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Picture of Pantry Cabinet
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The second photo above shows a classic California cooler. This is a kitchen cabinet which is ventilated to the outside to allow cool air to act as a poor man's refrigerator. They fell into disuse with the invention of the refrigerator, but a few years ago, I cleaned mine up and put it back into service.  They actually do an amazing job at keeping fruits and vegetables fresh.

It doesn't show very well in the photo, but the shelves of the cooler are mostly open screen, to allow for cool air to circulate through the cabinet.

I can't put an exact age on my cooler, but it probably dates back to the 30's when my house was built.  Other than the hinges and latches, there are no metal parts or modern cabinet-making components.  The shelves are supported across wooden battens which fit into notches cut into vertical rails at each corner.  More on this below.

The goal of this project is to produce a pantry cabinet to go alongside the cooler and blend in with the style.

The new cabinet attaches directly to the side of the existing cooler, so was designed without a right side.  If you're building a cabinet to go in the corner of your pantry, you can use this design unchanged.  If it's going to be free-standing, then you can add the other side easily enough.

The design was done in Sketchup.  The Sketchup model is attached.

The work was done partly in my garage, and partly I made it at Techshop.

Cad models

I've included the cad model for the 8-foot cabinet shown here.  I chose an 8-foot by 4-foot cabinet because plywood comes in 4x8 sheets and this way the numbers came out even.  Feel free to fire up Sketchup and modify the dimensions of the cabinet to suit your own needs.  You can actually increase the height by about three inches and still be able to make the cabinet back out of a single sheet of plywood.  (The cabinet shown here is actually closer to 8'8.)
 
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Step 1: Required skills, tools, and materials

Picture of Required skills, tools, and materials
This is a project for an experienced woodworker

Tools:

Eye and ear protection.

At the very least you'll need a table saw with a dado blade, and a drill.  A power sander is highly recommended and a biscuit joiner would also come in handy.  If you're using solid lumber rather than plywood, you'll need access to a thickness planer too in all probability.

A router with a ¾" dado bit can be used instead of a dado blade.

Some sort of cabinet joinery method is highly recommended.  I prefer a biscuit joiner, but if you're set up for dowels, pocket screws, or whatever suits your fancy, that's fine.  You could even use knock-down hardware and make the cabinet portable. See what I care.

A sharp chisel.

Plus the usual straight edges, screwdrivers, clamps and so forth.

Materials:

Lumber, and lots of it.  I used vertical grain Douglas Fir.  Pine would work if it was good quality, or hardwood if you feel ambitious.  You can use ¾" plywood for many of the components if you like.  I used solid lumber myself.

Because I was matching an existing cabinet, I needed to find 1" lumber for the face and the doors.  I was able to find 1" lumber intended for stair treads at Pine Cone Lumber in Sunnyvale.  Another source of true dimension lumber is Jackel Enterprises in Watsonville.  I often find that they're worth the trip.

The inner door panels are ½" Doug Fir, glued up and sanded.  You can use ½" plywood if you like.

3/8" plywood for back.  This is actually optional, but I added it to discourage mice and bugs from getting into the cabinet.  You'll need two pieces if the cabinet is over eight feet tall.  My cabinet was just over 8½ feet tall (to reach the ceiling), so that made it harder to use plywood in some cases.

Eight hinges.  Four cabinet latches.

Glue, screws, stain, varnish

Step 2: The case

Cut out the following parts from ¾" lumber.

Side panel(s)

See pictures 2 and 3

8' long, 13" wide.  Plywood or solid.  If you use solid, you might have trouble finding 13"-wide lumber.  I wound up joining two narrower pieces together.  Make one or two, depending on whether the cabinet will be in the corner with the side against a wall, or free-standing, in which case you'll need to make two.

The drawing is for the left side of the cabinet.  Make a mirror image for the right.

The three dadoes across the width of the panel are ¾" wide and 3/8" deep to accomodate shelves.

The long rabbet along the length of the board is for the cabinet back.  Omit this if you're not going to put a back on your cabinet.

End Supports

See picture 4

If you only make one side panel, you'll need supports for the other side.  If you're making both side panels, skip this part.

These are simply 8' x 2½" boards, with dadoes cut to match the side piece.  Make two.

Face

See pictures 5 and 6.

Make three of the vertical supports (stiles) and two each of the three horizontals (rails).  Dimensions given in picture 5.  These should be solid lumber.

This is a good time to cut notches into the end stiles (but not the center one) to accomodate the hinges.  You can see the notches in the cad file.  I haven't given the dimensions or depth of the notches because they depend on the hinges you use.  If you skip this step, you'll have to do it with chisels later on, which is harder and less precise.  See the last two pictures.

Assemble as shown in picture 6.  I recommend biscuits or dowels for strength.

Note: I made the face with 1" lumber instead of ¾" to match the existing cabinetry.  The sketchup files reflect this.  You can use ¾" if you want without changing the design.

Shelves

See picture seven.  Make three simple shelves.  Solid lumber or plywood are acceptable.  In the diagram, you can see that the middle shelf is 3/8" shallower than the top and bottom.  This is to accomodate the back panel.  If you're not going to have a back panel, make all shelves the full 13" deep.

Center support

See last picture.  A simple 13" x 2¼" rectangle to support the center of the cabinet.  This isn't visible, so any cheap plywood will do.

Step 3: Case assembly

Picture of Case assembly
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Joinery

If you're using a biscuit joiner (recommended) or dowels, start by cutting or drilling the components as required.

Assembly

Ultimately, how you assemble is whatever makes you comfortable.  The exploded diagrams here are just a guide.  In my case, there would have been no way to get the finished cabinet into the pantry, so I was forced to assemble it standing up, in place.  This didn't make things easy.

If you have room, lay the face face-down on a flat surface, apply glue to the biscuits, insert them into the face, then apply glue to the edges of the other panels and assembled everything onto the face.

Note: in the third picture you can see that the rear support is offset forward by 3/8" to accomodate the back panel.  If you're not going to have a back panel, put the rear support all the way to the rear.

Use plenty of clamps and — very important — carpenter's squares to make sure the case glues up properly squared.  If the case isn't as square as you can make it, you're in for a world of hurt as this project progresses.

Hint: If you're going to have a back panel, cut it out first, and use it as the guide to make sure things are square.

Step 4: Center dividers

Picture of Center dividers
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Cut two pieces of wood, 125/8 x 21¾ and 125/8x 68¾.  See second picture.

Cut a number of temporary spacers from scrap wood, 227/8" long.  Shown in grey in the first picture.  You need these to make sure that the dividers are uniformly spaced during assembly and glue-up.  If the dividers aren't just right, you'll wind up with a situation where the shelves won't always fit right.  Make sure the divider doesn't bow in the middle (attach a straight edge to it, or use even more spacers.)

Place into the cabinet as shown in the first picture.  Dry fit first to ensure the dividers are properly centered.  If you need to adjust the lengths of the spacers slightly, do it, but keep them uniform.

Glue, screws, and/or nails as you see fit.  The picture shows the use of biscuits for the joinery.  Dowels, pocket screws, or other attachments are also viable.  Once the glue dries on one divider, you can re-use the spacers for the other one, and then throw them away after.

Step 5: Back

Picture of Back
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Really not much to say here.  Cut a piece of 3/8" plywood 475/8" x 913/8" and fit it into the cabinet. If you didn't make the cabinet square, now is the time you'll find out.

Step 6: Shelf supports

The shelf supports are notched rails that support the rails that support the shelves.  There are four of these for each compartment in the cabinet, one at each corner.

The photographs show the jig that's used to cut the notches into the rails. It's best to clamp the rails together and cut all four together so that the notches always match up. Otherwise, slight variations in how you cut the individual rails will add up and create a lop-sided support system.

The sixth picture shows the key dimensions of the supports.  The inter-notch spacing is determined by the position of the key in the jig. I used 2" spacing, but you can use anything you like.

Cut eight rails 1" x ¾", 68¾ long for the lower compartments and eight rails 21¾" long for the upper compartments. Cut notches as shown in the pictures.

Step 7: Shelf support installation

Picture of Shelf support installation
This photo shows the installation of the support rails. Two rails are shown in blue.

Cut a number of spacers from scrap wood, 115/8" long (shown in white). Keep the rails snugly pressed against the spacers while you attach them.  It's very important that the rails be a uniform distance from top to bottom.  Attach the front rails snugly between the walls and the face. Ideally, the rear rails should be flush with the back of the wall, but the spacers take priority.

Step 8: Door seals

Picture of Door seals
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Door seals are optional, but not too hard to make and I felt they added a touch of class to the cabinet. Plus, I was building the cabinet to match the California cooler, and the cooler had door seals, so here we are.

The seals are thin strips, about 1/8" thick that go around the sides and top of the cabinet openings. When the doors are closed, they close flush against the seals.  This should help discourage bugs from getting in.

The first picture shows the seals highlighted in blue. The second picture is a detail image of the seals from the inside.

The top seals are 207/8" long and 1" wide. Make four.

The upper side seals are 217/8" long and ½" wide. Make two.

The lower side seals are 69½" long and ½" wide. Make two.

Simply glue and clamp into place. A few brads won't hurt either.

Step 9: Doors part 1 - center panel

Picture of Doors part 1 - center panel
Overview:

The door panel is basic stile-and-rail construction. A stile is the vertical component. A groove is cut into it for its full length to accomodate the door panel. A rail is the horizontal piece that stretches between two stiles. The rail has a groove cut as well, plus tongues at the ends to match the grooves in the stiles.

The panel is a simple wooden panel, either made from plywood or from boards joined together along the edges. The panel is held in the grooves cut into the stiles and rails.  The panel is cut slightly under-sized to allow for expansion and contraction with changing conditions. The panel is not glued into place, it simply "floats" in the frame.

The doors to my cabinet were 1" thick, with the panel being ½" thick.  If you make the doors ¾" thick, use a thinner panel (perhaps 3/8") with correspondingly smaller grooves.

Cutting:

Lower doors:  Cut two panels 58¾" long and 17½" wide.

Upper doors: Cut two panels 15¼" long and 17½" wide.

These dimensions leaves a roughly 1/16" gap between the panel and the frame, giving room for expansion and contraction.

Step 10: Doors part 2 - cut stiles and rails and cut grooves

Picture of Doors part 2 - cut stiles and rails and cut grooves
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Overview:

The door panel is basic stile-and-rail construction. A stile is the vertical component. A groove is cut into it for its full length to accomodate the door panel. A rail is the horizontal piece that stretches between two stiles. The rail has a groove cut as well, plus tongues at the ends to match the grooves in the stiles.

The doors to my cabinet were 1" thick, with the panel being ½" thick. If you make the doors ¾" thick, use a thinner panel (perhaps 3/8") with correspondingly smaller grooves.

Cutting:

Lower doors:

Stiles: Cut four boards, 68" long by 2¼" wide.
Lower rail: Cut two boards 175/8" long by 6¾" wide.
Upper rail: Cut two boards 175/8" long by 3" wide.

Upper doors:

Stiles: Cut four boards, 20" long by 2¼" wide.
Lower rail: Cut two boards 175/8" long by 3" wide.
Upper rail: Cut two boards 175/8" long by 2¼" wide.

Grooves:

Getting the grooves exactly the right width and exactly centered can be a little tricky. Being exactly centered isn't strictly-speaking a requirement, as long as they're consistent across all the stiles and rails. In practice though, getting the groove centered exactly is worth the extra effort.

The easiest way to do this is to cut the groove in two passes. To cut it in one pass, you would set the dado blade up for a ½" cut, and set the fence as precisely as you can. In practice, you never get it exactly centered.

So instead (for 1"-thick lumber), I set the dado to a somewhat smaller width, e.g. 3/8" and set the fence for 1/4" clearance. Make one pass along the dado blade, then flip the board end-for-end, and make a second pass.

With this method, you need to fine-tune the fence position to get the groove width exactly right, but the groove will always be exactly centered. Slight errors in the groove's width aren't as bad as slight errors in centering.

Using an extra piece of wood the same thickness as your stiles and rails, set the fence via trial and error, making very small adjustments as you get close. A fence with a micrometer adjustment would come in handy here. Your goal is to make the groove just wide enough to accomodate the panel.

Note: Make sure you hold the board firmly against the fence while you cut.

Also note: Once you have your table saw (or router table) set up exactly right, cut all of the stiles and rails for all of the doors in one session, without changing any settings.

Step 11: Doors, part 3 - putting tongues onto rails

There are many ways to put a tongue on the end of the rail; I wont go over them here.

The key elements to keep in mind are: The tongue should be exactly the same width as the groove, or the tiniest bit thinner. The tongue should be exactly aligned with the groove -- if they're both centered exactly, that will do nicely. The length of the tongue should be exactly the depth of the groove, or the tiniest bit less; if the tongue is too long, it will keep the stile from meeting the rail properly.

I've included several pictures illustrating the mistakes I've made building stile-and-rail doors:
  • Tongue too short - This looks sloppy and weakens the joint, but is the least serious of the errors. It's far better to have the tongue too short than too long.
  • Tongue too long - This is a serious problem, as it prevents the stile from meeting the rail properly and leaves a gap. The good news is that it's easy enough to trim the tongue down for a better fit. Always dry-fit your doors before gluing them up.
  • Tongue too narrow - This causes a loose joint. There's not much you can do here other than use enough glue to fill in the gaps and hope the wood swells.
  • Tongue too wide - This prevents you from assembling the door, or splits the stile if you force it. Nothing to do here other than to re-cut the tongue.
  • Tongue and/or groove not centered - This causes the stile and rail to be mis-aligned. Your choices here are to re-cut the tongue and use lots of filler when you assemble the door, or to sand or plane the finished door aggressively to get a smooth joint. It's better to be meticulous about centering the tongues and grooves in the first place.
  • Uneven shoulders on the tongue - Caused by sloppiness when cutting the tongue. This leaves an unsightly gap. This is a hard mistake to fix in many cases. If one shoulder is too high, you can fix it by re-cutting (I hope you left your jig set up.) If one shoulder was too low, you'll have to cut the other one to match, and now your rail is shorter than it should be, which can be a real problem. If the low shoulder is on the inside of the door where it won't show normally, you might just be better off leaving it or using wood filler.
As with the grooves, once you have your jigs set up properly and "dialed in", cut all the tongues in one session for consistency.

Step 12: Door glue-up

Picture of Door glue-up
It's important that the door be very flat. I like to glue up such things by laying them flat on the floor and putting weights on them to keep them perfectly flat.

Oh, and make sure your floor is flat first.

Step 13: Shelves -- step 1, cutting and adding the end pieces

Picture of Shelves -- step 1, cutting and adding the end pieces
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While you could just cut sheets of plywood to be the shelves (and trim them with veneer to cover the ragged edges), I chose to emulate the shelves that were in the California cooler.

The shelves here are a piece of ½" plywood trimmed with ¾" edges. The edges have rabbets for added strength. While this makes a really solid shelf, it's a bit of work, and I made some mistakes along the way. These instructions provide the benefit of those learning experiences.

Start by cutting about a dozen plywood rectangles 197/8" x 93/8".

For each shelf, cut two edge pieces 227/8" x 2" and two 93/8" x 2".

(The diagrams show the edges to be 17/8" wide, but it's easier to cut them slightly wider and then trim the finished shelf later.)

The second diagram shows the details of the rabbet cut into all of the edge pieces. The ½" dimension is an approximation -- you should make this as close to the thickness of the plywood as you can. Make it just the tiniest bit deeper; this is because it's much easier to sand or plane the edges flush with the plywood than it is to sand the plywood flush with the edges.

Glue the end pieces first as shown in the 3rd and 4th pictures. As with the doors, it's best to weight the pieces heavily enough to ensure they lay flat. Use the lightest clamping pressure you can to avoid distorting the shelf while it dries.

Unless a miracle happens, the width of the center piece will never exactly match the lengths of the edge pieces, so trim them all flush with light passes on the table saw as shown in the last picture.

Step 14: Shelves -- step 2, trimming the end pieces

Picture of Shelves -- step 2, trimming the end pieces
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The end edges need to be cut to accomodate the rabbets on the side edges. The first two diagrams show the finished dimensions.

However, through experience I learned that it's pretty tricky to cut everything in advance and have it all fit together perfectly, so instead, I save that final cut until after the end pieces of been glued on.

First, use one of the edge pieces as a guide to set the height of the table saw blade as shown in the 3rd picture. Do this as accurately as you can. Any error should be on the side of making the blade too high, but only by the tiniest amount you can manage.

Next, set the fence so that the saw blade just barely brushes the underside of the center piece as shown in the 4th picture.

Finally, run all your shelves through the saw to cut the end pieces while barely scratching the center pieces. A tiny bit of over-cutting will damage the center pieces slightly, but this won't matter after assembly. If you under-cut, you'll have to clean up with a chisel.

The final picture shows you what the shelves should look like when they're finished.

Note: you can use a dado blade for this or a router table; it's up to you. You can even use a regular saw blade and do the cutting in two passes at 90 degrees to each other, but that's twice the setup and twice the potential for error.

Step 15: Shelves -- step 3, edges

Picture of Shelves -- step 3, edges
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Not much to say here. Dry-fit the edges first to make sure everything fits together with no gaps on the top.

Again, hold down with enough weight to ensure the shelf is perfectly flat.  Use as little clamping force as you can to avoid distorting the shelf while the glue dries.

Once the shelf is glued up, make light passes through the table saw to even off the edges and to make sure the shelf fits easily in the cabinet.

Step 16: Shelves -- step 4, notches and supports

Picture of Shelves -- step 4, notches and supports
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The shelves need notches to clear the vertical supports, as shown in the pictures.  This may take a bit of trial-and-error to get right, so I'm not including dimensions here. It's possible that the front notches will need to be different from the rear notches, depending on various factors such as if you added door seals in step 8.

Finally, make support rails such as the ones shown in the last picture.

Step 17: Finish

Picture of Finish
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That's pretty much it. Stain and otherwise finish the cabinet, the shelves, and the doors.

The doors might need a bit of trimming so that they're not too tight a fit into the cabinet.  Install hinges and latches and you're done.
this is fantastic! I'm a poor woman, who would love a poor mans fridge! thanks for posting!!
ChapDad2 years ago
Beautiful cabinet, beautiful attachments, and beautiful Instructable. Love the idea of a California Cooler, too. Might include one of those if I ever get round to remodelling the kitchen.
I looked into California Coolers - what a cool idea, and a great post. Thanks for the share.