Lock Joint Holds Drawers Tight

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Two ways to cut a drawer lock joint: The top joint was made using a drawer lock bit; the one below was made using a miniature glue point. Both are strong and quick to do.

A good substitute for traditional methods, this rod is strong and easy to make.

A a couple of hundred years ago, most drawers were assembled with hand-cut dovetail joints – semi-blind in front, through dovetails on the back.

But now it’s the 21st century. Many of us don’t have time to hand-cut dovetails. We want something that can be cut quickly, assembled quickly and, of course, that stays strong.

The joint of the drawer lock is just the ticket. It has a joint that holds the front and back to the sides and resists the main stresses administered to a drawer: tension, compression and pouring. The finished drawer may not have the elegance of one assembled with dovetails, but it goes together much faster.

The best bit to use

Two bits will cut a drawer lock joint. The miniature glue joint tip (left) is less flexible on the thickness of the blank but produces a joint with more interlocking. The tip of the drawer lock (right) is more flexible in terms of the thickness of the wood it works with. Cut the joints for both the bottoms and the corners.

Although the milled drawer lock joint can be produced with two types of tips, I will focus on the more familiar one, which I call drawer lock tip.

This bit is approximately 1 3/4“In diameter with low body (approx 1/2“high). Each cutting edge has a protruding tab for cutting a single nut.

The other piece you can use is a miniature piece of glue. It has a smaller diameter (about 1 “) and the body is taller, approx 3/4“. It is designed to produce a glue joint routed on thin media. While the joint produced is stronger, thanks to the extra shoulder it produces, and can also cut a glue joint on a solid wood butt, I prefer the drawer lock tip. It’s easier to install and will cut through all the joinery items needed to make a drawer, including the groove needed to hold the bottom in place.

To mill the sides, set the guide tangent to the small diameter of the drill, leaving only the tongue protruding. Check the setting with a rule.

Neither bit has a pilot bearing, so work must be done on a milling bench using a fence. Because the bits are small, you can use both in a low-power router running at full speed.

Both bits work the same way. A height setting is used for all cuts. The fence is used in one position for the front and back and in a slightly different position for the sides.

Drawer Locking Tip Setting

Stand to the side, lean against the fence and pass it over the piece. The table top and zero clearance fence surfaces minimize tearing and prevent jams in the movement of the work.

Start by setting the about bit 3/8” to 7/16”Above the table top. As you slide the guide into place, adjust its liners to zero play or apply a strip of 1/8“- thick hardboard (put the hardboard in place with the tip running so it cuts, creating your own zero play opening).

Adjust the guide so that it is tangent to the small cut diameter of the drill – only the tab should protrude from the guide.

Make cuts in the edges of two pieces of your broth, flip one over and join the two. While the pieces won’t be flush, the fit should be nice and tight.

If the measurement is too loose, raise the tip to tighten the joint. If the fit is too tight, lower the tip. After each adjustment, make further test cuts to check the fit.

Lay a drawer in front or back on the tabletop, with the end resting against the fence, then slide it past the piece. A support block minimizes tearing and helps keep the workpiece perpendicular to the guide.

The only next modification you will need during installation is to move the fence backwards when you cut the front and back parts to expose more bits. Use a piece of the side kick as a sizer. Hold it by one end against the rail and move the rail until the protruding tab is flush with the exposed face of the stock.

It’s easy to move back and forth between the cut sides and the front or back cut. Check out the series of photos below to see how I make these cuts.

Cut the joinery

If you are using a miniature glue tip, modify the fit by adjusting the height of the tip. The point where the front meets the side needs to be tight.

Before cutting the joinery for the drawer parts, mill the material down to the final thicknesses and lengths. To determine how long to cut pieces, especially the sides, make sample cuts in the scraps of the processing material.

The thickness of your stock will have an impact on this. If you are using 1/2“stocks, for example, the sides will generally be around 1/8”Shorter than the desired drawer length (front to back). Find out what it will be before you cross-cut the parts and route the joinery. A workable routine is this:

• Milling the sides. To cut one side, place it on one end with the inside face against the fence and slide it past the tip. Cut one end, then the other. I have never found a high fence necessary, nor do I care about feather boards. If you feel more comfortable with these accessories, feel free to use them.

• Milling the front and back. First, adjust the position of the fence. The workpiece will rest flat on the table top with its end resting against the rail. A square scrap used as a support block helps keep the work moving straight and evenly along the fence.

Keep in mind that the thickness of your butt does not affect the fit of the joints. You can mix 3/4“- thick faces with 1/2“- thick backs, all routing with the same configuration.

• Tear off the parts to their final widths.

• Make the groove for the bottom. Return the fence to the point used to cut the sides. Place the inside face of each part against the rail and cut from one end to the other with the tip of the drawer lock as it is set. This groove will not be visible after assembly.

• Mill the bottom to fit the groove. Keep the bit and fence setting as is. The 1/4“The bottom should be facing down on the tabletop as you cut this groove.

Put it all together

Test cuts, made with the flat butt on the tabletop, help you to identify the correct height setting of the drawer lock tip. If the samples don’t mesh (top), the bit should be turned down. If they are gappy (bottom), the bit needs to be turned up. When the setting is correct (center), the joint closes tightly.

Assembly is pretty simple. After performing a dry assembly, apply glue to the joints and join the parts. I glue a plywood bottom in place, regardless of the backing used for the sides, front and back.

With the bottom of the drawer facing down on the tabletop, mill all four edges. The batting will attach the bottom to the grooves made for it in the front, side and back using the same tip.

In keeping with the “get it fast” mentality, I started shooting two or three Brads in each barrel. The glue holds the parts together, but the tacks eliminate the need to lock each drawer, saving you a lot of time.

To do this, first join one side to the front. Then set the bottom in its grooves and add the back. Then, release the second side into place. Check the square, shoot the pegs in the two remaining corners and your drawer is assembled and ready to assemble.

The lock joint works on built-in drawers with integral fronts (shown here) and on drawers with false lip fronts.

If you don’t have a pneumatic nailer, you can use duct tape to “lock” the small drawers. But if you’re making larger drawers, you should use parallel jaw clamps or bar clamps. Just apply pressure from side to side; front-to-back locking is not required.

In the end, when the drawer is mounted on the case, rubberized and loaded with everything you decide to store there, it will work like the ones you spent hours creating with dovetails. And the proof is in the performance, right?


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