Complete Beginner Guide on How To Build Cabinets For Your Kitchen or Bathroom

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Whether you are looking to remodel your kitchen on a budget or you’re like me and you are just a fan of self reliance and building as many of your possessions as possible. I built this tutorial to walk beginning and intermediate woodworkers through the steps of constructing their own kitchen cabinets.

What tools will you need

If you are brand new to woodworking, cabinets may not be a suitable first project. You may want to start by building some simple boxes or shelves to get familiar with the trade. With that said, some of your first tools should be:

  • a circular saw (or contractor saw)
  • a jigsaw
  • at least 4 good clamps
  • Wood glue
  • At least two saw horses
  • A sanding block
  • A power drill (cheap is fine for most projects)
  • A stud finder (mandatory for wall cabinets)

You can always upgrade your equipment later if you take a liking to woodworking. However, this should be enought to get you started and shouldn’t break the bank.

If you are an intermediate woodworker, you’ve probably worked with a circular saw and jigsaw before. For those woodworkers looking to upgrade their equipment, the next step up is:

If you are really looking to build intricate cabinets or other pieces of carved wood, you also may want to have a look at CNC routers. It’s pretty incredible how well they work and how quickly you can get an intricate design carved into a piece of wood from your computer.

Another great, inexpensive tool that you may not have if you have never built cabinets before is the pocket hole jig. Nothing screams “amateur” like a cabinet with exposed, jagged screws. 

kreg 300 jig 01d

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there are a number of places you can get these pieces of equipment. Some of them you may be able to buy locally or on Amazon. In general USA Supply Spot has the best prices on large woodworking equipment such as commercial quality saws, drum sanders and CNC machines.

What wood you should build your cabinets with

Types of woods for back and side panels

  • Plywood side and back panels. Every cabinet maker will tell you something else. With that said, the general consensus is you can build the frame from plywood while still building the face from a higher quality wood. High volume cabinet manufacturers almost always go this route. If you choose to go with a plywood frame, make sure to go with a cabinet grade or AA grade plywood. This plywood will also likely have a veneer that will match your face frame and doors.
  • Solid wood side and back panels. You can choose to build all of the cabinet out of the same wood you build the face frame and doors out of. Of course, building this way will cost you a bit more, but if you are not planning on painting your cabinets, this may be worthwhile as the complete cabinet will have the same finish. 
  • It’s worth noting that some cabinet makers opt against using solid wood and claim that the expansion and contraction will make the cabinet wear out more quickly. 
  • Even when using particle board, you can obtain the look of a cabinet that is made from solid wood by creating solid wood panels that fit over the exposed sides. See Below 

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Types of wood for face frames, doors and drawers

  • Hard woods. My favorite woods for cabinets are all hard woods. In fact, hard woods are my favorite to work with for just about any project. White oak is my favorite and is in my opinion the most versatile hard wood to work with. It is a bit more pricey than red oak, but in my opinion is worth the cost based on the appearance and how straight it is. 
    • Cherry, maple, ash and hickory can also be used for cabinets successfully. Feel free to have a look at them when you are at your lumber supplier and see if they have the look you are going for. Note that each one of these woods will take oil and stain differently and will have it’s own caveats.
  • Soft woods. I recommend not making cabinets out of soft wood. Hard woods are simply much more versatile and will last much longer as they are far more resistant to scratching and denting. Soft woods are typically a bit cheaper, but this isn’t the place to pinch pennies. 

Measuring the space for your cabinets

If you’ve been around woodworking for any amount of time, you no doubt understand how important having proper measurements is. Fortunately, some measurements are standard for cabinets, such as the base cabinet height (36″) and toe kick (3″-3.5″). However, most measurements will still need to be made by you in order to have the proper fit in the space that you have and for the amount of storage that you’re trying to create.

If you have been woodworking for a while, you will probably do just fine with a few dimension written down on a piece of scrap. If you are brand new to woodworking, I’d recommend drawing a complete sketch of what you’re looking to build.

base kitchen cabinet dimensions

 

Cutting your pieces and dry fitting

Once you have a sketch of the dimension for your cabinets, you’ll want to take a count of how many identical panels you should cut. This means, if you are building 4 cabinets that are the same size, you’ll want to cut out 8 identical side panels, 4 bottom, top and back panels. This will not only help you save time, it will help keep your panels identical.

joinery done

Once complete, you should dry fit the panels. This means assemble them without any wood glue. I like to use tacks or small nails to hold everything in place. However, if you don’t have tacks, feel free to screw your cabinet boxes together at this point.

If you make a mistake and there is something that doesn’t fit quite right, now is the time to go back and see what went wrong. It could be that you need to cut a new panel. It is better to correct your mistake now that have a cabinet that doesn’t look right or function properly for the coming decades.

Once you dry fit your cabinets boxes, they should look like this:

It’s worth noting that many cabinet makers will glue and screw together the cabinet boxes at this point. I prefer to do that at a later stage and I believe I get a better fit by doing so. However, if you choose to screw and glue all of your items together now, that’s fine.

Face frame building

Now that you have the cabinet boxes built, it is time to build your face frame and cabinet doors. In most cases, these frames will work off of the same exact dimensions you build your boxes to. 

Some cabinet makers like to make their frames oversized by 3/4″ or 1″ on the outside with the thought that it makes the cabinets more furniture like and less like garage storage.

Remember to include the crossbar that will separate your cabinet door from your drawer. We’ll be making the drawers and doors in our next step.

Building your cabinet doors and drawers

This is possibly my favorite part of the cabinet construction process. All of the measuring and cutting is behind us and it’s time to make the aesthetic part of the cabinet. 

If you want to get creative with a great indentation around the perimeter or even a design on the cabinet face, have a look at what CNC routers can do. You may want to add one to your shop at some point. These are just some examples of the patterns you can cut:

cabinet door styles 1

The sizing of the cabinet drawer and door is not as self explanatory as you might think. Keep in mind that this box (the drawer) must fit inside the larger cabinet box and therefore must be cut smaller. Make sure that you decrease the size of your panels by the width of the material that you are using. In the case of drawers, subtract at least the 3/4″ that is used for the back panel and the cabinet front.

Another pro tip is to avoid putting on the cabinet and drawer pulls and handles at this stage. Those should only be put on once the cabinets have been installed. 

Cabinet Finishing

There are two primary categories that wood finishes fall into. These are penetrating finishes and surface finishes.

Penetrating finishes

As the name implies, penetrating finishes are rubbed on and soak into the wood grain to give it an enhanced look. Most wood oils fall into the category of penetrating finishes. While they don’t provide nearly as much protection as surface finishes, many woodworkers use them because they leave the wood looking more natural.

Surface finishes

Varnishes such as polyurethane have become popular with cabinet makers not just because of the gloss that they provide, but because it sits on top of the wood and provides a protective layer against scratches and dents.

Paint is obviously one of the most common surface finishes and also acts as a surprisingly strong protective coat. The paint may need some touching up from time to time, but in general it does a great job of protecting against scratches and dents.

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Installing your new cabinets

If you are remodeling your whole kitchen, I’d recommend by installing the wall cabinets first as the installation process is much easier when you are not reaching over base cabinets.

Before you install your first cabinet, it helps to install a ledger at whatever height you would like your cabinets to sit at. Note that 54″ is considered standard but isn’t mandatory.

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This will not only help you visualize where your cabinets will be, it will help you align all of your cabinets at the same height.

You’ll start the installation with your corner cabinet. If you don’t have a corner to start in, just use the furthest left cabinet and work from left to right. Start by measuring the distance from the corner wall to the stud that you’ll be screwing into. Then, drill a hole in the back of your cabinet the same distance over. 

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Set the cabinet on the ledger that you installed earlier and drill your cabinet into the stud through the hole you already drilled.

You’ll find that cabinets 2 onward are much easier than the first.

Conclusion and final cabinet tips

I agree with most of the steps taken in this video. I don’t think it discusses wood selection, finishing options or tool selection nearly enough, but it gives the viewer the benefit of seeing what the cabinets look like at every step.