How to Build a Basic Wall Cabinet

Mature man installing door for cabinet at home
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  • 01 of 10

    Building a Basic Cabinet Is Easier Than You Think

    Kitchen cabinet
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    Whether you need new kitchen cabinets or just more storage for your workshop or laundry room, the basics of cabinetry design and construction remain the same. Most cabinets are little more than a well-built plywood box, called a carcass, that is then trimmed with doors or wood trim appropriate for the application. The carcass is typically made from 3/4-inch plywood with dadoes or rabbets cut into the interior sides to support the shelves and cabinet back.

    In our sample project, we'll build a simple utility cabinet, 48 inches wide, 24 inches tall, and 18 inches deep with a top, center and bottom shelf. It is quite easy, though, to modify the dimensions to fit your particular needs. Pay attention to the comments describing how to modify the project if you are building kitchen cabinets. 

    This is a moderate-level woodworking project that usually requires 3 or 4 hours of work for a DIYer with a good level of experience. 

    Tools and Materials You Will Need

    • Power miter saw or circular saw
    • Table saw with dado set, or router
    • Power drill
    • Claw hammer
    • Layout square
    • 4 x 8-foot sheet of 3/4-inch-thick BC plywood (2 sheets)
    • 4 x 8 sheet  of 1/4-inch-thick plywood
    • 2 x 4, 8-feet long
    • 1 x 2, 8-feet long (3)
    • Deck screws (3-inch and 1 1/2-inch) 
    • 4d finish nails
    • Nail set
    • Pencil
    • Woodworker's glue
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  • 02 of 10

    Cut the Shelves to Size

    For this cabinet, you'll need two shelves that are 18 x 47 inches, and another bottom shelf that is 17 3/4  x 47 inches. The narrower shelf will be in the middle of the cabinet. 

    Use a table saw or a circular saw to cut the shelves from 3/4-inch thick plywood.

     

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  • 03 of 10

    Cut the Cabinet Sides

    The next step is to cut the cabinet sides and create the dado and rabbet grooves that will support the ends of the shelves. 

    1. Cut two identical side pieces from 3/4-inch plywood, using your table saw. For our cabinet, each side is  18 x 24 inches. Adjust the sizes if you are adapting for a different sized cabinet. 
    2. Next, you'll need to decide whether the sanded side of the plywood should be on the inside or outside of the cabinet. On kitchen units, you'll likely want the sanded side out, while for utility cabinets, you may want the sanded side in, especially if you are building multiple cabinets that will be installed against one another.  
    3. Set up a stacked dado set in your table saw table saw to the precise width of the plywood (23/32 inch), and set the cutting depth to 1/4 inch. You'll be cutting two 18-inch-long dadoes and one rabbit on each side panel, perpendicular to the 24-inch edge. (You may use a router with a 23/32-inch straight bit set to 1/4-inch depth instead of a table saw.)
    4. Set the fence on your table saw to 1 1/2 inch from the opposite side of the dado set. (In other words, if the fence is on the right side of your table saw's blade, set the fence at 1 1/2 inch from the left of the dado blade.)
    5. Start the saw and carefully cut the dado groove on the desired side of the side panel, with the 18-inch edge running against the fence. Repeat with the other side piece.
    6. Next, set the fence to 12 inches, in the same manner as before, and make a dado on the same side of each shelf standard, with the same edge against the fence.
    7. Finally, set the fence to 24 inches (again, from the opposite side of the dado set), and make one more cut in each side panel. This bottom groove is a rabbet groove, cut flush with the end of the side panel. This is where the bottom shelf will fit. 
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  • 04 of 10

    Cutting the Rabbets for the Back Panel

    At this point, we need to determine how you will be hanging the cabinet on the wall. Kitchen cabinet installations normally use a piece of 3/4-inch plywood as the backer of the carcass, then secure the cabinet to the wall with screws driven through the back and into wall studs. 

    However, in our utility cabinet project, we'll be using a French cleat wedge bracket that we'll fashion out of a  2 x 4 in a later step. As such, we don't need the additional weight of the 3/4-inch plywood on the back, so we'll use 1/4-inch plywood instead. To do this, we'll first cut rabbets in the side panels and in the center 18-inch shelf. 

    1. Set the stacked dado cutter to 3/8-inch depth and 1/4-inch width.
    2. Then, set the fence on the table saw to 18 inches from the opposite side of the dado set (as in the previous step).
    3. Determine which 24-inch edge of each shelf standard will serve as the back, and cut a rabbet on the same side of the stock that you cut the dadoes. These rabbets will form the recess into which the back panel will fit. 
    4. Next, cut a similar rabbit into one of the 18-inch shelves,  This rabbet will be cut into the back, top-side of the bottom shelf.

    If you are modifying these plans and using 3/4-inch plywood for the back, you'll also want to make a rabbet into the back bottom side of the top shelf of the cabinet. However, for our demonstration cabinet, this rabbit is not necessary.

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  • 05 of 10

    Assemble the Cabinet

    Dry fit the cabinet pieces before joining them permanently. If the fit is off, you can make small cutting adjustments to make the pieces fit. 

    1. On a large table, lay down the right side panel on a work surface, dadoes facing up
    2. Dry-fit each of the three shelves into their grooves, so the shelves are flush with the front edge of the cabinet side. The narrower, 17 3/4-inch shelf should be the middle shelf, and the shelf with the rabbeted edge should be on the bottom. 
    3. Dry-fit the left cabinet side on top of the three positioned shelves so the dados fit tightly over the ends of the shelves.
    4. When you're assured of a proper fit for all parts, disassemble the pieces and place a thin bead of wood glue along the inside surface of each dado and rabbet groove.
    5. Reassemble the pieces, making sure all joints fit together tightly.
    6. Secure the shelves to the cabinet sides with mechanical fasteners of your choice. This can be done in one of three ways: toenailing some brads diagonally through the shelves and into the side panels from inside the cabinet carcass; driving finish nails through the outside face of the cabinet sides and into the ends of the shelves; or (if the outside of the cabinet will be painted) driving deck screws through the outside of the cabinet sides and into the ends of the shelves. This final method makes for the most sturdy cabinet, and the screw holes can be filled with wood filler before painting. 
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  • 06 of 10

    Install the Back

    Now that the cabinet carcass is taking shape, we need to strengthen it and check it for square. Once the back panel is installed, the cabinet carcass will be perfectly square and rigid. 

    1. Cut a piece of 1/4-inch plywood to 47 1/4 x 18 inches. (If you're modifying the plans for a different sized case or using 3/4-inch plywood for the back, you'll need to adjust accordingly.)
    2. Lay the assembly flat onto its front-side on the work surface and check it for square by measuring diagonally from both top corners to the opposite lower corners. If the distances match, then the cabinet is square. If not, you can twist the carcass slightly to make the diagonal measurements match.
    3. Now place the 1/4-inch plywood back onto the assembly, fitting it into the rabbets cut into the sides and bottom shelf. The back should be flush with the bottom of the cabinet, with space left at the top where the hanging cleat will be located. Use some finish nails to affix the back to the carcass.
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  • 07 of 10

    Rip and Mount the French Cleat

    To mount this unit to the wall, we'll be using a French cleat wedge bracket. This is little more than a  2 x 4  ripped down the middle at a 45-degree angle. One-half of the ripped piece will be mounted on the wall and the other half attached inside the cabinet. 

    1. First, cross cut a clean, straight 2 x 4 to 46 1/2 inches in length.
    2. Next, set up your table saw with a ripping blade and tilt the arbor to a 45-degree angle.
    3. Raise the blade until it is at least 1 1/2 above the table.
    4. Set the fence so that the bottom of the cut (the edge nearest the fence) will be 1 inch wide. Lay the 2 x 4 flat on the table and carefully rip it along the entire length. You should end up with two wedges 46 1/2 inches long. 
    5. Attach one of the wedges under the top shelf of the cabinet so the wider 2 1/2-inch side will face toward the wall with the wedge pointing downward. Secure it with two 3-inch screws driven through each side panel into the ends of the wedge, and 1 1/2-inch screws driven down through the top shelf and into the wedge. 
    6. Next, mount the other French cleat wedge against the wall in the location where you want to mount the cabinet. Use 3-inch screws to drive the wedge into wall studs with the narrower 1-inch side of the wedge against the wall and the wedge pointing up. Be sure to level the wedge so that the cabinet will hang level when mounted.

    As you can see, the advantage of using the French cleat wedge bracket system is that the bracket in the cabinet will sit on the wall-mounted bracket, and the angle of the wedge will force the cabinet's weight toward the wall.

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  • 08 of 10

    Conceal the French Cleat

    At this point, we want to cover the French cleat so it won't be seen after the cabinet is installed. We'll do this by boxing in the French cleat wedge inside the cabinet, using 1/4-inch plywood.  

    1. Cut a 1 x 2 to 46 1/2 inches in length.
    2. Using finish nails, attach this piece inside the carcass, flush to the top of the case's back, positioned perpendicular to the back. Drive the nails through the top of the back as well as through the cabinet sides and into the ends of the 1 x 2. This 1 x 2 will serve as a nailer for a piece of plywood that will cover the French cleat.
    3. Next, from inside the cabinet, measure from the top the cabinet, just in front of the wedge, down to the bottom of the nailer you just installed. The distance should about 6 inches, but it's best to verify before cutting the plywood.
    4. Once you have verified this distance, cut a piece of 1/4-inch plywood to 46 1/2 x 6 inches (or whatever the measured distanced).
    5. Attach this piece of 1/4-inch plywood to both the cleat wedge and the nailer strip, using finish nails. This should completely cover the wedge bracket and provide a much more aesthetically pleasing look to the back of the assembly.
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  • 09 of 10

    Trim the Front of the Cabinet

    The last woodworking step is to trim the front of the cabinet. Because these units will not have any doors, we'll be simply trimming it with 1 x 2s.

    1. To begin, use a tape measure ​to verify that the cabinet assembly is exactly 48 inches wide.
    2. Cut one 1 x 2 to this exact length.
    3. Using finish nails, attach the 1 x 2 to the bottom shelf and to the two cabinet sides, with the top of the 1 x 2 flush with the top of the bottom shelf, and the ends of the 1 x 2 flush with the outside edges of the cabinet sides.
    4. Next, measure from the top of the bottom shelf up to the top of the carcass. Cut two 1 x 2s to this length. Attach one trim piece to the front edge of each side panel, using finish nails. The edge of these vertical trim pieces should be flush with the outside edges of the cabinet sides. 
    5. Now that the two sides have been trimmed, measure and cut horizontal trim pieces for the top and center shelves. Mount them flush with the top of each shelf, using finish nails. 
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  • 10 of 10

    Finish and Mount the Cabinet

    Once the construction is finished, choose your finish. If you don't plan to paint or stain your cabinet, most of this step can be disregarded.

    1. Use a nail set to set the finish nails beneath the surface of the wood.
    2. Fill the nail holes with a wood putty or nail filler.
    3. Sand all surfaces smooth, making several passes with a sander, using increasingly finer grits of sandpaper.
    4. When the sanding is finished, remove any sawdust with a tack cloth.
    5. Paint or stain the cabinet, as desired.
    6. Once you've achieved your desired finish, mount the cabinet by lifting it into place so that the inside half of the French cleat slides down over the wall-side half of the cleat. Make sure that the back of the cabinet is flush to the wall. 
    7. Check to make sure the cabinet is mounted level on the wall. If so, you're free to now use your cabinet—this project is completed.