Repair of Sliding Dovetail Joints in Mid Century Dresser Drawers

Mid-century-walnut-tambour-door-lowboy dresser Apr 20, 2015 2-27 PM          At least 40% of the mid century dressers that come through our shop need some type of drawer repair. Whether it’s Bassett, Stanley, Broyhill, Lane, or Kent Coffey, they’re pretty much constructed using the same basic design- dovetails attaching the sides to the front, a dado (groove) near the bottom of sides/back/front into which the floor piece slides, and nails/glue to affix the back. There’s plenty of info on how to repair this standard type of drawer, but very few sources dealing with an obscure but important alternate design scheme which involves the use of a sliding dovetail to attach the sides to the drawer front. This blog deals with the process I used to repair all six of the sliding dovetail drawers in a vintage walnut dresser that we recently acquired.

Heres a picture of a broken sliding dovetail joint. See how it has separated improperly? It’s very important not to remove the drawer front without taking the drawer apart to allow for proper removal. If you just pry it off or tap it back on using brute force, you will probably destroy the joint and render the drawer irreparable. As it is, we can disassemble the drawer then reassemble it with the right type of glue in the right place to make it good as new. This might sound like a lot of work, but it’s the only way to do it right. You’ll be glad you did. Here’s how…

broken sliding dovetail joint
The first step is to understand how a sliding dovetail works. Notice how just one dovetail runs from top to bottom of the sides/front, instead of the usual series of dovetails running in the perpendicular direction. During assembly, the drawer front slides on from the top instead of  interlocking  with the sides like most drawers.  This one long dovetail joint works on the same premise as a conventional dovetail, but gives a much cleaner look when the dresser drawer is open . In solid wood this is an effective and elegant joint, however in the dresser pictured, the drawer sides are made of MDF which deformed over time allowing the tail(male end) of the dovetail joint to partially slip out of place. Once the drawer is apart we’ll reassemble the sliding dovetail after adding a bead of urethane glue which will harden the MDF and fill the empty space which has allowed the joint to fail.  Urethane glue actually does not create as strong a bond as many other adhesives, but it’s expansive properties make it very useful in the repair of joinery.
sliding dovetail joint
Good design, bad material..It’s cool, we’ll fix it.

 

The first step is to get the drawer bottom out. Start by detaching the glue blocks that attach the sides to bottom. I did this with a metal scraper and trim hammer-be gentle.  If the joint doesn’t separate readily, apply some moisture with a warm damp towel. This should allow you to separate the glue without breaking any wood. (hopefully)
disassemble drawer
Next, loosen the nails that attach the back to the bottom by gently tapping with a small hammer as shown. Then tap next to each nail head on the opposite side (from the drawer’s bottom) so the wood taps back into place leaving the nail heads protruding enough to get something under them.
remove nails from drawer back
Now pull the nails out.
pull nails
The floor piece should slide out easily…I said “should”
remove drawer bottom
Now we can separate those sliding dovetail joints and get the drawer front off. Tap the dovetail out the way it slid in, even if half of it has already popped out the way it’s not supposed to. We don’t want to make matters worse here. Be gentle.
remove drawer front
Tap or wiggle one side, then the other, until they both slide off evenly.
remove drawer front
Here’s the female side of the sliding dovetail joint. The MDF has compressed under the stress of use enough to allow the joint to fail. I chose Urethane glue (Gorilla Glue) for this repair because it expands during curing and thus will fill the empty space in the joint. It will also permeate the surface of the MDF hardening it to a more suitable state. Urethane glue is actually not as effective as PVA (Titebond wood glue) in most conventional glue-ups, but works well in many repairs because of it’s expansive properties.
sliding dovetail female end
Apply an 1/8″ bead of gorilla glue over the length of the joint. Dampening the gluing surface will speed curing.
gorilla glue repair

The next step is to re-seat the sliding dovetail. Carefully slide the drawer front over the dovetails on both drawer sides evenly. Be careful that the joint seats cleanly and properly.
mid century modern dresser repair

If you keep good alignment the front should slide on without too much trouble. Sometimes a few taps with a rubber mallet helps, just don’t let one side get ahead of the other.
mid century modern dresser repair
Once the front is on we’ll want to apply some glue to the blocks on the drawer bottom and slide the bottom back into place.
sliding dovetail repair
When the bottom is back in place, check to make sure the drawer is square and all the joints are still fitting the way they should. It would be a shame to do all this work and not have your drawer fit properly when you try to put it back in the dresser. If everything looks good, it’s time to put the clamps on. If your clamps don’t have rubber feet like the one seen here, pad with cloth or cardboard. One clamp per side was sufficient here, but two per side are often advisable. It doesn’t hurt to be on the safe side here. After your clamps are on, examine your joints and check for square again.

Remember, urethane glue expands as it cures, so check your joints for excess glue a few times over the next hour. Wipe off any glue overflow with a damp cloth. Dry urethane glue can be cleaned off of unfinished surfaces pretty easily with a blade, but it can be a major problem if allowed to dry on top of finish, so don’t forget this step.
clamping drawer
Last but not least, replace the nails which attach the bottom to the back.
replace drawer back
I hope this blog was helpful. Feel free to message me with any questions and check back in for other posts about mid century furniture restoration and repair,
Jake Moore