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How-to Make a 4-Drawer Narrow Storage Unit with Pigeonhole

Updated on May 4, 2020
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My aim with DIY projects around the home is to look for innovative space-saving ideas and save costs on materials by recycling.

When Things Come Together

  1. My long term plan was to do a major makeover our home office, including modifying some of the electrics and changing the shelving before painting and decorating.
  2. I happened to mention to a friend (a fellow DIY enthusiast) that I’d always fancied a writing desk bureau, so he bought me a second-hand one that needed renovating.
  3. He also offered me eight small wooden drawers that he no longer required, and a couple of sheets of 4mm plywood surplus to his requirements.

Desiring a writing desk bureau is one thing, finding somewhere to fit it in a small home is a different matter. After some thought, I decided the only place where it would fit in our house would be in our home office, if I remove the two lower shelves and small three drawer cabinet in the alcove.

However, that would leave a six inch gap down the side, which happened to be just slightly wider than the small wooden drawers my friend gave me. The writing desk bureau happened to be just over twice the depth of the length of the small wooden drawers, and just over four times higher, at the point where the bureau front flap starts to slope back.

Therefore, all these elements were crying out to me to be an integrated part of the major overhaul project of home office makeover.

I love it when things come together like that.

The alcove in our home office, where when we renovate the room, the writing desk bureau and the narrow four-drawer storage unit will fit.
The alcove in our home office, where when we renovate the room, the writing desk bureau and the narrow four-drawer storage unit will fit.

Planning Stage

I can’t take all the credit. When I mentioned to my friend my intention of using some of the wooden drawers he’d given me to make a tallboy storage unit, he suggested fixing the drawers together in pairs to make four long drawers, each with a middle divider; a perfect solution to maximise storage space.

Then, rather than stopping there, I decided it would maximise on storage space even more if I designed the unit to follow the profile of the writing desk bureau by adding a sloping pigeonhole on the top of the drawer unit.

I also decided that rather than buy any wood, I would make the drawer unit by recycling some of the scrap wood in the back of my workshop.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Two of the small wooden drawers that’s central to the design of the storage unit.The drawers laid in pairs over one of the side panels that will eventually form part of the storage unit.
Two of the small wooden drawers that’s central to the design of the storage unit.
Two of the small wooden drawers that’s central to the design of the storage unit.
The drawers laid in pairs over one of the side panels that will eventually form part of the storage unit.
The drawers laid in pairs over one of the side panels that will eventually form part of the storage unit.

Design & Preparation: Sourcing the Recycled Wood

Before making a start I took careful measurement and identified all the material I would require, including the wood (all recycled) as detailed below:-

  • The 8 small wooden drawers I was given, which was originally part of stackable cube storage units he’s bought from Ikea for his living room; but which became redundant when he moved.
  • A couple of large 4ft x 8ft sheets of 4mm (1/6th inch) plywood, which my friend gave me because they were surplus to his needs on completion of a major DIY project of his; and he had nowhere to store them in his workshop.
  • An offcut of 9mm (about 1/3rd inch) plywood leftover from a previous project, and
  • A strip of 18mm (3/4 inch) plywood, which had already been recycled once before. When we first bought the house the original garden shed was constructed with 18mm exterior plywood panels, and when I dismantled the shed and built a couple of adjoining brick shed (workshop & food store) I’d used some of the plywood for shelving. Since then I’ve installed proper kitchen units in the food store, and salvaged the 18mm plywood for recycling in future projects.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The eight drawers.The scrap wood stored at the back on my workshop.Outline sketch of drawer cabinet, with measurements.Couple of Ikea stack furniture cubes, and associated two-drawer unit, surplus to my friends requirements, when he moved; now used for storage in my workshop.One of the original boxes the drawers came with.My wife’s food store after I replaced the temporary 18mm plywood shelving for proper kitchen units; with a piece of that plywood subsequently being recycled to make the 4-drawer unit.
The eight drawers.
The eight drawers.
The scrap wood stored at the back on my workshop.
The scrap wood stored at the back on my workshop.
Outline sketch of drawer cabinet, with measurements.
Outline sketch of drawer cabinet, with measurements.
Couple of Ikea stack furniture cubes, and associated two-drawer unit, surplus to my friends requirements, when he moved; now used for storage in my workshop.
Couple of Ikea stack furniture cubes, and associated two-drawer unit, surplus to my friends requirements, when he moved; now used for storage in my workshop.
One of the original boxes the drawers came with.
One of the original boxes the drawers came with.
My wife’s food store after I replaced the temporary 18mm plywood shelving for proper kitchen units; with a piece of that plywood subsequently being recycled to make the 4-drawer unit.
My wife’s food store after I replaced the temporary 18mm plywood shelving for proper kitchen units; with a piece of that plywood subsequently being recycled to make the 4-drawer unit.

Space Restrictions

Taking careful measurements, the total width of the writing desk bureau and the small wood drawers is only 24mm (1 inch) short of the full width of the alcove that they’ll fit into when I renovate the home office. Therefore it is only going to work if I use the 4mm plywood for the sides of the drawer unit; and even then it’s going to be a tight fit.

Structural Strength

Given that I can only use the 4mm plywood for the sides of the drawer unit because of space restrictions I’d need to make the supporting shelves (which the drawers will sit on) and the back, using much thicker wood to ensure structural strength and stability.

I had enough 18mm plywood for the back, and the total depth of the writing desk bureau happens to be 18mm deeper than the length of two drawers; so using the 18mm plywood was ideal.

However, I didn’t have enough 18mm plywood for the drawer supports, but I did have a small piece of 9mm plywood (the same thickness plywood that the drawers are made from), so that seem rather fortunatus.

Step-by-step Guide

Below is my step-by-step guide on how I recycled scrap and salvaged wood to make a bespoke 4-drawer narrow storage unit with pigeonhole in preparation to fit neatly into a small gap next to the writing desk bureau in the alcove, for when I renovate our home office.

Step #1: Measuring and Cutting All the Wood to Size

The Two Sides

Having chosen a couple of suitable pieces of the 4mm plywood, I measured and cut them to size as follows:-

  • Used a square to find a square corner on each sheet.
  • Used a tape measure, straight edge and pencil to mark out the cut line for the width: the width of two drawer lengths plus 18mm for the back panel.
  • Measured and marked out the height (same height as the writing desk bureau), and drew a second line just 10mm (1/2 inch higher) e.g. so that I can later use the top of the four-drawer unit as support at one end for a shelf in the alcove that the bureau can just snuggly slip under.
  • Measured and marked the depth of the bureau’s top, and the height of the bureau at the front, and joined these wish a diagonal line to match the sloping front of the bureau.
  • Placed both 4mm sheets together, square them up with each other at the corner, and clamped them to the workbench for cutting to size.
  • Cut the sheets to size with a circular saw.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Squaring off two sheets of 4mm plywood for making the side panels.Measuring and marking out the side panel’s width.Measuring and marking out the height of the side panels and slope to match the writing desk bureau profile.Cutting the side panels to size with a circular saw.
Squaring off two sheets of 4mm plywood for making the side panels.
Squaring off two sheets of 4mm plywood for making the side panels.
Measuring and marking out the side panel’s width.
Measuring and marking out the side panel’s width.
Measuring and marking out the height of the side panels and slope to match the writing desk bureau profile.
Measuring and marking out the height of the side panels and slope to match the writing desk bureau profile.
Cutting the side panels to size with a circular saw.
Cutting the side panels to size with a circular saw.

Drawer Supports & Top

I made the drawer supports just a few millimetres (fraction of an inch) wider than the drawers themselves so that, when assembled, the drawers would operate smoothly without getting stuck. Using 9mm (1/3rd Inch) plywood I made the drawer supports to size as follows:-

  • Using a tape measure, pencil and square (straight edge) I marked the drawer lengths; for the first cut.
  • Then used a circular saw to cut the piece to length.
  • I then used a square and handsaw to square off the edge e.g. can be a lot easier to ensure a straight cut with a handsaw than using a handheld electric circular saw.
  • I then used a bench circular saw to cut the widths, which guarantees each drawer support is precision cut to the same width; just a few millimetres wider than the drawer width.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Measuring and marking the drawers length on the 9mm plywood.Cutting to length with a circular saw.Squaring up one end, with square, and cutting straight with a handsaw.Using a table saw, with guide, to cut all the 9mm plywood to the same width, for the drawer supports, and top.
Measuring and marking the drawers length on the 9mm plywood.
Measuring and marking the drawers length on the 9mm plywood.
Cutting to length with a circular saw.
Cutting to length with a circular saw.
Squaring up one end, with square, and cutting straight with a handsaw.
Squaring up one end, with square, and cutting straight with a handsaw.
Using a table saw, with guide, to cut all the 9mm plywood to the same width, for the drawer supports, and top.
Using a table saw, with guide, to cut all the 9mm plywood to the same width, for the drawer supports, and top.

Back Panel

Before I could cut the back panel to size I had to prise off the 2x2 inch post that was nailed to it, and de-nail the 18mm (3/4 inch) plywood. Once that was done I could then measure and cut the plywood to size as follows:

  • As the back panel would be the same width as the drawer supports, I used the bench circular saw, with the same width setting as I used to cut the drawer supports.
  • I then cut the plywood square at one end, and then
  • Cut it to length at the other end.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Removing surplus 2x2 inch post and de-nailing the 18mm plywood to be recycled for the back panel, prior to cutting it to same width as the drawer supports.Squaring off one end of the back panel with a handsaw.Cutting the back panel to the appropriate height at the other end.
Removing surplus 2x2 inch post and de-nailing the 18mm plywood to be recycled for the back panel, prior to cutting it to same width as the drawer supports.
Removing surplus 2x2 inch post and de-nailing the 18mm plywood to be recycled for the back panel, prior to cutting it to same width as the drawer supports.
Squaring off one end of the back panel with a handsaw.
Squaring off one end of the back panel with a handsaw.
Cutting the back panel to the appropriate height at the other end.
Cutting the back panel to the appropriate height at the other end.

Step #2: Joining the Drawers Together in Pairs

As the depth of the storage unit is twice that of the length of the drawers I just simply glued and screwed the drawers together in pairs, and clamped them together for the glue to set overnight.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Applying wood glue to the back of one of the wooden drawers.Gluing and screwing the drawers together in pairs, and clamping up for the glue to dry.Leaving the pairs of drawers clamped up overnight for the glue to set.
Applying wood glue to the back of one of the wooden drawers.
Applying wood glue to the back of one of the wooden drawers.
Gluing and screwing the drawers together in pairs, and clamping up for the glue to dry.
Gluing and screwing the drawers together in pairs, and clamping up for the glue to dry.
Leaving the pairs of drawers clamped up overnight for the glue to set.
Leaving the pairs of drawers clamped up overnight for the glue to set.

Step #3: Sacrificial Spacers

As with the width, I wanted to height of each drawer space to be slightly bigger than the height of the drawers themselves; so that the drawers wouldn’t be such a tight fit as to stick when used.

Therefore I quickly cut four sacrificial spacers from some scrap 4mm plywood (one for each drawer), that was the same width and length as the drawers. These would then be used during assembly, to ensure a small gap, and then be discarded afterwards.

Cutting sacrificial spacers from 4mm plywood, to the same size as the pairs of joined drawers; ready for use during assembly of the storage unit.
Cutting sacrificial spacers from 4mm plywood, to the same size as the pairs of joined drawers; ready for use during assembly of the storage unit.

Step #4: Assembly of Storage Drawer Unit

Assembly was a little challenging, given that the sides were on 4mm, and the shelf supports just 9mm. So I had to plan carefully on where and how I would glue and screw the unit together, and in which order the pieces were joined. So after putting some thought into it at the planning stage, the approach I used was as follows:

  • Apply a generous bead of wood glue to both long edges of the back panel and lay it flat on the workbench.
  • Offer both sides up to the back panel and clamp them at both ends
  • Glue and align the drawer unit top with the two sides, ensuring squareness, and clamp and screw in place.
  • Glue and align the shelf support above the top drawer, butt the top drawer in place below it, to ensure squareness, and clamp and screw it in place.
  • Then add the first sacrificial spacer before gluing, clamping and screwing the top drawer support in place.
  • Repeat the whole process for the remaining drawers.

Tips

  1. As assembly requires screwing into thin wood e.g. just 9mm, to reduce the risk of the wood splitting, it is advisable to drill pilot hole prior to screwing.
  2. As you can’t always see exactly where the wood is that you are screwing into, take careful measurements of where you can see the wood and transfer those measurements to where you want to drill. Then afterwards (after it’s all glued and screwed) remove each drawer and visually check that none of the screws has missed the wood. If any has, then undue the screw and re-screw as appropriate.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Applying glue to the edges of the back panel and holding the two sides in place with clamps, while fixing the drawer supports.Starting from the top and working down, gluing and screwing the top and drawer supports in place, one at a time, and holding square with clamps until the glue dries.Placing a sacrificial spacers below each drawer support, to provide sufficient spacing for the drawers to open without sticking; once the unit is made.All glued and screwed in place, and clamped up until the glue is dry.
Applying glue to the edges of the back panel and holding the two sides in place with clamps, while fixing the drawer supports.
Applying glue to the edges of the back panel and holding the two sides in place with clamps, while fixing the drawer supports.
Starting from the top and working down, gluing and screwing the top and drawer supports in place, one at a time, and holding square with clamps until the glue dries.
Starting from the top and working down, gluing and screwing the top and drawer supports in place, one at a time, and holding square with clamps until the glue dries.
Placing a sacrificial spacers below each drawer support, to provide sufficient spacing for the drawers to open without sticking; once the unit is made.
Placing a sacrificial spacers below each drawer support, to provide sufficient spacing for the drawers to open without sticking; once the unit is made.
All glued and screwed in place, and clamped up until the glue is dry.
All glued and screwed in place, and clamped up until the glue is dry.

Plinth

After the main assembly, and once the glue was dry, before preparing the drawer unit for staining and polishing, all that remained was to just quickly measure the gap below the bottom drawer and use a scrap bit of 18mm plywood to make a plinth, and glue and screw that into place.

Once the drawer unit is made, measure the space below the bottom drawer support for cutting and fitting the plinth; using an off-cut from the salvaged 18mm plywood.
Once the drawer unit is made, measure the space below the bottom drawer support for cutting and fitting the plinth; using an off-cut from the salvaged 18mm plywood.

Step #5: Finishing

With the drawer unit constructed, the finishing touches were sanding, wood staining and polishing as follows:-

Sanding

  • Quickly, and lightly sand with a belt sander, using a fine grit sanding sheet, where appropriate e.g. across the plinth.
  • Round off all edges and corners with an orbital sander.

Cleaning

Using a dishcloth, or suitable rag, quickly wipe over all surfaces with white spirit to clean off all the sawdust prior to wood staining.

Wood Dye

Optionally I could have used wood stain or varnish, or even paint. Albeit, I’d never paint wood if it can be helped because I love the look of natural wood, and to me painting wood is sacrilege.

However, on this occasion I decided to use wood dye and varnish. I often use wood stain rather than wood dye for big projects because wood stain is cheaper, albeit it usually requires three coats of wood stain and takes a lot longer to dry, whereas you can achieve a good result with just one coat of wood dye. The main difference between wood dye and wood stain is that the former soaks in bare wood, whereas the latter coats the surface like paint. Plus you’d normally apply wood stain with a paint brush, whereas wood dye can be wiped on and rubbed in with a cloth.

Varnishing

For the effect I was after I found that just one coat of wood dye, followed by a coat of varnish (once the wood dye was dry) for added protection, was sufficient.

Bees Wax Polish

Once the varnish was dry, I generously applied bees wax polish with wire wool, working it into the wood, in the direction of the wood grain; and then left for 15 minutes before buffing to a shine.

When applying bees wax to finished furniture you'd normally use a soft cloth; but if applying for a first time to a newly made piece of furniture, using wire wool can help the wax to get into the wood grain, and give a smoother and more durable, long lasting, finish.

I always use bees wax polish because it is long lasting and gives good protection, as opposed to silicon based furniture polish which is an oil rather than a wax e.g. unlike bees wax, the silicon oil attracts dust, and doesn’t last, so that you are forever polishing.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Using a belt and orbital sander to smooth the surfaces and edges, and round off the corners.Quickly wiping over the surfaces of the unit with white spirit to clean off the sawdust.Once the white spirit has dried, using a cloth to wipe over and rub into all the surfaces with wood dye.The wood dye I used for wood staining the unit.Once the wood dye was dry, varnishing all the surfaces with varnish; for added protection and sheen.The varnish I used on the unit e.g. floor varnish. Once the varnish was dry, applying bees was to all the surfaces with wire wool.  Then 15 minutes later, polished to a buff with a soft cloth.The bees wax I used to polish the unit.
Using a belt and orbital sander to smooth the surfaces and edges, and round off the corners.
Using a belt and orbital sander to smooth the surfaces and edges, and round off the corners.
Quickly wiping over the surfaces of the unit with white spirit to clean off the sawdust.
Quickly wiping over the surfaces of the unit with white spirit to clean off the sawdust.
Once the white spirit has dried, using a cloth to wipe over and rub into all the surfaces with wood dye.
Once the white spirit has dried, using a cloth to wipe over and rub into all the surfaces with wood dye.
The wood dye I used for wood staining the unit.
The wood dye I used for wood staining the unit.
Once the wood dye was dry, varnishing all the surfaces with varnish; for added protection and sheen.
Once the wood dye was dry, varnishing all the surfaces with varnish; for added protection and sheen.
The varnish I used on the unit e.g. floor varnish.
The varnish I used on the unit e.g. floor varnish.
Once the varnish was dry, applying bees was to all the surfaces with wire wool.  Then 15 minutes later, polished to a buff with a soft cloth.
Once the varnish was dry, applying bees was to all the surfaces with wire wool. Then 15 minutes later, polished to a buff with a soft cloth.
The bees wax I used to polish the unit.
The bees wax I used to polish the unit.

Signing Off on the Project: Getting the Wife’s Approval

Having completed the four-drawer narrow storage unit with its pigeonhole, it was time to bring it up from my workshop and stand it side by side with the writing desk bureau, temporarily stored in our dining room pending the renovation of our home office.

Most important of all was to get approval (thumbs up) from my wife, that my design and build (the finished product) met with her approval; which I’m glad to say it did.

The finished four-drawer unit standing next to the writing desk bureau in our dining room, pending their final location; once we’ve renovated our home office.
The finished four-drawer unit standing next to the writing desk bureau in our dining room, pending their final location; once we’ve renovated our home office.

Repurposing and Recycling

Do you like to repurpose and recycle household items, or do you prefer just to throw things away?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Arthur Russ

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