Cabinets 101: How to Build Cabinets

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

    How to Build Cabinets

    Kitchen cabinet
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    Whether you need new kitchen cabinets or more storage for your workshop, the basics of cabinetry design remain the same. Most units consist of 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" plywood with dadoes or rabbets to hold some of the shelves and backings.

    This project will walk you through building a single utility cabinet, but comments will be added when minor modifications for kitchen cabinetry are appropriate. This model will be 48-inches wide, 24-inches tall (with a center and bottom shelf) and 18-inches deep. You may modify the dimensions to fit your particular installation as necessary.

    Difficulty Level

    • Woodworking: Moderate
    • Finishing: Paint or stain optional

    Time to Complete

    • 3-4 Hours per cabinet

    Recommended Tools

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  • 02 of 10

    Cut the Shelves to Size

    To complete these free cabinet plans, you'll need two shelves that are 18-inches by 47-inches, and another at 17-3/4" x 47". Use your table saw or a circular saw to rip the cabinetry shelves to the correct widths and lengths.

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  • 03 of 10

    Cutting the Shelf Dadoes

    Once you've determined the height and depth of the cabinet, cut two identical pieces from one of the sheets of 3/4" plywood (in this case, you'll want each piece to be 18-inches x 24-inches).

    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, whereas in the case of more utilitarian models, particularly when they will be installed one against another, you may want the sanded side in.

    Set up a stacked dado set in your table saw to the width of the plywood (23/32"), and set the cutting depth to 1/4". You'll be cutting two 18-inch dadoes and one rabbit on each side (perpendicular to the 24-inch edge). You may use a router with a straight bit in lieu of a table saw.

    Set the fence on your table saw to 1/1-2" 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" from the left of the dado blade.) Start the saw and carefully cut the dado on the desired side of the stock with the 18-inch edge against the fence. Repeat with the other shelf standard.

    Next, set the fence to 12-inches (in the same manner as before), and make another dado on the same side of each shelf standard, with the same edge against the fence.

    Finally, set the fence to 24-inches (again, from the opposite side of the dado set), and make one more cut in each standard for the top shelf.

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  • 04 of 10

    Cutting the Rabbets for the Back

    At this point, we need to determine how you will be hanging the cabinet. In kitchen installations, you'll likely use a piece of 3/4" plywood as the backer of the carcass, and screws will be driven through this back to secure it to the wall.

    However, in our project, we'll be using a French Cleat wedge bracket that we'll fashion out of a 2x4 in a future step. As such, we don't need the additional weight of the 3/4" plywood on the back, so we'll use 1/4" plywood. In this step, we'll be cutting a rabbet to accommodate this back.

    Set the stacked dado cutter to 3/8" depth and 1/4" width. Then, set the fence on the table saw to 18-inches from the opposite side of the dado set (as in the previous step). 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 into).

    Next, you'll need to cut a similar rabbit into one of the two 18" shelves. This will be cut into the back, top-side of the bottom shelf (1/4" wide and 3/8" deep).

    If you are modifying these plans and will be using 3/4" 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 the method we'll be using for hanging our unit, this rabbit will not be necessary.

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  • 05 of 10

    Assemble the Cabinet

    It's time for some assembly. On a large table, lay down the right shelf standard and dry-fit each of the three shelves into position, flush on the front side of the cabinet. Then dry-fit the left shelf standard on top of the three shelves (in position) to make sure that all joints have a snug fit.

    When you're assured of a proper fit for all parts, it's time to assemble the unit. Place a thin bead of glue in each dado/rabbet and insert the appropriate shelf accordingly. Then, fasten the shelf to the standard with some mechanical fasteners.

    There are three schools of thought as to how to use mechanical fasteners when attaching shelves. The least conspicuous way would be to toenail some brands diagonally through the shelves and into the shelf standards, but this is much easier if you have a pneumatic brad nailer.

    The other two options will depend on how the exterior of the cabinet will be finished. If the exterior will be visible, you'll want to drive some finish nails through the shelf standard and into the shelf to secure it until the glue dries. Later, the nails can be set and the holes filled for finishing.

    However, if the exterior of the cabinet will not be visible, you can drive some deck screws through the standard and straight into the edge of each shelf. This will "draw" the shelf into the standard and guarantee a tighter fit while the glue dries.

    Complete the assembly of the three shelves into the two standards.

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  • 06 of 10

    Install the Back

    Now that the unit is taking shape, we need to strengthen it and check it for square. We'll use the cabinet's back side to do this.

    Cut a piece of 1/4" plywood to 47-1/4" x 18". (Once again, if you're modifying the plans for a different sized case or using 3/4" plywood for the back, you'll need to adjust accordingly.)

    Lay the assembly flat onto its front-side on the table and check it for square. To check for square, measure diagonally from the top-right corner of the cabinet to the lower-left corner and note the distance. Then, measure diagonally between the other two corners and check to see if the distance matches the first measurement. If it matches, the cabinet is square. If not, adjust the carcass appropriately to make the two measurements match.

    Now, place the 1/4" plywood onto the back of the assembly. It should fit nicely into the rabbets on the two standards and the rabbet on the bottom shelf. 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 2x4 which is 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 inside the cabinet. and the other half inside the cabinet.

    First, cross-cut a clean, straight 2x4 to 46-1/2" in length.

    Next, set up your table saw with a ripping blade and tilt the arbor to a 45-degree angle. Raise the blade until it is at least 1-1/2" above the table. Set the fence so that the bottom (against the table) of the cut will be one-inch wide. Lay the 2x4 flat on the table and carefully rip it the entire length. You should end up with two identical wedges at 46-1/2" in length.

    One of the two wedges will be attached under the top shelf of the cabinet with the 2-1/2" side to go against the wall (when mounted) and the wedge pointing downward. Use two 3" screws to attach the wedge to each standard, and a few 1-1/2" screws down from the top shelf into the wedge.

    Next, mount the other French Cleat wedge against the wall. Use 3" screws to drive it into wall studs with the 1-inch side of the bracket against the wall and the wedge pointing up. Be sure to level the wedge so that the cabinet will be level when mounted.

    As you can now 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

    Cover the French Cleat

    At this point, we'll want to cover the French Cleat, as you won't want it to be seen after installation.

    Cut a 1x2 to 46-1/2" in length. Using the finish head nails, attach this piece to the top of the case's back. Place the 1x2 perpendicular to the back, and drive the nails through the top of the back as well as the shelf standards into the 1x2. (This 1x2 will serve as a nailer for the piece of plywood to cover the French Cleat.)

    Next, reach inside the assembly and measure from the top of the inside of the box (just in front of the wedge) down to the bottom of the nailer you just installed. The distance should be six inches, but it's best to verify before cutting the plywood.

    Once you have verified this distance, cut a piece of 1/4" plywood to 46-1/2" by this approximate 6" width. Then, nail the piece into both the wedge and the nailer. 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 1x2s.

    To begin, verify that the cupboard assembly is exactly 48" wide. Then, cut one 1x2 to that exact length. Using finish nails, attach it to the bottom shelf and the two shelf standards, with the top of the bottom shelf flush with the top of the 1x2 and the edges of the 1x2 flush with the outsides of the two standards.

    Next, measure from the top of the bottom shelf up to the top of the carcass. Cut two 1x2s to this length. One is to be mounted with finish nails to each shelf standard, flush with the outside of the standard.

    Now that the two sides have been trimmed, measure and cut a trim piece for the top and center shelves, and mount them each flush with the top of the corresponding shelves.

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  • 10 of 10

    Finishing and Mounting the Assembly

    Once the woodworking is finished, you'll need to choose your finish. If you're not going to paint or stain the finished product, most of this step can be disregarded.

    You'll want to use a nail set to set the finish nails beneath the surface. Then, fill the holes with a wood putty or nail filler.

    Next, sand all surfaces smooth using a sander with an increasing variety of grits. When the sanding is finished, remove any sawdust with a tack cloth and paint or stain as desired.

    Once you've achieved your desired finish, it's time to mount the cabinet. To do so, simply lift the finished unit into place and set the French Cleat (inside the back of the assembly) onto the wall-mounted wedge. Check to see that the unit's back is flush with the wall and securely in place before letting go.

    Finally, check the box to make sure it is mounted level. If so, you're free to fill the finished cupboard as desired, as this project is completed.