Introduction: How to Build a Computer Armoire

About: The official instructable for Popular Mechanics magazine, reporting on the DIY world since 1902.

There’s no question our electronic tools and toys have changed our lives—if only because there’s so much new stuff filling our homes. The fact is, that big TV, the new sound system and the family computer can blend right in—it just takes a fresh look at the kind of furniture we build and use. For example, back when the well-equipped family library was centered around a couple dozen volumes of an up-to-date encyclopedia, bookcases and shelves kept the desks and tables clear, while adding a touch of sophistication to the home.

These days, with encyclopedias the size of paper-thin pancakes, you may think we’ve progressed. Perhaps so, in terms of information access. On the other hand, our new computers, printers, monitors and mice demand space of their own. And, unless you’re happy giving up your dining room table to a humming and glowing network of wires and boxes, it’s time to give the gear a place to call home.

To solve the problem, we’ve designed a dedicated computer cabinet with plenty of space for all the essentials, plus shelves for books, office accessories and things you just like to have around. To handle the paperwork, our case features a file drawer on full extension slides, and we’ve incorporated a locking pullout work surface that’s perfect for a keyboard and mouse pad. The cabinet doors open 270˚ so you have full access to the interior of the case. We constructed our updated secretary out of a combination of solid cherry and cherry-veneered panels, but you can substitute another wood if it better suits your decor.

Step 1: Materials

Step 2: Making Doors and Panels

Begin by ripping and crosscutting 1-in.-thick cherry to size for the stiles and rails of the doors and case sides. Lay out the rail and mortise locations on the stiles, clamping stiles of the same length together to ensure accuracy (Photo 1). Next, use a router edge guide and spiral bit to rout the mortises. To support the router, clamp two or three stiles together face to face. Register the guide on the outside face of each stile for consistant mortise locations. Then, rout the panel grooves in the edges of the stiles and rails (Photo 2), and square the mortises with a sharp 3⁄8-in. chisel (Photo 3).

Equip your table saw with a dado blade to cut the rail tenons, and use a stopblock clamped to the miter gauge to position the rails (Photo 4). For the best glue joint, cut the tenons about 1⁄32 in. thicker than specified. After holding the rails on edge to cut the tenon shoulders, use a sharp chisel to pare the tenons to exact size. We used 1⁄2-in. cherry-veneer MDF (medium-density fiberboard) for the panels. Although you can use cherry-veneer plywood instead, the stability and flatness of MDF make it a better choice. Cut the panels to size, and use a router table to shape the rabbet around the inside surface of each one (Photo 5). Sand each panel with 120-, 150-, 180- and 220-grit papers.

To assemble a frame, spread glue in the mortises and on all tenon surfaces. Then, join the rails to one of the stiles and slide the panel into position (Photo 6). Place the opposite stile in place and clamp the frame to pull the joints tight. Compare opposite diagonal measurements to be sure that the assembly is square, and let the glue cure. Proceed with the rest of the frames and doors in the same manner.

Step 3: Inside the Cabinet

The inner case parts are constructed of veneer-core cherry panels. Rip and crosscut these parts about 1 in. oversize, and cut edge-banding strips from solid cherry to cover the exposed edges.

Cut the strips about 1⁄16 in. wider than the thickness of the panels. Next, spread glue on a panel edge and clamp the strip so that it overhangs both faces of the panel. Scrape off the excess glue after about 20 minutes. When the glue has fully cured, plane the edge-banding strip flush. Then, cut the panels to finished dimension. Lay out the joining-plate locations for the upper case shelf assembly and cut the slots (Photo 7). Apply glue, join the uprights to the shelves and clamp.

To construct the lower case insert, first apply veneer tape to the exposed edge of the drawer enclosure top as shown in the plan. Use a household iron to apply the tape and trim the excess with a chisel. Lay out and cut the plate slots, then glue the drawer-box top and side together. Cut plate slots for joining the drawer box to the left side of the inner case and install plates without glue to align the parts. Secure the subassembly with screws (Photo 8). Then, assemble both inner sides with the stretchers using dry joining plates and screws (Photo 9).

Step 4: Outer Case Work

It’s easiest to cut the hinge mortises in the case side frames before assembling the cases. Use a marking gauge and square to mark the outline of each mortise. Then, make a series of parallel chisel cuts along the mortise just shy of the finished depth (Photo 10). Hold the chisel horizontally to pare away the waste (Photo 11), and test fit each hinge to see that it sits flush.

Use your router and edge guide to cut the rabbet along the back edges of the side frames. Note that each lower case side has a stopped rabbet. Stop the cut about 1⁄8 in. short and square the end with a chisel. Next, cut the joining-plate slots in the lower case side frames and lower bottom panel. Apply glue to these joints and assemble the sides to the panel. Clamp the parts and set the assembly aside for the glue to cure.

Step 5: Lower Case Assembly

Place the lower case insert between the sides, using joining plates to hold the drawer-box side in position on the case bottom. Install clamps to keep the insert from shifting. Bore and countersink pilot holes, and fasten the insert subassembly to the sides and bottom with screws (Photo 12). Cut the back panel to size and bore a 2-in.-dia. hole for power cord access. Next, screw the back in place. Rip 3⁄4-in.-thick stock to width for the base and cut it to length with 45˚ miter joints at the front corners.

Cut No. 0 joining-plate slots in the miter joints (Photo 13). Lay out the curved profiles and use a sabre saw to make the cuts. Mount a chamfer bit in the router table to shape the top edge of the base pieces. Then, glue together the three base pieces using clamps to pull the miters tight. Fasten the base to the lower case with 6d finishing nails and 1-in. brads. Bore pilot holes for the nails.

Step 6: Upper Case

Cut a panel to size for the desk surface, and glue 1⁄4-in. spacers to the underside as shown in the drawing (Photo 14). Glue mitered edge-banding strips to the desktop front and side edges (Photo 15). Plane the edging flush, and rout the edge profile. Cut the bottom part of the molding with an ogee bit, and bevel the top of the profile with a 30˚ chamfer bit. Mark the position of the wire grommet in the desktop, bore holes and use a sabre saw to make the cutout. Then, rout the stopped rabbet along the back edge of the desktop and square the ends with a sharp chisel.

Lay out and cut the joining-plate slots for the upper case assembly and bore pilot holes for screwing the desktop to the sides. Apply glue to the plates and slots to join the case top and sides and assemble these parts with clamps. Place dry plates in the desktop slots, and join the desktop to the sides with screws (Photo 16). Use a beading bit to rout strips of 1⁄2-in.-thick cherry for the upper case molding. Miter the strips to length, and install them with 3d finishing nails.

Cut the case upper top to size and apply veneer tape to the exposed edges. Fasten the upper top panel to the side-frame stiles and beaded molding with 6d finishing nails. We shaped the cove molding on a table saw with a standard 10-in.-dia. blade. While not unusual, this technique requires special care and the operation must be carried out cautiously. If you are not comfortable with the procedure, purchase appropriate molding from your lumber dealer. To make the cove molding, first rip 1-in. stock to a width of 4 in., and cut each piece several inches longer than finished dimension.

Next, set your miter gauge to 38˚ and use it to position a long wooden fence across the saw table at that angle. With the blade height at 3⁄8 in., move the fence so that it’s 13⁄16 in. from the front edge of the blade and clamp it to the table. Mount a featherboard to the table to hold the work against the fence. Set the saw blade to a height of 1⁄16 in. and use pushsticks to move the stock across the spinning blade (Photo 17). Raise the blade 1⁄16 in. for the next pass, and continue until the cove depth is reached.

Then, remove the wooden fence and set the blade to 45˚ to rip the face and back angles of the molding. Finish by smoothing with a gooseneck scraper and 220-grit sandpaper (Photo 18). Use a miter saw to cut the cove molding to length, and nail it to the top of the upper case as shown.

Step 7: Final Steps

Mount the hinges in the case sides and cut the hinged stiles to size. Clamp a hinged stile against one of the case sides with a 1⁄16-in. shim under its bottom end. Use a knife to transfer the hinge locations to the edge of the stile. Then, lay out the hinge mortises along both edges of the hinged stile. Repeat the process for each stile, cut the mortises and mount the stiles to the sides. Install the back panel of the top case with 3⁄4-in. No. 6 screws. After fastening hinges to the open side of the hinged stiles, transfer the mortise locations to the cabinet doors.

Mount the doors to the case and trim them as necessary to achieve a uniform margin of 1⁄16 in. Install the doorknobs and magnetic catches. Cut the drawer stock to finished sizes. Use a dado blade in the table saw to cut the rabbet and dado in each side. Cut the grooves for the drawer bottom. Make slots in the top edge of the sides for the hanging-file rails. Use glue and 6d finishing nails to assemble the drawer box (Photo 19). Slide the bottom into place and screw it to the drawer back. Cut the drawer face from 3⁄4-in. cherry plywood and apply veneer tape to the four edges. Mark the location of the flush pull on the drawer face, and cut a recess to house the pull.

Mount the pull to the face with screws (Photo 20), and screw the drawer face to the front of the drawer. Cut pieces of 1⁄8 × 3⁄4-in. aluminum bar for the hanging-file rails, and use a dab of epoxy to secure them to the drawer. Mount the drawer slides on the case and drawer. For initial installation, use only the slotted holes to allow for adjustment. Once the drawer operates smoothly, install the rest of the screws. Cut a panel for the pullout work surface and apply edge banding. Mount the slide to the inner case sides and mount the clips to the work surface ends (Photo 21).

Install the work surface in the case, checking for smooth operation. Cut the wire-grommet hole in the lower case rear stretcher, and position the upper case on the lower case. Bore and countersink pilot holes through the lower case stretchers into the bottom of the desktop, and drive screws to fasten together the sections.

Disassemble the case and remove the hardware for finishing. Set all nailheads, and fill the holes. Sand all surfaces with 120-, 150-, 180- and 220-grit paper, dusting between grits. Use a tack cloth to wipe all surfaces before applying any finish. We finished our cabinet with three coats of Waterlox Original Sealer/Finish. Use a brush or rag to spread a liberal coat, let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes and wipe off the excess. Let the finish dry overnight, and repeat the process for each coat. When the final coat is dry, burnish the surface with 4/0 steel wool and polish it with a soft cloth.