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    Build a Small Shelf with a Drawer: Part 1

    more on woodworking safety

    Tools and Materials

    This little shelf is simple and doesn’t cost a whole lot in materials—the walnut and poplar (for the drawer box) came from my scrap pile, and the black-locust back slats came from my firewood stack. This piece not only makes a great gift, but it’s also a great way to learn how to deal with small parts and the joinery for them.

    The shelf is built with stopped sliding dovetails and rabbeted dadoes. It has a little dovetailed drawer, and a bookmatched pair of back panels that sit in a rabbet. Once you’ve mastered the construction techniques for this little guy, you can apply them to larger cabinets.

    This week I’ll show you how to cut the stopped dovetails that connect the sides to the top and bottom. Next time I’ll show you how to cut the rabbet-dado joint that connects the shelf to the sides and how to cut the beveled profiles on the top and bottom. I’ll also show you how to cut the rabbets for the back slats.

    How to Make

    Make test pieces as you cut parts to size

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    Mill the top, the bottom, and the sides to thickness and cut the parts to length and width. Mill the stock for the shelf to thickness now, but leave it wide and long; it will be cut to size later. When cutting the top and bottom pieces, make an extra as a test piece. You’ll also want to mill up extra stock the thickness of the sides. All of these test pieces will be used to set up the cuts and dial in the fit of the dovetail keys with their slots.

    Router sled holds small pieces safely

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    To cut the stopped dado slots in the top and bottom, make the first pass with a straight bit to clear a path, and finish with the dovetail bit. For this job I made a sled to hold the small pieces securely and help ensure perfectly aligning slots top and bottom. It’s simply a 1/4 in. thick plywood base with a 3/4 in. thick plywood fence glued on top. Be sure the fence is square to the edge of the base that rides along the router table fence. A toggle clamp on top puts a firm grip on the workpiece.

    Secret to stopped cuts

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    Once the sled is made, mark the stopping point of the slots on the test piece. Now align that mark with the right edge of the bit. With the fence against the top, mark the fence on the opposite end, indicating the stopping point. Make the mark tall enough that it won’t be obscured by the sled and workpiece.

    Do all the setup work with the test piece

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    Mark the dovetail slot locations and depth on the test piece and clamp it into the sled. Make sure the piece is snug against the sled fence and flush with the inside edge of the base.

    Straight cuts first

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    With the sled against the router table fence, align the bit with the layout marks and set its height. Now make the first cut, stopping at the mark on the router table fence. Be careful with the next step. Holding the sled firmly with one hand, turn off the router, wait until the bit stops, then slide the sled out. It’s really important not to move the sled back while the bit is spinning. If you do, the bit could catch and rip apart the workpiece and possibly injure you. Now adust the router table fence to make the second slot, repeating the steps for the first. If everything is okay, go ahead and cut both slots in the real top and bottom, using the grooves in the sled to line up the cuts.

    Finish with the dovetail bit

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    Now you’re ready to finish the slots with the dovetail bit. Again, start with the test piece. Put it in the sled and raise the bit until its points reach the bottom of the slot. Don’t raise it too high. It’s better to creep up on the height. With the sled against the router table fence, line up the bit with the straight slot.

    The key to cutting dovetail keys: Patience

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    Now make the cut, stopping at the mark on the fence. Check the alignment and bit height and make any needed adjustments. Cut the second dovetail slot on the test piece, too.

    Use the dovetail bit to trim the front

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    Now you have two dovetailed slots in the sled base to help you align the cuts in the real parts. Cut those slots the same way you did with the straight bit. The finished slots should align perfectly top and bottom.

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    Cutting the dovetail keys in the sides requires a few test cuts and some patience. Place either the top or bottom on the router table and lower the bit so that it just enters the dovetail slot. Now move the fence by eye and make a pass with a test piece the same thickness as the sides. Rotate the piece and cut the other side. Test the fit in one of the slots. If the key is too narrow, move the fence back; too fat, move it forward. Adjust the fence in small increments—a little does a lot. If the key is not hitting the bottom of the slot, you’ll need to raise the bit, too. Keep making test cuts and adjusting the setup until it’s spot-on.

    click to enlarge

    Once you’re dialed in, make the cuts in the real sides. Hold the stock against the fence firmly with a push block to avoid a wavy cut, and use a vertical backer piece to prevent blowout at the end.

    Now you need to trim the front of the keys. Here’s an easy way to get the job done quickly while ensuring perfectly aligned shoulders. Keep the bit height just where it is. Using a quick-to-make push block with a tall fence to support the sides, trim the corner with the dovetail bit.

    Now dry-fit the parts and get ready to cut and join the shelf. Next time I’ll show you how to cut the shelf joinery and the rabbets for the back slats. I’ll also show you how to profile the top and bottom.