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How to Build Cabinets

Learn how to build cabinets yourself to save you money on your next remodel.

Building cabinets for your kitchen, bath or built-ins sounds like it should be hard, but it isn’t! Most cabinets are just easy boxes. And the joining can be hidden on the outside of the cabinets that are then hidden when the cabinets are installed. 

Last year I took on the task of building all the cabinets for our DIY kitchen renovation. I saved thousands of dollars making high quality cabinets with basic tools. You can read all about the inexpensive tools I used to build my cabinets here. 

So if you want to learn how to build cabinets for your own remodels, I am going to break down all the information for you. 

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Kitchen remodel with DIY cabinets for the walls in white and blue.

Why Should You Build Your Own Cabinets?

There are many reasons why building your own cabinets is way better than buying pre-fab cabinets or paying hug price for custom cabinets.

  1. You will save a lot of money! Even if you have to buy 1 or 2 tools to build you cabinets, you can save thousands of dollars over pre-fab and a whole lot more over custom cabinets. 
  2. No unsightly spacers. You can build your cabinets to any dimension, unlike pre-fab cabinets that typically come in increments of 3″ leaving gaps that need to be filled with spacers.
  3. You can get a truly custom kitchen. Want drawers on the bottom? Extra tall base cabinets? Vertical pull outs? You can build your cabinets to fit anything you can dream up. 
  4. You will feel really amazing! People will be shocked, impressed and awed that you built your own cabinets. And you will feel like you can accomplish anything after you are done!
Learn how to build cabinets like these white and blue cabinets around the stove in our kitchen remodel.

Types of Cabinets

There are two main types of cabinets you may see when you are looking at buying or building: face frame cabinets and frameless (or Euro-style cabinets). Both of these cabinet styles can be built by you.

Which one you choose is up to the style you are looking for. Each has their own set of benefits and drawbacks. Pick which one you prefer based on these and the style you are going for in your space.

What is a face frame cabinet?

Face frame cabinets are cabinets that have a frame covering the front of the cabinet box. The box is made from plywood and then the face frame is made from solid wood (typically 1x2s) and attached to the front to cover the edge of the plywood. Face frame cabinets are more traditional in the US and the ones we used in our kitchen remodel.

Kitchen with face frame cabinets installed with 1 1/4" overlay hinges.

The face frames are made with rails and stiles around the perimeter and additional rails for framing around drawer openings. When choosing drawer slides, you need to be aware that the face frame will be in the way typically and need to add blocking to the sides to bring the drawer slide even with the face frame or use special slides for face frames. 

You can use overlay cabinet doors (they sit on top of the face frame) or inset cabinets doors (they sit inside the face frame and are flush with the front). Overlay cabinet doors can leave a large reveal of the face frame or a smaller reveal for a more modern look, based on the hinges you choose. 

3D rendering of a face frame base cabinet.
Benefits of a Face Frame Cabinet
  • In the US it is easy to find hinges for overlay doors on your face frame cabinets.
  • Cabinet doors do not have to be absolutely perfectly aligned to look great (the face frame offers some wiggle room).
  • You can make the cabinet box out of pre-finished plywood and only the small face frame would need finishing which saves loads of time.
  • The cabinets can be easier to install since you have a 1/4″ tolerance on the edge of the face frame. Very helpful for uneven walls (which they all are).

What is a frameless cabinet?

A frameless cabinet is a cabinet that is only made from plywood. The plywood edges are covered in edge banding to finish them. They are sometimes called European style cabinets and were made very popular by Ikea. It is a very simple, modern design for cabinets. 

One of the challenges with frameless cabinets is keeping the cabinet box perfectly square. If it is not square, you can struggle with installing a row of cabinets and with hanging doors to have an even reveal. 

You can use either overlay or inset cabinet doors for a frameless cabinet as well. The only overlay option for frameless is a full-overlay which covers the entire (to around 1/8″) of the cabinet sides. 

3D drawing of a frameless base cabinet.
Benefits of a Face Frame Cabinet
  • There is no frame on the front to create a lip around the edge of the cabinet for banging items on when loading or unloading cabinets. 
  • There are cheaper to make since you do not need the solid wood for the face frame.
  • Once the box is finished, it is ready for install instead of the second step of building and finishing the face frame.

How to Build a Cabinet Box

Since there are so many different types of cabinet boxes, this post will be a general overview of how to build cabinets. I will try to cover all aspects of all types of cabinets. If I missed anything, leave a comment and I will answer it there.

Tools needed (here is a detailed list of the inexpensive tools I used to build my cabinets):

  • Table saw or circular saw with guide tracks
    • I cannot break down an full sheet of 3/4″ plywood by myself on the table saw so I highly rely on my circular with the Kreg Accucut and Ripcut to do it. You can do it all with these two tools, just make sure to take the time to measure accurately each time. The benefit of using a table saw, you can set the fence once and make multiple cuts that will be the same length. 
  • Pocket hole jig
    • You can build your cabinet boxes the more traditional way with rabbets and dados, but pocket holes are quicker, easier, and very strong. Plus all the pocket holes are completely hidden so no one will ever know you did it the easy way.
  • Miter saw
    • I prefer to use the miter saw to cut my face frames. It will not be needed for frameless cabinets.
  • Drill and impact driver
  • Measuring tape
  • Squares
  • Clamps
  • Optional: Shop vacuum

Parts of a Cabinet Box

To start, let’s take a look at the different parts of a cabinet box. These parts vary slightly based on whether you are doing a face frame cabinet or frameless cabinet.

Sides: Each cabinet carcass will have two sides made from 3/4″ plywood. If you are building cabinets for a kitchen, all your base cabinet side will be the exact same size and all your wall cabinet sides will be the exact same. You can make deeper cabinets for over the fridge and pantry if you want. 

Back: The back of a cabinet can be either made from 3/4″ plywood or use supports (3-4″ pieces of 3/4″ plywood) to keep the box square and sturdy, then cover the back with 1/4″ plywood. This is especially helpful for cabinets that will need plumbing holes drilled through them. Also you can save a lot of money by using 1/4″ plywood for the back on large cabinet projects.

Bottom: The bottom is the lowest shelf of the cabinet. For the base cabinets, it sits level with the top of the toe-kick. For wall cabinets with a face frame, it sits level with the top of the bottom face frame rail so you do not have a lip on the shelf.

3D drawing of a face frame cabinet exploded with labels on all the parts.

Toe-kick: Base cabinets typically have a toe-kick to raise the cabinets up off the floor slightly. The toe-kick can be cut into the cabinet side. Or for larger sections of cabinets, you can build a 2×4 box on the floor as the toe-kick and then set the cabinets on top of it. This is helpful when doing large spans of cabinets because you can get more sides cut out of a 4’x8′ sheet of plywood when using the standard cabinet height, therefore saving money. And you can level the 2×4 box easily before installing the cabinets. 

Top: Wall cabinets will have a top piece, but typically base cabinets that are topped off with a countertop do not have a top piece. Instead, supports are used to keep the cabinet box square and sturdy, then the cabinet is closed off when the countertops are installed. If you are making built-ins without a countertop, you can add a top instead.

Supports: Supports are smaller pieces of plywood (typically 3-4″ wide and the width of the cabinet carcass) that are used to keep the cabinet box square and sturdy. You will use 1 or 2 in place of the top piece on cabinets that will have a countertop on them. For frameless cabinets, you will use a support between to separate out the drawer sections. 

Face Frame: If you are building face frame cabinets, you will add the face frame to the front of the cabinet carcass. The face frame is made up of stiles (the full height of the cabinet face frame) and rails (running horizontally between the stiles). 

3D rendering on a frameless cabinet exploded with labels on all the parts.

Building the Cabinet Carcass

The cabinet carcass is the plywood that makes up the box. If you are building frameless cabinets, this will be the entire build. If you are building face frame cabinets, you will build you face frame next then attach the two.

Tips for Perfect Cabinet Boxes

If all your pieces are square and cut at perfect 90 degree angles, you will have perfect cabinet boxes. Then the only challenges you will have to overcome at install is your uneven walls. 

  1. Before cutting any wood, make sure the blade is set to a true 90 degree angle to the bed/plate of the tool. Even being off by 1 degree can cause you boxes and face frames to be wonky and un-square.
  2. You cannot measure out all the pieces and then cut them. The blade will remove a section of the plywood (known as kerf) when you cut making your cuts slightly short (resulting in non-square cabinet boxes). Instead, measure out the first cut and cut it. Then measure from new edge to the next cut line and cut. Also, make sure the edge of the blade is on the outside edge of the cut line so the full amount measured is left behind.
  3. Quickly check all cut pieces for square by measuring from the top right corner across the piece to the lower left corner. Note the measurement. Then measure the opposite two corners. If the measurements are exactly the same, your piece is square. 

1- Cut the Plywood

When making a lot of cabinets, take the time to lay out how you will cut every piece from the sheets of plywood. You typically want the grain of the plywood to run vertically on the side piece. For horizontal pieces, have the grain run side to side, not front to back.

To use a circular saw with guide track to cut the plywood, a lay a 2″ piece of rigid foam on the ground or your work table and lay the plywood on top of it.

Make sure the plywood is square, if not, start by cutting the short side to square it up with the long side. Then cut out your pieces. Label them as you go to make it easier to assemble later.

Use leftover sections of the plywood after cutting large pieces to cut the support pieces. 

2- Drill Pocket Holes

Set your pocket hole jig up to drill holes in 3/4″ thick material. I love the Kreg Jig K4 system and use it on almost every woodworking project. 

Drill pocket holes in both sides of the bottom piece, top piece, and support pieces. How many pocket holes you will need is dependent on how long you piece is. You want them to be at least every 4-5 inches. For the support pieces, make sure you have 2 in each end. 

For face frame cabinets, also drill pocket holes on the front of the bottom, top, and side pieces to attach the face frame later. It is a lot easier to drill the pocket holes before assembly so do not forget this step.

If you are cutting the toe-kick out of the cabinet sides, cut these out now. You can use a jigsaw to easily cut the toe kick any size you want, typically they are  around 4″ tall and 2-3″ deep.

3- Assemble the Box

All the joints will need wood glue to give your cabinet box strength to last. If you are using pre-finished plywood, regular wood glue will not work. Instead, use a melamine glue (I love this RooClear Glue).

Lay one of the side pieces down your work surface so the outside (the side with the pocket holes) is facing down. Apply glue to the side of the bottom piece and clamp it to the side piece.

For base cabinets, make sure it is level with the bottom of the toe-kick or the bottom of the side (if no toe-kick). For wall cabinets, make sure it is set up so it will be level with the top of the bottom face frame rail (1×2 face frame is 1 1/2″ tall so set the top the bottom piece 1 1/2″ up from the bottom).

Attaching the bottom of the cabinet to the side.

Use a square to ensure it is square and secure with 1 1/4″ pocket hole screws. 

Attach the top piece (or support if no top piece is needed) the same way. The top will be flush with the top of the of the side pieces. For the supports, makes sure they are flush with the front of the side pieces.

Attaching supports for the cabinet box to build the cabinet.

For frameless cabinets, attach any support pieces that go between the drawer.

Next attach the back piece (if using 3/4″ plywood) or add another support so it is flush with the back at the top with the glue and pocket hole screws. 

Finally, attach the other side. Use glue and line up the bottom, top and support pieces. Clamp together, ensuring they are square and secure with pocket hole screws.

Securing the second side of the cabinet carcass when build the cabinet box.

If you want to use 1/4″ plywood for the back, measure and cut it to fit the back. Double check the box for square (as noted in the tips section above) and make sure to keep it square as you attach the plywood back with glue and brad nails. 

Finish off the toe-kick with a piece of 1/4″ plywood. You can use thicker plywood if you want, just take that into account when cutting the size of the toe-kick. 

Building the Face Frame

Cut the rails and stiles to length.

  1. The stiles will be the same height as the side of your cabinet carcass unless you have a toe-kick. For toe-kick cabinets, the top of the face frame rail should be flush with the top of the bottom shelf. So if your face frame is made of 1x2s (1 1/2″ thick) and your plywood is 3/4″ thick, your stiles will be 3/4″ longer than the length of the sides minus the toe-kick.
  2. The rails will be the width of the cabinet, minus the width of the face frame (x2) plus 1/2″. The added 1/2″ will make the face frame hang over the sides of the cabinet box giving you a 1/4″ tolerance on both sides when installing the cabinets. 

Typically you will have 2 rails and 2 stiles per cabinet. For drawers, you will want a rail at the bottom of each drawer section. For large cabinets, you may want to add a center stile to make installing door easier. 

Drill 2 pocket holes in both edges of the rail pieces (and center stile if you have those). Add wood glue to the end of the rail and place it so it is flush with the top of the stile piece. Using a face clamp, clamp the pieces together so the faces remain flat. Secure with 1 1/4″ pocket hole screws. 

Repeat with the other rail on the bottom of the stile.

Then add wood glue to the other end of both rails and attach the second stile.

If adding a center rail, measure for the center and attach it now in the same fashion.

3D drawing of the back of the face frame when building.

Finishing the Cabinet

For face frame cabinets:

If you want to paint/stain/seal the face frame and cabinet box the same color, you can attach the face frame now. If you used pre-finished plywood, paint/stain/seal the sides and front of the face frame first. You can read about how to paint unfinished cabinets here

To attach the face frame, add wood glue to the edge of the plywood cabinet carcass. Melamine glue is not needed here because the plywood edges and back of the face frame are unfinished.

Clamp the face frame to the cabinet box making sure it is square and the face frame hangs over the edge 1/4″. Secure the face frame with 1 1/4″ pocket hole screws into the previously drilled pocket holes. 

Now your DIY cabinets are ready to install!

Drawing of the face frame attached to the front of the cabinet box.

For frameless cabinets:

Cover the front exposed edges of the cabinet box with iron-on edge banding. Trim around the edge to make it flush. Now you can paint/stain/seal your cabinets. You can read about how to get a smooth professional paint finish here.

And your DIY cabinets are ready to install!

Different Types of Cabinets

Now that you know how to build cabinets, you can start planing your next project. There are many different types of cabinets you can use for different functions in your space. 

I will be writing specific posts for all the different types of cabinet boxes with more specific dimensions. When they are ready, I will link to them above. You can also subscribe to my newsletter so you never miss out on new posts!

And make sure to check out these other great cabinet posts:

3 Ways to DIY Cabinet Doors

DIY cabinet doors are a great way to update an old space. These 3 ways to build cabinet doors are great for a beginner to more advanced woodworker.

How to Paint Kitchen Cabinets

Before and after of the kitchen with light gray painted kitchen cabinets.

Happy building!

-Kati with picture of blog author Kati
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Amber

Sunday 28th of February 2021

When you got to finishing your cabinets what did you use to seal the plywood of the carcasses?

Taylor

Sunday 17th of January 2021

Do you use a program to design the cabinets and if so which one?

Kati

Tuesday 19th of January 2021

I use a program called SketchUp to draw out my 3D designs.

Mbuso Sydney Hadebe

Monday 30th of November 2020

I want to learn and acquiring skill on how to design and make bedrooms built in cupboards and kitchens. Just give me all required tools and basic designs.

April

Sunday 19th of July 2020

Can't wait to see the write up on how to build wall cabinets! We need some help and love your tutorials:)

Kati

Tuesday 28th of July 2020

Thanks April! I will be working on another cabinet post soon, I'll bump the wall cabinets to the top of the list ;)

Glenda Shine

Thursday 27th of February 2020

Thank you, thank you for this post! My husband is helping me to create a craft room in a small extra bedroom. He has built me beautiful shelves and a working desk. There is an inset cubby that is as tall as the room (8 foot ceilings) and only 29 inches wide. The previous owners had bumped into the room next to it in order to inset the refrigerator into the wall in the kitchen on the other side. Great idea but has left this narrow, tall space. I would love to make a built in cabinet with drawers to store my things in a tidy way. Will you be posting on how to build and inset drawers? Pretty please!

Kati

Thursday 12th of March 2020

Yes I plan on doing a post on drawers! There is just so much to write and so little time. Stay tuned! P.S. Built ins sound like the perfect solution for your space ;)

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