the back of the chest to
see if both sides of the drawers (with the bottoms
installed) rest on the runners. If all the
drawers are off by similar amounts, the chest is
probably the culprit, so re-level it. If only one or
two drawers are off, they’re probably a bit
twisted. Hand planing solves the problem
(Photo 19).

When the drawers fit well, smooth the
drawer-side bottoms with a hand plane or by
sanding. Chamfer the sharp edges and put a big
chamfer on the back ends, so it’s easier to slip the
drawers in the chest.

Finally, shellac and wax all of the runners,
guides and drawer-side bottoms (Photo 20).


Get Rid of that Musty Smell

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 no 2D00 musty 2D00 smell AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

The sour smell that often accompanies an old chest of
drawers is enough to make one hesitate to use it for clothes.
But you needn’t worry—there’s a simple fix.

That bad odor isn’t anything inherently nasty, like mold
or mildew. It’s the smell of basswood, which was frequently
used for drawer parts 100 years ago.

To get rid of the smell, brush a coat of shellac on the
drawers, inside and out, including both sides of the drawer
bottoms. The shellac will seal the basswood and eliminate the
odor. Check the cabinet back, too, and give it a good shellacking
if it’s made of the same smelly stuff.


The New Finish

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 the 2D00 new 2D00 finish AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

The paint adorning Uncle Ed’s chest of drawers wasn’t worth
saving. The topcoats were latex paint, neither old, nor patinated;
just crummy. A little sleuthing indicated that the chest is made
of pine and that original finish, an opaque brown color hidden
underneath the paint, was also badly deteriorated. Clearly, the
best course of action was to remove the paint so we could
apply a fresh finish. Because the lower paint layers almost certainly
contained lead, we took this chest to a professional for

After stripping, we let the chest dry completely before making
repairs.We re-glued a couple of minor cracks and replaced
a couple of broken-off pieces, including the broken escutcheons
(key hole covers). We also bought pine replacement knobs. We
chipped all the old white putty (which doesn’t stain well) from
the nail holes. Then we filled all the holes and crevices with pine-colored
plastic wood filler.

We sanded everything thoroughly with a random-orbit
sander, starting with 80-grit paper and working up to 180 grit.
Then we sanded by hand with 150 grit, to remove any machine-made
sanding marks. Sanding lightened the pine noticeably.

Our “professional’s
finish is nothing
more than a
couple coats of Zar “Provincial”
oil-based wood stain (it’s pigmented, just like
glaze), applied over a coat of Zinsser’s SealCoat universal
sealer (which is de-waxed shellac).

This off-the-shelf shellac-and-glaze method is foolproof.
The stain goes on evenly, and you can blend areas that don’t
match. If something goes wrong, you can remove the stain with
mineral spirits and try again.

After sanding the SealCoat with 280-grit paper,we applied the
first coat of stain, wiped it off uniformly and let it dry overnight.
We applied the second coat of stain judiciously, using a combination
of wiping, stippling and dry-brushing, to blend uneven
spots, including our new-wood repairs and replacement pieces.

After the stain was thoroughly dry, we brushed-on two coats
of Zar’s antique flat oil-based polyurethane. We sanded the first
coat with 280-grit paper before applying the final coat.

Click any image to view a larger version.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 intro 2D00 1 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

Before they were worn out, wooden runners bore
the weight of the drawers. Guides mounted atop the
runners controlled side-to-side movement and glued-on
blocks stopped the drawers flush with the front.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 intro 2D00 2 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

Broken-off drawer sides make drawers hard to
open and close,wear down the stop blocks and damage
the drawer bottoms.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 1 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

1. Remove the runners. First, use a hammer and chisel to break
the runner from the support block.Then, break the tongue-and-groove
joint at the front by prying the runner away at the back,
where it’s probably just nailed to the case.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 2 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

2. Saw square shoulders on both sides of the groove worn
into the drawer divider. Use a squarely cut block to guide the saw.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 3 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

3. Chisel out the waste, to create a flat-bottomed dado.Then
glue in a patch, with the grain direction of the patch the same as
the divider.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 4 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

4. Pare the patch flush with the divider, using sweeping
strokes with a sharp chisel held flat on the divider.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 5 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

5. Renew worn runners with hard-maple inserts. First, cut
rabbets wide and deep enough to remove the wear.Then, glue in the
inserts and plane them flush with the remaining original surface. If
the runners are too far gone, make new ones.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 6 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

6. Glue blocks to the cabinet to support the runners. First,
install the runner, without glue, and square it, using a carpenter’s
square clamped to the face frame. Orient the block’s grain
direction so it matches the side of the case.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 7 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

7. Install the runner. Glue and clamp the joint at the front.
At the back, don’t use glue. Just screw the runner to the
cabinet, toenailing it against the support block through an
angled, oversize hole.This construction allows the chest’s solidwood
side to expand and contract.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 8 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

8. Remove the broken edge of the drawer side, using a plunge
router and a clamped-on straightedge. Start behind the drawer
front and stop before you cut into the back. Remove the remaining
waste with a sharp chisel.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 9 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

9. Cut a replacement piece to fit. Mark the front dovetail and
back corner on the extra-wide replacement piece, using a square
and a sliding bevel to transfer the angle. Then, cut to the lines, using
a bandsaw or handsaw.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 10 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

10. Mark the dado for the drawer bottom, using a straightedge. At
the back, the top of the dado aligns with the bottom of the drawer.
Your second mark indicates the dado’s width.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 11 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

11. Cut the dado for the drawer bottom using a regular blade. If the
dado needs to run at a slight angle to the edge, shim the replacement
piece. Adjust the angle by sliding the shim toward the front or the back.
When you make the cut, both the shim and the back corner of the
workpiece must ride against the fence. If your saw’s fence is too short
(in front of the blade or behind it), clamp on a long-enough subfence. CAUTION:The blade guard must be removed for this cut.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 12 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

12. Glue on the replacement pieces. Make sure that their inside
faces are flush with the drawer sides.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 13 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

13. Plane the replacement flush. Skewing your plane so it
rides on the drawer side keeps the planed surface flat.Work from
front to back, with the grain.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 14 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

14. Trim the drawer sides to fit, about 1/16-in. narrower than
their openings in the chest. These initial cuts should leave the sides
extending below the drawer front. This extra width leaves enough
material for fine-tuning the drawer’s fit in the opening. CAUTION: The blade guard must be removed for this cut.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 15 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

15. Mark the drawer's width
on the runner, so you
can install the guides.
Hold the drawer flush
across the front, using
blocks clamped to the
dividers, and snug
against the side of the
opening. Move the
drawer against the
opposite side to mark
the other runner.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 16 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

16. Mount the drawer guides flush at the front, but
leave the lines
showing at the back,
so the drawer won’t

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 17 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

17. Glue drawer stops to the front dividers.With the bottomless
drawers held flush with the front of the face frame, simply butt the
stops behind the drawer fronts.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 18 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

18. Eliminate a shrinkage-caused gap by adding a piece to
the drawer bottom. Plane it flush
and rabbet the ends after the glue

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 19 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

19. Fine-tune the drawer sides. It’s not unusual for old drawers to be slightly twisted. If the back end of one side is high, plane
down the back end of the other side until they both rest on the runners.

restore 2D00 chest 5F00 20 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

20. Brush a coat of shellac on the runners and guides.
Then sand with 280-grit sandpaper and apply a coat of paste
wax. Do the same to the sides and bottom edges of the
drawers, and they’ll slide like glass.



Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.

Van Dykes’s Restorers,, 800-787-3355,
2-in. pine knobs, #02001844; 1-in.-round maple escutcheon, #02289083.

Wm. Zinsser and Co.,, 800-899-1211,
SealCoat Universal Sanding Sealer.

United Gilsonite Laboratories,, 800-845-5227,
Zar Oil-Based Stain, “Provincial” color; Zar Interior Polyurethane, “Antique Flat”

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October 2002, issue #96.

AW96 Oct02 Cover AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

October 2002, issue #96

Purchase this back issue.


 AW Extra 6/12/14   Restore a Chest of Drawers

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