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Custom-Build a Cabinet to Just the Size You Need
Building a basic wall cabinet is a great introduction to woodworking. Whether you need new kitchen cabinets, bathroom cabinets, or more storage in your garage or basement, the construction is the same. Essentially, you’ll be building a plywood box, called a carcass, adding a solid-wood face frame, a couple of hanging cleats, and finally, some shelves. And of course, you can paint or stain the cabinets to suit your taste and décor.
Rather than install fixed shelves, we decided to support the shelves on shelf pins because this allows you to adjust the shelf height to adapt to your changing needs. Depending on what you use the shelves for, you might only need three shelves, but we suggest making four while you're at it—you’ll still need only one sheet of plywood and the extra shelf might come in handy in the future.
We made this cabinet 30 inches wide, 48 inches tall, and 12 inches deep, but you can make your cabinet whatever height and depth best suits your space. You should limit the width to about 36 inches to make sure the shelves won’t sag. If you have more width to fill, just build more cabinets!
We built our cabinet from birch-veneered plywood because it takes paint or stain well and because it is readily available at lumberyards and home centers. For your own cabinets, you have lots of options: For a really fine cabinet, you can order plywood veneered with a hardwood such as cherry or walnut and make the face frame from matching solid wood. Conversely, for a utility cabinet, you could save money by using BC grade plywood.
This project tutorial shows one 3/4-inch by 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of plywood and one 1/4-inch by 4-foot by 8-foot sheet. When you purchase the plywood, have the lumberyard or home-center set their panel saw to 11-1/4 inches and make three rip cuts along the length of the sheet.
Tip: If these 8-foot-long pieces won’t fit conveniently into your vehicle, you can also have two of the pieces cross cut at 60 inches and two cross cut at 49 inches. Have the 1/4-inch-piece cross-cut at 29-1/4 inches and ripped to 47-1/4 inches wide.
Tools and Materials You'll Need
- Framing square
- Combination square
- Utility knife
- Circular saw
- Hand miter saw or power miter saw
- Shelf-pin jig
- Household clothes iron
- #8 countersink bit
- 3/4 inch straight bit
- 1/4 inch piloted rabbeting bit
- Table saw
- Putty knife
- 4-foot level
- Stud finder
- 1 sheet birch plywood, 3/4" x 4' x 8'
- 1 sheet birch plywood, 1/4" x 4' x 8'
- 3 nominal 1" x 2" x 8' pre-primed pine
- 1-1/4" all purpose screws
- 2-1/2" all purpose screws
- 4d finish nails
- 3/4" panel nails
- #8 x 2-1/2" wood screws
- 2-1/2" drywall screws
- Yellow wood glue
- Birch edge banding
- Wood putty
- Spackling compound
Parts You’ll Make
Continue to 2 of 34 below.
- 2 sides 3/4" x 11-1/4" x 48"
- 2 top and bottom 3/4" x 11-1/4" x 29-1/4"
- 1 back panel 1/4" x 29-1/4" x 47-1/4"
- 3 shelves 3/4" x 10-7/8" x 28-3/8"
- 2 mounting cleats 3/4" x 2-1/2" x 28-1/2"
- 2 rails 3/4" x 1-1/2" x 27"
- 2 stiles 3/4" x 1-1/2" x 48"
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Diagram of Cabinet OverviewContinue to 3 of 34 below.
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Diagram of Cross-Cut JigContinue to 4 of 34 below.
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Make a Crosscut Jig
It’s important to make perfectly square and straight cuts when you cut all the pieces to length. An easy way to do this is to make a simple crosscutting jig.
Start by making a base from a piece of 1/4-inch plywood that’s at least as wide as the base of your circular saw plus 7 inches. Make it at least as long as the longest cut you expect to make. We made ours 24 inches long.
Now make the fence. Cut a piece of 3/4-inch plywood to 7 inches wide with a length equal to the base plus 8 inches—32 inches in our case.
Glue and clamp the fence to the base flush to one side and with equal overhangs on both ends.
When the glue dries, clamp the jig to your work surface overhanging enough so the saw blade will clear it as you run the circular saw against the fence to cut the base to final width.Continue to 5 of 34 below.
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Lay Out a Cross Cut
Except for the mounting cleat, you’ll use the crosscut jig to cut all the plywood parts to final length. A great way to make sure the sides are exactly the same length (and save a little time) is to cut them together.
Put a “sacrificial” scrap of plywood on your work surface and stack the sides on top of that, making sure all edges are flush. Clamp this sandwich to your bench so it can’t move during cutting. Then use a pencil and square to lay out the cut on the top side piece.Continue to 6 of 34 below.
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Cross-Cut the Sides, Top, and Bottom
These parts were cut at the lumberyard or home center to their final width of 11-1/4 inches. Align the edge of the crosscut jig base exactly along the layout line. Check that the jig is square to the work pieces, then clamp it in place.
Set the circular saw cutting depth to 1-7/8 inches and make the cut. You’ll cut through both side pieces and score the sacrificial piece below.
Use this same stacking technique to cut the top and bottom pieces to length.Continue to 7 of 34 below.
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Cut the Shelves
Use the jig to crosscut the shelves to 28-3/8 inches—you can stack and cut them in pairs as you did the sides and the top and bottom.
Then set the table saw fence to 10-7/8 inches from the blade and rip them to final width.Continue to 8 of 34 below.
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Make the Mounting Cleats
Rip two pieces of 3/4-inch plywood to 2-1/2 inches wide then cross-cut them to 28-1/2 inches long using the miter gauge on your table saw or a miter saw.Continue to 9 of 34 below.
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Gauge Plywood Thickness
As shown in this overall view, the sides get 3/4 inch-wide by 3/8-inch deep rabbets on each side to accept the top and bottom. At least in theory. In reality your plywood is likely to be just slightly thinner than 3/4 in.
Use a combination square as shown to capture the actual thickness of your plywood.Continue to 10 of 34 below.
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Lay Out Top and Bottom Rabbets
Run the body of the combination square along the top or bottom of the shelf, while you use a pencil against the blade to draw layout lines on the inside faces of the sides.Continue to 11 of 34 below.
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Measure for Guide Fence Line
You’ll make these cuts with a 3/4-inch-diameter straight router bit set to 3/8-inch deep. First, to allow you to set up a guide fence, you need to determine exactly how far the bit is from the edge of your router base. Do this with a combination square by setting the end of the blade against the cutting edge of the bit and then sliding the square’s body against the router base.Continue to 12 of 34 below.
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Draw the Fence Guide Line
Clamp a side to the work surface. Measure from the rabbet cut line a distance equal to the measurement you took and make a mark.
Then use a framing square at this mark to draw a line across the side piece. At this line, clamp a piece of wood squarely across the side piece to act as a guide for the router.Continue to 13 of 34 below.
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Rout the Top and Bottom Rabbet Cuts
Moving the router from left to right, cut the rabbet. Lay out and cut the remaining three top and bottom rabbets.Continue to 14 of 34 below.
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Drill the First Six Shelf-Pin Holes
To ensure that your holes will align properly, label one end of each side piece as the top. You’ll use a commercially available jig to make the shelf pins holes. This jig is available with bits to make holes that are either 5 millimeters or 1/4-inch in diameter. Just make sure the bit matches your shelf pins.
Start by cutting a 6-inch-wide piece from one of the plywood side offcuts for use as a spacer. Clamp the spacer to the bottom of one side, aligning its edge to the inside of the bottom rabbet. Put the jig in place at the front of the cabinet, against the spacer and drill all six holes.Continue to 15 of 34 below.
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Drill the Remaining Shelf-Pin Holes
The jig comes with a locator pin that you stick through the jig into the last hole you drilled, so that the next five holes will be properly spaced.
Drill the holes and continue this process until you drill a hole that’s at least six inches from the top of the cabinet.
Repeat this process to make a column of holes at the back of the side. Then, make matching holes on the other side piece.Continue to 16 of 34 below.
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Diagram of Rabbet DetailContinue to 17 of 34 below.
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Rabbet the Sides for the Back
The inside back edges of the sides, top, and bottom get 3/8-inch wide by 1/4-inch deep rabbets to accept the back. Use two clamps near the right side of the piece to secure it to the work surface, inside face up with it’s back slightly overhanging the edge.
Put a 1/4-inch piloted rabbeting bit in your router with the depth set to 3/8 inch. Run the router from left to right. When you run into the clamps, shut off the router and move the clamps to the area you already routed. Rabbet the other side piece.Continue to 18 of 34 below.
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Set Up the Sides
Before gluing a cabinet together it’s always a good idea to do a dry run to make sure everything fits and to get your clamps adjusted, so you won’t spend time fiddling with them and trying to get the cabinet square while the glue is setting.
First, make yourself a couple of extra hands in the form of four square scraps of 3/4-inch plywood—two measuring about 6 inches by 10 inches and two more measuring about 6 inches by 4 inches. Glue each smaller piece to a bigger piece to form two square “L”s.
Place one side piece on your work surface with rabbeted face up and the back edge nearest you. Let the piece overhang the bench by about 2 inches and clamp the L to the work surface.
Put a top or bottom piece in place, then slide an L up against it and clamp the L. Do the same for the top or bottom at the other end.
Put the other side piece in place. At the back of the cabinet, clamp the top and bottom pieces between the side pieces. Use a framing square to make sure all corners are square. Then clamp the square upright into one corner.
Start a 4d finishing nail into both ends of a 3 or 4 foot long scrap of wood. Place one end near the bottom of the top or bottom piece and tap it partway into the edge.
Position the other nail along the edge of the side piece that’s in the air, check the square and, if necessary, push or pull the cabinet into perfect square. Then drive the second nail partway in.
Remove the Ls, then lay the cabinet on its front face and clamp the other ends of the other bottom and top between the sides. Check all the corners for square again and then pull the squaring stick off the cabinet. Leave the nails in the stick. When you repeat this whole process during glue-up, you’ll just put the nails back in their original holes to automatically square the cabinet.Continue to 19 of 34 below.
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Assemble the Cabinet
Have a small bucket of water with a sponge handy for wiping away glue squeeze out.
Put glue along the rabbets of one side piece, then use the Ls to assemble the bottom and top to that side. Put glue on the up-facing edges of the top and bottom, and then repeat the clamping process you did in the dry run.Continue to 20 of 34 below.
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Install the Back
Put glue in the rabbets for the back and drop the back in place. Check that the corners are square, then secure the back with 1-inch panel nails or brads.
Wipe up glue squeeze out then flip the cabinet and wipe away any squeeze out inside. Check that the front is square and then leave the clamps on overnight.Continue to 21 of 34 below.
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Install the Cleats
Put a cleat in position and trace and run a pencil to mark its width on the cabinet back, so you’ll know where to stop putting glue.
Remove the cleat and put glue on the inside of the back.
Replace the cleat and then use a shelf as a caul to clamp the cleat to the back.Continue to 22 of 34 below.
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Band One Long Edge of Each Shelf and Mounting Cleat
Next, you’ll use birch edge banding to cover the plywood edges that won’t otherwise be hidden. This banding, available at home centers, lumberyards, and hardware stores has an adhesive that’s activated by a household iron.
For each piece, use scissors to cut a piece that’s about an inch longer than the edge you’ll cover. Put the banding in place overhanging all four edges. Place a piece of aluminum foil over the banding to protect it from the iron. Set the iron on cotton and place it over the foil for about 10 seconds.
Immediately after removing the iron, run a wooden wallpaper-seam roller over that area. Don’t slide the foil and iron over the banding—that’ll leave dark marks you’ll have to sand off. If the banding goes askew, just heat it to release the adhesive and try again.Continue to 23 of 34 below.
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Trim the Banding
Put a new blade in your utility knife. When the banding is completely cool, use the knife to trim the banding flush or nearly flush on all edges.Continue to 24 of 34 below.
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Break the Shelf Edges
Use a sanding block with 120-grit sandpaper to bring the edge banding perfectly flush to the top and bottom of the shelves and cleat.
Then “break” all the shelf edges with a few angled strokes along each edge. This rounds the edges a bit so they will take paint or stain better and will prevent the plywood veneer from splintering when shelves are taken in and out.Continue to 25 of 34 below.
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Notch a Stile for Scribing
Scribing pieces to fit is always more accurate than measuring. Start by using a hand miter saw or power miter saw to square-cut one end of a 1x2. Then put the piece in place along one side with the square end you just cut flush with the bottom and clamp it in place. Use a utility knife to make a tiny notch in the stile at the point where it meets the top of the cabinet.
Because we planned to paint our cabinet, we made the face frames with pre-primed 1x2 pine that actually measures 3/4 inch x 1-1/2 inches, so we only needed to cut the stock to length. If you’ll be staining and/or finishing your cabinet, use clear wood of your choice.Continue to 26 of 34 below.
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Scribe the Cut
With the stile on a flat surface, place your utility knife blade in the notch. Bring a square up against the blade. Then use the utility knife to scribe the cut against the blade.Continue to 27 of 34 below.
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Cut the Stile to Length
Align the blade of your miter saw with the waste side of the scribe mark and cut the stile to length.Continue to 28 of 34 below.
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Install the Stile
Start 4d finish nails about an inch from the top and bottom and at the middle of the stile. Put glue along one side and clamp the stile in place, making sure it's flush on the outside and at the top and bottom. Then drive the nails in. Add more nails spaced about 12 inches apart along the length of the stiles.
Putty and paint will hide the nails, but if you will be staining and finishing your cabinet, you may want to use clamps instead of nails to hold the stiles in place until the glue dries.
Now scribe, cut, and install the other stile.Continue to 29 of 34 below.
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Scribe, Cut, and Install the Rails
Square-cut one end of each rail, put the rail in place with the cut end butted into one rail, and make a notch where it meets the other rail. Scribe and cut the rail, then test fit it.
Do the same for the other rail. Glue and nail or clamp the rails in place making sure they are flush at the top and bottom of the cabinet.Continue to 30 of 34 below.
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Set the Nails and Fill Holes
Use a nailset to drive nails—including those through the sides into the cleat, just below the surface, and then fill each hole with a dab of wood putty.
Use 80-grit sandpaper to smooth the putty. Sand the front edges of the face frame to round them slightly. If you’ll be finishing the face frame instead of painting, sand the entire face with 80-grit, 120-grit, and finally 220-grit. Now you are ready to paint or stain your cabinet.Continue to 31 of 34 below.
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Using a level, draw a level line on the wall to locate where you want the bottom of the cabinet to be. Then, move a stud finder over that line to locate the studs in the wall behind where you want to mount the cabinet.
The stud finder will beep when it reaches the edge of a stud, so you will want to make a mark 3/4-inch in from that to locate the center of the stud. Studs are normally 16 inches apart, so there will be two studs behind our 30-inch-wide cabinet. Also, along the line, mark where you want one side of the cabinet to be.Continue to 32 of 34 below.
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Install a Temporary Leveling Cleat
Cut a piece of 2x4 to a few inches longer than the cabinet width.
Put the cleat along the line with one end aligned to the mark you made to locate the cabinet side.
Drive a 2-1/2 inch drywall screw through the cleat into one stud.
Check for level then drive a screw into the other stud.Continue to 33 of 34 below.
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Predrill the Cabinet
Measure along the cleat from the cabinet side mark to the nearest screw. Subtract 3/4-inch from that measurement to allow for the thickness of the cabinet side, and mark inside the cabinet where one stud will be located behind the top and bottom mounting cleats.
Measure the distance between the two screws in the temporary leveling cleat. Use that measurement to mark the top and bottom mounting cleats for the location of the second stud. Use a countersink bit to predrill for 2-1/2-inch-long #8 wood screws.Continue to 34 of 34 below.
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Mount the Cabinet
With a helper, lift the cabinet onto the temporary cleat and align one side to the end of the cleat that locates a cabinet side.
While the helper holds the cabinet against the wall, pre-drill through the lower holes in the cabinets and into the studs—this will prevent stripping the screw heads.
Then, drive in the bottom screws and finally the top screws. If you like, you can cover the screw heads with wood putty and paint.