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.)

Step 1: Required skills, tools, and materials

This is a project for an experienced woodworker


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.


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
this is fantastic! I'm a poor woman, who would love a poor mans fridge! thanks for posting!!
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.

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