How to Build Base Cabinets


Lower cabinets take a beating in almost any kitchen. Pets, children, step stools, everything that passes through your kitchen poses a threat to the finish. Replacing them, even with ready-made cabinets, can be expensive and may not be an option. Resurfacing can sometimes cost nearly as much as replacement and may not be the solution if your cabinets are more than a little worn. Learning to do your own carpentry work can be a fun and rewarding process and building base cabinets is a great place to start. After all, how far can they fall?

Things You'll Need

  • Tape measure
  • ¾-inch plywood or MDF
  • ¼-inch plywood
  • Pin nailer and compressor
  • Wood glue
  • Drill
  • Table saw or circular saw
  • Door and drawer hardware

Understanding Cabinet Construction

  • Start by examining your own cabinets. Once the countertop is removed, you have a row of plywood boxes with horizontal wooden support cleats in the top and an open face. The bottoms are supported by a frame of plywood cleats. There are two basic types. Faceframe cabinets have a plywood, or hardwood, frame attached to the front of the box. Frameless or European cabinets use the bulkheads, top cleat and bottom as a frame.

  • Use your old cabinets as templates. Measure every piece and sketch it out on paper, labeling carefully. You'll notice three basic varieties: door units, drawer units and drawer over door units. Make a note of how the joints are made and what types of material are used for each part.

  • Sketch out your cabinets. Use door units with large storage where you'll use your larger appliances and other larger items. A door over drawer goes well next to the stove for pans and utensils. Try several arrangements until you find one that works for you.

Cutting Your Cabinets

  • Make a list of pieces you need for your base cabinets. Each lower unit needs two bulkheads-side panels- and one solid bottom cut from ¾-inch plywood or MDF. Cut the back panel from ¼-inch plywood. Cut two top cleats and two back cleats from ¾-inch material. Drawer faces and doors can be cut from ¾-inch material, or ordered premade. Drawer boxes are usually ½-inch plywood sides and rear and ¼-inch bottom.

  • Cut the larger pieces first, such as side panels and doors, to make the best use of material. Cut similar pieces together. Label them to avoid confusion. A table saw is the best tool for the job, but a circular saw with a good plywood blade is sufficient. Measure everything twice and double-check the dimensions.

  • Machine the bulkheads for hinges and drawer slides and make dadoes for the backs. A dado is a groove ¼-inch-wide by 3/8-inch-deep, ¾ inch from the back edge of the bulkhead. The back will slide into these. If a pocket screw jig is available, add pocket screw holes to the ends of your cleats. Consult the manufacturer's instructions for proper alignment and operation.

Building the Cabinets

  • Assemble the box of the cabinet first. Attach the bulkheads to the sides of the bottom with glue and nails. Add the front top cleat flush with the front edge of the bulkheads and the top of the cabinet. Slide the back into place, flush with the top of the bulkheads.

  • Add the two back cleats from the rear at the top and bottom flat against the back. Add the remaining top cleat flush with the top of the bulkhead with the back edge against the inside of the cabinet back.
    Assemble your drawers. Drawer sides are typically dadoed similarly to bulkheads so that the bottom slides in and is locked in position by the back.

  • Attach the face frame, if needed, to the front edge of the bulkheads and the bottom and top cleat. Add drawer hardware and shelf brackets. Attach hinges and pulls to doors and drawers and install. Repeat the process for all base cabinets before attaching them to the wall.

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