Canadian Woodworking
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Make integrated cabinet pulls

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Published: September 2023
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Metal pulls can be obtrusive and take away from an otherwise simple, sleek look. Integrated pulls allow you to keep the lines clean yet still open and close doors and drawers with ease.

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A client didn’t like the idea of protruding, metal pulls on the drawers and doors of a vanity and kitchen I was making for him. Pulls function well, but can be a fairly obtrusive design element in an otherwise simple piece, whether it’s a vanity, kitchen cabinet, medicine chest or other piece of woodwork.

I ran a few ideas past him, mainly consisting of small cutouts of differing shapes in the doors and drawer fronts, so a few fingers could be inserted and the door or drawer front could be opened. I added one more option, which had a similar cutout, but also had a piece of material behind the cutout, so you couldn’t see into the cabinet. That’s the one he chose. The others would have been sur­prisingly simple, as a notch of some sort is easy to machine and has little functional engineering to consider.

This technique showcases the router, and how versatile it can be. A selection of bits, accessories, jigs and templates, coupled with some ingenuity, will take you a long way with a router.

Two More Fences
These two pieces will allow the user to drive a screw into their inner faces to accurately and quickly position the template each time it’s used. Notice the upper edge of these two pieces was positioned slightly below the upper face of the pieces of solid wood. This is so these parts wouldn’t interfere with the router’s travel during machining.

Two more fences

Easy Adjustment
The two screws set into the inner face of the second template attachments can be adjusted to give you whatever pull depth you’d like. The screwheads will be positioned against the edge of the door or drawer front when the template is used. Here, Brown sets the depth of the screw to 1-1/8", which is the depth of pull he’s decided on.

Easy Adjustment

Trace and Trim
Brown traces the waste then cuts it out on the bandsaw. Notice the centre lines drawn on both the workpiece and the template. This makes for quick positioning each time the template is used.

Trace and Trim

Be Careful
After making a trim cut on the bandsaw, Brown realized he might have cut a bit too close to the inner corner. Rather than discard the workpiece he adjusted the template to cut about 1/16" to one side, which covered up this bandsaw cut.

Be Careful

First Cut Complete
A template bit in a router, which is guided by the template, makes quick work of completing the first step in shaping the pull. Notice how the two pieces of solid wood attached to the plywood protrude about 1/8" beyond the workpiece. This ensures you only remove material from the area where the pull will be.

First Cut Complete

Cove Cut
By using a cove bit with a bearing Brown traces the previously routed pull recess to remove material from the inner area of the pull. It’s critical the router bit bearing not come into contact with the outer edge of the workpiece, as it will leave a cove cut where one isn’t wanted. Notice the piece of plywood clamped to the edge of the workpiece. It will protect against blowout as the bit exits the material and ensure the bearing doesn’t ride on the edge of the door or drawer front. Another piece of scrap could be clamped to the other side of the pull recess if wanted.

The Second Template
The router bit is guided around the rear face of the door or drawer front as the template guide follows the large notch cut into the template. The positioning of this template isn’t as critical as the other. Brown actually eyeballed its location each time before clamping it in place.

Time to Choose
Brown opted to square up the corners of the rear insert rabbet, rather than round two of the corners of the rear inserts. The choice is yours.

Time to Choose

Ready for Finish
Tape will ensure no finish gets on the majority of the glue surfaces when the inner faces of the rear inserts are finished. The cove edge of the pull is also finished at this stage.

Ready for Finish

Flush It Up
Once the rear inserts are installed, Brown used a third template to flush the backs of the doors and drawer fronts. Some sanding perfects the surface.

Flush It Up

Simple Auxiliary Fence
A shop-made fence attached to the rip fence will allow you to trim the outer edges of the inserts flush with the plywood doors and drawer fronts.

Simple Auxiliary Fence

Deceptively complex

The tricky part about making this style of pull was that the edge of the notch in the doors and drawer fronts needed to be angled, because a straight notch, if it had a piece of material behind it, would not allow the user to positively grasp the door or drawer front and pull it open. On top of this, the doors and drawer fronts were 3/4″ thick, and the rear insert would take up some of that space. This meant that the dimensions had to be carefully considered if it was going to work well in terms of strength and functionality.

I decided on a 1/8″ thick rear insert. Any thinner would be too weak. Any thicker would take up too much space and not allow the user to easily grasp the door or drawer front.

The finished pull openings are 3-1/2″ x 1-1/8″, but you can adjust this to meet your needs. This dimension allows the user to comfortably insert four fingers on one hand into the pull to grasp the door or drawer front and open it. A finer piece, like a curio cab­inet or jewelry box, could use a smaller opening, but I think this dimension is pretty close to perfect for a cabinet that’s used on a daily basis.

The first router template

Three router templates helped me shape these pulls. Although I assembled them slightly different from each other, they could have been made the same way. It’s up to you which method of template construction you use.

The first template started with a rectangular piece of 3/4″ thick plywood about 8″ x 18″, though the exact size isn’t important. I ensured one long edge was straight, then glued and screwed two 1-3/8″ x 6″ pieces of solid wood to the long edge. As long as these strips are at least 1/8″ wider than the finished width of your com­pleted pulls they’ll be fine, as you want to keep the router’s path under control before allowing the bit to come in contact with the material. I made sure they were spaced the same width apart as the finished pull opening. When they were dry, I used a hand plane to ensure they didn’t protrude above the plywood’s surface.

You could clamp this template directly to a door or drawer front, but I chose to screw a pair of simple 1/2″ plywood strips about 1-1/2″ x 6″ to the two pieces of solid. These would allow me to drive a short screw into them and adjust them to give me a consis­tent width when routing the pull openings.

Trace, drill, bandsaw, rout

First, mark the exact location of the cutout on each door. The safest way to do this is to make a simple template in another piece of scrap and rout it the same way you will the rest of the door handles. This template will allow you to see the exact radius of the inside corners so you won’t remove too much material. I marked a centre line on the template, then added centre lines on the doors and drawer fronts. These lines helped me position the pulls where I wanted them.

With the location of the pulls marked on each workpiece, band­saw most of the waste away. I drilled holes in each of the two corners of the pulls to make the bandsawing operation easier.

With the template clamped in place, and a 3/4″ diameter tem­plate bit in my router, I flush trimmed the pull to size with a few passes. Listen to the router as you go. If it’s loud you should take lighter passes. And if you go too slowly you’ll burn the material. It’s a bit of a balancing act as you rout. Luckily most of the edge will be removed in the next step, so some burning isn’t awful.

Add a cove

The rear edge of the pull opening needs to be undercut so the user can grasp the door or drawer front properly. I did this by chucking a 1/2″ radius cove bit in my router and tracing the pat­tern I routed in the previous step. This is where burning becomes a larger problem, as you’ll have to sand this routed surface to remove the burning. Take light passes and don’t move too slowly. I also found some careful climb cutting mixed with some conventional cutting worked well. Be very careful when climb cutting; light passes are the key.

When you rout the cove into the pull area you won’t remove the entire edge of the 3/4″ material that the router bearing is run­ning on. You’ll want to end up with a flat area that’s between 1/8″ and 3/16″ thick around the perimeter of the pull. Any thinner and you’ll be left with a weak pull that’s prone to splinter, yet if it’s much thicker the user won’t be able to grasp the pull comfortably and positively.

It’s also important to protect the trailing edge of the cut from blowing out when routing the cove. Clamp a piece of material on the edge of the door or drawer front so its end is flush with the routed cavity.

In addition to those two details, be careful when you start the cut on the opposite end of the cutout. You don’t want the bearing to even slightly run on the outer edge of the door or drawer front, as that will machine a cove on that edge and visually throw the pull off. If you want to be sure, you can clamp a second piece of scrap to this side of the pull, also.

The second router template

My initial approach to machining a rabbet in the rear face of the door or drawer to accept the rear insert was a bit naïve. I thought I could just use a rabbet bit in my router to machine it by running the bit’s bearing against the cove. When I tried it on my test handle the bearing dug into the cove and left a deep mark. To top it off, the rear face of the door or drawer front chipped a fair bit and I couldn’t get it to not do so. A new approach was needed, so I went back to a similar template. The main difference between this tem­plate and the first is the first used a template tracing bit, while this jig required a template guide attached to my router’s base plate.

You can use thin Baltic birch plywood for the rear insert, but keep in mind the wide rabbet you rout in the backs of the doors and drawers to accept the rear insert will need to be cut the exact same depth as the plywood. I used solid wood, which gave me the freedom to make it whatever thickness I wanted and allowed me to make the rear insert a bit thicker than the rabbet, and hand plane and sand it flush once it was installed. I also had solid wood and no plywood in my shop.

This second template is just a piece of 1/2″ plywood (3/4″ plywood would also work just fine) with a notch sized to guide the template guide I would install on my router’s base plate. What size notch you make depends on what size template guide and what radius of router bit you use. The first thing you need to do to determine this is to check the difference in outside radius between these two parts. Next, determine how large you want the rabbet to be that will accept the rear insert. Add twice the difference in radius to this measurement to get the length and add the difference in radius to get the width. In fact, you should also make the width an extra 1/4″ larger, as you want to ensure the router bit has a short and straight lead-in when machining.

I made the notch in the template by making a plunge cut on my table saw, followed by two crosscuts. The kerfs can run beyond each other, as the template guide will be too large to fit into the kerfs.

Install a straight or mortise bit and the template guide in your router. Set the depth to machine the rabbet. I found with a 3/4″ thick door or drawer front, any more than 1/8″ deep will start to cause problems for the user, as they won’t get a positive enough grasp on the door or drawer front, and any less will leave the rear insert too weak. I climb cut when I routed the recess for the rear insert to reduce tear-out.

Machine the rear inserts

Rather than try to thickness plane the rear inserts down to just over 1/8″ thick, I jointed one face of a piece of solid, dressed it so the opposite face was flat and ripped it to about 1/4″ over what was needed to fill the width of the recess, then stood the blank on edge and ripped a piece on the table saw. I set the fence so I ended up with inserts that were between 1/32″ and 1/16″ thicker than needed. I would plane and sand them flush once they were installed.

You can now cut the rear inserts to fit in the cavity, but you still have one decision to make. The routed corners of the rear insert rabbet are round, while it’s easiest to cut the corners of the rear insert square. You either have to round the insert corners to fit the rabbet or square the corners on the rabbet. Because it would likely leave me with a joint with fewer gaps, I opted to square up all the corners. I did this with a sharp plane iron, though a larger chisel would work well, too.

Fit each rear insert carefully and sand their front faces, as they will be visible once they’re installed, and you won’t be able to sand them then. Even though the inserts should all be the same size, I labelled them so they would mate with specific doors or drawer fronts. I then taped off the glue surfaces on the face of the inserts and applied a finish to their front faces. I also sanded the cove and thin edge that the user will grasp when using this pull. Removing the burn marks is important, as is creating a smooth surface. These surfaces can also be finished at this stage.

Once the finish has cured, the inserts can be glued into place. A few small clamps, along with a few small cauls to spread out the clamping pressure, will do the job nicely. Make sure there are no visible gaps on the user side of the pulls.

The third router template

When dry, it’s time to flush the rear faces of the fronts. If I only had a few to flush I’d hit them with a sharp plane, but since I had an entire kitchen’s worth of doors and drawer fronts, I made another router template. This simple template had an opening about 1/2″ wider and longer than the largest insert. Because my largest diameter template bit had a cutting edge on it 3/4″ long I needed to build up the thickness of the template to over 3/4″ so the bearing could ride on the cutout, but so the bit wouldn’t cut into the plywood workpiece. Once I set the depth of the template router bit I could quickly and accurately machine the backs of the inserts flush with the rear face of the workpieces. A pass with a belt sander and they were flushed up.

The final step was to trim them flush with the outer edge of the door or drawer front, sand the edge and break any sharp corners or edges before applying a finish to the rest of the doors and drawer fronts.

Watch the video


Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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