How To Build Cabinets

These directions are for how to build cabinets that are solid wood, face frame style cabinets. This style produces a lot of wood surface. If you like stained wood, this is the style for you! I’m using oak. You may, of course, use any wood you choose.

When you are learning how to build cabinets, learn the parts: they consist of carcasses (the box), face frames (what you see on the front), drawers and doors. For information on doors see (CABINET DOORS); for information on drawers see (BUILDING DRAWERS).

Learn How To Build Cabinets: Building the Carcasses

I build the carcasses out of ¾ B/C, exterior grade pine plywood. You can use whatever you please. B/C plywood is certainly not the smoothest, prettiest material. Since it is inside closed doors, I don't spend more on it than I have to. Don't save money by using particle board or MDF. When it gets wet, it falls apart. It also is not as strong as plywood.

I build the carcasses an inch smaller than the unit size, and make the face frames the full width. This prevents the cabinet sides from ever keeping the cabinets from assembling right. The exception to this rule is a visible, finished side, which should be flush for best appearance.

Learn how to build cabinets by knowing standard sizes: Kitchen cabinets are usually 35 inches tall and 24 inches deep. Bath vanities vary greatly. I build them 20 inches deep, 32 inches tall, unless requested otherwise.

STEP 1: Stack the B/C and Oak plywood on edge, in separate stacks so each is accessible.

STEP 2: Rip all the pine & oak strips. “Pine” refers to the B/C plywood. Rip each material before you move the fence for the next width cut. I use pine for the bottom, shelves and non-visible sides. Rip the sides, bottom and shelves to the full depth of the cabinet.

STEP 3: The length of the bottom and shelves will be the same, and you get this length by taking the width of the unit and subtracting 1 inch for the side thickness remaining after the dado cut, and a half inch for each non-visible side. So, if your finished width is 36 inches, and you have two visible sides, you would cut the bottom and shelves 35 inches long. If your finished width is 36 inches, and you have two non-visible sides, you would cut the bottom and shelves 34 inches long.

STEP 4: Change your table saw blade to the dado. Set the dado just under 3/4” wide.

STEP 5: Cut a sample dado. You want 1/4” deep and a snug, but not tight, fit on the width. Fit a piece of B/C in the slot to check for actual fit.

STEP 6: Adjust the width and depth as needed.

STEP 7: I use a 3” high toe kick. To get this, set the fence 3” away from the close side of the dado, at the closest point of its circle.

STEP 8: Cut a dado the full width of the two side pieces.

LEARN HOW TO BUILD CABINETS NOTE: You may need to make two or three passes thru the saw to get a complete, clean dado.

STEP 9: Determine the height of subsequent shelves. Remember to allow for any drawers and the amount of space the face frame uses for drawers.

Learn how to build cabinets with standard features: Most vanity and kitchen sink cabinets only have the bottom shelf.

STEP 10: Cut out the toe kick clearance of 3” x 3” on all floor units

For upper cabinet dados, I use the radial arm saw. Place the dado blade on the radial saw. Reset the width.

When you learn how to build cabinets, always practice safety first.

WARNING: THE RADIAL ARM SAW HAS THE BLADE TURNING TOWARD YOU AND IT ATTEMPTS TO PULL ITSELF INTO THE CUT. YOU MUST BE PREPARED FOR IT AND HOLD IT FIRMLY. FEED THE BLADE INTO THE CUT SLOWLY AND SMOOTHLY.

WATCH OUT FOR THAT THUMB!!!

STEP 11: Cut a sample dado and check it out. Make any adjustments needed.

STEP 13: Cut the top 3/4”of all upper sides.

STEP 14: Measure up from the bottom of the side pieces and cut a dado from 1” to 1 3/4”.

STEP 15: Determine how you want the interior shelves spaced. Remember to allow the lowest shelf to have a tall enough height to place cereal boxes or tall glasses, etc. I always space the second shelf 12” higher than the first shelf.

STEP 16: Cut all the remaining dados in the upper cabinet sides.

STEP 17: Sand the B/C plywood pieces. I recommend a 5 or 6 inch random orbit palm sander with adhesive sanding discs. Woodworkers Supply is an excellent source for all cabinet building tools and supplies. Start with 60 grit, then 80, then 100. I use a separate sander for each grit so I don't waste any discs.

Learn How To Build Cabinets: Only sand visible surfaces. The “B” side always faces in on cabinet sides, and almost always faces up on shelves. The only time you may want the “B” surface facing down is in tall units or upper units where you will actually see the bottom of the shelf. Sand both sides of shelves. Sand only the ”B” surface of the bottom shelves.

STEP 18: Cut the cabinet backs. I have mainly used 1/4”dark masonite and 1/4” luan plywood.

REMEMBER TO BE EXTRA CAREFUL FOR KICKBACKS WITH THIN MATERIAL WHEN YOU LEARN HOW TO BUILD CABINETS.

STEP 19: To assemble the carcasses, use a good quality wood glue and a finish nail gun with 1 1/2” nails.

STEP 20: Brush or blow the sanding dust out of the dados, then run a full bead of glue in one side piece dados.

STEP 21: Stand the side piece on edge and position the shelves into the dados. Pay attention to which side faces which way on the shelves.

STEP 22: Shoot the nails thru the side into the shelves. If you miss, or a nail sticks out, just pull it thru and re-nail.

STEP 23: Glue the opposite side piece and place it & shoot it.

STEP 24: Install the attachment strips. In uppers, this is a 2” wide piece of B/C or Oak under the top shelf, and a 1” strip under the bottom shelf. In base units it is a 6” wide strip to provide support to the counter top.

In every case, glue the ends and fasten thru the cabinet sides. Cut these pieces the length between the sides at the shelf to be accurate. In upper cabinets, nail these strips to the sides and to the shelves.

STEP 25: Lay the unit face down.

STEP 26: Apply glue to all edges and strip surfaces.

STEP 27: Staple the back in place using 1/2” staples.

IMPORTANT: Use the back to square the cabinet up.

STEP 28: Use a wet rag to wipe up any excess glue that shows inside the cabinet.

STEP 29: Repeat for all units.

LEARN HOW TO BUILD CABINETS: FACE FRAMES

Use 4/4 solid material for the face frames. Try to find a cabinet shop or wholesaler that can provide this to you. Don't buy it retail! If you can, get it dressed on all 4 sides, 2” or 2 1/2”wide. If you can't, get it in random lengths and widths and rip it and dress it yourself.

You want the finished product to be 2” or 2 1/2” wide and smooth on all edges and surfaces.

STEP 1: Rip the 4/4 into 2 1/2” wide strips.

STEP 2: Stack several pieces together and stand on edge and sand out all saw marks. Turn them over and repeat.

STEP 3: Cut the frame pieces to length using the pattern in below as a guideline.

STEP 4: Assemble the face frame by clamping pieces together and drilling and screwing the joints together. Place glue between the pieces.

The Keig pocket screw system works great for this. Drill the holes slowly to keep the step drill from breaking.

STEP 5: When the face frame is assembled, lay the cabinet unit face up and glue the edges.

STEP 6: Lay the face frame in place, allowing an equal overhang on both sides.

STEP 7: Nail it in place. I space my nails about every 6 inches.

STEP 8: Use a wet rag and wipe up excess glue.

STEP 9: Rip some 1/8” strips off 4/4 material.

STEP 10: Cut these strips to length and dress the shelf edges with it.

STEP 11: Glue the edge and staple the strip in place. Flush the top edge of the strip to the top edge of the shelf and allow the extra width to hang below the shelf. This is so you don't hit the strip every time you pull a glass out of the cabinet.

STEP 12: Wood putty all nail holes.

Next in learning how to build cabinets, learn how to finish cabinets. Return from How To Build Cabinets to Home Building Mentor

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