DIY kitchen cabinets were our choice because of the cost of commercial cabinets and our determination to build our home by hand. We saved thousands of dollars on cabinets and counters.
Once the house was weathered in and our floors were completed, it was time for the finish work aka cabinets and counters. Our plans called for three sets of lower cabinets – an island, the perimeter cabinets with overhead storage, and the bathroom cabinets. This page is devoted to our cabinets. Our DIY tile countertops will be described on another page.
At first, I was daunted by the prospect of building our own cabinets. As an average builder with average tools, the precision needed to have cabinets and counter tops that were functional and attractive seemed way beyond my skill set. So we visited a few building supply stores that carried cabinets and offered consultation in kitchen and cabinet design.
While the designers were generally great, the cost of even the most “affordable” cabinets put them out of our reach per our budget. The cabinets, commercially built, would have been 25% of what we ultimately spent on the house, including the septic system. Depending on the wood and style (and many were a very thin veneer over fiberboard) our planned cabinets would have cost us from $7,000 to $11,000 USD in 2010.
Ultimately, we built our own cabinets from scratch and installed a tile countertop for approximately $1,100 USD. We have been using them now for four years and they perform as well or better than any commercial cabinets we have owned.
Besides the money we saved with our DIY kitchen cabinets, we were now in a position to build our kitchen to suit our personal preferences.
Our first step was to identify function. What should happen where? Spices close to prep areas, plates and flatwear near the dining room, pans near the stove and on and on.
After determining function and location, we could design cabinets to specifically meet needs. As an example, we have found that the small containers with spices can be lost, seemingly forever, in the wilds of a deep over the counter cabinet. We countered that problem with a two tier lazy susan in our corner cupboard and, for our most used spices, a DIY door hung rack in a cabinet with recessed shelves.
All of our lower cabinets have shelves built on drawer slides for ease of access. As I am not fond of bending or kneeling, a function of both age and shape, this feature has been great.
As we discussed when planning the entire house one function at a time, building DIY kitchen cabinets can be approached the same way. We broke the process into sequential steps – case, face frames, shelving, and doors.
Reading and referring to an excellent book by Jim Tolpin, Building Traditional Kitchen Cabinets, we were able to design and build cases, frames, and doors with ease.
Cabinet cases are really no more than a wooden box. In our case, built from 3/4" plywood. You can buy sheets with a variety of veneers for exposed surfaces. We found an excellent grade of pine plywood at a nearby big box building supply store.
This wood matched much of the old Southwest furniture we owned. It was also reasonably priced. Other veneers, from cherry to birch and more exotic woods are available for more money.
We followed Tolpin’s excellent guidance and modified the plans to fit our spaces. Then it was on to the face frames.
Face frames for our DIY kitchen cabinets and drawers were made from select pine. Great to work with as there are no knots.
With a bit of care in ripping and sanding, our face frames fit beautifully without any routing. To insure a tight fit and lasting strength, we used pocket screws to attach the frames to the case work. Bevel the face frame of your over-the- counter corner cabinets to get a tight and secure join and an attractive fit.
In keeping with the average guy with average tools, we did not attempt to do dovetailed all-wood drawers. While all-wood drawers can be purchased to be assembled at home, we wanted to make our drawer building experience as easy as possible.
We chose a metal Häfele box system with metal sides and slides for all our drawers. We cut, sanded, and fastened the bottoms and backs from plywood and cut the fronts from select pine dimension lumber. Built-in adjustability ensured a tight fit for the drawer face. The process was straightforward and we have had no problems with wobbly or sticking drawers. These drawer systems are also a fraction of the cost of custom dovetailed kits.
In keeping with our vision of simple living, we chose a simple frame and panel DIY kitchen cabinet door with a design influenced by Shaker cabinets.
Because both sides of the doors would be exposed when used, we chose mortise and tenon joints for strength and aesthetics. The doors were the most demanding in terms of the specialized tools we chose to use. These included a router with a straight bit for creating the mortise grooves to seat the panels. Important note – 1/4" plywood is smaller than 1/4". We used a 1/4" router bit and had to shim a couple door panels.
We used a 140 tooth blade on our table saw to cut out the shoulders on the rail tenons and made the mortise router cut on the stiles double the depth of the panel grooves. We cut the panel grooves 1/4" deep and the mortise cuts double that.
Make sure your panels fit the groove with a minimum of play. As a newbie to cabinet work, I made a practice door out of scrap and dry fit the joins to ensure settings. See Tolpin for suggested tolerances. You want the panel to be free to react to temperature and humidity changes without rattling when the door is shut.
For installing the hinges, we used a Drillrite 35 mm Hinge Jig and Bit specially designed to mount European hinges. To drill holes of a consistent depth that were also perfectly straight, we used our portable drill press secured to our work bench. We waited until we had all the doors built, set the bit for depth and clamped a guide to the drill press table. The holes for the hinges were cut smoothly and quickly.
There are a wide variety of options for joining sections of cabinetwork together. Lap joints, dovetail, mortise and tenon, dowels, biscuits to name a few. Taking our lack of experience in joinery, our basic tools, and the shop size for set up, we chose to use the Kreg pocket screw system. Kreg systems are available from about $10 USD to as much as you care to pay. We bought the clamp as well and paid about $16 USD.
Because our shop is small, we did our assembly for large pieces outside on a temporary table. Our Arizona weather makes this possible. Smaller pieces were joined, also on a plywood and sawhorse table, in the shop. Be sure to carefully stack glued sections or leave them clamped on the table overnight, especially the more fragile face frames, while glue dries.
With some care and attention to detail, DIY kitchen cabinets can be made by average builders with average tools. You can save hundreds of dollars and enjoy looking at cabinets that you made in your own shop. Happy Building!!
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