Drawer Slides: Bring on the Heavy Metal

Shop Essentials: Learn about the four most popular types of metal slides, the advantages and disadvantages of each and get a few tips on installing them in both new and retrofitted cabinets.


Drawer Slides: Bring on the Heavy Metal

Photos by Marty Schlosser (Lead Photo by Rob Brown) 

There was a time when I con­sidered wood-on-wood slides to be a hallmark of a good cabinet. While there is undoubtedly a place for them in the stu­dio furniture maker’s lexicon, pros and amateurs alike are increasingly turn­ing to metal to answer their drawer slide needs. And it’s all because of the many and significant advantages these slides bring to the craft. They don’t bind nor become sloppy with seasonal humid­ity changes. They can carry significant loads – 200 kgs and beyond – with ease. They enable drawers to extend any­where from three-quarters of the way to completely out of the cabinet. Their prices have come down considerably, with most costing less than your weekly “Timmie’s” fix. And most are relatively simple and quick to install.

Before you get carried away and think that metal slides are the best option for every application, look a bit further. They cost from $2.50 a pair for the most basic ones to over $90 for complex ones. With the exception of one type (hidden) the slides themselves are highly visible; not every­one wants to see any metal showing. Further, the hid­den slide types reduce the useable interior height of the drawer by as much as 3/4". Almost all of them require the drawer to be nar­rower by as much as 3/4". That space is something that cannot always be spared. Finally, they are, well, ugly in the eyes of some.

Okay, so you’ve decided that the pros outweigh the cons enough for you to take the plunge. Now, then, which type is right for you? As is usually the case, the devil’s in the details, so let’s take a detailed look at the four main types.
Roller Slides
These basic slides are what you’ll find in most cabinets sold in big-box stores. You can also purchase them separately. They’re the least expensive of all metal drawer slides, are very easy to mount and work reliably. Many of them allow the drawer to slide three-quarters or more of its length out of the cabinet and have a ramp built into the back which draws the drawer closed over the last few inches of travel. As with most metal slides, the drawer needs to be narrower than the cabinet’s opening – usually 1/2". They’re great for work­shop cabinets because they readily tolerate high dust conditions, which would otherwise gum up the move­ments of their more sophisticated, high-count ball-bearing slide cous­ins. These slides also come in a flip-front version, as well as one which features built-in drawer sides, which some may find convenient. 

Simple Slides – Roller slides are very common, reasonably priced and easy to work with. They also work great near dust, which make them great for shop applications. (Photo by Rob Brown)

Some Wiggle Room – Not that you can get sloppy with your tolerances, but roller slides usually have one side that rides the roller snugly (above), while the other slide (below) allows for a bit of wiggle room. (Photos by Rob Brown)


Side-Mount Slides 
These slides are capable of carry­ing more weight than any other type. As their name implies, they mount to the drawer sides and are therefore fully visible when opened. Also, because they mount on the sides, the cabinet opening must be wide enough to accommo­date their thickness, which can be anywhere from 1/4" per side, to as much as 3/4" for the really heavy-duty slides. They also have a considerable number of ball bearings, which allows them to operate very smoothly. As with all slides incorporat­ing ball bearing movements, this type is very dust-sensitive, so they should be avoided in most workshop applications. Where they excel, however, is in kitchen pantries or office file cabi­nets where heavy loads may be encountered. They can also be used in tandem – one or more over the other – for tall open­ings where they help steady high-sided (6' and even taller) pull-outs. These slides come in three-quarters, full, and more-than-full extension models. They also come in a thin variant, useful where you can’t afford to give up the extra width, as well as a more expensive self-closing variant. As you can appreci­ate, the higher tolerance machining and significant number of ball bearings in side-mount slides make them more expensive than roller slides. However, if it's weight-carrying capacity you want, they’re the ones to turn to.

Solid and Visible – Side-mount slides are the highest load-carrying metal slide, which means they are often used in kitchen pantries. Because they require mounting space along each side, the hardware is visible when opened, so they may not be the first choice when making fine cabinetry.

Lots of Strength – In situations where larger, heavier drawers are being used, one or more pairs of side-mount slides will provide good results. The slides on this oversized kitchen drawer withstand heavy daily use. In extreme situations, two pairs of slides could be used per drawer, one mounted above the other. (Photo by Rob Brown) 

Smooth Action – Because they have a lot of ball bearings, side-mount slides tend to move smoothly and accurately. (Photo by Rob Brown)

Under-Mount Slides
Under-mount slides were designed for applications where you don’t want the slides to show but you also don’t want to invest a lot of money. You’ll see them on the same, relatively inexpensive cabinets, that sport roller slides. The main differ­ence between these two is a set of plastic runners mounted at the lower corners of the cabinet’s drawer opening. Although most of these slides have a carrying capacity similar to roller slides, manufacturers have responded to this shortfall by pro­ducing sets that look more like side-mount slides. These variants are capable of carrying nearly as much weight as their look-alike counterparts ... but their price tags reflect this addi­tional capacity.

Select What You Need – As with all slide types there are differences between slides, even though they are in the same category. Higher (above) and standard (below) quality slides are pictured here.

Hidden Slides 
If you’re looking for the newest, snazziest drawer slides, look no further. These slides were previously featured only in high-end kitchen and bathroom cabinets. However, because manufacturers have since responded to the call for less expensive models, albeit with decreased life-span and with less carrying capacity, they’re now being seen in less expensive cabinets. As with all high-count, open ball-bearing slides, these aren’t recom­mended for workshops. There is even a variant of these slides that incorporate electric motors into their mechanisms, allow­ing them to open at the touch of a toe or finger. Just don’t try to rely on them if the hydro fails! As can be appreciated, with the exception of the relatively inexpensive knock-offs, this family of slides is considerably more expensive than any other metal slide. Despite their high price tags, they’re gaining favour with those who want nothing but the best or latest in their cabinets.

Invisible – Full-extension, self- and soft-closing hidden slides are the newest series of metal slides and have gained acceptance by virtually all high-end kitchen and cabinet manufacturers. Although most of this family of slides cannot carry the same loads as their side-mount counterparts, most clients like the fact they can’t see any hardware and their self-closing and soft-closing features.
Installation Tips
It’s important to carefully read, and then re-read, the man­ufacturer’s installations, even before you’ve designed the cabinet into which you’re planning to use metal drawer slides. The reason for this attention is simply because most of these slides are to be installed to fairly high tolerances. Gone are the days of simply being able to plane a bit from the drawer side to provide more clearance. Another important tip is to ensure you use the recommended screw head type and size for affixing these slides; with such little space between the parts that connect to the drawer and those that fasten to the cabinet side, there’s very little clearance space. Finally, to help with drilling holes for the mounting brackets, some manufacturers and third-party companies offer interesting jigs that take the guess work out of the hole-drilling activity. I know that had these been available when I was working on the first kitchen upgrade I undertook, it would have made my life that much easier. And everyone I know likes that.

Check the Size – Because the tolerances between two moving slides are tight, make sure the screws you’re using are the right size and don’t protrude above the slide’s surface. (Photo by Rob Brown)
Simple Option
When you have lots of drawers to make, it might be worth your while to use slides that come with drawer sides. This way, you will not have to machine drawer sides out of wood or sheet goods. The all-metal slides are finished nicely and add to the look of a drawer. Often, all you have to do is cut a back and bottom to size, then attach a face. It speeds the process of drawer making, and the resulting drawer looks sleek and works well. A number of companies offer these sorts of slides, so check with your local supplier.

Built-in Drawer Sides – When building a large set of drawers for a kitchen a drawer system, which includes drawer sides and slides all in one, may be the best option. (Photo by Hafele Canada) 

Marty Schlosser

Kingston-based and now supposedly retired, Marty’s time is un­equally divided between crafting unique furniture and completing their new home. The home build is presently winning.