While some woodworking tasks can be learned as you go, when it comes to how to install drawer slides it’s a must to spend some time upfront learning tips and even buying tools. Sure, you can measure twice and cut once during construction, but when it comes to drawers you’re dealing with three dimensions of alignment and 1/16″ precision. And without the right tools and tricks you’ll end up with mis-aligned drawers, broken slides, or worse…
Installing drawer slides can be the most frustrating part of any cabinet or furniture project.
And I’ve installed thousands of them.
What makes installing slides so difficult? Well consider these issues:
- Fighting the 3D alignment of the drawer and slide: up/down, left/right, and in/out
- Finding the right place to screw for face frame cabinets
- Making the final drawer adjustments for smooth operation
- No drawer is the same so what worked for one drawer might need a slight adjustment for the next.
- Working in tight spaces with low light
- Not having the right drawer installation jigs
While that’s only the tip of the iceberg, these areas can cause a beginner hours of frustration.
How to Install Drawer Slides
To start, we’ll assume you haven’t installed a drawer slide before.
And with that in mind, there are many ways to install a drawer slide and it starts with what type of drawer slide you have:
- Bottom mount slides
- Center mount slides
- Top mount slides
- Undermount slides
- Side mount slides
Not sure which slide you need? Well, for beginners one of the side mounts from our guide to soft close slides is easy to install and offers a smooth close.
Things to Buy Before Your Install
If you have more than a couple of drawers to install you might find investment in the following tools will make your installation go smoother:
- Drawer installation jig
- Cordless drill
- #8 course thread screws
- Rear mounting brackets for face frame cabinets
- Face clamps for jigs
- A magnetic bit holder
While you likely own a drill, have a decent magnetic bit holder and perhaps even have a face clamp if you built your drawers with a pocket hole jig it’s a MUST to use a drawer jig and rear mounting brackets (for face frames).
Why a jig and bracket? Simple: alignment:
- Drawer slides need to be installed at a perfect 90-degree angle to the cabinet or furniture face. And the consequence of being off a few degrees is the drawer front will not sit flush with the face of the cabinet. While the solution is to manually reset the slide, it’s a trial-and-error process. A jig will simplify this as they are 90-degree guides that will position the slide right the first time.
- For projects that are replacing slides in existing cabinets is an on-the-floor, back stretching exercise for most. A jig will cut the installation time (and frustration) by setting your angles right the first time.
Frameless or Face Frame Cabinets?
Cabinet’s and furniture come in two distinct styles: face frame and frameless.
Not sure if you have frameless or face frame cabinets?
Just think of a face frame as a picture frame that goes on the front of the cabinet. If you have one, it’ll be easy to spot. On the contrary a frameless cabinet is exactly that. The doors and drawers connect directly to the side of the cabinet.
To help you visualize, pictured below is a frameless cabinet with a hinge attached directly to the cabinet sides. And, since the hardware is connected to the side, there’s no need for rear mounting brackets.
On the other hand, a face frame cabinet construction features a layer of wood (typically 3/4″ thick, 2″ wide) that holds all doors and drawers. As you can see, the gap between the frame and the cabinet side prevents the drawer slide from attaching to the side of the cabinet. Hence, a rear mounting bracket to connect to the BACK of the cabinet.
Plan 30 Minutes a Drawer When Installing Drawer Slides
The biggest enemy of a perfectly installed drawer slide is impatience.
Of the thousands I’ve installed maybe 20% were exactly where I wanted them the first time. And that’s with a jig and experience.
If the cabinet isn’t installed you should be able to move towards 10-15 minutes a drawer. But for working under existing counters a 30-45 minutes average is best for planning.
Now if you’re installing epoxy slides you are in luck. Because the right slide is the “guide slide” if you install that slide correctly your time can be cut. As the left slide is merely a track it can be positioned with the drawer installed. With years of experience I’ve been able to install epoxy slides in just a few minutes.
Use a cordless light when replacing slides
If your project calls for upgrading slides in existing cabinets you’ll want to plan on plenty of light.
Since you’ll be doing precise measurements, looking for small holes with small drawer slide screws, and wanting to not test your patience a light will be your best friend.
Install in the workshop or before the counters go on
Installing drawer slides after the cabinet is installed is just not fun. And while installing drawers while the counter is installed is possible, I avoid it doing so at all costs.
Always mark your drawers
This often overlooked tip is perhaps one of the most important. Due to a lot of cabinets being the same width it’s easy to lose track of which drawer went where.
But a simple pencil or marker on the back of the drawer and a piece of tape on the cabinet marking the same will help.
7 Tips to INstall Drawer Slides
- Use a drawer slide jig
- Plan ahead and order rear mount brackets for face frame cabinets
- Plan 30 minutes a drawer, and relax when it takes you 5 with practice
- Adjust a drawer 5-6 times before getting frustrated. It’s normal.
- Walk away if you frustrated. Because the alternative won’t be high quality.
- Always use the right screws, and use more than the minimum recommended screws.
- Follow the manufacturer instructions (including maximum weight)!
Installing drawer slides can be the hardest part of building cabinets. And for a DIY’er tackling a replacement project it can be downright impossible without the right jigs and brackets.
But, lowering your expectations on time it will take is my #1 tip.
- About the Author
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Eric has been a professional woodworker for over thirty years and has worked in small cabinet shops making everything from kitchen cabinets to hand-made furniture. Now working from a home woodworking shop Eric is sharing his passion for woodworking, tool advice and how-to knowledge from his Minnesota-based woodshop.