Dovetails or biscuit for custom kitchen drawers

NewyorkingOctober 1, 2009

I am getting custom kitchen cabinets made. While bidding with two contractors, one high-end contractor recommended solid maple plywood drawers with dovetail. The other recommended biscuit joints for drawers with maple wood veneer over plywood. Which joints are better - dovetail or biscuit? Which wood is better for drawers - solid or veneer?

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I'd give the nod to dovetails for mechanical strength although biscuits are pretty darn strong too. Some years ago, just as a test, a made some simple butt joints with biscuits and tried to break them. In many cases, the wood failed before the biscuit. The problem is that you're using plywood with the biscuits and I'd be inclined to think that joint would be less strong that with solid wood because the plys can delaminate as well.

For all practical purposes, I'd think either method would give many years of service. I'm assuming the plywood/biscuit drawers are a bit less expensive.

Certainly dovetails are aesthetically more pleasing but how often do you stare at the corners of your drawers? :-)

    Bookmark   October 1, 2009 at 9:55PM
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Biscuits only increase the holding power of a joint by adding glue area. Mechanical strength is negligible in all testing of which I have seen. Biscuits are more of an alignment aid than anything else.

Any glue joint made with wood glue and properly clamped will be stronger than the wood itself. I have done the same as Mike---making joints and breaking them and getting the same results. Same with dovetails---the wood breaks before the glue joint.

Veneer can delaminate, especially in moist conditions---like kitchens. Solid wood moves when wet/temp changes.

Dovetail joints in plywood are rather weak.

Longest lasting material would be solid wood with dovetailed joints---which will also be the most expensive.

Least expensive will be the plywood with biscuits.

Dovetails were invented back before there were really good glues because they were very strong, long lasting joints that required a minimal amount of glue. Really, only enough glue to hold the joint together was needed as all the strength was in the joint.

Modern wood glues are such that even butt jointed drawers will last with light use. That means dovetails are basically aesthetic now.

    Bookmark   October 2, 2009 at 12:36AM
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Thanks so much everyone!! This definitely takes a load off my shoulders. So my cabinet-maker cum contractor is doing the right thing by using biscuit. I just wasn't sure if he was cutting corners.

    Bookmark   October 2, 2009 at 2:45PM
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For long grain joints, biscuits might add strength but properly done with modern glues the joint is already stronger than the wood itself. So in that application, biscuits could serve as an alignment aid although there are certainly other ways accomplish alignment that doesn't require in the investment in a biscuit jointer.

There's no doubt that biscuits add strength to a cross grain joint although the amount depends on the material and the size/number of biscuits. I've built several small tables where I joined the rails to the legs with biscuits instead of the traditional mortise and tenon (although a biscuit could be called a form of loose tenon). There joints are plenty strong enough for the application.

To the OP, it isn't so much a matter of cutting corners as it is selecting the material and construction method that gives the best results for a give price. Dovetails are far more labor intensive than biscuits and solid wood is more expensive than plywood.

    Bookmark   October 2, 2009 at 4:46PM
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There is no such thing as a high end cabinet drawer made out of plywood. High end is solid wood with dovetails. Fast and cheap is plywood.

    Bookmark   November 2, 2009 at 7:15PM
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Quote---"There is no such thing as a high end cabinet drawer made out of plywood. High end is solid wood with dovetails. Fast and cheap is plywood." Unquote

depends on definations. High end today is more a defination of price, not materials.

I have seen very cheap furniture made of solid wood with dovetailed drawers sell for a hundred dollars. The wood is very light weight, the dovetails machine made and the joints show gaps.

Solid wood with dovetails---but far from high end.

The reason furniture makers used dovetails long ago is because the glue available then would not last under much use. The glue would hold the dovetails together, which solved that problem.

Todays glues are stronger than the wood with nothing more than a butt joint. That means that any form of joint design will be even stronger as such designs add to the glue surface available for the joint.

High end cabinetry today is more materials/finishes than joinery.

A hundred fifty years ago, mahoghany was considered a secondary wood for many applications. And seldom used for cabinetry. Some furniture and lots of moulding/trim in houses.

Mahoghany cabinetry today is one of the more expensive materials you can use.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2009 at 9:33AM
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Handymac, do you own a high end custom cabinetry and furniture business, trained by masters, schooled at the Bennet School of Woodworking ? I do own, was trained by masters and degreed from the Bennet School of Woodworking, and own a high end shop that's been in business for 63 years. Do some serious research on traditional woodworking and you will find out the strength of dovetails even with old hide glue which we still use sometimes in reproduction period furniture.
No pun intended.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2009 at 12:28PM
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This debate is quite interesting...

Do any other woodworkers consider Baltic Birch Ply a high end material? I have been making dovetail drawers with solid wood front and BB ply sides for many years. Testing the dovetail strength; it only fails if you apply excessive side pressure to the joint. Opening and closing the drawers, even with unnecessary force, does not seem to hurt dovetail joints made with the Baltic Birch ply.

Check out the modern art museums and you will see beautiful art made from Baltic Bircy Ply.

If I should reconsider the material I use for drawers, please enlighten me. The pieces I make are a modern-craftsman style, so I am most interested in selecting simple but very high quality materials to achieve the best results. Any thoughts?

    Bookmark   November 3, 2009 at 1:51PM
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Cuttingbone, I am sorry you felt I was disrespecting old fashioned cabinet making. I was not, and did not mean to imply dovetails were inferior.

By saying what I did, I meant that the older cabinet makers used dovetails because they were the best available joint, since they hend even with inferior(to modern standards) glues. Hide glues do not last a long time with hard wear---evidenced by old hide glued chairs with loose joints.

I use machine cut dovetails in my work. I have begun to learn how to hand cut dovetails.

So, pardon =the wrong impression I gave.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2009 at 7:14PM
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BB ply is hardly a "high end" material IMO. It is a high-quality plywood for sure. But "high end", to the extent that it means anything at all as a term, should mean rare and costly in some formulation, and BB, for all its sturdiness and fitness for making durable articles, is neither a rarity nor a precious material. Hand-cut dovetails, well-fitted, are the mark of a true craftsman, while machine-cut dovetails are mere replicas.

    Bookmark   November 3, 2009 at 10:10PM
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Will you have these drawers running on glides? Visible?

    Bookmark   November 5, 2009 at 12:16PM
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Svey, I am doing undermount Blum soft-close slides.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2009 at 2:13PM
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I have those, they work great. My 3 years old shows them to his friend when they come over. He doesn't get tired of seeing them close shut.

Drawer joinery is not meant to be displayed outside of a cabinet shop showroom. You will never see them opening and closing the drawers. If the plybox with biscuit are cheaper you will be able to spend on more showy stuff like inset doors or better appliances.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2009 at 2:48PM
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Thanks Svey. What is the model number of your glides? BTW the cabinets are pricey -- dovetail would probably be $4K-$5K more.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2009 at 5:41PM
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The Blum glides that I have installed are the 560H5500. Have you considered the Blum Servo system? It was out of my budget but that would be the ultimate conversation piece in a kitchen. I would forget dovetail drawers and go for the Servo system. It was so cool to see the demo kitchen at Richelieu.

    Bookmark   November 6, 2009 at 8:14AM
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I considered Servo but I think it needs electric power to run. I am going tip-on instead for upper cabinets. I am not doing it for drawers because each time I would bump into the drawer it would open -- I tried it out in a Porcelanosa showroom. I am doing it just for the trash can/drawer below the sink. Did you see both tip-on and servo? Would tip-on for upper cabinets serve the same purpose as servo? In the demo, did you find that bumping against the drawers kept opening them?

    Bookmark   November 6, 2009 at 10:03AM
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