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Cabinet Building Basics for DIY’ers

Cabinet, Construction How-To October 26, 2006 Sonia


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Regardless of whether you are building a stereo cabinet or dresser, a kitchen cabinet or bathroom vanity, basic cabinet construction is the same. A cabinet or furniture piece consists of the carcass or case with two sides, bottom and top, a back and a front. The front may contain drawers, doors or shelves or combinations of the three. Cabinet building has several variations which may be used in construction.

The carcass construction can be separated into three types: leg-and-rail, frame-and-panel, and box or case. Leg-and-rail construction is found on chairs, tables, benches, stools and on some furniture such as chests.

Frame-and-panel construction is used to make up the component parts of many types of furniture including the sides, doors and interior web frames with dust panels that are used on many fine, hand-built pieces of furniture.

Box or case construction is the basic design of dressers, buffets, desks and chests, as well as kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities.

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The simplest case construction is a box made of plywood. These can be softwood or hardwood plywood, and they can be painted or stained and varnished. Particle board, finished on one or two sides, is a common material for construction of some cabinetry. A case can also be constructed of solid wood, but these days solid wood is used only on small pieces or for extremely fine furniture.

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The simplest cabinetry is a box construction such as a kitchen cabinet. Shown is the typical construction dimensions of an applied-facer kitchen cabinet base.

Kitchen Cabinet Case Construction

Both upper and lower cabinets have the same basic construction details. On the lower cabinet, the first step is to cut the two sides. Incidentally, you can construct a custom kitchen cabinet to fit any space, rather than the small individual sections joined as with purchased cabinetry. Or you can make up smaller units and join them in the same fashion. If a side is to be concealed against a wall, that side can be made of more economical plywood. The exposed side should be cut from a good hardwood- or smooth softwood-surfaced plywood.

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This is the typical construction of an upper kitchen cabinet with applied facer.

The following is the simplest method of constructing, using glue and finish nails that are then set below the surface and the holes filled with wood putty. Cut a 1/4-by-1/4-inch rabbet in the inside back edge of each side piece for the cabinet back. The bottom shelf is raised above the floor on most cabinets to create a “toe-space” or kick board. Locate the position of the bottom on the side pieces and mark the kick board cut-out on each cabinet side. Cut using a saber saw.

In most instances the bottom front facer is 1-inch in width, allowing for a 1/4-inch lip to protrude down into the toe space. Mark this location and then use a carpenter’s square to mark a line for the bottom. Cut the bottom 1/4-inch narrower than the sides, and then fasten the bottom in place with glue and finish nails, making sure it is aligned with the squared marks. Install a nailing-strip at the top back. Cut this to fit between the two sides and fasten in place with glue and finish nails. Cut the back to the correct size from 1/4-inch plywood or hardboard and, with the case lying face down, lay the back in place. Use a carpenter’s square to make sure the case is square, and then fasten the back in place with 1/2-inch staples and an air nailer, or with 3/4-inch coated nails.

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First step is to assemble the basic box, in this case of plywood, with glue and screws or nails.

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Cut the side facers first. Apply glue to the case edge.

Turn the case upright and you’re ready to install the facings. Cut and install any dividers of shelves. The simplest method, especially for overlap doors, is to install veneer tape over the plywood edges. These edges must first, however, be sanded smooth. A more traditional method is to install individual facer strips over the front edges of the case. These normally fit flush with the outside edges of the case, but overlap the inside edges.

Cut the two side casings first, fitting them flush with the upper end of the sides and the lower edge of the toe space. Fasten these in place with glue and No. 6 finish nails. Then cut the lower facer to fit between the two side facers, ensuring the correct width to match the top edge of the bottom shelf and the bottom edges of the toe spaces on the sides. To cut to length, cut one end smooth and square, then hold it in place and use a sharp pencil to mark the length. Cut the pieces square using a fine-toothed blade in a radial arm saw. Glue in place and fasten with No. 6 finish nails into the case-bottom edge. Use No. 8 finish nails through the side facings into the sides to further secure in place. Cut the top facing in the same manner, ripping to width, and then cutting to length. All facers should have their edges jointed smooth.

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Align the facer flush with the case edge and fasten in place with finish nails.

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Set the nail heads slightly below the wood surface.

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Then measure the upper facer to fit precisely between the two side facers. 

In this case the top facing is fastened between the two side facings with glue and No. 8 finish nails through the edges of the side facings into the ends of the top facing. If the cabinet has drawers, cut facers and install in the same manner. Cut door and drawer dividers to fit between the drawer bottom facer or facers and the upper or lower facer as needed. These can be anchored in place with toenail-driven, self-starting wood screws in countersunk holes, with glue and finish nails, or with glue blocks from the backside. Wood strips 3/4-by-1 1/2-inches are fastened inside the front and back, and to the sides at the top for anchoring a countertop in place.

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Use a fine-toothed saw and make a square cut so there is no opening in the joint.

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Nail the top facer in place, and then install the bottom facer in the same manner.

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Install the divider facers in the same manner.

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Anchor the ends of the facers with No. 8 finish nails through their mating facers.

At this point the cabinet bottom is ready to be installed. If plumbing is to be installed for a sink, and electrical connections for a disposal are needed, measure and cut the openings at this time. Then place the cabinet in position. The cabinet must be level in all directions. Use a four-foot level to determine level and wood shingles as shims to ensure a level unit. Locate the studs in the wall and fasten the cabinet in place with screws through the rear top nailing strip. The cabinet back can also be fastened to the wall with screws into the studs. Build the countertop and install.

Upper cabinets are constructed in the same basic manner, using box or case construction for the sides, bottom and a 3/4-inch plywood top. In this case the sides, top and bottom all have 1/4-by-1/4-inch rabbets ripped in their inside edges for the plywood or hardboard back. The facings are cut and installed in the same manner. Upper cabinets are anchored to the wall with a nailer strip at the top and through the back into the studs, as well as with screws through the back into the studs. Homemade cabinet jacks of 2-by-4′s with shingle wedges can be used to temporarily hold the upper case up in position and help level and plumb it until you can get it fastened solidly in place.

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Set the nails slightly below the surface.

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Then fill all nail holes flush with wood putty.

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