Gerstner tool chests were legendary for their quality, especially their smooth drawer action. How was this achieved, just a nice close fit or were other measures involved? If I could get access to a real Gerstner (not the fake ones made now) I could answer this myself, but they cost about $700 for real ones, so I am hoping somebody who has access to a real one can check it and let me know exactly how the drawers are done. This is what they look like:

Gerstner Tool Chest


I also do not own one of these. However, Gerstner offers a DIY tool chest build kit, with video instructions. I am presuming their DIY kits are constructed similarly to their pre-built chests.

There is a 5-drawer kit, 7-drawer kit, a 2610 kit, and a few others. There are pictures of the parts there (here are the drawer and cabinet parts for one of the kits, although the drawer slides are facing down and not visible).

More interestingly, there are three assembly instruction videos showing exactly how they are put together. In particular, there is a drawer fitting and assembly video:

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Drawer Fitting/Assembly Demo - Gerstner & Sons on YouTube

The drawer slides are tongue and groove (I think that's what you'd call them). They're just fit snuggly. Jump to 20:00 in the video where drawer fitting is discussed. In the kits, the drawers are provided slightly taller and wider intentionally, and then the drawers are sanded down until the fit is perfect. This is probably the key: If you build your own, give yourself a very small bit of extra material rather than trying to cut to fit to begin with, then sand to fit after assembly of your drawers and cabinet. The grooves are pre-cut, probably to a pretty good tolerance (in the video it doesn't appear that the slides are touched up during fit), but perhaps in your own drawers you could cut your grooves slightly narrower then widen them during assembly to fit. Also the video suggests marking the drawers to indicate their positions after fitting, since drawers will be fit to specific spots. It does not appear that any wax or anything is applied, although that may not be uncalled for.

Another point in the video is the drawers have "tails", that is the sides extend beyond the back by a half inch or so. This is intended to help keep the drawer on track even when it is pulled out all the way. (Whether you choose to view this as the sides being longer vs. the inside being smaller is just a matter of perspective. It's really just so that the drawer can stay on track without ever having inside space that is obstructed by the door above it, at the expense of inside space.)

The other two videos are:

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Pre-Assembly Demo - Gerstner & Sons on YouTube

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Chest/Lid Assembly Demo - Gerstner & Sons on YouTube

  • 1
    P.S. *drool*​​​​
    – Jason C
    Dec 19 '15 at 23:09
  • 1
    Too bad you didn't have embedded youtube :)
    – Matt
    Dec 20 '15 at 0:05

Forward: I don't own one of these chests, authentic or otherwise.

Chests of this style are certainly a marvel of tolerance for their design. Looking at an image of one (presumably authentic) you can see the drawers use a tongue and groove. The front is a lap (I can actually see on the 3rd drawer down on the right has something more than a lap but I can't name that joinery. Possibly a locked rabbet) that can prevent the drawer from going to far back but more likely just hides the groove.

enter image description here

Image of Model O-41-C from Wikipedia

I would speculate that wax is used to keep the drawer slides moving fluid but I do not know for sure.

The key in making the proximity of these drawers work would be that the groove of the drawer and tongue would be near perfectly matched to prevent vertical movement. Simple drawers, like you would see in a dresser, float over a similar tongue but have more range of movement which would not be ideal for a chest like this.

Keep in mind that this does not have to be perfect. You can see the bottom drawer of the picture not resting perfectly as it was pulled out too far.

  • Fwiw, Gerstner deems the corner joints "tongue & groove" at 2:40 in this video.
    – Jason C
    Dec 19 '15 at 23:00
  • 1
    The joint you couldn't name, that's a type of lock rabbet, the simplest joint for drawer fronts that doesn't require any additional fastener or reinforcing to stay secure over time. As long as the glue holds of course.
    – Graphus
    Dec 20 '15 at 23:08
  • Locked rabbet was my first guess but I was not sure.
    – Matt
    Dec 21 '15 at 1:42

It appears from the picture provided by Matt that Gerstner simply used "side-hung" drawers. Here's an illustration showing the basics of the mechanics:

Side-hung drawer cross section

[Source: Hoosier cabinet plans]

So presumably the smooth action is the result of good fit and tolerances, the use of well-seasoned wood and possibly a little waxing now and then to keep things sliding smoothly. Lubrication is not necessarily needed depending on the wood used for the slides/runners as some woods are self-lubricating, and many close-grained hardwoods will become burnished with use (as on the sole of beech planes) making them very smooth and slick over time.

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