In this article I am going to show you how I built this tool cabinet and how you can customize it to your needs with a minimal investment of time and materials. This article will guide you through all of the steps required to make this cabinet from start to finish, as well as how to buy this project as a “Ready-To-Assemble Kit” (RTA kit), or as a completed unit ready to use.
About the Project
Having seen many different designs for tool cabinets over the years, but nothing that I really liked, I finally decided to design one specifically with the woodworker in mind. One thing that most tool chests lack is a large drawer that will hold bulky tools like routers and skill saws. This design is simple, practical, cost effective and versatile. Basically, if you don’t want to spend big bucks on a metal tool box, and you would rather do it yourself and have a wood tool box, then this is for you. It’s a great thing to have for work in a shop where you have your own tools and keep them locked up (not to mention all of your co-workers will be very impressed). If you do interior carpentry, this thing will make jobsite work a piece of cake, and you won’t have to worry about scratching your client’s floor. This tool box looks beautiful and works like a dream; it rolls smoothly and quietly and when you add rubber drawer liners the tools won’t move around. Polyurethane locking casters and a solid maple butcher block top keep it sturdy and mobile. It’s such a nice piece of furniture, you might want to use in your own kitchen for utensils, napkins and serving trays, then roll it to the dining room to serve guests. The possibilities are endless.
The basic model that is shown here is just the starting point. There are many additional features that can be added later.
Some of the things to add would be:
- adding tool holders to the sides and back for more storage
- making inserts with dividers to keep the drawers organized
- adding storage doors to the front to hold even more tools
- adding an extension to the top that can be used as a router table
- making a built-in vise to hold your work pieces
- using different wood species to make fancier units
However, for now we’ll just stick to the basic cabinet as shown.
How do I Get One?
This project can be done in a number of ways, so before you get started you should decide what’s best for you. All of the materials, hardware and drawers can be ordered directly on www.drawer.com from Western Dovetail as well as many other sources that are referenced in this article. The tools required are basic cabinet making and carpentry tools. The skill level is advanced and requires a high degree of accuracy to ensure that the drawers function properly. If you don’t have the equipment or skills to cut the parts accurately and square within 1/32”, then you should probably get the kit.
Here are some options:
1. Follow the plan, and make it from scratch (high skill level and a couple of weekends required)
2. Order all of the materials cut to size and do the rest yourself (requires dovetailing skills and one weekend)
3. Make the cabinet yourself, order the dovetailed drawers and hardware, and then assemble it (about two half-days of work)
4. Order all of the parts cut to size and dovetailed; ready to assemble with hardware (unfinished or pre-finished, can be assembled in less than a day)
5. Buy the ready-to-use tool cabinet completely assembled and finished.
First, you need to decide if this cabinet is the right size for you. The height is important if you want to use it as a workbench. A comfortable workbench height is usually a little more than half of your height, but it also depends on how long your arms are. Someone who is 5′-7” might want their workbench height at about 34”, whereas, someone over 6′ tall would prefer a 37” height.
This plan calls for a 30” tall cabinet, but with the heavy-duty 4” casters, the cleat on the bottom and the 1-1/2” top, the total height is 37-1/2”.
To reduce the height of the cabinet, use a 3/4” top and 3” casters and it will come out to about 35-1/2”. If that is still too tall, you can reduce the height of the cabinet by 1” and make one of the deeper drawers 1” shallower.
Once you have the height figured out, consider the width of the cabinet. If 30” works well, then go with it. Otherwise you can make it wider or narrower, preferably in 3” increments. A Leigh dovetailing jig fits perfectly on my 30” bench, but a Porter Cable version would require a 36” wide top.
Next, decide is how you are going to make the cabinet. You can make it yourself out of any 3/4” material with the joinery of your choice, order it as a kit, or buy it assembled.
- If you want to dovetail the cabinet yourself, you will need a 24” dovetail jig.
- If you want to butt-joint the cabinet and use biscuits, dowels or screws to assemble it, which should work as well.
I have provided cut lists for both dovetail and butt-joint construction based on a 30” wide cabinet using standard 5′ x 5′ material. When making the cabinet, it is important to maintain accurate dimensions for the inside of the cabinet and the outside of the drawers so that the drawer slides function smoothly. The drawers are designed so you only need one ‘set up’ to dovetail all of the drawers. The drawers are 3”, 4”, 5” and 11” tall and have one dovetail per inch so they will all use the same setup. Both the Porter Cable and the Leigh Jigs can do dovetails with the same 1” spacing, so I have designed the cabinet to work with either system as well as our production machines for the kits. The 1” height increment also makes it easy to add or subtract in multiples of 1” from the height of the cabinet. (Read “About Dovetailing” to learn more about the history of dovetailing and why the spacing is 1” on center.)
For more detailed information on dovetail joinery, CLICK HERE.
A Word of Caution: Please do not attempt to do anything that you are not comfortable with. Many of the procedures required when making cabinets and drawers require a steady hand and proper equipment; woodworking is serious business. This author assumes no responsibility for the skill level of the person attempting to follow these instructions. It would be impossible to warn you of every danger involved in operating the tools required to do a project of this nature. Always follow the manufacturers’ instructions for the specific tools you are using. Do not attempt to operate any equipment in an unsafe manner.
Safety glasses, Ear protection, Dust mask
Tools to make the cabinet from scratch
- Table Saw with cross-cut fence (if you don’t have a table saw with a crosscut fence I suggest you order the parts cut to size)
- Chop saw, sliding miter saw, or radial arm saw.
- Dado Blade (I use a 7” Freud Dado Set)
- Router (any good quality router will work; for this project I use a Porter Cable)
- Dovetail Jig (Leigh, Keller or Porter Cable Omni Jig with 1” on-center dovetails recommended)
- A set of router bits for dovetailing and straight cuts
- Drill bits (5/16”, 5/8” and 1”) for installing the wheels and the locking mechanism
- Countersink bits for the cleats and handles.
- Screw gun tips for screws.
- 20” planer (for making the solid wood top and other accessories)
Tools you will need to assemble this project
- Screw gun
- Framing Square
- Tape measure
- Sander and sandpaper
- Dead Blow Hammer (hard plastic type)
- Several 3′ Bar Clamps
- A workbench
I chose the Baltic Birch plywood because it is a good, strong material and is far less expensive than solid wood (The Baltic Birch from Western Dovetail is also FSC certified, so it is guaranteed to be from responsible sources). I would highly recommend doing some test parts before you decide to buy the materials and try to make this from scratch. Solid wood is a little easier to machine and more forgiving when sanding and finishing, however, it will cost quite a bit more. The prices listed below are what you should expect to pay retail from a local hardwood supplier or an online store for the materials.
If you want to try to make this out of less expensive plywood materials, I would not suggest trying to dovetail the parts together. On the other hand, if you want this to be an exquisite piece of fine woodworking, you can make all of the parts out of solid hardwood by gluing up the panels—however, this would require a large planer and some more extensive woodworking knowledge than we are going to cover here.
Once you have gathered all of your materials, you are ready to start the project. Study the cutting plan, review your materials and finalize your decisions before you start cutting.
The drawers are going to be 27-1/2” wide by 18-1/4” deep, and they will be 3”, 4”, 5”, and 11” tall with the shallowest one on top and the deepest one on the bottom. The custom handle will protrude about 3/4” in front of the drawers and should fit within the sides of the cabinet. The drawer slides require a clearance of 1” to 1-1/16” total between the outside of the drawer and the inside of the cabinet. Since the cabinet material is slightly less than 3/4” thick, it should wind up fitting just perfectly.
You may want to start by making the maple top first so the glue will be dry by the time the rest of the parts are cut. Rip enough material to make the 20-1/4” x 30” top. You may want to make the top a couple inches longer to leave about 1” overhang on the ends for clamping your work to the bench. I suggest making the strips 2”-3” wide by 36” long for a stable lamination when making a 3/4” thick top. Be sure to alternate the grain for the best stability. To make a full 1-1/2” thick butcher-block top, you can rip the pieces to about 1-5/8” wide by about 36” long and glue them up on edge to make a heavy-duty top—just keep in mind it will use a lot more wood and glue.
Which ever way you choose, glue them together, and let them dry over night. Place clamps on both sides of the panel to keep it flat.
To make the top flat and smooth, you will need a planer that is over 20” wide and preferably have access to a wide belt sander. Once the top is done, you can finish it with a wipe-on varnish like “Good Stuff,” available online from Bally Block Co. If you don’t have this equipment, you can just buy a piece of maple butcher block.
Once you add the maple top and wheels, it will be between 35-1/2” and 37-1/4” tall, depending on the wheels and top you choose.
Make the Cabinet Parts
(Refer to cut list and diagram)
The cabinet is going to be made of 3/4” thick Baltic Birch and is 20-1/4” deep (front to back) by approximately 30” wide and 30” tall. More importantly, the cabinet must have inside dimensions of 28-1/2” wide by 28-1/2” tall by 19-1/2” deep for everything to work according to the plan.
If you are going to dovetail it, I will take you through the process of dovetailing the cabinet using the 24” Leigh jig, since it can be set up for making half blind dovetails on 1” centers. I have two sets of templates for the Leigh so I can combine them to make a 20” part with dovetails on 1” centers. If you don’t have enough fingers on your jig, you can spread them out and just have fewer, larger dovetails.
Regardless of what jig you are using, follow the instructions that came with your dovetail jig to determine the correct guide bushing; dovetail bit, and depth settings to achieve half blind dovetails that are 3/8” deep. If have to change the depth of the dovetails to achieve a tight fit, you may need to adjust your cabinet or drawer cutting list accordingly.
Run a test part using the same thickness material to make sure you can achieve the desired dovetail dimensions before cutting the cabinet parts. Once you have made a successful test joint that will produce the desired results, you can cut the cabinet parts to the final sizes to maintain the inside cabinet dimensions.
Note: Decreasing the bit depth makes the joint looser; increasing the bit depth makes the joint tighter.
Materials & Cut Plans
For a complete list of materials and cut lists, CLICK HERE!
Follow the cut plan in the diagrams to get the best yield in the least amount of time. Save scraps to be used for clamping and test parts later.
Rabbet the fronts
Once all of the parts are cut, it’s time to machine the parts. Before you can dovetail the drawers, you need to rabbet the drawer fronts. This detail is designed to conceal the slides so they won’t be seen from the front and eliminate the need for a separate front piece.
Cut a 3/8” wide by 7/16” deep rabbet on inside of the ends of the 3/4” fronts. This can be done with a table saw making two cut, or a dado blade and a cross cut fence on your table saw or on a router table with a straight cutter. Regardless of how you do it, it needs to be accurate! The rabbeted portion of the drawer front must be the same length as the drawer back.
Dovetail the Drawers
Once you have rabbeted the fronts, you can start dovetailing the drawer parts.
I chose to run the dovetails for the drawer parts on the Porter Cable Omni Jig since it is capable of single pass dovetailing on 1” centers, and I can use the same settings for all of the drawers. Follow the instructions for your dovetail jig to select the proper dovetail bit and guide bushing to make 3/8” deep half blind dovetails. If you do not have 1” spacing on your jig, you will have to improvise by either changing your drawer heights, or if you have a variable spacing dovetail jig, you can space them however you wish to achieve even half pins on the top and bottom of the drawers. Single pass dovetailing 1” on center requires that the side stops are offset by 1/2”. Before putting your actual parts in the jig, run some test parts to get your technique and alignment figured out.
Once you have made a successful test joint, you are ready to begin. Mark the bottom edge of all of the parts and identify each part as sides, fronts and backs, and choose the best face for the inside of the sides and back.
For more detailed information on dovetail joinery, CLICK HERE.
I would like to thank CB TOOL Group and Porter Cable for providing the Porter Cable OmniJig for this project. —M.H.
Do the Dadoes
Now that all the parts are dovetailed, you will want to make sure they all line up on the bottom edge so you can run the dadoes for the bottoms. Lightly tap the parts together to check the alignment. If they are a little bit off, you can sand the edges of the pieces to make them line up or trim off the part that is proud with your table saw. Once the parts are all flush on the top and bottom, you will have to label them all again so you can put the back together exactly the same way.
Now you are ready to run the dadoes for the drawer bottoms.
Set up the dado blade to make the grooves for the drawer bottoms and the cabinet back. I use pressure wheels to hold down the parts, however, a feather board will also work, just be careful, dado blades can be very dangerous.
1. Measure the precise thickness of the plywood for the bottoms of the drawers.
2. Set up the dado blade to make a groove that is just slightly wider than the thickness of the material.
3. Test the fit and make it so that it slides in but is not too loose.
4. Set the fence at 3/8” to the bottom of the groove.
5. Run all of the drawer parts across the dado with the inside facing down and the bottom edge to the fence.
Follow the same process to run the dado for the cabinet back.
Now that you have all of the dadoes done, it’s time to machine the cabinet side for the lock mechanism. On the inside of the right side of the cabinet, you need to make a groove 3/4” wide by 5/32” deep to receive the lock bar. Set up a dado blade 3/4” wide and run the groove all the way down the inside of the side 2-3/4” back from the front edge of the cabinet.
At this point all of the parts should be machined and ready to assemble except for the small cleat that we will attach later.
Assemble the Cabinet and Drawers
To assemble the cabinet you will need a hammer and a block of wood to protect the cabinet from damage while you pound in the dovetails. Put a small amount of glue in the joints and in the groove for the back, and start putting it together. Since it is a large set of dovetails, you will want to tap gently across the joints and gradually work it together until it is all flush.
You may also want to clamp the sides to hold them straight until the glue dries in the back (don’t squeeze the sides together so they bow inward or the drawers wont fit!). If the dovetails are tight, you shouldn’t need to clamp the joints together.
Once the cabinet is assembled, and you are confident it is accurate and square, go ahead and assemble all of the drawers. The lip front drawers need to be assembled carefully. Use a block of wood to support the side while tapping on the opposite side with another block of wood behind the lip fronts.
Install the Locks and Drawer Slides
Now you can start installing the lock mechanism and drawer slides. The lock mechanism is a SYS-100 gang lock from CompX Timberline and is available from Western Dovetail. The Drawer slides I am using are the new Accuride Easy Close side-mounted slides, also available from Western Dovetail.
- Lay the cabinet on the bench and get out your framing square and a pencil.
- Measure out the centerlines of the drawer slides as shown in the diagram:
- Draw a line for the center of each slide.
- Now that you know where the slides are going to be mounted, place the drawer lock strip into the groove and screw the retainers in to hold it in place.
- Position the retainers so they do not interfere with the slides.
- Disassemble each slide and lay the cabinet member on the inside of the cabinet side 1-1/2” back from the front edge of, the cabinet side.
- Attach the slides to the inside of the cabinet sides by screwing them in according to the plan. Put the screws in the oblong holes to allow for adjustment later.
- Attach the other part of the slides to the drawers. If you follow the plan for the cabinet portion of the slides, then the centerline for the drawer portion of the slide will be 1-1/2” up from the, bottom edge. Again, use the oblong holes, so you can adjust the heights later. Use a spacer about 3/16” thick to set the distance behind the lip of the drawer to the slide so they all close at the same position.
Once the slides are all installed, the drawers should simply slide right in to the cabinet. The slides need to be reassembled carefully and usually need to be opened and closed gently a couple times before they will run smoothly. If things don’t line up perfectly, you can adjust the drawers by moving the slides up or down on the drawers and in and out of the cabinet. Once all of the drawers are adjusted to your satisfaction, you will want to add more screws to both the cabinet member and the drawer member to make sure they don’t come loose in the future.
The Cleat and the Key
The Cleat will fill the gap at the top of the cabinet and needs to hold the tumbler for the lock. Take the small cleat and drill the 5/8” (or 21/32” if you have one) hole for the lock, about an inch from the end, and pre-drill some countersunk holes through it to attach it to the cabinet. Once the drawers are in place, the cleat will need to be sized so there is 1/8” gap between the top of the top drawer and the bottom of the cleat. Screw the lock onto the cleat before installing it in the cabinet.
You will need to remove the drawers to install the cleat. Once you have the cleat installed, you need to add the lock-stops to the drawers, position the pins on the lock strip, and add the key plug to the lock mechanism. The lock-stops should mount about 1-1/2” from the back of the lip on the drawer, flush with the bottom edge of the drawer.
Once the lock is installed, the key should lock all of the drawers with one counterclockwise twist. If it doesn’t turn easily, you need to check your lock-stops.
The Aluminum Drawer Pulls
If you are using the custom aluminum drawer pull, there should be a 1/4” gap between each of the drawers. Since the angle is 1/8” thick, it will leave 1/8” gap between the drawers once it is installed. I chose to use 1 x 2 aluminum angle, but I had to cut it to 1-1/2” to fit with the design.
The pulls need to be drilled and countersunk so the screws will sit flush on the top of the pulls. Then the drawer fronts need to be predrilled to accept the screws. Once the aluminum is cut and drilled, it can be, installed on the drawers with some #6 x 1” screws. (Note: if the top edge of the drawer is not flat and square, the pulls won’t be either. If you need to clean up the top edge of the drawers, or if the drawer spacing is too tight, then you can carefully run the top edge of the front of the drawer over the table saw to give it a clean, flat surface for the handle.)
Before attaching the top and wheels, you may want to reinforce the cabinet construction. You can add some 3/4” x 3/4” cleats to the inside top corners, and add some 2” screws through the top and bottom into the sides. This will help prevent the joints from loosening over time.
All you have to do now is attach the wheels and the top.
The wheels above are 3” locking casters from Harbor Freight rated for 125 lbs. each shown with T-nuts.
To attach the wheels, I recommend using some cleats about 4” wide to attach to the bottom of the cabinet. This will give the bottom more support and prevent damage to the cabinet if the wheels crash into anything and act as skid plates for going over curbs and stairs. Use the casters to lay out the holes, slightly counter-bore the backside of the cleat with a 1” Forstner or spade bit (about 1/16” deep) then drill the 5/16” holes all the way through the cleats. Put the T-nuts in on one side of the cleat and bolt the casters to the cleat. Then, you can either screw the cleat to the bottom of the cabinet or attach it with T-nuts as well.
To attach the top, leave the drawers out and drill at least six 5/16” holes through the top of the cabinet, then use the 1-1/4” truss head screws (or use washers ) to screw it on from below.
Now you can fine-tune all of your drawers and start adding drawer liners and put your tools away! Congratulations, you’ve got a super-nice industrial strength tool cabinet that will last a lifetime.
Some sources for tools and materials:
- Western Dovetail (drawers, materials, hardware, RTA kits)
- CB Tool Group (Dovetail Jigs, Tools, Tooling)
- Leigh (Leigh Dovetail Jigs)
- Rockler (Nice locking casters, wide range of tools and hardware)
- Woodcraft (dovetail jigs, tools and hardware)
- Lee Valley (quality tools and hardware)
- Harbor Freight (low cost casters and tools)
- Your local hardwood distributor (wood materials)