Reader Thoughts on Kitchen Cabinets (Part 1)

In the last issue of the eZine, Rob asked our audience for your thoughts on building kitchen cabinets – whether you were comfortable doing so, areas that tripped you up, etc. We got a LOT of responses to that question – so many, that we’ll be continuing the discussion next week as well. For now, here are some of your thoughts on kitchen cabinets.

First, some of you have built them – or, at least, have no qualms about doing so. – Editor

“Not only would I do them, I have. Here is a picture of a couple I did for my daughter.” – Andrew Drake

“One of the nice things about making your own cabinets is that you can customize them for specific purposes.  For example, when I built our base cabinets, one base consisted of a bank of drawers and then two doors that opened for shelving. I made the two top drawers 3 inches deep rather than 6 inches deep. The top drawer is used for silverware and the one below is for rolled goods (aluminum foil, etc). At the top of another bank of drawers, I made a pull-out cutting board.  All the faces of our cabinets were made out of red pine from our farm in New Hampshire.” – Mark Thompson

“I have built several cabinets because I feel that it is much less expensive to do it yourself. I especially want to do my own if the sizes are not your normal measurements. We wanted cabinets that were only 10 inches in depth. Every company we contacted wanted 30 to 50 percent more to build the special cabinets. I didn’t have all the tools I needed, but I did have reclaimed and new lumber stockpiled. So after buying the tools (router, stand, and cabinet door bits), I still saved money by building myself. I enjoyed the process and the wait time was about the same as ordering.” – Ken Erlenbusch

“I have built all the cabinets in our kitchen. It’s not too hard when you realize that they are boxes of different sizes, next to other boxes. As long as you think the process through and read direction for hardware mounting, and plan for what you want, or need in the design, etc. the process is a good exercise in problem-solving. Then add face frames, or not, and get as creative as you want for the outside of the cabinets. You can easily make the job as simple, or difficult as you want.” – Bob Hartig

“I completely remodeled my kitchen and built new cabinets all the way around and in the service porch. I’ve made quite a few prior to that, so I felt comfortable in tackling the project. It took a while, about two months from start to finish.” – Harvey Stappler

“I can’t say that kitchen cabinets are my favorite to build, mainly because they are so basic. But they are and have been my most common orders over the past 30 years. Seems like everyone wants that ‘custom’ kitchen. If they only knew that almost all of the cabinets are basically the same. Different drawer fronts and doors are just about all that does change. By the way, my dad had a door and will download shop, so I grew up planing to fit.” –  William Watson

“I’ve made a few kitchen cabinets or equivalent. I agree, not that intimidating. But it is hard to compete with a factory when it comes to standard set of ordinary cabinets. I find it worth the cost and effort when there is an unusual application that just doesn’t lend itself to anything pre-made. That often adds the additional challenge (read ‘fun’) of matching the existing work as closely as possible. This answer is predicated on the fact that I always have more projects to do than time free to do them so they are inevitably triaged.” – Mike Martin

“No reason to not make cabinets. Buy a book, read it, get going.” – John Barrett

“I did redo my kitchen by building my own cabinets. The main reason I built my own was cost. At the time, with young kids, there was not enough extra for the kind of kitchen I envisioned. I was able to mill a large oak tree that fell in my yard, and augment it with oak plywood. The second reason, or almost as much importance was the ability to custom design everything to maximize space — not possible with store-bought cabinets. I learned a lot about building in production style — for example, making a pile of rails and stiles for the doors all at one time. It was also fun fitting the carcasses in the garage for finishing. Overall, I had a lot of fun and the final product turned out pretty nice, if I do say so myself.” – David Teller

“Making cabinets is straightforward.  First do your design on 2D CAD, and then go to work. Cabinet boxes are all virtually the same.  The only difference is in the type of cabinet, doors or drawers. Using CAD cuts down on mistakes and waste.” – Chuck Anderson

“A very famous woodworker, Frank Klausz, once told me that building something of that nature is simple. You are building a box. Anyone can build a box as long as they can measure accurately and use a table saw. If anyone is a little shaky about taking on such a task, they just need to challenge themselves and build a box. Use measurements for a floor cabinet for a kitchen, and then build it. This won’t be used in the kitchen of course, but it will serve as the springboard for building a whole series of ‘boxes’ which will eventually become new kitchen cabinets. You will never know if you can do it unless you try!” – Leonard McAbee

“Not afraid of much about them, made several sets, but I am slow!” – Don Borgerding

Others have concerns about space requirements for this project. – Editor

“I have built one complete kitchen and am currently working on another complete kitchen renovation. In addition, I have built several cabinet additions to existing cabinets. Although I prefer to build furniture pieces, the only real drawback to building cabinets is working with sheet goods. I do not have a large shop, and the current project I am working on is requiring 45 sheets of plywood and another 400 board feet of hardwood. I have had to store this material at the home being renovated and do preliminary cuts on the sheet goods and then bring them to my shop.  Another downside is it is just labor-intensive to build from scratch and is not very challenging. I guess the non-challenging part could be considered another way, a break from racking the old brain working on something requiring precise detail from start to finish. Bottom line: a proficient woodworker should not be afraid to build kitchen cabinets, it is not really that hard to learn.” – Paul Odom

“My biggest concern in trying to make cabinets in a small garage shop is not having a big enough area for properly cutting sheet goods without have to worry excessively about chipping.  The rest is easy, but the boxes themselves are what causes me the most heartburn.” – Frank McEnulty

“I’d start building a set of kitchen cabinets tomorrow if we needed a set.  I’m confident that I can do it to an acceptable standard. But there are two points that I need to add. The first is that I’m NOT confident that I could finish them in an acceptable timeframe. Some challenges take me longer than you might think. And to have the entire kitchen on hold might cause serious stress in the household. Second, I am confident that my wife knows what she wants. She’s very good at identifying features and designs she likes. That makes the project more do-able and much more satisfying when complete.” – Doug Walkey

“I’d not hesitate to build a set of kitchen cabinets if I had the space to assemble, finish and then store them while I ripped out the old set.  The real problem for me is space. Years and years ago, I read an article that included a set of plans for building kitchen cabinets that could be ‘mass-produced’ in a garage.  It consisted of cutting all the sides and connecting pieces (shelves, stringers, etc.) and applying finish to the unassembled parts and then leaving them knocked down to store them (or even transport them to the installation location). That left space to mill, assemble and finish the face frames, doors and drawers. That approach obviously required a great deal of confidence in the craftsman’s measuring and cutting skills.  If I could find those plans today, though, I think I would be confident enough to ‘prototype’ or ‘trial run’ it and then charge forward.” – Roger Wrayburn

Or doors.  – Editor

“Speaking as a guy who built his cabinets, doors are always the worst part. Mine tended to twist with time and paint. I have read the books and watched videos, but even using mortise-and-tenon construction, making doors is one thing that drives me crazy.” – Todd Beardshear

“My biggest fear would be making the doors. Be nice to have a kind of step-by-step on making them.” – Bob Meininger

Or design and measurement, or construction methods. – Editor

“I’ve never done cabinets before. I have to build two 68-inch bathroom cabinet with six drawers and two doors each. Some casual looking at plans seems to show different structures — don’t know which is best — not sure that it matters.  So picking a ‘good’ structure design would help me. Also, mounting drawers: again, several ways available. Help me choose one. Choose it for me. Identity the slides to use. Last: how to mount granite or some other solid top.  I don’t have a clue.” – Bob Zeliff

“I am in the process of building cabinets for my kitchen. I have been wanting to do this for years but have finally decided to take on the task. I decided on the Shaker style cabinet and the wood I am using is white oak. My shop is quite extensive for a hobby shop; most of the equipment is three-phase and large. I have three shapers, so I have a matched set of Shaker style cutters set up on two shapers to reduce setups. I also have a pair of Unisaws side by side using one fence so you can have two setups for different operations. The challenge has been to design the best layout for the kitchen. I used CAD software to do the lay out and design the cabinets. My friends think it is too much work to build your own kitchen from scratch, but to be able to produce a kitchen that is custom-made exactly the way you want it and of higher quality than mass-produced cabinets is worth the effort. I have attached some photos of the cabinets during construction.” – Dave Pora

“I guess the only reason I hesitate with the idea of building new kitchen cabinets is that the process has changed from when I was in high school shop in the 70s. Where we did rabbits and dadoes, most of the cabinets made these days are done with pocket screws and recessed hinges, etc. — all things I’m sure I could do, but would have to buy the tooling to make it happen. The only other issue is that currently my shop is full of a ton of other smaller projects (I have gotten into
turning and power carving), so making room to do a large cabinet project would be an undertaking of its own. Lucky for me, the house we are in
had new cabinets already in place when we moved in! Whew.” – Richard W Galloway

Some who have built cabinets spoke of the issues they faced, or the solutions they found. – Editor

“Here are a couple of issues that make this process harder than it needs to be and could potentially be addressed.
1.The physical size of the cabinets relative to shop size in a small (one-man) shop is a critical issue.
2.  Access to cabinet grade plywood, especially with one side finished, for box construction is often quite difficult. Sources would be helpful.
3. Designing the cabinets with common parts that can all be cut and bored with one tool setup is challenging for quantity production. More design help here.
4. Cabinet construction with one person can be difficult given the size.  Ideas/tricks/jigs on how to successfully glue up and maintain square large cabinets would be useful.” – Brent Richardson

“With regards to your question about kitchen cabinets, I never had a problem trying anything out myself. Mostly I do it because I know I can figure anything out, and it gives me a good reason (OK, excuse) to but new ‘toys’ and tools I need for the project (like you can ever have enough). In fact, I built my own kitchen cabinets from scratch about 15 years ago. The four biggest issues I had to deal with were:

1.    Having enough room in my shop to work with the materials, build them and also finish and store them while in process before installation.
2.    Learning how to make the rail and stile doors I wanted. I don’t particularly like raised panels, so just did flat plywood panels in the middle. But, I did make the uppers with simple arched panels. I actually bought some supposed patterns to help me make the curves in the upper stiles and on the matching panels, but I found them totally worthless. They claimed to be useful for wide ranges of widths. However, if you used them, they would have looked horrible because they had different widths in the middle once you laid them out. So, I made my own hardboard patterns for each size door to keep them consistent, and that worked perfectly to shape them on my router table.
3.    Making lots and lots of drawers, the right size. This is pretty exacting work, especially if you choose to make dovetail joints for the boxes. I chose a more simple joint, but getting the right size box it difficult to figure out. And then getting them lined up and installed is tedious too, although there are several new jigs that make it much, much easier now than I had available 15 years ago.
4.       Hardware. Finding hardware that I liked and some that I needed was a chore. I chose to make all my lower cabinets, and the two full pantry-style sets on either side of the refrigerator have pull-out trays. Finding full extension glides that could support the weight of canned goods was not easy, and they aren’t inexpensive either. And the handles and such, there are so many available, it gets hard to decide what you want.

“Finally, I also did one other unique thing. I detest shelf paper, so I put plastic laminate on the bottoms of all the cabinets, and on the tops of all of the shelves, drawers and pull-out trays. On the shelves, I simply laminated the plywood and then put a 3/4″ wood trim on the front edge with the same finish. This makes them easy to clean, and it never comes off, or leaves that sticky residue, like shelf paper always does over time. They still look almost brand-new after 15 years, so I guess I did a good job. The last item I didn’t really have trouble with is making accurate measurements for the space where the cabinets would go, and designing the size for each section. I suspect this may be a big hurdle for many folks. It certainly takes time, but really isn’t all that difficult. And making them yourself certainly gives you the perfect fit without lost space and the use of lots of filler pieces, like when you use pre-made, standard sized cabinets.” – Dave Dietz

“We had a Satterwhite log cabin erected and chose to finish the entire inside ourselves. I had a big 1,500 square foot heated and cooled shop on the property, so it was an easy decision. At one of The Woodworking Shows, Marc Adams was there giving demos. He showed how to build cabinets starting with the face  frame. I thought it was a good way to do it and have made many cabinets since, using that  process — much easier for me than building a box and trying to fit a frame to it. Not sure why, but I made all the cabinets in our 2,400 square foot log home. I used pine lumber for most with cabinet grade plywood for the boxes and shelves. I laid out the kitchen for my wife with big boxes and plywood so she could ‘see’ what it would look like and rearrange as she desired. As a result, she has worked in it for the last 14 years, and loved it. One thing I would recommend to ALL: no cabinet doors below the countertops, just drawer units.  Many guys  have cursed me for that, going home and having their wives demand their cabinets are converted to, at least, pull-outs.” – Ray Jones

And we heard from at least one reader who could make kitchen cabinets – but just chooses not to. – Editor

“I am probably not your typical reader in that I make my living working wood. I’ve designed and made furniture for 42 years and have my work in homes all over the country. So do I build cabinets? My answer is a definite and resolute NO! I have built kitchen cabinets for two of the homes I’ve owned and they were very nice cabinets, but doing this cost me time that really should have been spent working on a paying client piece! So, this past summer, my wife and I renovated our home and we bought all the cabinets for our kitchen and bathrooms and had the builder install them all. During our renovation, I worked on the commissions I had clients waiting for and I built four pieces for the galleries I show work in. Bottom line? The purchased cabinets are top-of-the-line and were all installed over two days by a very talented carpenter. The earnings from my work easily paid almost three times the cost of the cabinets. So, no, I don’t build cabinets for myself or anybody else! Now if you want to talk about a dining table and chairs or a cabinet for displaying things, or any other form of furniture to my design, we’ll talk!” – Clint Struthers

Posted in: