Once I find something that works, I pretty much stay with it. And the system I’ve used for making simple cabinets is still largely the same. I use multiple shaper setups for making cope-and-stick stile-and-rail doors, raising panels, and other high-end cabinetry projects. But in this article I want to focus on basic cabinet construction using a minimal number of tools—tools that most carpenters already own.
Though the design and construction of this cabinet might be simple, the cabinet is still a lot more complicated than a bathroom vanity. In Arkansas, where I live, we call this a ‘step-back cabinet’ because the top steps back from the base and creates a small counter top.
The top section is really a separate bookcase with adjustable shelves. The top is only about 12 in. deep, and it’s 25 1/2 in. wide, about 2 in. narrower than the base unit, which allows plenty of room around the small counter top for trim molding. And I like trim molding.
The base cabinet is pretty simple, too—it has only one drawer and two doors. I designed the dimensions of both cabinets so that I could get all the materials from less than two sheets of plywood.
Whenever I build anything, I always start by making story poles—one for the height or elevation, one for the width of the cabinet, and one for the depth. Story poles are like full-scale drawings; every piece of the cabinet can be measured off the story pole, so if you layout your story pole accurately, you’ll save a lot of time and aggravation fixing mistakes.
The hardest part of being a finish carpenter and cabinetmaker is making mistakes, so I have come up with systems that help prevent mistakes. Watch this video and you’ll see how (before I rip cut the sides of the cabinet) I cut all the dado for the bottom shelf and I cut rebates for the cabinet back. That way, I always end up with one left-hand side and one right-hand side, instead of two left-hand sides.
Like I said, in my shop, I have a lot of cabinetry equipment—shapers and in-line boring machines, along with molding machines and router tables. But you can make a cabinet, including all the moldings, with tools that most carpenters already own! So for this article, I’m using pocket hole joinery for everything—both assembling the cabinet boxes, and making the face frames.
There are a half-dozen different ways to make drawers, from fancy dovetail joints to the Quarter-Quarter-Quarter drawer system. But I want to demonstrate a method I’ve been using for years that’s simple, easy, and affordable—no extra tools required, just a table saw, a brad nailer, and a staple gun.
And the same goes for making the doors. Instead of using my shaper to cut cope-and-stick stile-and-rail doors, I made the doors for this article with just a router and a miter saw.
I made all the molding with hand-held routers in my shop, including the two-piece crown molding at the top of the bookcase. I own several Woodmaster molding machines and a whole collection of knives, but most carpenters don’t have that kind of equipment. You can make attractive moldings with router bits, but be sure to choose the right bits. Common router bits, like small ogee bits and classical ogee patterns, aren’t enough when it comes to making handsome custom moldings. You’ll need to invest in a few large patterns, too.