Chest of Drawers archive

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Kevin Ley builds a chest of drawers in burr walnut


The order for this build came after the clients saw some of my display pieces in burr elm at a show, so they contacted me to discuss ideas about a piece they wanted.

Displays like this are very successful in getting business, and I try to make striking or unusual pieces to get attention and expand people’s expectations.

As the display pieces sell, I make more of them. I really enjoy making these speculative pieces from stock I have in, using my imagination and displaying some unusual timbers.

Timber selection

Step 1

Some time ago, I spotted a half butt of very interesting-looking walnut in a wood yard, while purchasing some elm for another project. I bought it, had it planked, sticked, air dried, kilned and delivered to my workshop.

There was burr and a lot of wild grain, though with a fair amount of soft sapwood waste; it was an exciting find and I went ahead and bought it.

Steps 2-3

I had the butt planked to my specification, it was then stick dried and kilned for me… all included in the price.

Cutting revealed more waste than I would really have liked, along with some very distinctive burr and wild figure in the sound heartwood.

I had just had it delivered and felt it would be ideal for these clients with their discerning taste in timber. I prepared and oiled a piece - it was a done deal - they loved it!

The timber was ready seasoned and just out of the kiln, so it was moved into the workshop, ready to go. From this stock I was able to select burr for the top and drawer fronts and some plainer stuff for the carcass sides.

I recommended a Tung oil finish and after seeing a piece of the timber I prepared and oiled for them, they agreed.

Timber preparation and cutting out

The timber had been stored in my dehumidified wood store since delivery so was ready for use. I laid out the boards and chalk marked the pieces for the various components, a little over size. The side panels were the largest and were cut out first. The top came from a particularly highly figured piece but with the grain running, as far as one could tell, in such wild grain, across the grain of the sides. The drawer fronts came from small areas of pure burr. All the pieces were cut out, faced and thicknessed, still a little oversize, then sticked and stacked in my warm dry workshop to settle and condition during the making. They would be finally dimensioned to exact size as required during the construction.



The sides were made up from two butt jointed narrower boards. Biscuits were used to reinforce the joint and prevent slippage when clamping up.

Step 4

Once set, the sides were cut to exact length and width, remember to keep an eye on the grain and any imperfections which can be lost when cutting to final size.

Step 5

In this design, the draw rails are fixed to the sides with biscuit slots, so I cut the slots with the jointer, using a straightedge to work against.

Steps 6-7

A housing was cut for the ply back, and double countersunk holes were drilled in the bottom edge to fix the plinth to.

Drawer rails

Step 8

The frame components were cut to exact size, the side rails being cut 3mm short to allow a gap for movement in the sides.

Step 9

Domino slots were cut for the joints. The slots in the side and the front rail ends were glued up (the back rail slots were left dry to allow for movement).

Dominos were inserted and the frames clamped up, diagonals measured to check for square, adjustments made, then left to set.

Step 10

Once set, the pockets were cut for reinforcing screws in the top face of the top rail and the bottom face of the bottom rail.

Biscuit slots were cut to correspond to the slots in the sides, and double countersunk holes drilled in the top rail for fixing the top.

Step 11

The frames were then sanded down to 150 grit with a random orbital sander.


Steps 12-13

The top was cut to exact size, the edges finished with a sanding block and rounded over with a 19mm radius cutter on the router table. The edges were finished with a palm sander.


A back was cut to size from 5mm ply and sanded to 150 grit with the sander.


The inside faces of the sides were finished to 150 grit and glue applied only to the front biscuit slots in the drawer frames and sides. Biscuits were inserted in all the slots, and the rails fitted to the sides, lining up carefully to the front. The dry biscuit joints in the middle and at the back supported the drawer frame while allowing movement in the side.

Step 14

The dry joint at the back was used to line up the rear frame rail to the back housing leaving the movement space.

Step 15

Clamps were applied, the carcass checked for square and the screws driven through the pockets in the top and bottom rails. Once this was set the housings in the rear of sides were glued up, the back inserted and pinned to the drawer frames.

The top was then clamped in position and the screws driven through the double counter sunk pre-drilled holes in the top frame. The double counter sinking allows for any lateral movement between the top and sides while holding the top down flat on the top frame and sides.


Step 16

The plinth pieces were cut to size and the mitres cut on the radial arm saw. The mitred ends were offered up to the carcass and adjustments made with a block plane.

Step 17

A moulding was cut on the top edges using an ogee cutter on the table router.

Step 18

The cut-outs to form the shape of the plinth were done on the band saw and finished with a scraper and sanding blocks. A backing strip was cut and glued to the under face of the bottom rail.

Fitting the plinth

The front piece was glued to the backing strip and glue applied to the mitre joints.

Step 19

The side pieces were placed in position and a strap clamp applied and tightened up.

Step 20

The blocks inside the clamp were pulled up to the mitre corners to apply local pressure. The carcass was then turned upside down and the screws driven through the double counter sunk holes in the sides to fix the plinth to the sides but allow for movement.


The drawers have burr walnut fronts, oak sides and backs, and oak faced MDF bases. The fronts were cut to exact size as a push fit using the radial arm saw and a jack and block plane. This allows for reduction to a running fit after the drawers were assembled. The inside faces of the drawer fronts were given a couple of coats of oil so that they would be the same colour as the front faces.

Step 21

The backs were then cut to the same size as the fronts using the fronts as templates, and the sides were cut to length and width.

Step 22

The dovetail depths and lengths were marked on the sides, fronts and backs with a cutting gauge. Housings were cut in the sides and fronts to take the ply base and the sides were taped together in pairs.

Step 23

The front and back tails were marked on the sides in fine pencil using a 7:1 dovetail “squareâ€, most of the waste removed on the bandsaw, and then cleaned up with a paring chisel.

Step 24

Using the sides as a template the pins were marked on the fronts and backs and the majority of the waste removed from the sockets with a router; these, too, were cleaned up with a paring chisel. The bases were cut to size and all the inside faces of the drawer components sanded to 150 grit. A light coat of glue was applied to the joints and the base housings and the drawers assembled.

Step 25

The joints were pulled up with a sash clamp, the drawers checked for square and wind, and the bases pinned to the backs.

Pulls & drawer fitting

Drawer pulls were turned on the lathe using a sizing tool to ensure all were the same diameter, and fitted to the fronts with double ended screw dowels. When cured the drawers were planed and sanded to a running fit. A light rubbing of candle wax on the runners ensured a smooth action.



I have long wanted to finish a piece of burr walnut with Tung oil. The depth of finish and patina are wonderful but the drying time is up to four days per coat!

First the surfaces were prepared; burr is beautiful but does tend to have pin knots and small faults which must be addressed. Blemishes were scraped and sanded out and filler used to fill knots and faults.

I use a two-part neutral filler and colour it with earth pigments to the correct shade. It sticks well, dries in minutes and does not shrink. The faces were carefully examined with a powerful light, at an angle, to highlight any faults, which were dealt with.

The surfaces were wet with clean water to raise the grain and, when dry, finally hand sanded to 320 grit.

Step 26

The e sides of the drawers were masked below the dovetails to give a clean line to the oiling.


The first coat of Tung oil was diluted 50/50 with white spirit, liberally applied, and worked in with fine wire wool - this fills the grain and gives a very smooth silky finish. When it would take no more the excess was wiped off with kitchen tissue.

Step 27

After a few days in the warm workshop another coat was applied with a soft cloth - this time 75% oil to 25% white spirit - and this left to dry. The next two coats of Tung oil were applied neat with suitable drying time between, again with a soft cloth, and the excess wiped off with tissue. I left it a week and then did a final coat of finishing oil. This contains hardeners and driers that help the Tung oil to finally set hard. It was then buffed with a soft cloth to a lovely soft silky sheen - a lot of work and time - but worth the result.


I really enjoyed making this piece, from selecting the timber from such interesting and unusual - but difficult - stock, to the lengthy Tung oil finishing process. The oiled walnut was truly beautiful. My clients agreed and we were all happy!


Woodworkers Institute

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Kevin Ley , Chest of Drawers , burr walnut

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