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AW Extra - Shaker Sewing Cabinet


Shaker Sewing Cabinet

Machine-cut dovetails add a new twist.

Tom Caspar

You can find a place for every conceivable sewing notion in this Shaker-inspired chest of drawers. Mix 'n' match modular trays fi t perfectly in the middle drawers. Store patterns or magazines in the large lower drawer. There’s enough compartments for a complete sewing kit.

You’ll make the most out of your router and half-blind dovetail jig when you build this cabinet. Not only are the drawers dovetailed, but the case is as well! All the joints are modern variations of the dovetails made by Shaker cabinet-makers 150 years ago.

Tools and materials

In addition to a standard set of power tools, you’ll need a halfblind dovetail jig and a biscuit joiner. Any brand of jig will do. I’ve based the dimensions of this case on the dovetails made by a Porter-Cable jig. You’ll have to slightly alter the Cutting List, below, if your jig cuts wider or longer dovetails (see "Changing Dimensions to Suit Your Jig", below). A router table makes cutting the casework dovetails a lot easier.

The chest requires about 25 bd. ft. of 4/4 primary wood and 25 bd. ft. of 4/4 secondary wood. I used cherry and yellow poplar. The modular trays for each drawer are made by Rubbermaid and are available at sewing centers nationwide. I bought the drawer pulls from a company that specializes in Shaker reproductions (see Sources, below).

The sides

Be a stickler for fl atness throughout this project, particularly when you mill and glue up the sides. You’ll go nuts trying to fi t dovetails in cupped or warped boards.

Begin by making the case; then build the drawers to fit. (Here’s a woodworking truism: “Always make the holes first, and then the parts that go into them!”) Start building the case by milling and routing the sides. They’re split in half because they’re too wide to fi t into a standard dovetail jig.

Mill the wood for sides B1 and B2. Cut them to width and length, and mark the front and top. Avoid sapwood on the front edge.

Next, mill the top rails C, dividers D and supports E. They’re all the same thickness. (Make a few extra supports E as test pieces.) The parts that show in the front of the case (C1 and D1) are made from cherry, while those that don’t show (C2 and D2) are made from yellow poplar. Rip all parts C and D to width, and then cut them all to the same length.

Set up your half-blind dovetail jig and cut dovetails in the sides and top rails (Photo 1). The two pieces aren’t the same width, so chances are you’ll cut an extra socket in the side. No big deal. It won’t show.

Join the sides together with biscuits or splines (Photo 2). Glue the sides with the help of one long clamp to align the ends (Photo 3).

Now, make sliding dovetails to hold the drawer supports (Fig. A, Detail 3). Begin by laying out the centerlines of each dovetail on the outside face of a side (for the dimensions, see Fig. A). Then make a jig for your router (Fig. B) and have at it (Photo 4). I screwed the jig to the side for the most consistent results. This pays off when you fit the supports and dividers to the dovetailed slots. Don’t mind the screw holes. They’re on the inside of the cabinet, after all.

Lastly, rabbet the rear edges of the sides to hold the back (Fig. A, Detail 1). Saw out the legs on the bottom of the sides (Fig. A, Detail 4).

Rails, dividers and supports

Every one of these pieces is dovetailed in a different way, but don’t worry; setting up your router to make safe and accurate cuts is easy.

You’ve already cut half-blind dovetails on the top rails C, but with the rabbet cut for the back boards, rail C2 has to be ripped about 1/2" narrower. The back boards sit on top of the rail and are screwed into it, so cut the rail just enough to match the rabbet (Fig. A).

Dovetail the ends of each divider D on a router table (Photo 5). It’s dangerous to hold such a narrow piece on end by itself, so make a jig to hold it (Fig. C). Setting up the cut is kind of fussy (Fig. D), so chew up your test pieces before cutting into the good stuff. The length of the router-table dovetail must exactly match the length of the dovetails you made with the half-blind jig. No problem. Set the height of the bit in the router table directly from the dovetailed end of one of the top rails C.

Cut sliding dovetails on the drawer supports E with the same setting on the router table (Photo 6 and Fig. E).

Cut biscuit slots in the ends of the supports E and dividers D1 (Photo 7). Mark the top sides of both parts so you won’t accidentally fl ip one during the glue up. A spline or tongue-and-groove joint made on the router table would also work here.


Gluing up the case is quite easy because you only add one divider at a time. Plus, you won’t need dozens of clamps! The divider’s dovetailed ends hold themselves in place.

Begin by inserting (without glue) a few of the dividers D1 and D2 to square up the case. Then, glue the top rails C1 and C2. Glue each of the front dividers D1, starting at the top (Photo 8).

Leave the lowest rear divider D2 in place and remove the others. Now you have room to glue supports E to the front dividers D1 (Photo 9). Clamp the supports to the divider.

Finally, glue all the rear dividers D2. Make sure their outer edge is flush with the bottom of the back board rabbet. There’s a gap between the back of support E and each divider D2 to allow for wood movement of the case sides (Fig. A).

Changing Dimensions to Suit Your Dovetail Jig

You’d think all half-blind dovetail jigs would cut the same size dovetails, but they don’t. Both their length and width vary from jig to jig. We’ve based our Cutting List on the dovetails made by a Porter-Cable jig. They’re 5/16" long and spaced 7/8" on center. Here’s what to watch out for if you’re using a different dovetail jig:

- Drawer thickness. Longer dovetails require a 13/16" thick front so they don’t cut into the drawer lips. Make the rabbets 7/16" deep.

- Drawer sides. The upper half-pin may not work out. Change the width of the drawer parts to get a balanced look.

Our case and drawers are dimensioned to fi t Rubbermaid modular trays. If you want to use these trays, but cut your parts on a different jig, pay attention to these details:

- Length of rails and dividers. The width of the drawer opening is fi xed. So the distance between the dovetail shoulders is fi xed, too ( it’s noted in the Cutting List). Change the overall length of the rails and dividers to suit your dovetails.

- Length of drawer sides. Longer dovetails will reduce the inside depth of the drawer. Compensate by adding length to the drawer sides.

Drawers, back and top

See "Making Lip Drawers with a Dovetail Jig" for complete how-to instructions.

Fit the drawers to the case. There should be 1/16" clearance between the tops of a drawer side and the divider above it (1/8" for the big drawer).

The drawers have trapped bottoms (Fig. G). I used tempered hardboard for the bottoms because it’s inexpensive and doesn’t show once the drawer is full. You could use hardwood plywood instead. I’ve dimensioned the drawers so there’s a half-pin showing at the top and bottom (Detail 5). Note in the Cutting List, that the back of each drawer is 1/16" narrower than the distance between the rabbets in the front (Fig. F). This kind of tapered fit helps drawers slide smoothly, in any project.

Drill holes in the center of each drawer front for pulls. You could turn your own, but I found some high-quality mail-order pulls that look terrific (see Sources).

Drill holes through the top rail C1 for the screws that hold the top (Photo 10). Make the top and shape its edges (Fig. A, Detail 2) by taking two passes with a 3/4" round-over bit (see Sources) or one pass with a halfradius bullnose bit on the router table. Fasten the top to the case.

Make the backs and screw the boards to the case, rails and dividers (Fig. A, Detail 1). They’re not glued together.

Apply a wipe-on varnish or brush on an oil-based varnish. I used Minwax Antique Oil on our lightly fi gured cherry, and it looks great. Give the cabinet some sun and it’ll slowly darken to a beautiful color.


Smith Woodworks & Design,, 908-832-2723, Shaker-style pulls, #SO118, cherry, $1.53 ea., min. order of 10.

MLCS Woodworking,, 800-533-9298, 3/4" radius round-over bit, 1/2" shank, #8656, $21; Half-radius bullnose bit, 1/2" shank, #8884, $17.

Cutting List

Fig. A: Exploded View

Fig. B: Sliding Dovetail Jig

Fig. C: Drawer Divider Jig

The Proper Fit: Fig. D, Fig. E., Fig. F.

Fig. G: Exploded View of Typical Drawer

This story originally appeared in American Woodworker December 2000, issue #84.

December 2000, issue #84

Purchase this back issue.

Click on any of the images to view a larger version

Cabinet of a hundred uses. We designed the drawers so modular plastic trays found at most sewing centers (left) fit perfectly with no rattling around. Plus the bottom drawer is just the right size for file folders to keep patterns organized. Office supplies (right), fly-tying gear—you name it—this cabinet can organize tons of stuff.

1. Cut dovetails in the sides and top rails. Each side of the cabinet is composed of two pieces that are glued together after the dovetails are cut because the complete side is too wide to fit in a basic dovetail jig.

2. Cut biscuit slots in each half of one side. Use biscuits or splines to align the two halves when you glue them together.

3. Glue the side together. Align the ends with a clamp placed lengthwise. With biscuits in the glue joint, you’ll need the force of a clamp to shift the boards. Once the ends are aligned, remove the long clamp and check the side for flatness. Flat sides are necessary for the next step to succeed!

4. Rout dovetailed grooves in the sides. Align the jig (Fig. B) with center marks on the edge of the side. Screw the jig directly to the side; the screws will hold down the far side of the jig, where clamps can’t reach. The screw holes are invisible in the fi nished case.

5. Cut dovetails in the ends of the dividers. Rout equally from both sides of the divider so the dovetail is centered. Clamp the narrow workpiece to the jig so it doesn’t slip down into the opening of the router table.

6. Dovetail the drawer supports. It’s basically the same setting as in Photo 5. You may have to move the fence to cut a fraction deeper, because the fi t over a longer distance needs to be looser (Fig. E).

7. Cut slots in the ends of the drawer supports for #0 biscuits. Line up all the supports and make, in effect, one continuous slot. Biscuits align all the pieces that support the drawer so the drawer will slide smoothly, without hitting any uneven edges.

8. Assemble the case one piece at a time. That’s the beauty of dovetails! You don’t have to clamp a dozen pieces at once.

9. Glue the drawer supports to the front dividers. The drawer supports are only glued at the front, not in the groove, so the case side is free to expand and contract.

10. Drill screw holes for the top from inside the case. That way you know the holes will be accessible when you install the top.

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