Whether it’s for protecting our valuable tools and organizing our shop space or bringing order to a home office or kitchen, we all need a simple space to store our stuff
Gatherers and hewers … that’s what we are. From the humblest of humans to the loftiest of lords, gathering stuff for the enjoyment and needs of our daily lives separates us from other life forms. So now we need nice places to stash our stuff. Once we outgrow the cardboard boxes of our youth and the milk crates of our teens and twenties, the “hewer” in us gives us the inspiration and skills to create more attractive, personal containment, keeping our stuff orderly, safe and close at hand.
The word cabinet comes to us from the Italian word “gabinetto” for closet or chest of drawers. In any language, a cabinet is a great place to store your stuff. Cabinets can be made in all shapes and sizes, styles and configurations but the most universally useful cabinets are the simplest.
Simple or Specific
Though you can customize the drawers to neatly hold specific tools, there’s nothing wrong with leaving things simple and flexible.
Harmony Is Important … to a point
Keep the ratio of 1:1.618 in mind when designing pieces, but don’t forget about function.
Solid wood edging on the case and drawer fronts provides durability but is harder to apply. Another option would be easy to apply iron-on veneer tape.
Choose Your Own Adventure
When selecting joinery you have many options. A lock mitre (above) is one of many ways to join the sides, top and bottom. The drawer box (this photo and below) was joined with a rabbet and groove. Choose a method based on the finished look you want, the tooling you have and how much time you want to invest.
By using full extension slides you have easier access to items near the back of the drawer. This small project may be the perfect opportunity to try a type of slide you’re not familiar with.
Once the slides have been installed, and the finish has been applied, glue and screw the back into place.
Simple is good
On the “down-side”, keeping things simple keeps your materials costs down, the time required to make it down and the time involved to put your choice of finish on it down. On the “up-side”, simple cabinets can be put to use doing a variety of things. They can be “open concept” versatile or customized with dividers and compartments to perform a specific task. A simple cabinet is a great foundation; it’s a blank slate for expression and decoration through applied mouldings, paint, stain, glazes, and hardware or left clean and just durably varnished as I’ve done here.
My cabinet was made to hold my collection of hand planes in my workspace, keeping them all together in one place rather than squirreled away “wherever”. However, by changing dimensions to suit, it could just as easily be made to fit the needs of a home office (records and files), entertainment area (CDs/DVDs), or mudroom (hats, gloves, dog leashes).
Design first, build second.
As with all projects, design has to be considered and a great place to begin is with a pad of graph paper and an HB pencil. From a visual standpoint, “The Golden Section” is a starting point; this ratio of 1:1.618 satisfies our sense of visual harmony but is most often tweaked to suit whatever you’re making. Considerations must include the location and function of the cabinet and the dimensions of objects it will contain.
My cabinet is made to sit on a low portable cart, 28 ½” wide and 24″ deep, so width and depth were established. Next, I measured the height, width and length of the stuff I wanted to put in the drawers, left a margin for expanding my collection, decided on the number of drawers I’d need and plugged all that into my thinking.
With my overall case width and depth established, I arrived at drawer widths by subtracting the thickness of the drawer sliders, clearance allowances and the thickness of the case material itself from 28 ½”; drawers then will be 26″ outside, 24 ¾” inside. Sweet!
Next I turned my attention to heights. Deciding that two drawers would be fine, one for taller planes and the other for smaller tools, and knowing that the largest item I’d be storing was my jack plane measuring 22″ long x 5 ½” tall, the bigger drawer had to be at least 6″ deep inside. And at over 24″ inside width, I’d be able to easily access this biggest plane from its intended spot at the front of the drawer. Perfect!
I decided that drawers on the plus side of 5″ and 3 ½” deep with applied face panels of 7 ½” and 5 ¼”, respectively, would work well. By allowing for ⅛” clearance between the face panels and the case and the drawers themselves plus the thickness of the case material, I determined the case’s overall height would be 14 ½”. This would put the case’s top surface at a perfect working height up from the floor once on my cart. Bonus!
From a height of 14 ½”, a tad of math shows perfect “golden ratios” would have produced a cabinet 23 ½” wide (14 ½” x 1.618) and my lower drawers overall face panel height of 7 ½” would have preferred an upper drawer face a hair shy of 4 ¾” (7 ½” divided by 1.618). It was not the 5 ¼” front panel I needed, but I sure was in the visual harmony ballpark. Bliss!!
Be sure to have your drawer sliders in-hand before you begin making any cabinet so you can tweak your case and drawer dimensions to suit the sliders’ requirements. Drawer sliders are available in a large selection of load ranges and lengths to suit whatever size of case you’re making and the greatest weight of contents you’ll be storing.
Plan the work then work the plan
The whole time I’ve been calculating, I’ve also been sketching, as accurately as possible, and now have a good picture of the size and placement of all the bits and parts I’ll be working with, plus a sense of the order in the cutting/fitting/making process.
Cabinet grade plywood is the best material from which to make the case and face panels. It’s dimensionally stable (won’t move with seasonal changes in heat and humidity as will solid wood) and has a “good” veneer on both sides unlike lesser grades of plywood that may have ugly voids or patches. Generally, the more core plies and the thicker the face veneers the better. The case is constructed using ¾” plywood for top, bottom and sides, making sure the grain runs vertically on the sides and left to right across the top and bottom so the grain runs around the case rather than front to back, improving the appearance and allowing edging to be added with its grain direction in sympathy with that of the plywood. If you cut the sides and top from one larger piece, the grain will run continuously around the visible portion of the cabinet.
Solid edging in a similar or contrasting wood is attractive and durable, but iron-on veneer edging is also a great way to cover any exposed plywood core surfaces such as those you’ll get around the case and drawer fronts.
I cut the drawer face fronts from the same plywood used for the case, allowing for the ¼” thickness of my choice of edging. For a visual treat, cut the face fronts from one solid piece of plywood so the grain will be continuous between the two panels. Ah, harmony.
For the drawer sides, front and back I chose poplar, a medium-density hardwood, which machines and finishes well. Using solid wood for the drawers eliminates the need to apply edging and produces stronger joinery at the corners; seasonal movement isn’t a consideration here. ⅜” veneer core plywood is well suited to make the drawer bottoms and the case back as it offers stiffness, strength under load and seasonal stability.
As the owner of a “lock mitre” bit for my router table, I like to put my cases together using lock mitre joinery, but a splined mitre, biscuited mitre, double-corner rabbet joint or biscuited butt joint will work too, depending on your skill level and tooling available. In a case of this size with accurate joinery, glue and a tight fitting back panel, you’ll be just fine as long as the case goes together square and plumb. For the drawers of a utility cabinet such as this, a rabbet-and-groove joint can be used to unite the drawer sides with the mating back and front components. Dovetail joints will add strength plus “eye candy” in more critical cases.
The back panel for the case is cut and trimmed for a snug fit into a rabbet cut all around the inside rear of the case before assembly. Wait to finally install the back panel after you’ve installed the sliders; just screw it in place for now. The drawer bottoms are slid into snug rabbets ⅜” up from the bottom of all the drawer components.
With the case and drawers assembled, a coat of dewaxed shellac or thinned varnish on all interior surfaces (except where the back panel glues into its mating rabbet) will seal the interior before you go further. Let it dry overnight then lightly fine-sand to remove any fuzz. Next, the sliders are installed on the drawer sides and the mating parts marked, accurately located and applied on the inside of the cabinet case.
Now apply edging to the case and the drawer face panels using glue and brads. Trim everything flush with a keen plane and sand paper, retaining crisp edges, which you can ease once everything is fitted and before applying finish.
Face panels with drawer pulls installed are next, applied to the front of the drawers using screws through slightly oversized holes from within the drawer allowing some movement to tailor the panels placement once the drawers are installed on their sliders.
Once the back panel is glued and screwed in place and the drawers are installed and tuned to fit the case opening, it’s time to play. If you want to add some decorative mouldings, stain, varnish, a glaze and more varnish or urethane for durability, now’s the time to personalize your cabinets show surfaces.
Cabinets are such an easy and enjoyable project; you’ll want to create new cabinets for your kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms and anywhere you want to store your stuff in style.