Built in Cabinets - Middle

About: Mechanical engineer by day, guy with some tools and too much spare time by night.

Please note, this Instructable is only related to middle portion of the cabinets shown in the pictures (shelves and 2 skinny doors) and does not include the countertop. The side cabinet portions will be posted in a separate Instructable. The countertop is a prefab red oak 12' butcher block from Floor and Decor. You can find something similar for under $300, or build your own.

Time: 10-15 hours

Cost: <$100 (does not include countertop)

Tools: Table and/or circular saw, hammer, drill, paint brush/roller, level, yardstick or measuring tape, pocket screw hole jig, door hinge jig

Optional Tools: Nail gun, driver, speed square

Background: When we first moved into our house, my wife asked for some built-in cabinets for the Media Room and showed me a Pottery Barn design as inspiration. I CAD'd something up, got the wife's approval on design and started work. Here is how I ended up building the center portion of the built-ins, which includes the two middle shelves and the skinny doors on either side.

Step 1: Source and Cut the Lumber

For all my cabinet builds, I use MDF due to its strength, thermal stability, and ease of drilling pocket screws. You can read about the pros and cons of MDF vs. normal plywood, but the main downsides of MDF are its weight and propensity to act like a sponge after liquid spills. MDF also cannot be stained so if that is a requirement for you, use regular plywood.

All of the wood used was from Home Depot. The front from is 1x2 red oak, while the shelves, side panels, and bottom were all cut from a single sheet of 4'x8' 3/4" thick MDF. The bottom base is made from 2x4 studs, the rear frame pieces are pine, and the back panel is made out of 1/4' underlayment plywood. While you are at the store, pick up a box of 1-1/4" hardwood pocket screws and another box for softwood/plywood.

If you need to have the MDF cut down to fit into your vehicle, do some pre-planning using the drawing attached. You should be able to build this entire unit using a single sheet of MDF if you plan it right. I would highly recommend having the store cut all sheets 1/2" or so long so that you can finish cut at home.

Step 2: Drill Pocket Screw Holes and Build Frame

I don't have a specific template or drawing call-out for the pocket screw holes on the MDF, but make sure they are somewhat evenly spaced as shown in the picture. I probably (definitely) overkilled it a bit on this one.

Drill all holes such that they will be on the backside/underside of pieces or hidden inside cabinets. If you have a few that need to be exposed or goof up, you can always fill with a plug and flush cut.

The attached pdf template can be used for the frame pocket hole screws. Do not drill double holes right next to each other on the same piece of red oak. It will probably split on you.

Once all of the holes are drilled, assemble the front frame using all of the 1x2 red oak pieces according to the drawing on the first step and the one attached to this step. I put a dab of wood glue at each joint. Use clamps to hold the pieces together when drilling in the pocket hole screws to prevent them from moving as you torque down. A speed or carpenter square should be used to ensure 90° angles.

Step 3: Assemble the Cabinet Box and Install Face Frame

Assemble the MDF pieces per the drawing. I would highly recommend using a combination of angle and bar clamps to hold things together while torquing down the pocket hole screws. Once again, I ran a bead of wood glue at all joints for some additional support.

Ensure that all of your pocket screw holes are inside cabinets or on the bottoms of parts!

As I was building up, I started adding in the back 1x2 pine support pieces shown in the picture just to hold everything together. Make sure the top surfaces are as flush as possible to save yourself some sanding time later. It's easier to re-cut prior to install than it is to plane everything down after full assembly.

Once the box is assembled, you can place the frame face down on the ground and line the cabinet box on top of it. The top surface of the frame should be flush with the box components. Attach the frame to the box using the hardwood (fine thread) screws.

Note: I didn't install the shelf front support until after the frame was attached, but in retrospect, it would have been easier to do everything beforehand.I didn

Step 4: Install the Shelf and Base

If you want to be able to pass wires through the shelf, make a cut-out in the back as shown in the picture.

Slide the shelf in place and hold using clamps while securing using pocket screws on the underside. There should be screws going into the front frame (fine thread) as well as the side panels and back support (course thread). This prevents the shelf from sagging overtime if overloaded.

If the shelf doesn't fit the first time, try sanding/planing down by hand instead of re-ripping on a saw. If you overdo the cut, there will be a gap between the shelf and frames which could cause tearing during the screw torquing.

The base pedestal that the cabinets sit on is just a rectangular frame made out of the four 2x4 pieces (sorry again, no pictures). I screwed them together using flat head screws so that the heads were not sticking out. I then attached the cabinets to the Base using 16ga nails through the bottom panel all around the perimeter.

Step 5: Paint and Install Back Panel

We painted using Sherwin Williams Snowbound oil-based alkyd paint. The oil paint is a little more durable than latex but it has it's downsides that you can research (it also isn't available everywhere).

I did not install the back panel until after painting to make it easier to get a brush/roller inside. Note that I used multiple smaller pieces of 1/4" plywood for the back panels because I was cheap and had some leftovers lying around.

I tacked the back panel in place using 18ga pin nails all around the perimeter.

Step 6: Install, Add a Kickplate, & Trim

To install, I cut out the applicable portion of our outdated beige carpet and then screwed into the wall studs using a few 2" screws through the 1x2 pine pieces. For a kickplate, you can use leftover pieces of the 1/4" plywood (what I ended up doing) or something similar. Add quarter round or trim on the sides against the wall to hide the back plate edges.

Step 7: Build the Doors

Sorry about the lack of in-step pictures on this one. I built first and thought of pictures later.

If you are incredibly vigilant, you noticed that the door lumber cuts for the 1x4 red oak didn't match up with the drawing. That is because I used tenons to give the doors some additional support.

Since I don't own a dado set for my table saw, I DYI'd some 1/2" dados by setting my blade height to 1/2" and did multiple pass-thrus while moving the fence slightly each time. It isn't exact but it works. Here is how you do it:

  1. Set the blade height to around .510" (gap to ease assembly) and set the fence such that your far edge of your cut (furthest from fence) will be .130" from the center of the board.
  2. Slide ALL 1x4 pieces through
  3. Flip each 1x4 piece over and slide through again. You should now have two cuts directly adjacent to each other and symmetric.
  4. After passing through all door boards, move the fence of the saw in slightly to clean out any wood remaining between your two previous cuts.
  5. Once done, all boards should have identical .260" dado mortises.

You can not cut the tenons on the shorter pieces using a somewhat similar process:

  1. Set the blade height to .500" (use calipers!)
  2. Set the fence such that one edge of the cut will be .125" away from center of board.
  3. While holding vertically and BEING EXTREMELY CAREFUL, slide all of the smaller (4.75" long) 1x4 pieces through.
  4. Flip over long ways and repeat.
  5. Do the same thing on the other side such that there is the beginning of a tenon on each end
  6. Slide the fence out slightly and repeat steps 3-5
  7. Once complete, you should have mortises and tenons on the 4.75" pieces as shown in the picture. The longer pieces should only have mortises.

Add glue to all mortises, put the 1/4" plywood piece inside the mortise and hole all of the door pieces together using clamps until dry. Use squares to make sure everything is 90° and edges are all flush after clamp up.

Paint the doors then buy some 1/2" overlay hinges and install per the package instructions. Attach the doors to the cabinets.

Step 8: Admire Your Work

Once everything is done, you should hopefully have something close to the center portion of the attached photo. I cut an extra piece of thin plywood to use as a wire cover, which you can see sitting on the top shelf, but it doesn't work very well.


If you have any questions feel free to let me know in the comments.

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