In 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, and this is where I learned to use real wood, hardwood veneered plywoods and the best hardware and joinery to make furniture-grade kitchens. While many of today’s store-bought kitchen cabinets look good superficially, they’re actually built using the cheapest materials and hardware available, held together with questionable joinery. If you’ve got intermediate or even basic woodworking skills, you can do better, while also saving thousands.
I’ve used the same three-part approach I learned in that cabinet shop many times ever since, and it combines solid wood stiles, rails and raised panels to create a classic look in a practical way. The trick involves building a plywood box first, using it as a foundation for securing stiles, rails and panels, followed by trim and doors. You get the accuracy of sheet goods with the unmistakeable beauty of authentic frame and panel construction. Trust me, it’s a super combination.
You’ll find 3/4”-thick birch-veneered plywood the best 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.
Glue 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 sticks.
I like to enclose the backs of the kitchen cabinets 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 rabbet-like place for the back panels to sit.
With boxes complete, it’s time to create frame and panel elements. This is the classiest way to work solid wood into kitchen 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 range 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.
Raised 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 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.
Before you assemble stiles and rails around panels, wipe a swath of stain along the edge-grain edges of panels before assembly. This eliminates the risk that light, unstained bright wood will be visible if the surrounding wood shrinks.
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.
Of all the ways a workshop can improve your home, building kitchen cabinets offers the greatest benefit. It’s a lot of work but it also pays off in big ways.