CLASSIC KITCHEN CABINETS: Learn How To Build Your Own

PUBLISHED: 24MAR2018

WHAT YOU’LL GET IN THIS BLOG

  1. An understanding that even homeowners with only moderate woodworking skills can make great kitchen and bathroom cabinets for themselves with basic tools in a home workshop.
  2. An overview of how I teach people to build traditional, solid wood cabinets.
  3. Photos of cabinets built with this method.
  4. Video tutorials from my kitchen cabinet course

READING TIME: Less than 10 minutes

This is the background story of how I teach people to build beautiful kitchen and bathroom cabinets themselves with my online course, even when I’m working with folks who have only moderate woodworking skills. Of all the home workshop projects out there, building cabinets offers the biggest practical and financial advantages of any DIY activity I’ve seen over 30+ years. Here’s the back story . . .

kitchen_overall_fridgeIn November 1987, I unloaded my tools onto a workbench in a small commercial wood shop, alongside four other cabinetmakers busy at work. The team I joined was building custom-made, solid-wood kitchen cabinets at a place called Whippletree Kitchens just north of Toronto, Canada, and this is where I gained experience using real wood, hardwood veneered plywoods and the best hardware and joinery to make exceptional kitchens in a traditional style. I’d been looking for a place to work where I could build with great materials building great designs and Whippletree was certainly that place.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve noticed that while store-bought kitchen cabinets look good superficially, they’re usually built using the cheapest particleboard sheet goods and questionable hardware, all held together with questionable joinery. It’s a shame people don’t know what they’re buying. Even most $30,000 kitchens are surprisingly shabby underneath the fancy surface, made almost entirely with that loathsome particleboard I dislike so much. It’s heavy, weak and loaded with urea formaldehyde glue. But there’s a good news alternative. Click here for a video tour of the approach I use to build kitchen cabinets in the home workshop.

If you’ve got intermediate or even basic woodworking skills, you can do better building your own custom kitchen cabinets from high quality materials, while also saving at least 75% on the cost of ready-made cabinets. You might think this sounds crazy, but it’s true. You don’t need to be an expert cabinetmaker with a fancy shop to build great cabinets following the methods I’ve developed over the decades. All the photos here are of cabinets I’ve built using this approach and taught others to build.

Classic Kitchen Cabinets: How I Build Them

The method I use combines solid wood stiles, rails and raised panels to create a classic look in a very practical way. The trick involves building boxes made of hardwood veneered  plywood first, then using  these boxes as a foundation for securing solid wood stiles, rails and panels, followed by trim and doors. You get the accuracy of sheet goods with the unmistakeable beauty of authentic, solid wood frame and panel construction wherever it’s seen. It’s a super combination.

raised_panel_lowersYou’ll find 3/4”-thick birch-veneered plywood an excellent material for building foundation plywood boxes. Size your parts so the lower cabinets put the top of the countertop 36” from the floor, with an overall finished interior depth of 22” or 23” measured from front to back. Upper cabinets usually measure 12” deep inside,  and should be tall enough to extend from 18” to 20” above the countertop to within 12” of the ceiling.

drawer_open_kitchenGlue and 2” finishing nails are all you need to secure butt joints in the box corners, but there’s something you need to do before assembling box parts. Notches cut in the back edges of the sides for 3/4” x 4” pieces of pine offer a place to drive 4”-long deck screws into underlying wall studs, so you can anchor your cabinets to the wall later. You’ll also save a lot of trouble by finishing the inside surfaces of the box parts now, before assembly. Just be sure to mask joint areas so glue has bare wood to stick to.  

My preferred method of teaching involves enclosing the backs of with 1/4” veneered plywood to keep dust out, but there’s no need to cut grooves to make room for these backs. Just extend the solid wood stiles and rails you’ll add later out past the plywood sides, creating a groove for the back panels to sit. 

kitchen_overallWith boxes complete, it’s time to create frame and panel elements.  This is the classiest way to work solid wood into cabinets, and it involves three parts. Stiles and rails are the vertical and horizontal members that surround every solid wood panel. Optimal stile and rail width for kitchen cabinets ranges from 2 1/4” to 2 1/2”, with wider bottom rails looking best on the bottom edge of upper cabinets. You should also make upper rails wide enough to expose 2 1/4” of rail width after the application of any crown moulding or top trim you add.

One advantage of building solid wood details around a plywood box is the ease of fastening stiles and rails securely and with minimal joinery. Simply cut, glue and clamp stiles and rails to your plywood boxes with butt joints. Use nails only in those places that will be covered later by trim. Wait for the glue to dry, then plunge biscuit slots across the assembled face frame joints from the top and bottom surfaces of the cabinet. Glue biscuits into these slots, then trim them flush. As you work, remember to leave one stile or rail off until the panel has been slipped in place.

corner_uppersRaised panels require edges thin enough to fit into grooves routed into the edges of stiles and rails, and there are two ways to shape panel edges to make this happen. You could mill the edges with a table-mounted router and panel raising bit, but my favourite method uses nothing more than a tablesaw and hand plane. You can make wider and more gently-tapered edges this way, and these look better.

After trimming panels to length and width, run them across your tablesaw on edge, with the blade tilted 18º to 20º from vertical. This operation roughs out the beveled edge of the panel, though the surface will be too rough and too thick.  A sharp hand plane makes it easy to smooth the sawn, beveled edges and bring them down to just the right width to fit into 3/8”-wide grooves milled into the edges of the stiles and rails. Plane a little, test fit the panel into a stile or rail groove, then plane again until you arrive at a perfect fit. Click to watch one of the 43 teaching videos from my course that shows how to use a hand plane to make raised panels.

Trim is the last step before finishing, and it involves some kind of crown moulding installed around the top of the upper cabinets. Semi-circular bullnose trim applied around the perimeter of door and drawer openings makes your cabinets look great and hides slight misalignment between  doors, drawers and the surrounding face frames.

One of the most common questions I get from learners in my cabinet classes has to do with joining stiles and rails and panels together for door and cabinet sides. You can spend a lot of money on fancy router bits for this job, but it’s really not necessary. In fact, the simple method I’ve settled creates results that look better and are more authentic than router-cut designs. Click to watch the video from my course that shows what I mean.

Of all the ways a workshop can improve your home, building kitchen and bathroom cabinets offers the greatest benefit. It’s a lot of work, but the complication of that work is simpler than most people think.  Your efforts will pay off in big ways. Click below to learn more about the next kitchen cabinet course I’m running as an instructor with The Family Handyman’s DIY University. You can take the course anywhere in the world that offers an internet connection and you get one-on-one opportunities to ask me questions and work together.  Registration for this session closes this week, on March 29th. Got any questions? Send me an email at [email protected] or give me a call at home here on Bailey Line Road at 705-282-2289.

Posted on March 24th, 2018

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