135: Desk Drawers

The roll-top desk, complete with chair, but before we added little pull-out drawers.

A few weeks ago, I drove down to my hometown to pick up a desk I had inherited back in 2007. The imminent sale of my childhood home—where the desk was stored in a mostly-unused state—forced me to finally make room for it in my current residence. The desk is a roll-top design, with an s-curve top hiding ten shelves and two drawers. Below the desktop are three much larger drawers, two pull-out shelves for additional desktop space, and a cabinet with vertical shelves to hold ledgers. It even came with a wooden desk chair.

The internal shelves are painted black, with a small “scallop” decoration beside each drawer.

Hidden under the roll-top is a desktop shelf system covered in an unpleasant black finish—I’m not sure if it just hasn’t aged well or it wasn’t a good finish to begin with, but Jen and I agreed that it could use some sprucing up. She wouldn’t find that many open shelves useful, but drawers might be! Out of the ten shelves, two in the center are meant for thin documents or envelopes and won’t really work out. The other eight were much more appropriately proportioned, perfect candidates to house little pull-outs.

An early design just getting the shapes in place.

One design had an ill-informed circular pull and horizontal slats. WHY?

The final design uses the scallop as a drawer pull on four of the eight drawers.

We bounced back and forth a bit on design ideas, but I really wanted to find a way to incorporate the desktop shelf’s one artistic flourish—a little scallop connecting each side drawer to the shelf above. Once I vector-traced its shape from a photograph, I was able to more easily mock up how the drawers would work together. The scallop design was duplicated and flipped, becoming a simple engraved fill on the drawer surface. The mirrored scallops create a kind of clover or flower design. Since each drawer was going to sit flush inside their respective shelf, and we weren’t going to be using knobs, I cut out little finger-sized gaps to pull on. On half of the drawers, those gaps would just be simple rounded rectangles cut out of the top of the front face. The other four drawers would be trickier: the finger pull would be the scallop design, cut out of the top corner, rather than engraved at the bottom.

A cardboard prototype to confirm the box joints.

With the project mapped out, my next task was designing the drawers. I measured the shelving unit, figuring out that my drawers had to be about 8.25″ deep to hit the back of the shelf. I wanted the box joint to have as minimal an impact on the aesthetic as possible, so I made sure there were only a couple of teeth on each edge of the face. The most interesting part of designing these drawers was wrapping those scallop-shaped finger pulls around the corner of the drawer.

The first assembled prototype, with a black finish so dark it’s hard to photograph.

I decided on 1/8″ thick MDF for the drawer’s insides, and a higher quality wood ply piece for the front. The MDF was coated black, so it would match the shelves to some degree, but a snafu in sourcing material meant only one side of the MDF would be coated in the black laminate, and the reverse surface would be exposed natural fibreboard. That was a bit of a letdown, but not one I could solve easily. After some deliberation, we decided that the inside surface of the drawers should be the laminated side, which would leave the outside of the drawers a much lighter color.

I recently restocked, so I had plenty of wood grains to choose from.

The front surface was going to be made from a hardwood ply. I had nearly ten types of wood to choose from, including cherry, mahogany, red oak, and sassafras. I went overboard at first and imagined using each type for one drawer, or using more than one type per drawer, but Jen pulled me back aboard and suggested we just try to match the desk’s finish as closely as possible. The best option was clearly cherry. The color was still off by a bit, but using some wood oil brought the color much closer to the desk wood.

The prototype didn’t fit! I measured the bottom of each shelf, rather than the top.

The slope that caused my prototype to fix poorly is clearly visible in this doctored image.

While I cut the first prototype out of cardboard, I didn’t actually try to fit the drawer into the shelving unit until I’d finished the first real wood prototype. That turned out to be a mistake, because the drawer was inexplicably jutting out of the shelf by an inch and a half. I was flummoxed. I had inspected and measured the shelf more than once. The problem was that I didn’t inspect the ceiling of the shelving unit, where there was a small slope built in—to allow the roll-top to slide back for storage—preventing the drawer from sliding all the way in. I briefly entertained a plan to carve the angles out of the back and side walls of the drawer, but opted for a lazier path. I would just shorten the drawers to about 6.5″ deep. Problem solved!

Constructing the last box out of 1-side laminated MDF.

I laid out all the parts I would need to construct the drawers. Eight front pieces, two each of two reflections of two designs. Twelve full sides, and two each of left and right scallops. Eight backs, all identical. I cut out and assembled the MDF pieces first. An offset path of .003″ meant that the wood would hold together tightly without any glue. After gently sanding and oiling the cherry fronts, I snapped them into place, too. I made sure to cut the fronts out from the same strip of cherry wood so that the grain would follow across each set of four.

The finished drawers are ready to be installed!

Our new old desk has a pretty ugly shelving unit in it, and I might still go back and resurface it somehow, but thanks to the laser those shelves have pretty drawers now!

The drawers need to be pulled very far out to reach past the roll-top, even when it’s open.

The full set of drawers.

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