Canadian Woodworking

Special cabinets and countertops – part 4

Author: Danny Proulx
Published: October November 2003

This article is the fourth in a series of five that will explore many of the issues and cabinets styles for those of you who want to build kitchen and bathroom cabinets.

In this fourth installment, I’ll discuss some of the issues you might face when building special cabinets. These so-called “specials” are non-standard uppers and base units, such as tall cabinets, pantries, and stove and microwave cabinets. However, “special” simply means a variation of the standard base or upper cabinets (detailed in Part II and III of this series) so we always apply the basic construction principals. The procedures apply to both frameless and face frame styled cabinets.

As well, I’ll detail the construction steps involved in building beautiful wood edged counter tops. They really add a touch of class to any kitchen or bathroom cabinet project and they’re easy to make.


Face frame pantry and microwave oven cabinets share the same basic carcase assembly. The sides are 80 ½” high and as deep as you require. The top and bottom shelves follow the width rules for standard cabinets, and the back board is also 80 ½” high and as wide as the bottom board plus the two side thicknesses. There may be one or two additional fixed shelves, depending on the style of the cabinet. The face frame is 81 ¼” high, following the rule that face frames are ¾” longer than cabinet sides, with 1″ wide [[asset:image:7597 {"mode":"small","align":"left"}]]stiles and 1 ½” top and bottom rails. The face frame may also contain up to five additional rails depending on the drawer and door combination. Each cabinet is normally fitted with adjustable shelves, drawers, pull-outs, or a combination of all three.

The upper section of the pantry cabinet is high and sometimes very deep. The tendency is to store kitchen utensils that are not often used for day-to-day meal preparation. To better use this space you might consider installing vertical fixed partitions in place of the normal horizontal adjustable shelf. Vertical partitions allow you to store articles such as cutting boards, pizza trays, and large serving platters that usually end up stacked on top of one another in a base cabinet. Simply attach the verticals with two screws through the top of the cabinet and two through the underside of the fixed shelf. You don’t have to be concerned with shelf loading capacity as these verticals simply define cubicles for large item storage. Use ⅝” or ¾” thick melamine coated PB as the divider partitions with plastic edge molding, veneer tape, or hardwood edging covering the cut end.

The illustration details the construction of a pantry cabinet in which you install adjustable shelves or pull-outs. The pantry cabinet is built using two doors with the lower larger door(s) having three European hinges installed. The lower door is usually 61 ½” high and the upper door is 18″ high. A ½” gap is left between the upper and lower door so that we maintain the 1 ¼” space at the top of the face frame. A rail is installed, with a fixed shelf board, at the point where the upper and lower doors meet.

Microwave oven cabinets, as shown in the illustration, follow all the standard cabinet construction principles and usually contain a lower drawer bank or pull-outs behind doors, with adjustable shelves behind the upper doors. The middle opening normally contains the microwave. The opening space is large enough for most microwave ovens using a standard cabinet width of 27″, which has a 25″ inside face frame width. When planning for a microwave oven cabinet as part of the renovation project, don’t forget to have an electrician wire an outlet in the space where the microwave oven is to be installed.

The microwave oven cabinet carcase can be built using wood veneer covered particleboard, as a portion of the cabinet interior is visible. A ⅝” or ¾” thick wood veneer board will allow the face frame to extend beyond the carcase which makes it easy to use the wood doorstop molding around the perimeter that is visible. This technique covers screws and softens the look of these large cabinets.

Check the molding thickness before cutting your tall cabinet stiles. Microwave oven and pantry cabinets are simply an upper and a lower with the space between them connected. Install these cabinets before, or at the same time as the base cabinets, so your maximum cabinet height is defined. This uniformity of height is important for upper cabinet trim installation, as well as visual appearance. Since these cabinets are often end of run units, finishing trim should be applied.

Don’t let the size or apparent complexity of these cabinets bother you. They are simple to build, although somewhat awkward to handle alone. You will probably need someone’s assistance during the assembly stage.

The back boards of these cabinets, as with all the other standard units, will be installed over the side edges which reveals the back board edge at the side of the cabinet. These visible edges will be “trimmed out” with doorstop molding to finish the cabinet after installation.

Finally, visualize these tall cabinets as standard uppers and lowers with common full height sides. Cut the horizontal shelves to the width you require for a microwave oven, built-in oven, or any other special application. If you keep the general principle of face frame height being ¾” longer than the cabinet sides, you can easily design and construct any tall cabinet.


Frameless pantry and microwave oven cabinets share the same basic carcase assembly. The sides are 82 ¼” to 84 ¼” high and as deep as you require. The top and bottom shelves follow the width rules for standard frameless cabinets, and the back board is the same height as the sides and as wide as the bottom board plus the two side thicknesses. Cabinet height is determined by the final position of upper cabinets. To be visually pleasing, the top of tall cabinets should be in line with the top of upper cabinets.

The variation in height range is dependent on the space left between upper and base cabinets. The typical countertop surface to the bottom of upper cabinet is between 16″ to 18″. That range is based on cabinetmaker’s preferences, choices by kitchen designers, and sometimes by the client. A person who is short may prefer lower upper cabinets and the opposite will be true for tall people. You may be called upon to vary this range on occasion, so it’s difficult to fix the heights of tall cabinets.


Reduced height upper cabinets are simply a variation of the standard units. Frameless cabinets over stoves are built shorter by reducing the height of the sides and back board, as well as the doors. Deep, short uppers, over a fridge are in the same class, but have extended side, bottom and top panels. The standard assembly procedures are the same as the standard units. These special duty cabinets include fridge surrounds and even desk drawer bank units in today’s kitchen.


The choice of countertop materials has greatly increased over the last few years.

At one time, a kitchen countertop was simply a piece of plywood with square edges covered with laminate. I’m sure most of you will remember the imitation “butcher block” design that was so popular in the 1960s. Fortunately, we’ve realized that countertop material was more than just a covering for the base cabinets. It’s now understood that it must be functional, able to withstand years of use, and add design and interest to the kitchen.

You can purchase a ready-made conventional roll top (post formed) counter top or make a great looking custom top.


This counter top style is easily made and well within any woodworker’s capabilities. The process involves attaching a solid wood edge to a panel, called the substrate, and covering the top with high-pressure laminate (HPL).

HPL is made with decorative surface papers, impregnated with melamine resins, which are pressed over Kraft paper core sheets. The sheets are then bonded at pressures of 1,300 pounds or more per square inch with temperatures approaching 300°F (149°C). The finished sheets are trimmed, and the backs sanded to facilitate bonding. Most manufacturers have over a hundred different patterns available.

There are two thicknesses of high-pressure laminate materials. The thinner version is used to manufacture post-formed countertops which are common in most kitchens and bathrooms. The thicker, general-purpose (GP), laminates are able to stand more abuse because of its thickness.

This great looking wood edged counter top style has a number of applications. It can be used as a kitchen or bathroom counter top, a work center/desk, or as a utility countertop. I’ve used it in dozens of unique projects over the years. And, because the laminate is available in 4′ by 8′ or 5′ by 12′ sheets, most tops can be made without a seam.

You can use any stable sheet material as the substrate, including: particleboard, plywood, or medium density fiberboard. I recommend a minimum 19mm (3/4″) thick substrate for strength and stability. The wood edge can be any hard or softwood that matches or compliments the cabinets.

Cut the Substrate Sheet Material

Cut to the required size. Reduce the desired finished size by ¾” where a wood edge will be installed. I am using 19mm (¾”) thick particleboard as my substrate for this top.

Attach the wood edge with glue and screws covered by wood plugs. You can also use dowels, or biscuits – any of these three options will work equally well. Be sure the top of the wood edge and the surface of the substrate are perfectly flush. If not, sand both to achieve a flat smooth surface. This is a critical step, as the laminate won’t properly bond to an uneven surface.

Cut the Laminate

Cut laminate 1″ longer than the substrate on all edges. That extra width and length will allow for any slight positioning errors. Apply a contact adhesive to both the underside of the laminate and substrate top. Make certain there’s an even coat on both surfaces and that all areas are covered.

There are many types of contact cement available. I use a roller grade liquid, but there are brush and spray contact cements available at most suppliers.

Bond the Substrate and Laminate

The contact cement is set when it’s dry to the touch. However, read the instructions listed on your container for best results. This adhesive will only bond to another surface with the same glue applied. Therefore, place dry sticks on the substrate to keep the materials from touching until the laminate is correctly positioned. Be careful, once the two glued surfaces touch they are bonded!
Remove the center stick and press the laminate in place with your hand. Move your hand from the center to the outside edges pushing out any trapped air bubbles. A pressure roller is the best tool to make certain the laminate is completely bonded to the substrate. If you don’t have a commercial roller, use a wooden rolling pin or large wood dowel. Again, roll from the center to the edges, with particular attention paid to the laminate edges.

Cut Laminate Flush

The excess laminate can be cut flush to the wood edge using a flush trim router bit. These bits have a guide bearing, which tracks along the substrate and wood edges cutting the laminate flush. Be sure the bit is clean and the bearing is in good shape.

Profile Bottom of the Wood Edge

A round over bit in a router is used to make a simple rounded profile on the bottom of the wood edge. The top or laminated surface of the countertop is cut using the same round over bit. Set the bit so its straight cutters, which are above the curved portion of the bit, cut slightly lower than the thickness of the laminate material. That cutting pass will trim the laminate cleanly and expose the wood under the laminate as well as rounding over the top edge.

Sand and Finish

The wood edge and laminate profile should look like the end view shown. Once all the cutting has been completed, sand the wood edge smooth and apply a finish.


Using general-purpose laminate, which is a thicker material, will provide you with a durable countertop. However, use care when cutting to avoid damaging the laminate. The best router bits are carbide tipped and they work exceptionally well for this application.

The wood edge used was oak, but any species can be used. Stick with the major brands of laminate material for the best results. High quality material and contact cement will give you perfect results every time.

Some of the adhesives are toxic, particularly the petroleum based products, so work in a well-vented area.

Next issue, Danny discusses what you need to know to install completed cabinets.

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