Western Dovetail: The Fastest Drawer in the West

Max Hunter, the president and founder of Western Dovetail, owns a company that, to put it succinctly, makes drawers. “We make dovetail drawers and nothing else,” Hunter explains, “but we make them in any configuration.” He is true to his word. If you can come up with it, they can make it, including curved, non-parallel, and odd-shaped drawers with unusual acute and obtuse angled dovetails in a variety of shapes other than square. Recently, they’ve added angled and corner drawers to their line, a clever design to utilize oft-wasted inside corner space.

Of course, if you are only going to make drawers, you need to do two things. First, you must make yourself visible and memorable to the public. To that end, they’ve adopted a distinctly Western motif, which makes their ads quite distinctive. See them once, and you will never forget their logo or appearance. Second, you must make a quality product since folks are going to allow your drawers to be part of their work.

“We make top quality dovetail drawers constructed using classic English half-blind dovetail joinery,” Max explains. “Each drawer is handcrafted with the utmost care and checked for quality at each stage of production. We pay close attention to grain selection and color matching when edge gluing panels and assembling boxes. Each piece is made to order, so every drawer is a custom drawer.”

No doubt you are saying to yourself “All that is well and good, but what would possess someone to create a company that only makes drawers?” Turns out it all started 13 years ago in the back corner of  his father’s woodshop, and for a very good reason.

“I worked for my father from the time I was 10,” Max recounted, “helping out around the shop after school. There, I learned woodworking and finishing. Eventually, I graduated from an alternative art-based high school and spent four years at college studying business, architecture and engineering.” But his involvement with wood predated even that.

“The first Christmas present I remember getting, when I was only three,” Max recounted, “was a workbench kit that we could assemble together, along with carving tools. The interesting thing is that at that point my father did not even have a woodshop. He was a graphic artist who fantasized about being a woodworker. Five years later, in 1976, he set up a woodworking business making one-of-a-kind furniture.

“Over the years, he branched off into office furniture, which became the main thrust of the business for a few years. He’d often make custom pieces to match production line furniture, mimicking style and finish of the pieces. That led to commercial millwork contracts doing lobbies, hallways and elevators in office buildings. My father retired and closed the company about five years ago.”

The dovetail drawer business came about because of a job they took on in 1993. “We were working on a large job doing a high-end dormitory at a private high school. We did close to a hundred dorm rooms with over a thousand drawers, and decided to buy dovetail equipment to make the drawers. By the end of the job, my father’s company was suffering due to a recession, so I decided to branch off into the drawer making business. I started making them for a couple of local shops, went to the AWFS trade show, and the dovetail drawer business grew from there.

“When I started the business, there was no one making drawers, and therefore no one buying drawers. As the cabinet market has become more competitive and the customer more demanding, the popularity of dovetail drawers has expanded, but the ability of cabinetmakers to make them efficiently has not. The average shop will be making them by hand with a router, and many small cabinet shops simply cannot afford to make dovetail draws. Because that is all we do, we can do them much cheaper and at least as good by taking manufacturing technology and applying it to custom building. At this point, it does not make sense to make drawers when you can buy dovetailed drawers from us.

“Eventually, my company grew large enough to take over my father’s entire shop,” Max recalled, “then, three years ago, we moved to our current facility on the Mare Island Naval Base. The former naval base is the oldest west of the Mississippi, and was commissioned in 1857. We have about 20 employees in a 30,000-square-foot building that was originally constructed in 1953 for building wooden boats.”

Along the way, the company has racked up quite a few “firsts” over the years. “We were the first to offer Smart Wood and FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) certified wood in drawers, the first to offer corner drawers, and the company that made the first prototype of a notched and drilled dovetail drawer for Blum’s new undermount hardware in the early 90s.”

They are also the first to offer bamboo drawers, an alternative Max is very proud of for a host of reasons. “Solid bamboo panels are efficient to work with, look and behave like solid wood rather than plywood, and are thoroughly renewable. Typically, bamboo is ready to cut after only four or five years, and continues to regenerate as soon as it is cut. It is, after all, a crop, so it simply re-grows. It is also a natural decontaminator of soil, water and air.

“The key to bamboo’s strength is that each strand of the grain is perfectly straight. The result is a very strong, very hard straight grain laminated panel that sands and finishes very well. And, while bamboo is a light material, it is also a remarkably stable one, with 50 percent less contraction and expansion than most woods.”

“Custom cabinet shops are our biggest customers,” Max explained. “We offer them a wide range of options in dovetail drawers inexpensively, allowing them to put their time into other areas of the job. Even hobby woodworkers can benefit by getting their projects done faster and possibly better, since drawers are the most time-consuming and difficult aspect of many case pieces. For those that don’t enjoy making multiple drawers, this is a wonderful and cost-effective solution.

“Our quality and craftsmanship is above and beyond the industry standard,” insists Max with pride. “We have taken drawer making to a level where the drawer itself becomes a furniture quality piece on its own. In fact, there is a company called Atlas East that has taken our drawers and made a furniture line out of them. They are essentially using Western drawers and faceless drawers and making them into minimalist shelves and furniture that consists of little more than the drawers themselves. They take a big drawer, sometimes without a front, hang it on the wall and call it a cabinet or shelf.”

What’s in store for the future? Max insists that their web site is already the most complete online drawer information site, but there is a new wrinkle coming. “We are about to offer interactive online pricing that gives you instant pricing and allows order placement 24 hours a day. Self-guiding, it will let you build and order a custom drawer just as you can now build and order a custom computer online.”

However, going back to their origins of making the rest of the piece of furniture as well is not in the cards. As Max Hunter puts it, “We’ll make anything out of wood, as long as it is a drawer.”

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