Sticky Subject - Drawers That Don't Work

You've made the acquisition of "new to you" furniture that you've been looking for and now that it's home maybe it doesn't look or function exactly like you think it should. Well, it could be that you bought the wrong piece or your expectations are unreasonable. More likely, however, since you carefully did your homework and found just what you were looking for (you did do your homework didn't you?) the "problems" you are concerned with are not problems at all and you can fix them yourself very easily.

This is the first in a series of "Do It Yourself" help columns that will deal with common furniture problems and their common sense solutions. This month we will talk about case goods and drawer problems specifically.

Drawers Don't Work Right: The most obvious fix to balky drawers is to rearrange them. If the drawers are all different sizes of course you don't have this option but if they are all the same or "look" the same, try them in a different place or several different places. Take the drawers out of the case and look under them or on the back to see if they have been numbered. Sometimes the pattern of the veneer on the faces will give you a clue as to the correct order. What may just look like a random pattern on the faces becomes a coherent picture in the veneer when properly arranged

If you are pretty sure the drawers are in the right sequence, the next step is to lube them. Contrary to what your mother told you, do not use soap on the runners. It builds up, gets sticky and stinks after a while. Go to a hardware store or craft store and buy a small can of silicone spray. Since the propellant in these sprays is very often alcohol, ethanol or methanol, be very careful about where you spray it. Use it ONLY on the runners and sides of the drawers and inside the case. Don't get the spray on the finish or it might "blush" or turn white from the alcohol.

All of this assumes of course that the drawers are structurally sound and that runners and guides are in place. Carefully examine the inside of the case and determine whether or not the center guides, either metal or wood, are in place. If the guides are missing, seek professional help. If the drawers have nylon guides on the back, make sure they are all intact and are not broken. Nylon guides can sometimes be replaced from a store like Home Depot. The same with metal center guides. Missing wood guides either in the case or on the drawer bottom are a serious problem and again you will need help. If the drawers themselves are loose or sloppy, they need to be re-glued. The trick is to glue them up square and you may or may not be able to do that yourself. Approach this task with caution and seek help if in doubt.

Another common problem with drawers is that they go in too far. Of course they are missing the "stops". The trick is to determine what kind of stops are missing and where they should be. Some drawer stops are as simple as a small block of wood glued either to the back of the drawer or the back of the case to stop the drawer in the appropriate spot. American Depression furniture often uses a metal bracket driven into the rail to catch the drawer lip before the drawer slides all the way into the case. Other styles of furniture use pieces of wood glued to either the top or bottom rail to catch the drawer. Spend some time examining your case to determine what is appropriate for your piece.

Lastly, carefully examine the drawer supports on the inside of the case, especially the side rails on older pieces. If you can feel a definite groove inside the case where the drawer should slide, the rails need either turning over or replacing.

Do not accept drawers that do not work! They are bad for the piece and most important of all, they are a real "aggravation".


You have just acquired and trucked home that "new" old china cabinet with the beautiful glass doors on top, a drawer below and two solid doors beneath that. Now you are ready to set it up in your dining room, load up your stuff and enjoy the elegance. But the doors don't work. Well they sort of work but they stick, make a lot of noise, rattle the glass, shake the cabinet and gaining access to the cabinet becomes generally unpleasant. Now what ?

You can ignore the problem and limit your use of the cabinet to minimize further damage. But that's not why you bought it in the first place is it. You bought it to use and if it doesn't work, it doesn't count does it ?

Probably your first impulse is to sand, plane, shave, cut or otherwise alter the shape of the offending doors. That seems like a logical place to start. But not necessarily. When that cabinet was built, probably in a shop or factory, the doors and case were almost assuredly square and worked perfectly. While it is possible that time has altered the shape of the cabinet and its doors, it is not likely unless it had been exposed to severe extremes of temperature and humidity. And that didn't happen in the time between when you saw the piece in the dealer's shop and the time you got it home.

There is another, much more likely explanation for your problem - uneven floors or "torqued" cabinets. I can't tell you how many times I have been to a customer's house to "shave" a sticking door on a china cabinet, buffet, server, armoire, entertainment center, etc., etc. Many times after I examine the case, I tell the customer the charge to fix it is $45.25. That's $45.00 for knowing where to put the $.25 piece. Sometimes a nickel or two pennies works just as well. The cabinet just needs to be leveled by the use of shims under one or more feet. This is not to be confused with leveling something using a carpenter's spirit level. This is leveling to the satisfaction of the doors.

After being moved, a cabinet often has shifted it's weight and when it is placed in it's new location, sometimes the weight does not shift back properly. You can tell if this is the problem by looking to see is the doors line up when there are two doors. Again, when this case was made, the doors lined up. If they don't now, the case probably needs to be leveled or adjusted. If there is only one door, sight along the crack at the top of the door from the hinge side to the other side. Is the top of the door parallel to the rail in the case? If not the case usually needs to adjusted, not the door or the hinges.

I recommend the use of U.S. coins to level your cabinetry. I always carry an assortment of nickels, dimes, quarters and pennies with me because they are all of different thicknesses and diameters and can be stacked well. They also don't compress like a match book or a sliver of wood will and they don't rust like a metal washer. Try installing combinations of coins under one leg or corner. If that seems to help, try the opposite corner, i.e. left rear and right front. If that makes the door problem worse, reverse your process. Keep at it until the doors swing free. Also don't forget to use a little of the silicone spray I mentioned last month. It may help.

One last thought on this subject. Before doing any leveling or shimming, make sure the cabinet is not sitting on the tack strip under the carpet!

For more information please contact Fred Taylor at or visit