Traditional Tansu, Part 2: Drawers and Doors

Traditional Tansu, Part 2: Drawers and Doors

Tansu drawers are built differently from their Western counterparts. They have pinned joinery at the corners, and the bottom of a tansu drawer, instead of being slotted into grooves, is pinned directly to the bottom of the drawer box. In use, the whole bottom is supported by the dust shelf beneath it.

This kind of cross-grain attachment can be problematic in wider drawers, so for the three wide drawers, I made bottoms composed of two or more pieces tongue-and-grooved together so they can expand and contract. I also used high ring count, very dry, vertical-grain western red cedar.

The first step is to verify the fit of each drawer front and determine the orientation. Because I can be a bit of a grain nerd, I try to keep everything oriented in the same direction as it came from the board; that way when light hits it, no piece will reflect differently from the others. Tansu drawer fronts should be snug, but not super tight. (Pro tip: Do not push them all the way flush, as they might be extremely difficult to get back out. Trust me on this.)

Tansu drawers start with rabbets

Rabbeting cuts are being done at the table saw. A board is being held on end and a shallow cut is taken. The author follows behind the board with larger piece of wood to hold the piece against and steady.
Rabbet the fronts. To make clean rabbets on the ends and bottom inside edge of the drawer front, Cullum first makes passes with the workpiece riding flat on the table saw, then completes the rabbets with passes made with the part riding on edge against the fence.

Once all of the fronts are oriented and marked, it’s back to the table saw for rabbeting. I rabbet both ends and the bottom edge of each drawer front, and then, using a chamfer plane, I cut a 45° chamfer along the inside top edge of the drawer front.

Tape the drawer box and pin it

The author holds three pieces of wood that will make the front and sides of the drawer. He is taping them together.

Once the parts are all milled, Cullum dry assembles the drawer box, clamping the corners with tape

The bottom of the drawer is being taped on.

Adding the bottom. The full-width bottom, which nestles into a rabbet on the drawer front, is taped on next.

Small holes are being drilled through the sides of the drawer into front and back of the drawer.

Dry-assembled and taped, Cullum drills holes for the pins at the corner joints and bottom.

With all the drawer parts made, it’s time to drill for pins. Using tape, I assemble each drawer dry, then do all of the pin layout, and drill. For drawer joints, I typically use two pins near the top. This not only strengthens the weakest part of the drawer, but I also think it looks cool. The pins I use are 3/32 in.-diameter toothpicks. I cut them in half, so each toothpick yields two pins.

Small toothpicks are being driven into the holes drilled earlier.
Cut in half, toothpicks make good pins for light tansu drawers like these.

When all of the holes are drilled, it’s time to start gluing. Leaving the tape attached to the bottom, I remove the bottom and set it aside (noting its orientation). Next, I release the tape on one joint and open the drawer fairly flat. After applying glue to the joints, I pulled the tape tight and drove in pins dragged through the glue.

When one side is pinned, I cut off the pins, then repeat on the other side. Next I run a bead of glue around the perimeter of the frame, re-tape the bottom, and drive its pins. Because this process takes a little time, I recommend using glue with an extended open time. Apply clamps and set aside. When all of the glue has cured, pull the tape and plane the drawers to fit.

Tips for sliding tansu doors

A door is being glued up. Two pieces horizontally and two pieces vertically create a parameter that a piece of wood sits it to create the frame and panel door.

Too long is very good. Cullum makes the door stiles over length, which prevents problems when cutting mortises near the end of a part and is also convenient for glue-up. He’ll trim them after assembly.

The author uses a saw to cut a notch in the bottom of the door.

Trim the stiles. Before assembly, the door rails are rabbeted to fit the tracks. Here, post-assembly, after sawing the stiles to length, Cullum notches the stiles to match the rabbets on the rail.

With the drawers complete, I move on to the mortise-and-tenon, frame-and-panel doors. To make the mortising of these small parts safer and the glue-up easier, I leave the stiles an inch or more over length on both ends until after assembly. Because these are light doors, be conservative with the amount of glue you use.

A very light wetting on the tenon and a light coat in the mortise is plenty. If squeeze-out can be avoided, it should be. I insert two rails into one stile, slide in the panel dry, then carefully tap on the other stile, making sure the panel edge doesn’t bind. Then I clamp, measure for square, and let cure. When the glue has dried, I saw away the extra material on the stiles and cut rabbets at the top and bottom of each stile to match the rabbets on the rails.

The author handplanes the notch that will eventually allow the door to slide into a groove in the tansu.

Last, using a rabbet plane, I adjust the fit of the doors until they slide freely (a little wax in the grooves helps a lot).

-This is the second of three posts for this project. Part 3: Shopmade tansu hardware on Feb 28th. Of course, if you can’t wait, the article PDF is available below, and the digital issue is available to Unlimited members now!

Traditional Tansu, Part 1: The case

Traditional Tansu, Part 1: The case

A box-style tansu, like this chest by Len Cullum, is built using wide, pinned finger joints and shopmade copper hardware.


Traditional Tansu, Part 2: Drawers and Doors

Fine Drawers Without Dovetails

Pinned rabbets are attractive, durable, and much easier to make than hand-cut dovetails.


Traditional Tansu, Part 2: Drawers and Doors

All About Japanese Planes

Learning to use a Japanese plane takes time and dedication, but as Andrew Hunter demonstrates, the reward of the shimmering surface it leaves is well worth it.


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