Introduction: A Cupboard Spice Organizer - Made at Techshop

Picture of A Cupboard Spice Organizer - Made at Techshop

I have a problem. I love to cook a variety of things, and I keep a wide variety of spices on hand, but my counters are small and my cabinets are ill-proportioned. Every time I need a spice, I have to rummage around through my shelves to find them. I needed a new way to store my spices, and this is what I came up with.

Just after coming up with the idea, I walked into the Techshop wood shop and found a pile of thin plywood scraps in the communal scrap bin. I considered this a sign, and decided to get started right away. The rack is made up of pieces with interlocking slots (half-lap joints) cut on the table saw. There is a backer board behind the spice bottles to keep them from slipping out the back.

I'm quite happy with the concept - the shelf fits perfectly, and the spices are much more organized and accessible than before. Of course, there is one obvious problem - not all the spices have labels on the tops. As a temporary solution, I'm going to put sticker labels on the tops that need them. Then I'm going to make some personalized, re-usable spice jars with labels printed on the tops.

Step 1: Tools and Materials

Picture of Tools and Materials

Tools used

  • Table saw * with FTG** (Flat Top Grind) blade OR dado stack
  • Crosscut sled
  • Combination square
  • Grr-ripper - Commercial push block, allows one to safely hold cuts close to the table saw blade
  • Chisel
  • Rubber mallet
  • Clamps
* I used a table saw for speed and accuracy, but I'm sure other saws could work when used with care
**FTG blades have square teeth that leave behind a flat bottom when they cut - kind of like using a dado stack. Other styles of blade can leave behind a "V" shape wedge, which makes the parts harder to fit together.

Material used

  • 3/16" thick plywood
  • Wood glue

The only reason I used 3/16" wood is because I found a pile of 3/16" scrap. This made a bit more work for me, because none of the standard tools available to me cut 3/16" slots for the joints I'm making - so I have to use a 1/8" saw blade and made 2 cuts. If buying new wood, it's probably easier to use 1/8" or 1/4" wood, because standard saw blades, dado stacks and router bits can all make half-lap joints for those widths.

But it all worked out in the endt - the joints are perfectly tight, and I learned a lot by figuring out how to do things the hard way. If anyone has other methods or ideas, please share them below in the comments.

Step 2: Measure and Model

Picture of Measure and Model

The first thing I did is measure my cabinet and spice bottles. Each cabinet shelf measured 8.25" high X 12" wide X 14" deep, and the spice bottles were just under 2" in diameter. I decided to use the entire height and width of the cabinet for the spice rack. This sacrifices a lot of depth, but I didn't really mind - because the cabinets are too deep, and I've wasted a lot of time rummaging through the shelves looking for things. With ~2" square spaces for each item, I can fit 20 bottles per shelf - with all of them equally visible instead of some hiding in the back. Also, I'l still use the space behind them for rarely used items.

To check out my idea, I made a quick cardboard model by cutting rectangles the height and width of the shelves, then notching them together to make a grid. The cardboard model worked perfectly - everything fit, and they were accessible just like I wanted. But of course the cardboard was weak, and after a couple minutes started to collapse under the weight of the bottles.

After that, I put my measurements into SketchUp to work out my exact dimensions and how to join them together - then I headed to the wood-shop.

Step 3: Cut to Size

Picture of Cut to Size
First I had to cut the parts out of my large sheet of material. For these first cuts I cut the parts larger than necessary - an extra 1/4" - 1/2" on each part. This is because throughout this project I'm going to be doing something called "gang cutting", which means cutting all parts that are the same size at once. So after cutting them to rough size I will stack up all the tops and bottoms of the two shelves I plan to make, then cut them to their exact size at once. Then I will stack up all the horizontal shelf pieces and do the same.

First, I rough cut the parts a bit larger than needed out of my large sheet of material, leaving an extra 1/4" on each part. This is because in the rest of the steps I'm going to be cutting all the same-size parts to final size stacked up at the same time - called "gang cutting."

When working with wood this small, very small differences matter a lot - gang cutting eliminates any guesswork - so even if my measurements are off by 1/32", or my hand slips a little - it will be the same error across all my pieces, and they will still snap together perfectly when assembled.

4 different size pieces


  • (1) Back plate - 8" X 12"
  • (2) Top/bottom - 3.25" X 12"
  • (3) Horizontal shelves - 3" X 11.75"
  • (6) Vertical supports + (2) sides (same size) 3" X 8 1/8"

Any time I'm working on a project with similar parts, I take a minute after cutting to label all my parts. This is important to make sure that you cut the right joints in the proper parts - the top / bottom and shelves are almost the same size, easy to mix up. I label them by their use - top / bottom / side/ shelf / support - and also label them by individual project. I'm making two racks at once, so I label the first set "A" and the second set "B".

Step 4: Make Spice Rack Case

Picture of Make Spice Rack Case
I'll start by making the outer case of the spice rack - just like making a cabinet and then fitting the drawers into it. The top and bottom pieces need to have their edges cut with a shallow "rabbet joint", or lip, around three sides. These rabbets will help the case lock together precisely, and gives a good place to glue parts together.
  1. First I measure and mark out 3/16" around 3 edges of the top and bottom pieces using a combination square, penciling the face and end grain to show where I need to cut.
  2. Second I measure the height of the table saw blade, testing it on a piece of scrap wood to check the depth of cut. I cut ~1/8 deep for these joints. 
  3. Next I start cutting the side rabbets on the crosscut sled. The parts are lined up together to cut them at the same time.
  4. Nibble away: Since the blade is only 1/8" thick, and my parts are 3/16" thick, I have to cut each rabbet out in 2 or more passes. I start by nibbling 1/16" - 1/8" from the edge of the board, then scoot it over and cut away the rest, testing after each cut until the width of the side pieces perfectly fits the channel.
  5. Finally I take off the crosscut sled, re-adjust the saw height, and then rip rabbets along the edges of the top / bottom pieces. I set the table saw fence to make a 1/8" rabbet, then move it over 1/16" to remove the rest of the material - this time testing the fit of the back plate after each cut. I used a Grr-ripper push-block to keep my hands safe from any blade accidents, but it's easy to make a simple push block to use on thin stock.
After cutting all the rabbets, I tape my case together to see how it all fits - everything came together perfectly on the first try, hooray! That means I can move onto the next step - cutting dados for the shelves and vertical supports. If something doesn't fit, try to find the problem and re-cut if necessary, or clean up the rabbet with a chisel.

Step 5: Cutting Dados / Grooves

Picture of Cutting Dados / Grooves
Now it's time to cut the dados - these are grooves cut through the middle of the top / bottom and sides which will hold the internal shelves and vertical supports in place once the spice rack is assembled (see first picture).


I have 11.5" of usable space for each row of shelves, and I want to divide them into 5 equal parts - the math for this can get a bit complicated, after accounting for the 3/16" thickness of the vertical supports between squares - I tried to do it in my head, I tried doing it by hand with a combination square, but each time I was still a little bit off and the marks were asymmetrical. But then I found an alternative - using geometry!


Remember that old trigonometry your teacher always told you would be useful someday? Well, today is the day! See my other instructable Divide any line into equal parts without measuring

The steps


  1. Take the work-piece to be cut, and draw a vertical line up one side
  2. Take a ruler and measure ANY diagonal line from the far size of the board to the vertical line you just drew
  3. Choose a length that can be divided equally by the number of spaces desired. I want to make 5 equal spaces, so I chose a diagonal line 15" long.
  4. Divide the diagonal line into equal parts - 15 marked at 3, 6, 9, 12 and 15
  5. Now that the diagonal line is separated into equal parts, use a combination square or 90* angle to transfer the marks from the diagonal line straight down onto the work-piece

After using the geometric trick, I moved back to the table saw and cut out the dados just like I cut out the rabbets - nibble away at the cut in several passes to cut it to size. But I wanted all the dados to be as perfect as possible, since a tight dado will hold the shelves in place much better than a loose one.

To make sure each cut was the same, I set up two stop-blocks on my crosscut sled. I started with a top piece - putting the far edge of the dado against the saw blade, then clamped one stop block. Then I nudged the top piece over 1/16" until the other edge of the dado was lined up with the saw blade, then I clamped down the other stop block. This gave me 1/16" of wiggle room between the two stop blocks. To make each joint, I pressed the piece against one stop block, made one cut, then pressed it against the other stop block and cut again.

After making each joint, I tested the width of the dado with a piece of scrap wood - making sure each joint is perfect now will save time and headache when assembling things later.

One important thing to remember when cutting the top and bottom - the top pieces will be mirror images of the bottom pieces. So whereas I cut the tops with the front edge facing forward, I cut the bottoms with the rear, rabbeted edge facing forward. Technically, there shouldn't be a difference - but this is just like the gang cutting I did earlier - using the same stop blocks in the same position eliminates guess-work and protects you from making small mistakes when switching between parts.

Step 6: Make Internal Shelves

Picture of Make Internal Shelves
Now for the final round of cuts that will make the shelf dividers inside the spice rack. We need to make the vertical and horizontal pieces fit together like puzzle pieces (last picture). For this, I'm going to use a notch, aka half-lap, joint. I will cut halfway through each piece, then fit them together.

  1. Before making any cuts, I test out the fit of my parts in the dados. I taped the corners of the case together so I can slide the shelves and supports into place. I'm looking to make sure that the dados fit, and that the inside pieces are the right length.
  2. I used the dado joints to trace out locations for my notches. I laid a side pieces against one of the vertical supports, then traced across lines to mark the notch width. Then I did the same thing with a top piece and one of the horizontal shelf parts. The shelf pieces are SLIGHTLY smaller than the top and bottom - remember that when tracing.
  3. Set up the table saw to cut the notches. Each piece if 3" wide, so I want to cut notches 1.5" deep, halfway through each part. Measure the saw blade height, then test it with some scrap wood.
  4. Set up stop blocks just like those used when cutting the dados, then use the same process to cut notches in 2 or more passes.
  5. Gang-cut the notches, stacking all the same parts for one shelf together and cutting them at once. Push them against one stop block, make the cut, then slide them all over and make another cut. Before changing stop block positions for the next notch, try fitting the parts together to test the size. I had to re-cut several of my notches when they were too tight.
  6. Repeat this process until all the notches are cut

Step 7: Assemble the Case

Picture of Assemble the Case
As long as your cuts are wide enough, and evenly spaced, assembly should be fairly easy.  When I was making my cuts, I double checked my parts after making every cut - all to make this step easier. Because I'd already checked all the parts, they came together at the end almost perfectly - though two of my notches were a little tight and needed to be shaved down with a chisel.

These are the steps I used to assembly mine. The internal shelves and supports, if cut well, don't need any glue - they fit very tightly. I only glued outside case and back plate together at the end - after test-fitting everything together.

  1. First, get all parts together. Make sure that all the inside parts are facing the right direction. This was the purpose of cutting all similar parts at the same time - making them line up like a puzzle. The first picture below shows one part flipped, not quite matching the others.
  2. Start fitting the notches together - the first one should be easy - I started with the center notches on my vertical pieces and one horizontal piece
  3. As you continue to work, there may be some tightness. If the notches won't fit together at all, don't force them. Remove the parts before they gets stuck, and use a sharp chisel, rasp or sandpaper to take off a little material from the notch walls, then try again
  4. If the parts almost fit together, but just need a little more force at the end - use a rubber mallet or other soft, heavy object to get them closed. If they still don't fit, you may have to take the shelves apart and look for the trouble spot.
  5. After all the shelves were put together, I slipped the edges of the vertical supports into the dados cut into the top and bottom of the case.
  6. Next, I slipped the edges of the horizontal shelves into the dados cut on the side pieces
  7. I put on the back plate, between the top and bottom parts
  8. After making sure everything fit together, I took the outside case parts off, spread glue in the dado and rabbet joints, then fit them back together. The notches in the internal shelves were very tight and didn't need any glue.
With so little surface area, the glue joints in the case not strong - but for this project they don't need to be - just strong enough to hold up some spice bottles.

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Bio: I'm a long time tinkerer and lover of Instructables, but recently I joined Techshop in San Francisco, and decided to really get creative. Right ... More »
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