DIY handles and pulls—from simple to complex

Synopsis: Whether they are simple or complex, handles and pulls contribute greatly to the overall look and functionality of a piece of furniture. The team at Hank Gilpin’s woodshop takes care to balance looks with ease of construction to make the best choice for each project. So take a look at their advice and designs, and start designing your own handles. Most of all, have fun with it.

Designing and making wooden handles can be one of the more fun parts of what we do. You can design a fairly simple single-shape handle or a more complex layered pull that has multiple relief cuts and requires a great deal of handwork.

The scale of the piece of furniture and its purpose will completely drive the scale and design of the handle. Is this a pull that will open the heavy drawers of a sideboard filled to the brim, or will it just be used for two small doors on a cabinet in the front hall?

You can attach your handles and pulls with a simple screw from the back without using hardware, or you can use hardware such as threaded inserts.

drawings of furniture designs

Designing handles and pulls

Start with drawing. Have fun. Don’t feel trapped in traditional shapes. Play with your sketchbook. Fill the pages with anything that comes to mind. It doesn’t have to be great drawing. But if the drawing is daunting at first, find something you like and copy it. Do the build process a few times, and that will be liberating. Then you can get more complicated, moving into shapes and ideas that are more creative and original. You’ll know when it’s right.

The simplest approach

Screwing from the back of the drawer or door into a pre-drilled hole in the handle is the easiest way to make and attach a handle or pull. And if the handles are too small or delicate to accommodate a threaded insert, it is the only way to do it.

Desoto pull

Desoto pull

illustration of desoto pull

using a Forstner bit to cut out a handle
Forstner bit aids in shaping. For this handle, use a Forstner bit in the drill press to cut out the tight radius on the inside of the pull. Then go to the bandsaw to clean out the rest.

Yew pull

yew pull

illustration of yew pull

drilling pilot holes in handle
Pilot hole first. After drawing the shape of the handle on the stock, mark the center of the foot and drill a hole to thread the screw in when you attach the handle to the door.
cutting out and sanding handle shape
Bandsaw the shape. Drawing multiple pulls on a long blank allows you to work with larger stock until the end. Cut the shapes on the bandsaw and then take them to the bench to fine-tune with hand tools. Use multiple kerf cuts to notch out the curve, and then saw and clean the shape to the line.

Remember to have fun and don’t feel trapped in traditional shapes. We will sometimes fill five pages in a sketchbook with ideas before we even start to figure out the details of a good pull. There are a few things that are important to keep in mind while designing pulls and handles: What is the construction process? Can I make multiple pulls from a single blank? Can I shape three pulls at once? Can I cut and shape 90% of this pull on a tablesaw before I cut out the handle? Particularly if you have a batch of like pulls to make, the process of cuts and steps involved has to be a key thought. When it comes to making multiple pulls, the more you can do on a machine the better. But always add a little something you can only do by hand!

Asymmetry captivates

Nobody ever said handles and pulls must be symmetrical, and this example makes that clear. Reduction cuts, templates, and a bandsaw can get you close to finished.

Vanity pull

Vanity pull

Vanity pull front view and end view illustrated

Vanity pull top view illustrated

preliminary cuts on the tablesaw
Reduction cutting. At the tablesaw, make preliminary cuts to create points that are locked in. This handle has two ripcuts and two crosscuts that locate where the threaded inserts will go.
bandsaw the curves on the top and bottom of the handle
Drill and shape. After drilling for the threaded inserts, bandsaw the curves on the top and bottom of the handle, cutting kerfs perpendicular to the line and then sawing to the line.
bandsaw a taper to the handle
Tackle the taper. Use a paper template to flex over the curve of the top and trace the shape of the taper onto the handle. Then cut that taper out on the bandsaw.

Finessing at the bench – Once the machine work is over, the final stage is cleaning up and refining the shape with hand tools.

chiseling and filing the underside of the handle
Bottoms up. Working on the underside of the pull first, hold the pull in a hand screw and set that in your bench vise. Use a chisel to shape the foot that will hold the threaded insert. File the curves clean and smooth.
putting handle on holding fixture with smooth with file
Right side up. Using a simple holding fixture, screw the handle to the fixture and clamp the fixture in the bench vise. Smooth the top of the handle with files.
using a gouge under handle
A nice surprise. A little gouge work underneath adds texture and lightens the front of the pull.

Symmetry with curves and depth

This pull’s complexity and panache derive from tapering curves and a chiseled step.

Blip pull

Blip pull

Blip pull front view and end view illustrated

Blip pull top view illustrated

cutting kerfs on the tablesaw to establish lines
Establish your lines. After drilling for the threaded inserts, go to the tablesaw and crosscut two shallow kerfs on each side of the pull to establish where the curve on the bottom starts and stops. Then cut two deeper angled kerfs into the top of the pull to establish where the top curve begins and ends.
cutting out the curves on the bandsaw
Kerf and cut. Waste away the shape of the curves on the bandsaw with a series of kerf cuts and then curving cuts to the layout line.
marking and cutting the tapering curve
A flexible template. Use stiff paper to make a template that will mold to the shape of the curve. Trace the template onto the pull, and then cut out the tapering curve on the bandsaw.
finishing the handle with hand tools
Finish at the bench. Use a handsaw to establish the inset of the middle of the pull, and then clean that up with a chisel. Use files and sandpaper to clean and smooth the pull to a finished state.
applying finish to the handle
Add an easy finish. After sanding to 320 grit, softening all the edges, burnish with an extrafine ScotchBrite pad and a cotton T-shirt, and apply three light coats of Watco Danish oil to finish.

The main point is to encourage ­drawing. It doesn’t have to be great drawing. It doesn’t have to be three-dimensional. It can be a whole bunch of silhouettes and simple sketches. Cultivate the creativity that’s generated by drawing and do not be trapped in the first thing you draw. The key is to sit back and let it go. Let it sit. Come back to it. Think about it. Revise it. You’ll know when it’s right.

If drawing your own shapes feels daunting, find something you like and copy it. Do the process a few times. That will be liberating. Then you can get more complex, branch out, and start moving into shapes and ideas that are more experimental. When we design things, the idea is that it should look good, but it shouldn’t scream “look at me, think about me!”

Endless possibilities

Ribbon pull

Ribbon pull

The Ribbon pull has become a shop favorite because it has a lot of versatility in its design. Depending on the species of wood chosen and the dimension of stock you work from, the result can be light and graceful or sturdy and robust. We’ve made them in pearwood, Cuban mahogany, sea grape, yew wood, bubinga, and even ipé, which was the largest batch (around 64 pulls). It is an excellent example of hand shaped, tapering crowns. The gouge detail on the underside at the ends is an unexpected bit of handwork, mostly to please the maker as it is not often seen.

handle drawing and blank with drawing

roughed out handle and underside showing hole for threaded insert

Arched pull

Arched pull

The Arched pull becomes playful when you plan several of them on one piece, and you can orient them in different ways to almost make them look like they are different designs, working together in one vocabulary. They are fairly easy to make if you pay attention to the process of bandsaw cuts, and most of the relief shaping is actually on the underside. In short, they look trickier to make than they actually are, and though they aren’t quite as jovial as the bubble pulls, they certainly stand out.

Arched pull template and blank

blank with relief cuts and roughed out handle

Bubble pull

Bubble pull

The Bubble pull is pure fun. Its flashy form brings instant joy. It showcases an immense amount of handwork. This is a case where you could use the pull as a primary detail, a true flair on an otherwise conservative chest of drawers or side table. We first designed these for a row of built-in cabinets, where they played perfectly off floating panels.

Bubble pull template and blank with drawing

Bubble pull roughed out

Long ribbon pull

Long ribbon pull

The Long Ribbon pull is an extended version of the Ribbon pull we developed to work on larger scale kitchen drawers and doors. We found it was impossible to scale up the Ribbon pull to suit a refrigerator door. It compromised the elegance and felt awkward. We needed to take the Ribbon’s primary element, the symmetrical fanned tails, and elongate them in a way that wasn’t clunky. The transition to the arched middle section was the breakthrough modification and presented another opportunity to showcase some handwork.

Long ribbon pull template and blank

blank with drawing roughed out long ribbon pull

Hank Gilpin, Matt Giossi, and Ron Kuhn work in Hank’s shop in Lincoln, R.I.

Drawings: Dan Thornton

Pull template photos courtesy of the authors

From Fine Woodworking #297

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