Reader Question: How We Built Our Kitchen Cabinets

***As a disclaimer, this isn’t a step-by-step-anyone-with-power-tools-can-do-this kind of project.***  

We’ve had several questions and requests for more details of how we built our own cabinets.  Ashley said, “You and Ben should do some sort of a write-up as to the materials you used and how you designed the cabinets, a breakdown of the costs, etc. I also have a small kitchen and am looking to redo it as well. We’d love to make custom cabinets, but I’m not sure how much we’d have to spend or even what materials to use!  I know determining sizes would be unique to each kitchen, but if there’s any sort of snags you came across when measuring, things to look out for or remember, etc. those would be helpful to keep in mind. I think the construction is what I’m most curious about though because we could use our existing cabinets as a means of measurement.”

Those are all very good questions.  And we have answers, hopefully they’re sufficient.  Let’s start with the basics; the material and pricing.  We used 3/4 inch cabinet grade plywood for nearly everything.  The reason?  Plywood is super sturdy and we would rather over build something than have problems down the road.  Better safe than sorry.  Cabinet grade is smoother with fewer knots than other plywood, so it costs a little more.  At Montana Home Depots, a 4 foot by 8 foot sheet of plywood costs about $25.  For all the cabinets, we’ve used 17 sheets.

For the drawer fronts we used MDF because it’s smoother and we don’t need plywood for strength.  When we designed the cabinets, we pretty much kept the layout we already had with some modifications.  If you’re keeping the same layout, you can measure the cabinets to make the new ones.  Our overall sizes were nearly identical to the old cabinets, we just combined a few.  One thing to take into consideration are the wasted spaces in your current layout.  Sometimes there’s a reason for it, like in our corner cabinet.

When measuring, remember you need to allow for clearance of hardware and door swings.  But if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Another thing to consider when measuring is how deep your cabinets are.  A piece of plywood is four feet wide, but you’ll want to make your cabinets just under two feet deep (ours are 23 3/4 inches deep) to maximize sheets of plywood.  Remember, the saw blade eats up a sliver of the wood.  Preventing waste will also help keep the cost down.

To keep things as simple and sturdy as possible, we make the toe kicks out of 2 by 4 studs.  This way you’re not factoring the space into the cabinet, you’re simply building two boxes to set on the other.

Now that we’ve covered the basics, how about we move on to the building phase?  Ben builds cabinets with the top and bottom pieces the full width and depth of the overall size.

For example, the cabinets by our stove are 42 inches wide by 23 3/4 inches deep by 32 1/2 inches tall, not including the toe kick.

The top and bottom pieces of this cabinet measure 42 inches by 23 3/4 inches.  Because the top and bottom are the full size, the sides and back rest inside.  So the sides of this cabinet are 23 3/4 inches deep by 31 inches tall.  The back is the smallest at 31 inches tall by 40 1/2 inches wide.

To hold everything securely, Ben applies a bead of wood glue, then nails everything together using 16 guage nails in an air nailer.

The process is similar for building the drawers, too.  The bottom piece is the entire width and depth.  Attach the sides next, which extend front to back with the height you prefer.  Each drawer will vary in height.  Finally, the back and front fit between the side pieces.  Everything is glued and nailed into place and allowed to dry.

With the cabinets installed, Ben added another thin strip of 3/4 inch plywood to attach the face framing to.  For our visible end panels, we covered the rougher plywood with smooth 1/2 inch thick MDF.  For added decorative detail, 1/4 inch thick by 2 1/2 inch wide MDF borders the edges.

Using plywood for the drawer sides does come with a complication; hiding the top edge.  You could use iron on veneer but we opted to fill the cracks with wood filler to sand everything smooth to prepare for primer and paint.

The plywood edges of the cabinets all get a face lift in the form of 1/4 inch MDF.  We decided on a mix of traditional and European style drawers.

Traditional style cabinets have a divider strip between each cabinet and drawer, like these from Young House Love:

European style cabinet doors and drawer fronts nearly touch one another, like these:

Our mix has a 3/4 inch reveal {the width of visible cabinet face} on all outside edges, but the drawers nearly touch each other.

After deciding on the reveal width, Ben started building drawer fronts.  Ours are a simple shaker style; a flat panel with a thin border detail.  To make the drawer faces, Ben cut pieces of 1/2 inch MDF to the overall size for each drawer.  Then he cut tons of 2 1/2 inch wide 1/4 inch thick strips of MDF.  Using a pin nailer and glue, Ben added the trim detail.

And now, for the super tedious part; filling, sanding, priming, and painting the cabinets for a seamless, polished look.  We like to use Elmer’s Wood Filler and a small putty knife to get in the small cracks.  For nail holes, I like to use my finger to squish the filler in the hole.  Let the filler dry overnight, then sand with a high grit (about 220) sand paper.

If necessary, fill areas and sand again.  Run your fingers over the surface.  If you feel a bump, keep on sanding.  The true test is after the coat of primer.  If you see a crack or hole once the primer has dried, don’t hold out hope the paint will fill it.  It won’t and you’ll be more annoyed about touching it up.  And, if you’re like I am, you probably will never do it.

When it’s time to install the drawer fronts, first measure, mark, and drill holes for your hardware.  To save time (and aggravation), I make a paper template.  I measure the distance between the hardware holes and poke holes to easily mark the cabinets.  You could buy a template at the hardware store, too.  These holes will come in handy when trying to attach the fronts.  Use spacers to make sure they’re lined up, then screw through the pre-drilled hardware holes, going into the actual drawer.

This will hold the front in place while you screw from the inside to secure the front.  Back out the screws, drill through the drawer, and add your hardware.

Finish off the 2 by 4 toe kick with a piece of primed and painted 1/4 inch thick  MDF.  If you use caulking, glue, or pin nails, you’ll have minimal touch up paint.

So that’s how we made our lower drawers, but we’ve still got the upper cabinets to discuss.

Upper cabinets begin in much the same way as the lower drawers.  Make a plywood box to size, but you don’t have to build drawer boxes to go inside.  Easy, right?  Hang the cabinet box, screwing into studs.  Here’s where the building is different.  Rather than 1/4 inch MDF facing, you’ll need 3/4 inch thick wood facing.  We used poplar because it’s easy to work with and durable with minimal grain.  Add any decorative side trim first, subtracting the thickness of the poplar to keep an even border.  Nail the poplar trim (ours is 1 1/2 inches wide) to the front edges, keeping the sides flush.  Fill every hole and crack (dirty!), sand smooth, prime, and paint.

If you want solid doors, follow the same steps as the drawer fronts.  But, for glass front doors, you’ve got a little more work ahead of you.  Using real wood, we used poplar but Ben would use oak if he had to do this again, cut 2 1/2 inch wide strips.  Using a router, make a tongue and groove system for the frame pieces to fit together.  Remember, this only has to be 2 1/2 inches from the long ends.  Then, apply a bead of glue and slide the pieces together.  Use pin nails to keep the frames from shifting before drying.  After the glue sets, router out a channel for the glass.

The router can’t get the corners completely square, so use a utility knife and chisel to square everything up.

We took our doors to a local glass shop where they cut and installed the glass for us.

To hang the doors, first use a Forstner drill bit to recess the hidden hinge.

Attach the hinge to the cabinet door.  Get a helper to hold the cabinet door while marking, drilling pilot holes, and screwing the hinges to the cabinet frame.

Then get a beer, wine, margarita, or a Coke and enjoy your new cabinets, relishing how much money you saved by building your own cabinets.  Speaking of how much you’ll save, let’s look at our pricing.

DIY Cabinet Building Budget Break Down:

17 Sheets of Cabinet Plywood: $249.85 {Ben got a really good deal on the plywood, though I don’t remember how…}
2 Sheets of 3/4 MDF:  $69.00 {mostly used for cabinet shelving}
7 Sheets of 1/2 MDF:  $171.50 {for drawer fronts and end panels}
2 Sheets of 1/4 MDF:  $28.00 {for drawer front banding and face frames}
4 gallons of gray Glidden paint: $57.08  {originally $87.88 because Wal-Mart didn’t have their brand in stock; used to paint the insides of the cabinets and drawers-we only used 2 1/2 gallons}
10 2×6 studs (used to support the wall we tore down) and 10 2×4 studs (used for toe kicks): $80.00  {Still grouped together because I don’t know individual costs of the studs}
Acryshield Paint$52.39  {for the exteriors of the gray cabinets}
Drawer Glides:  $56.16
Behr white paint, for upper cabinets:  $32.98
Glidden White Paint, for trim:  $24.97
Vinyl bumper pads:  $7.74 {for three packs}
Bolts and screws for drawer fronts and handles:  $14.78
Cabinet door hinges:  $34.72  for 16
Poplar for cabinet frames: $27.00 for 18 board feet
Drawer Pulls:  $63.00 {or $31.50 for 10 at Lowe’s}
Door Knobs:  $20.00 for 8
2 packages of Shelf Supports:  $9.98
Glass for Doors: $30.60
We already had all the tools as well as wood filler, sand paper, nails, etc.
Grand total for cabinet supplies:  $972.67
Price for KraftMaid cabinets:  $7,000-$9,000 {depending on the style and upgrades}
Total savings for DIYing the cabinets:  $6,027.33-$8,027.33
Things to remember:
This might seem blindingly obvious and unnecessary to mention, but you are deciding every. single. detail.  Unlike buying cabinets, you have a lot to think about and decide.  Where will your toe kicks go; only on the fronts?  How big/deep should the drawers be?  What will the visible end panels look like?  Traditional or European style?
Measure, measure, measure!  That old rule ‘measure twice, cut once’ most definitely applies to cabinet building.  Make sure to take the plywood width into consideration when determining cabinet sizes, too.
It helps to have all supplies before building starts.  Get your drawer glides so you know how big to build your drawers.
If you like your cabinet layout and the existing cabinet frames are in good condition, building new cabinet doors and drawer fronts might be an affordable way for you to update your kitchen.  Because you’ve got pre-determined sizes, building might be easier.
We have absolutely no regrets going with all drawer lowers.  They’re much more functional and we’ve picked up a lot of space, even in the same footprint.
Now, if you still have questions, lay them on me.

New Glasses

A more appropriate title would be “Random Kitchen Stuff we Finished Over the Weekend.”

First up, we got glass in those cabinet doors.  Wednesday morning, I removed the doors from the cabinet frames, leaving the hinges and knobs on the door.

The boys and I hauled the glass-less frames to a local glass shop.  While holding E and keeping my eye on V, I carefully started unloading the boxes from the trunk.  Luckily, the man working there saw I had my hands full and took the doors out of my hands.

Once inside, E pointed out the taxidermy elk and deer (so Montanan) while the kind man and I discussed the doors.  Yep, I want plain clear glass in each of these.  He told me about their process and the precautions the take to prevent damaging the furniture.  That made me happy.  After giving me my total, only $30.60 for the glass and installation, I asked when the doors would be ready.  His response: well, we open at 8:00 tomorrow, so come in any time after that.  What?!  That’s quicker than I thought it would be.  Wahoo!

Sure enough, on Thursday afternoon, I picked up the ready and waiting doors.  And they looked wonderful.  Driving slower than a 90-year-old lady, we finally made it home.  Shortly after hauling the doors in the house, I decided I couldn’t wait to get them back up.  Four screws later, the cabinets were officially done.

Sorry for the glare, too.

On Sunday, Ben finished up some lighting.  Specifically, rope lights inside the glass-fronted cabinets.  He started with two packages of rope light and several strips of rope light channel.

After cutting, peeling, and sticking the channel, it was simple enough to push the lights in.  The lights were a little long for the cabinets, so we coiled the extra length at the top of the cabinets.

During the day, the lights barely highlight the dishes.  At night, the real magic happens.

I think our dishes now look like a jewelry display at a department store.  And I love anything shiny or sparkly.  The soft glow is pretty kick butt, too.

Update:  We’ve had questions on the lighting placement.  Our cabinet face frames overhang the cabinet by 3/4 inch, so we stuck the channel to the back side of that face frame.

Then the lights run up the side, and coil around the top front (to stay out of sight), and back down the other side.

Remember this ugly stove leg situation we have because our cabinets are taller than your average bear cabinet?

Well, it was finally time to take those legs from frumpy to fabulous.  After discussing our options (painted PVC pipe, wooden legs, adjustable bolts, etc.) we decided to buy blots and 1 1/2 stainless steel pipe for a slip cover effect.  Ben called from the hardware store to tell me they didn’t have brushed stainless pipe, only polished.  I told him to get it because a. we didn’t have a better option and b. fine sand paper should fix that.

When he got home with the pipe, he pointed out it was stainless plated brass.  I started sanding with 400 grit paper, being careful not to sand through the plating.  Happily, it worked like a charm.  See the difference?

While Handy Sammy held the stove front up, Ben screwed in the bolts, adjusted for height, and slipped the pipes over the bolts.

Oh, and I added a small strip of left over rope channel to secure the loose end of the rope lights.

For only a few bucks, we made matching stainless legs.  With the height adjustment, the top of the stove sits nicely against the counter tops, too.  While none of these projects will make a dramatic impression, it certainly helps the kitchen feel more polished and finished.

Just a little more sanding (the ceiling) and this small patch by the dining room, a few more trim pieces, some paint and we’re finally done with the kitchen.

What have you been working on this weekend?  Any sanding?  Installing lights?


Cabinet Doors? Done

Almost.  I’ve got some touch up painting to do, but I’ll explain that later.  On Saturday, Ben built eight cabinet doors including two glass frames.  Details to come later, but you can bet I filled the doors right away.  Sunday morning I sanded those babies down and filled a few areas again.  While impatiently tapping my fingers waiting for filler to dry, I dreamed about installed cabinet doors.  A few hours later, I gave the doors a final sanding and started painting with my two in one Behr paint.  Love that I don’t have to prime.

I don’t know why, but Behr paint seems to dry faster than any other brand.  Which is good news for me because I got two coats of paint on the fronts of the cabinets on Sunday.  Then I flipped ’em over on Monday and gave the backs two more coats.  Tuesday morning, I flipped back to the front for one more coat.

Once that coat dried, I hauled the doors up to the kitchen and propped them in place.  You know, just to get a feel of what they would look like.  Because I’m impatient like that.

That’s when I discovered a problem.  The two glass door frames were about 1/8 inch wider than their lower counterparts.

Ben happened to come home to get his wallet during this and I pointed out the problem.

When Ben got home that afternoon, I politely asked begged, pleaded, and whined for him to install the cabinet doors.  He ripped down the glass door frames to make everything even and flush.  Then he started with the install of the fridge and bar doors.  To install the hidden hinges, Ben measured and marked his the hole locations.  He carefully drilled into the frames to hollow out a hole to recess the hinge in.

I admit, I was holding my breath while watching this.  Ben is skilled (as you all know) but I imagined him drilling too far or popping a screw through the front.  Luckily, everything went smoothly, other than one screw head breaking off.  Then he popped the hinge in, used a square to keep it straight and put 3/4 inch screws in to hold it in place.

Handy Sammy was over for dinner, so he held the door up for Ben to hang.  I’m too short, I can’t reach.  Okay, I’m not that short, but it is nice to pawn a job off on an unsuspecting guest.

We didn’t want the wood cabinet frames to split, so Ben used a small drill bit to make a pilot hole, followed by a 1 1/4 inch screw in each hinge to hold the door in place.  After the two bar and two fridge cabinets, Ben called it quits for the night and took a shower.  While I was in the shower, Ben did a little more work.  I walked out to see two door knobs in the fridge cabinets.

Speaking of the knobs, I had a little trouble deciding on the placement.  Like Goldilocks, one was too low; centered in the bottom corner.

Another was too high; the outer edge of the knob above the bottom edge detail.

But one was juuuust right.  And Ben agreed.  Centered width wise on the edge detail, but also centered on the cross edge.

Fortunately for me, this made measuring a cinch.  I just lined my ruler up with the raised detail and marked 1 1/4 inch from the edge (because our banding is 2 1/2 inches wide).

Yesterday afternoon, Ben finished installing the doors.  Where’d the microwave go?  Oh, it’s hidden behind a cabinet door.  Sneaky us.

And now you can’t see our pile of mail or the toaster.  But you can see our pretty dishes!

Add a few sparkly knobs and we’re done.  Wait, we’re not.  I’ve got to paint the crown moulding, those MDF brown trim pieces we’ve added, repaint the edges of the glass frames, and, oh yeah.  Get glass!  Notice the lack of glare?  Ben thinks we should leave the doors glass-less so we always have clean and clear glass that’s under control (not to be confused with the face cleanser).

And I’ve already made this a long post, so why not make it a little longer, all in the name of eye candy?  Oooooh, shiiiny.

I did realize why the knobs were so cheap, though.  Some of the bolts are bent.  Nothing Ben and a little man muscle can’t fix.

Edit:  Here are the pictures I promised to add.  I’ll have to touch up the paint on the glass frames.

And, here’s something I really love.  Ben bought soft close hinges.  No more slamming doors.

We’ve got tons more storage on the bar side, too.  So far, the only thing inside is Ben’s food dehydrator.

We used three hinges on these heavy guys.

Once we get the glass in the frames we’ll have a full cabinet building post.  I’m just excited we’ve covered the gaping holes and you can’t see our junk.  Before, it was like we left our zipper down, but no one told us.  Well, we figured it out.

One more thing checked off our to do list, one step closer to a finished kitchen, but it’s finally starting to look finished.  Just a little more sanding, priming, and painting…  Of course then we’ve got organizing and little building projects to do, but nothing that has to be done.

What do you think?  What’s your favorite part?  Who’s excited to see some paint on those walls?