Building a Base Cabinet

Professional cabinetmakers make detailed drawings and figure the dimensions for all of the cabinet components before making the first cut. Follow their example: It’s the only way to ensure against costly cutting mistakes, and it will save you time in the long run. Planning cabinet construction requires three steps. First, make scaled drawings of the project on graph paper. Then make a cut list spelling out the exact dimensions of all the parts. Finally, draw a cutting diagram that shows how you will cut out all the pieces.

Scaled drawings, cutting diagram. The scaled drawings (above) and the cutting diagram (below) are for a base cabinet 33 inches wide, 24 inches deep, and 34 1/2 inches high. Be sure the plywood grain runs up and down for the side pieces. You may have to redraw and refigure several times before all of the dimensions come out right.

1. Build the base. Cut the base pieces to the specified sizes. Working on a flat surface, attach the pieces together by drilling pilot holes, applying wood glue, and driving three 8d finish nails at each joint. Periodically check the frame for square as you work. Align the sides with the notched kick plate as shown on the drawing.

2. Cut and attach the sides. Cut the cabinet sides, then notch the front edge of each to fit over the notch in the kick plate. Rabbet the back edge of each side piece to accommodate the inch plywood back. Drill pilot holes, glue, and drive 8d finish nails to attach the sides to the base.

3. Install the bottom shelf. Cut the bottom shelf to size, and test to see that it fits between the sides. Apply glue to the top edge of the base pieces, and set the shelf in place. Be sure its front edge is flush with the fronts of the sides. Drill pilot holes and drive 6d finish nails through the shelf and into the base.

4. Cut and install the ledger. Double-check the length of the ledger by measuring the distance between the inside edges of the cabinet sides at the bottom of the cabinet. Cutting to this length will ensure that the cabinet is square. Attach the ledger with 8d finish nails; position it so the back piece can slip into the rabbet.

5. Install the plywood back. Cut a piece of 1/4 inch plywood to fit between the rabbets. Take care to cut it perfectly square. It does not need to extend down to the floor, but it must cover the entire back opening. Test fit it, and check that the cabinet is square. Drive several 4d finish nails partway through it near the edges. Lay a bead of wood glue in the rabbet on both sides, and fasten with nails driven every few inches.

6. Fit in the center divider. Cabinets wider than 24 inches need two doors and two drawers, so there must be a center divider. Cut a piece of 3/4 inch plywood so its front aligns with the front edge of the bottom and its top edge aligns with the top. Make a notch to accommodate the ledger. Position the divider in the center of the cabinet, and attach with 8d finish nails and wood glue.

7. Add the shelves. A base cabinet shelf is usually 6 inches or so shallower than the bottom so that you can reach the pots and pans in the bottom compartment. Cut shelves to fit. Use a framing square to mark the location of the shelves, and attach them with wood glue and 8d finish nails.

8. Add the face frame and front cross pieces. Cut four plywood front crosspieces, and attach them with glue and 8d finish nails. Cut the vertical stiles, and install them with nails and glue, positioning the outer ones so they extend 1/8 inch past each side of the cabinet. Cut the horizontal rails to fit between the stiles, and fasten them as well. Now you are ready for drawers and doors.

Building a Wall Cabinet

Because it has no kick plate or drawers, a wall cabinet is easier to build than a base cabinet. It is essentially a rectangular box with shelves and a face frame. Build a standard wall cabinet 12 inches deep, including the stiles and rails but not including the doors. Base cabinets usually have one fixed shelf, but wall cabinets work well with two or three adjustable shelves. Make scaled drawings, a cut list, and a cutting diagram.

Making the cabinet. Cut the sides to the total height of the cabinet. Install adjustable standards, or drill a grid of holes for shelf pins. For each side piece, cut a 3/4 to 3/8-inch rabbet at the top, a 3/4 to 3/8-inch dado for the bottom shelf, and a 3/8 x 3/8-inch rabbet for the back panel. Cut the bottom shelf and the top 1 inch shorter than the width of the cabinet, and cut a 3/8 x 3/8-inch rabbet in the rear of the top piece. Fasten together the sides, the top piece, and the bottom shelf using wood glue and 8d finish nails. Check for square as you work.

Cut the back from 1/4-inch plywood, 3/4 inch narrower than the width of the cabinet and 3/8 inch shorter than the cabinet’s height. Cut carefully so that all corners are square. Cut and fasten the top and bottom cleats. Squeeze wood glue onto the back rabbet, and attach the back by driving 3d finish nails every few inches.

Cut the stiles (the vertical pieces of the face frame) to the height of the cabinet and cut the rails (horizontal pieces) to fit between. Hold in place on the cabinet front to check the cuts; the stiles should extend 1/8 inch on each side. For the tightest joints, square up and glue the stiles and rails together before fastening them to the cabinet. Attach the completed face frame using wood glue and 8d finishing nails. Cut shelves to fit inside the cabinet. Make them 1/8 inch shorter than the opening so you can remove and reposition them easily. Cover the front edges of the shelves with screen molding.

Making a Cabinet Door

There are two basic types of cabinet door: A panel door is more complicated to make and requires a table saw; a slab door is a single piece of wood, usually plywood. Slab doors are usually edged with trim for a neater appearance and to prevent warping. In addition to selecting a door style, decide how the door will fit in the cabinet. A flush door fits inside the cabinet frame and must be sized so there is an even 1/8-inch gap all around. An inset door has a rabbeted edge around its perimeter that covers the frame. An overlay door fits entirely over the frame and is the easiest to make.

Two types of door. A panel door has two horizontal rails and two vertical stiles. All four pieces have a groove into which the panel fits. Each rail has a tenon on each end that fits into the groove of the rail just as the panel does. The panel could be a flat piece of thin plywood, but a more attractive option is to bevel the edges of a wide 1-by board. The slab door shown has been trimmed simply, using outside corner molding on the perimeter. A simple measure like this dresses up a door.

1. Bevel-cut the panel. If the panel will be wider than 11 1/2 inches (the width of a 1x12), clamp and glue pieces edge-to-edge. Fasten a 1x6 or 1x8 to the rip fence to keep the workpiece from wobbling while you work. Adjust the blade so the bottom edge of the bevel will be just thick enough to fit into the groove you will make in the rails. To give the panel a “step,” adjust so the top edge of the cut will be 1/8 inch below the face of the board. If you don’t want a step, raise the blade to cut all the way through. Remove the blade guard, and keep your hands well away from the blade. Bevel-cut all four edges.

2. Square the step. If you chose to have a stepped bevel, square the blade and adjust it down so it cuts only 1/8 inch deep. Align the fence so that the blade will cut just the top edge of the bevel and square it up. Test with scraps; this calls for precise adjustment. Run all four sides of the panel through the saw.

3. Groove the rails and stiles. Set up to cut a dado the same width as the thickness of the door panel at the perimeter. Test cut on a scrap and to make sure the panel will fit the groove snugly. With the 1x6 or 1x8 clamped to the fence, adjust the fence so the blade will cut in the exact center of a board edge. (Test for this by cutting a groove, turning the piece around, and cutting again.) Cut a groove on the inside edge of all rails and stiles.

4. Cut tenons. Each rail must have a tenon on both ends. A tenon should be 1/2 inch long and as thick as the door panel. This means that the rail itself should be 1 inch longer than the distance between stiles. Set a dado assembly to cut half the board’s thickness, minus the thickness of the tenon. Attach a straight piece of 1-by to the miter guide so you can hold the rail firmly as you cut. Clamp a scrap piece to the front end of the rip fence to use as a spacing guide. Adjust the fence so that it positions the rail to cut a tenon 1/2 -inch wide. Cut one side of the tenon, flip the board over, and cut the other. Experiment on scrap pieces to achieve the precise blade height and the exact width adjustment so that the tenon fits snugly into a stile groove. Take your time, test your setup, and get it right: This is the step that appearances are determined.

5. Clamp and glue. Sand any saw marks on the panel. Dry-fit the pieces to make sure they fit tightly. Remove the stiles and apply glue to the rail tenons. (Don’t glue the panel into the groove; it must be allowed to expand and contract with changes in humidity without stressing the stiles and rail.) Clamp and let dry.

Achieve a raised look. You can dress up a new or old slab door by installing moldings. Two bands of molding, running either vertically or horizontally, add elegance to any slab door. Or miter-cut four pieces of thin molding, such as fluted screen bead, to form a frame on the door. Even chair rail can be applied for an ornamental look. Plan all the doors at the same time: Horizontal pieces should all be at the same height, and the distance between molding and door edge should be the same for all doors.

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