Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Installing Soft-Close Undermount Drawer Slides

When I started building furniture and cabinetry- this was about 20 years ago- side-mounted ball-bearing slides were about the best thing you could get your hands on.  Things have really changed since then.  The big watershed moment occurred when I saw Blum's first soft-close undermounts: they seemed like magic, frankly.  The only trick was that they seemed, well, tricky. Installing them required a lot more planning and there were a lot more ways to screw things up.  So it was a bit of an uphill battle figuring them out, but the good news is, once you know what you're doing, they're actually not all that hard to use, and it is really satisfying when you get it right.  In this post I'll point out my method for installing soft-close undermounts; it is worth mentioning that the process applies to all of the many brands that I've tried.  By now, a ton of companies have introduced their own version of the original product, and they all seem to go in about the same.

In terms of price, I find that I can buy 21" undermount slides for anywhere from $15-$30 in my area (Northern Utah).  While I haven't found it necessary to go for an all-out splurge, a couple of features are nice to have and make it worth spending a couple of extra bucks.  I usually get slides that feature 4-way adjustment of the drawer fronts (this allows you to move them side-to-side a little bit) and an elongated hole at the back to accomodate wood movement when used with solid wood cabinetry.  I don't endorse any particular brand, so I suggest just looking around and seeing what looks good to you.

Build your drawers anyway you'd like- just make sure the bottom is set
into a groove that begins 1/2" from the bottom of the drawer stock.

This drawer was super simple- the parts were glued and pinned together
with brad nails.  Dovetails are nice but I didn't use 'em this time.

Make sure the drawer is square by measuring across the diagonals.
Don't use a square, it is not up for the job.  On a small assembly
of this size the diagonals have to match exactly- even a 1/16"
variation can cause misalignments later on.

To accommodate the drawer slides, the drawers need to be notched at the back.
I measure in 1 3/4".  A coping or jig saw works just fine.

The slides are a cinch to install.  They need to be inset from
the front edge (consult the manufacturer's instructions for the
exact dimension).  In this case, I added 3/4" because the drawer
fronts were inset from (i.e. flush with) the cabinet sides, top, and bottom.
The sides are secured with 3/4" screws.

At this point, I gently slide the drawer into
place.  This is because the slides have little
prongs on the back that will poke into the
back of the drawer back.
When you remove the drawer, you'll see a
pair of little dimples.  That's the spot to
drill 5/16" diameter holes to accommodate
the prongs.

Here's the drawer back with the holes drilled.
In addition to the metal slides, you'll also need to install a pair
of mounting clips (they're mirror-images of each other, so you'll
have a left side and a right side.  They go on the underside of
the drawer, are attached with a couple of screws.  You'll also see
 a couple of adjustments that might come in handy later and a set
of release levers that you can use to get the drawer out.

Now the drawer should function normally.  Just
push it gently back into place.  You should hear
a pair of clicks as the mounting clips engage
with the slides.

To install the first drawer front, I use a clamp and/or shims.
My other favorite trick of the trade is to use double-sided tape-
with the tape adhered to one surface, just line up the front
and push it into place.

With the drawer front temporarily aligned, I attach it with screws
through the backside.

The second set of slides is installed in the
same way.  In this case, I used a block of
wood that I ripped to the width that I
needed so that I could position the next
drawer at the right height.  Sometimes
there's some wiggle room in this part of the
 operation, and other times the tolerances are
quite precise.

Getting the edges inset drawer fronts properly aligned can
take a bit of work.  A belt sander and random orbit
usually work for me.

Once everything looked shipshape, I varnished
the drawer fronts.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Simple & Practical Workbench that Looks Good too

I recently built this bench for a friend.  It was quick and easy, and didn't cost a ton either.  I used a sheet of 3/4" plywood, which ran me $25, then 4 2x4's (10' long) which were $5 each.  I also used 16 5" Timber-Lok lag bolts (more on those in a minute) which were under a buck apiece.  So, the grand total was about $60, and I definitely have less than 2 hours in it.  I didn't manage to get a ton of detail shots during construction, so feel free to ask if you have any questions.

The finished bench was 60" long x 24"x deep x 34" high.  Vary the dimensions as you wish!

I began by cutting the 2x4's to length on my mitersaw.  I cut 4 uprights @ 27" long, and 4 crossbars at 24".  These were for the sub-assemblies that went at the end of the bench.  I joined the parts with Dominos, but 1/2" dowels would be a good choice too. I cut the ends of the crossbars at a 10 degree angle because I like the look but you could skip this step.

Once the glue dried on the ends, I remove them from the clamps and cut 4 stretchers to 54" long.  One pair went in at the top of the bench, and the other pair went in lower down, about 12" from the floor.  I used 5" long Timber-Lok lag bolts to secure the stretchers.  They have big, beefy threads that really make for a strong connection.

Bench heights are an enormously subjective thing- 33"-38" is generally considered the usual range.  I'm 5'8 and like a bench that is around 34-35" if that helps at all.  When in doubt, measure some of the work surfaces you already have and see what changes you might make.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Design Workshop: The Value of Prototypes

Even though I'm a pretty experienced furniture maker, I still love making prototypes.  The reasons for this are simple: while I'm never short on design inspiration, I don't always know how some of the details should shape up, or if something will look as good in reality as it does in my head.  In light of these realities, building prototypes can be one of the best ways I know to fill in the blanks during the design process.  I also find it to be a ton of fun- in a short amount of time, I can create something tangible while minimizing the tedium.  It is also a great way to use up old scraps (I usually use plywood, but feel free to use cardboard, styrofoam, or whatever else works for you).  In some cases, I've been able to use "nice enough" materials like reclaimed wood to end up with a usable piece in the end.  This is a win-win in my book, kind of a two-for-the-price-of-one.

Of course, not all of my projects require prototypes: its usually pretty to imagine the desired end result and the steps that it'll take to get there, so I'm all about the path of least resistance in these cases.  Sometimes, though, a prototype is invaluable.  For furniture in particular, I've found that building prototypes can help me to:

      -think of new possibilities that I never would've thought of otherwise
      -save money by making my mistakes on the cheap materials instead of the good stuff
      -refine a design by constructing a number of variations that I can compare
      -adjust the measurements, proportions, angles, and curves that came from my original sketches
      -develop designs (especially chairs) that are truly comfortable to sit on
      -demonstrate my vision and skill to my clients during the design/fabrication process

And since a picture is worth a thousand words, the following photos will demonstrate some of the ways that I use prototypes on a regular basis:

I find prototypes to be essential for
 new chair designs.  Comfort rules!
When building a set of pieces, it is really
helpful to see how they'll look together.
I keep joinery super simple on prototypes- screws and Dominos
usually do the trick. 
I made several different variations on this chair back.  This
one had a cutout, which I ultimately rejected.
Once I like the look and feel of a prototype,
I take measurements from it so I can build
the finished piece.  I don't worry about
knowing the angles early on in the process
but it matters later on.
Here's a close cousin of the prototype: the
actual size templates that I used to make
the finished chairs.  I started with a
prototype, then traced the side to
make these patterns. 

And lest I forget... sometimes a full-scale
drawing really helps.  You can see that
I was working on the transitions here.
Fun stuff!