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How to Build a Base Cabinet Box: Crafting Custom Cabinets on a Budget

Get ready to tackle a big project and save money by building your own custom cabinets! Building cabinets may seem intimidating, but it's actually just a matter of constructing a series of boxes. In this...

Get ready to tackle a big project and save money by building your own custom cabinets! Building cabinets may seem intimidating, but it's actually just a matter of constructing a series of boxes. In this article, we'll guide you through the process of building a simple base cabinet box with frameless construction. So let's get started and create beautiful cabinets for your home!

How to build a simple cabinet box

Building Cabinets: Breaking Down the Project

Building cabinets can be a daunting task, especially if you're new to DIY projects. However, when broken down into smaller steps, it becomes much more manageable. In this cabinetry series, we will take it step by step, starting with building a simple cabinet box. We'll later delve into adding drawers, pull-out shelves, and hidden compartments to customize your base cabinets.

If you're embarking on a kitchen remodel like me, it's time to take charge! While painting the cabinets and covering the countertops can make a difference, building your own cabinets will truly transform your kitchen. I'll be working on this massive project in sections, beginning with this cluster of cabinets that will be transformed into a symmetrical bank of upper and base cabinets with an expansive countertop spanning the entire wall.

Don't worry about the doors just yet! We'll explore different cabinet door styles in another article. Once you've decided on a style, we have a free worksheet to help you measure for cabinet doors correctly. Plus, we'll guide you through building your own Shaker cabinet doors. So stay tuned!

Things to Consider: Paving the Way to a Better Cabinet Box

Before you jump into cutting and assembly, there are a few essential considerations that will ensure you build a high-quality cabinet box. Taking the time to plan ahead will help you avoid errors and create a better end result.

Choose Your Plywood Wisely

Not all plywood is created equal when it comes to building cabinets. Look for sheets labeled "cabinet grade" for better quality and longevity. It's worth spending a few extra bucks to ensure your cabinets last and look stunning.

Keep in mind that plywood sheets have a "good" side, which should be free from knots and imperfections. Reserve this side for the interior of the cabinet. The other side, of lesser quality, will likely be hidden by a wall, an adjoining cabinet, or an end panel.

For my cabinets, I opted for prefinished birch plywood, which has a shiny finish. The prefinishing process applies a clear protective top coat at the factory, saving me valuable time. While I plan to paint the doors, drawer fronts, and end panels, I'll keep the interior natural with a clear coat.

Plan Your Plywood Cuts

Working with large plywood sheets can be challenging. To make it more manageable, have the store cut the sheets down the middle lengthwise. This will give you two 2'x8' panels that can easily fit in your car and onto your workbench.

Pay attention to the wood grain direction when planning your cuts. The grain should run vertically on the side pieces and horizontally on the bottom and shelves. If you have the plywood precut into long strips, the grain direction will already be correct.

Creating a rough cut diagram will help you optimize your material usage and minimize waste. Start by plotting the larger pieces such as the sides and bottom, and then use scraps for stretchers and nailer strips. If you're unfamiliar with these terms, we have an article explaining the different parts of a cabinet.

Separate Toe Kick or Integrated Toe Kick?

The toe kick is the part at the bottom of the cabinet that raises it off the floor, providing space for your feet while you work at the counter. There are two ways to create the toe kick: building a separate platform or integrating it into the side pieces.

In my case, I opted for a separate toe kick platform. This approach saves materials since I can get most of the pieces for two base cabinets from a single plywood sheet. Additionally, it's easier to level a small platform during installation compared to a large cabinet.

Label Your Pieces

When building multiple cabinet boxes, it's easy for the pieces to start looking the same. To prevent confusion, label each piece as you cut it. A simple piece of blue painter's tape with the part name and dimensions written on it will go a long way. This ensures that you don't accidentally use a side piece as the bottom or mix up different parts.

How to Build a Base Cabinet: Step-by-Step Guide

Now that we've covered the important considerations, let's dive into how to build a base cabinet box. By following these steps, you'll be well on your way to creating stunning custom cabinets for your home.

Step 1: Cut the Plywood Pieces to Size

Handling large 2'x8' plywood sheets can be tricky and unsafe. To break them down into manageable pieces, use a track saw or a circular saw with a straight-edge jig. A track saw provides clean cuts, but if you opt for a circular saw, make sure to use a straight-edge jig to maintain straight cuts.

To prevent tear-out on cross grain cuts, use blue painter's tape. Check for square before cutting and use the factory edge as your reference.

Once the pieces are roughly cut to size with the track saw, you can finish them off on the table saw. Start by trimming the rough, splintered edge made by the store's saw using the factory edge as a guide. Set the final width using this reference for all side and bottom pieces to ensure consistency.

For the front and back stretchers, cut 4" wide strips from leftover ¾" plywood. I usually rummage through my scrap lumber cart for the nailer strip pieces since they'll be hidden behind the back of the cabinet. And don't forget to cut the back panel out of ¼" plywood, making sure it is ¾" less than the height and width of the finished cabinet box.

Step 2: Cut the Grooves for the Back Panel

Attaching a cabinet back panel can be done in various ways, but cutting a groove is an effective and quick method. Set your table saw fence using the nailer strip, as ¾" plywood thickness can differ from the exact measurement.

Set the table saw blade height between ¼" and ⅜" to create the groove. Make a test cut with a scrap piece of plywood to ensure everything looks good. Then proceed to cut the groove on the "good" face of the side, bottom, and back stretcher pieces.

To widen the groove, move the fence slightly further away from the blade, making test cuts until the ¼" plywood fits snugly. The back panel should slide smoothly into the grooves while providing a secure fit.

Step 3: Apply Edge Banding to the Front Edges

If you're aiming for frameless cabinets, it's crucial to apply edge banding to all the front edges. This will conceal the plywood layers and create a polished look. Cut the edge banding to match the length of the plywood pieces and iron it on. If you're using prefinished birch edge banding like me, you won't need to paint or finish the edges. A special trimmer can be used to cut the excess banding flush with the plywood.

If you need a more in-depth guide on applying edge banding, we have a complete tutorial available.

Step 4: Drill Pocket Holes

Pocket holes are essential for the bottom, stretchers, and nailer strips. Drill the pocket holes on the opposite side from the groove, making sure not to drill through it. Using a Kreg Jig, set the drill bit depth stop to slightly less than ¾" to account for the undersized plywood thickness.

Step 5: Attach the Bottom to the Sides

Now it's time to start building the cabinet box. Attach the bottom to the sides using 1 ¼" pocket hole screws. Ensure that all the edge-banded sides face the same direction and that the grooves align throughout.

Using corner clamps and additional long clamps, hold the bottom and sides together, maintaining a perfect right angle. These clamps act as an extra set of hands, preventing the edges from shifting during screw insertion.

Step 6: Attach the Front Stretcher

The front stretcher plays a crucial role in squaring up the cabinet box. It also serves as a cabinet door or drawer stop along the top and provides a secure attachment point for the countertop.

With the cabinet box facing down on the workbench, clamp the front stretcher between the sides. Secure the front stretcher to the sides using 1 ¼" pocket hole screws.

Step 7: Insert the Back Panel

Slide the ¼" back panel smoothly into the grooves on the back, ensuring that the "good" side of the plywood faces into the cabinet. The back stretcher, with its groove, should fit snugly on top of the back panel, seamlessly locking it into place.

Use a clamp to hold the back stretcher flush with the top of the sides while driving in the ¼" pocket hole screws.

Step 8: Attach the Nailer Strips

Nailer strips provide a sturdy surface for screwing the cabinet box into the studs on the wall. While some people attach only a top nailer strip, I prefer having both a top and bottom nailer strip to cover any uneven surfaces and ensure a secure attachment.

Flip the cabinet onto its front and place the first nailer strip under the back stretcher against the back panel. Use pocket hole screws to attach it to the sides and top. Repeat the process for the bottom nailer strip.

Step 9: Add Drawer Supports (Optional)

If you plan to install drawers, you'll need to add a drawer support underneath each one. This support serves as a stop for lower cabinet doors and a platform to attach undermount drawer slides.

Cut spacers to the size of the drawer space to ensure equal spacing across all your cabinet boxes. Place the spacers on top of the front stretcher, position the drawer support on top, clamp it into place, and secure it with pocket hole screws.

Congratulations! You've successfully built a basic cabinet box.

Step 10: Assemble the Toe Kick Platform

The toe kick platform can be made from 2x4s or any ¾" material. Its appearance is less crucial since it will be hidden behind toe kick molding. Ensure consistency by maintaining one height across all platforms.

The width of the toe kick platform should match the cabinet's width, while the depth can vary depending on your desired recess. A depth of 3" to 4" is standard. Take into consideration any uneven surfaces, such as tiled floors, when determining the recess depth.

By placing the cabinet box on top of the platform and securing both to the wall studs, you'll create a stable and level base for your cabinets. If you need detailed instructions on leveling and installing the toe kick platform and the cabinets, we have a comprehensive guide available.

With these steps, you now know how to build a simple cabinet box. You're on your way to building an entire kitchen! By batching out each step, you'll be able to assemble multiple cabinets in a single weekend. In our next article, we'll guide you through building drawers for your new base cabinets.

Also, check out our other kitchen remodel projects for more inspiration!

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