Cabinet making is a trade that takes years to master, but that doesn’t mean you can’t build a cabinet unless you’ve had years of experience… with good instruction, the right tools and processes, and patience you CAN build your own cabinets.
There are lots of ways to build cabinets, and a variety of tools and materials you can use to get the job done. This is the process we use and it has served us well.
Get Organized ~ Tools & Materials
The right tools for the job are important, but they don’t need to be the best tools and to build basic cabinets you don’t need a whole shop full of them. Here’s a list of the tools you should have to build your own basic cabinets.
- Table saw (with dado blade)
- Miter saw
- Router table or Wood Shaper (with router and 1/4” tongue & groove bit set)
- Pocket screw jig
- Battery powered drill and driver
- 5” orbital sander
- Framers square, speed square & combo square
- 35 mm flat bottom drill bit
- Cabinet door hinge jig (optional, but recommended; jig usually comes with its own drill bit)
- Clamps of all sizes! 24” and 48” F clamps work fine. Pipe clamps are great. Parallel clamps are fantastic.
- 3/4” Plywood or MDF (4’x8’ sheet-good)
- 1/4” Plywood or MDF (4’x8’ sheet-good)
- 1”x2” S4S hardwood lumber (actual size 3/4” x 1 3/4” )
- 1@ x 4” S4S hardwood lumber (actual size 3/4” x 3 1/2”)
- Drawer slides (we use bottom mount slides with clips; see article)
- Door hinges (we use 35 mm concealed cabinet door hinges; see article)
- Pocket screws (1 1/4”)
- Wood glue
- Sandpaper for orbital sander (120 grit and 220 grit)
- Note pad and sharp pencils
Make a Plan ~ Design & Cut-List
A good build starts with a good design and a good plan. There needs to be an order of operations and design comes first. You have know what your building and what it’s going to look like when your done to be successful in cabinet making.
Draw it. Draw it. Draw it. Hopefully that gets the point across. It’s very important to draw what you are going to build, before you begin building anything. With a basic drawing you can more easily and accurately figure out what and how much material you are going to need. The design can be as simple as one sketch drawing in a note book.
Make sure to take accurate measurements of any existing space that you might be building cabinets for. If there are other cabinets or walls that the new cabinets will be meeting with, it is very important to know exactly what all the dimensions of the existing elements are. If the new cabinets don’t fit the space they were built for, your going to be more then bummed out.
A cut list is a list of each individual part that needs to be cut and milled. A good thorough cut list will show the dimensions of the part, the material it’s cut from, and any milling such as dados and pocket screws. See an example below.
3/4” Maple or Birch plywood
Qty (2) @ [42”T x 24”W] Side Panels
Dados- 3/8” deep/ each panel
1/4” vertical (3/4” of space from back of panel)
3/4” horizontal (4” of space from bottom of panel)
3/4” horizontal (1” of space from top of panel)
Qty (2) @ [23”D x 22 3/4”W] Shelves
Qty (2) @ [4” x 22”] Runners
1/4” Maple or Birch Plywood
Qty (1) @ [42”T x 22 3/4”W
The cut list example above shows the quantity and size of the individual pieces needed to build the carcass or box for a 42”T x 24”W x 24”D base cabinet. A cut list should be made for each phase of the build; the carcasses first, then the face frames, the drawer boxes and finally the doors and drawer fronts.
Building ~ Carcasses, Drawers & Doors
Building the Face Frames is the next step in the cabinet building process. Face frames are built from hardwood lumber. Painted cabinets will usually have solid maple face frames as it’s a very hard wood and paints well. Other woods such as poplar are also sometimes used for painted casework and millwork. If it’s stain grade, alder and cherry are great candidates.
Face Frames can be made using different methods; we typically use pocket screws to join all of our stiles and rails, and then glue and nail the pre-assembled face frame to the cabinet. This is an effective method that produces good, strong cabinets. Any nail holes are filled during prep & finish phase.
With face frames on it’s time to make the Drawers.
Similar to drawer fronts, Doors can also be made in a variety of styles. We typically build shaker style, aka frame and panel doors. Shaker doors are relatively simple to construct and look good either painted or stained. The frame is made up of hardwood stock (usually maple, oak or similar hardwoods) that is cut and shaped into the rails and stiles. The panel is usually 1/4” plywood, though we sometimes make glass doors this way as well.