Super-Easy Workshop Cabinets

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This article is from Issue 29 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Frameless construction makes these base and wall units simple to build and customize.

Designer: Ben Svec
Builders: Tim Birkeland and Gary Carter

Like kitchens, a good home workshop requires plenty of cabinet and counter space. Shop cabinets not only help keep you organized, but also keep tools, accessories, and supplies safe and dust-free until needed.Ideally, workshop cabinets must be rugged, adaptable, and not complicated (or expensive) to build. Of course, it’s nice if they also look good, since their appearance sets the tone for what goes on in the shop. If you like these priorities, you’ll love the cabinets featured here. They’re designed to give you a wide range of choices in terms of materials, countertops, and configurations. Whether you elect to build your cabinets from MDF, melamine-coated particleboard (MCP), or  hardwood plywood (we used birch), the step-by-step techniques shown on the following pages remain the same. Be sure to review “Woodsense: Choosing Sheet Goods,” on page 66. A little knowledge about choosing and processing plywood, MDF, and other panel products will go a long way when you start building cabinets.  

How many cabinets do you need, and what’s the best combination of base and wall cabinets? Our special workshop planner (see page 64) will help you arrange the major machines and work stations in your shop and locate your cabinets. 

Note: Check out the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide on page 39 for a list of the materials and tools used to build these cabinets. You’ll need these three key items early: the Woodhaven Metric Shelf Pin Jig, the FastCap Metric/Standard 12' Tape Measure, and the Kreg Pocket-Hole Jig. 

What’s so great about frameless cabinets?

Frameless cabinets (sometimes called “Euro-style” or “32mm system” cabinets) were first popularized in Europe. They rely on a series of holes spaced on 32mm centers for mounting hinges, drawer slides, shelf pins, and other hardware. For best results, you need a plunge router, guide bushing, 5mm router bit, and template to make the holes. To speed up the cabinet-building process, we went with a frameless cabinet approach. Doing so eliminates a lot of building steps and introduces you to a system you'll likely use again and again. Consider these advantages for going frameless:

• Unlike face-frame cabinets, no space is lost where frameless cabinets are joined together.

• Identically spaced holes enable you to quickly install and easily reposition shelves, drawers, and pull-out trays. 

• Frameless cabinets eliminate the time and expense of constructing and installing face frames. Instead, exposed plywood edges are covered with inexpensive iron-on edging (see Photo E).

• The concealed “Euro-hinges” used in frameless cabinets install and adjust more easily than other types of hinges (see Photo Q).

Without further ado, let’s get building.

Three sheet good choices for your shop: MDF, MCP, or birch plywood

The construction techniques stay the same, but the material used to build these cabinets can vary, based on your priorities. Here are the details to consider when selecting which panel product to use for your workshop. 

Economical and fast: painted MDF cabinets, doors, and drawer fronts ($27.43 for a ¾ × 49 × 97" sheet). You save money and build-time since doors and drawer fronts are simple slabs of MDF. No edging needed. The downside is that MDF doesn’t stand up well under moist conditions, nor is it as durable as MCP or plywood. 

Affordable and prefinished: melamine-coated particleboard (MCP) cabinets, doors, and drawer fronts ($33.21 for a ¾ × 49 × 97" sheet). This is a good middle-of-the-road choice with a build-time just a little longer than you’d have with MDF (since particleboard edges need to be finished with edge banding). The factory-applied melamine coating cleans easily, is super-durable, and the light color brightens up any shop. 

Top of the line: birch plywood cabinets, maple frame-and-panel doors with birch plywood panels ($42.88 for a ¾" × 4' × 8' sheet). If you want shop cabinets with an all-wood look, this is the way to go. 

Size and prepare the panel parts

(NOTE: The photos show the construction sequence for a 24"-wide “small” base cabinet. The same steps apply for the larger 32"-wide base and wall cabinets.)

1 Referring to the Cut List, cut case sides (A), bottoms (B), stretchers (C), and backs (D) for all of the base cabinets you plan to build. See the base and wall cabinet construction details in Figures 1-3. By using the Cutting Diagram, you can efficiently get the most out of a full sheet of material, leaving very little waste. Recruit a helper to heft material, if necessary, and make sure your table saw has solid outfeed support to make cuts safely and accurately.  

Clamp the line-boring jig to the bottom and front edge of the cabinet side. Note how the stops establish the jig’s location (Inset).

2 Fit a 3/8" guide bushing and a 5mm-diameter upcut spiral bit in a plunge router, adjusting the bit cutting depth to make 12mm- (or ½"-) deep holes. Next, snugly clamp a metric line-boring (or shelf-pin) jig designed for use with a plunge router to the front and bottom edges of the cabinet sides (A) as shown in Photo A. Note how the jig stops fit snugly to the workpiece underneath in the Inset. You will find that this jig lets you make evenly- spaced rows of holes along the inside front and back edge of the cabinet sides for the hinges, shelf pins, and drawer slides. 

3 Now, starting at one end of the jig, insert the router’s bushing in an alignment hole and plunge-bore a 12mm-deep hole in the cabinet side (A) as shown in Photo B. Continue plunge-boring the remaining holes, adjusting the clamps as necessary so they don’t interfere with the routing process.

4 Make a 32"-long shop-made spacer from hardboard and ¾"-square stock (Figure 2 Detail). Remove the edge stops from the jig. Then clamp it and the line-boring jig along the back edge of the cabinet side and measure to make sure the holes are centered at 480mm from the front row as shown in Photo C. Now bore the back row of holes. 

5  Using a rabbeting bit in the router or a table saw dado set, cut ½" rabbets ½" deep on the back inside faces of the sides (A), bottom (B), and top rear stretcher (C) for the ½"-thick back (D). 

Plunge-bore the holes in the inside faces of the cabinet sides, moving the tool from jig hole to jig hole after the plunge cycle is complete. 

Remove the jig’s edge stops, relocate the end stop, and use a spacer to position the second (back) row of holes 480mm on center from the first. Double-check your hole spacing and alignment after making your spacer, before boring the holes.

6 Mark evenly-spaced layout lines on the bottom face of cabinet bottoms (B) along each end for pocket holes. Mark layout lines for a pair of pocket holes on the top faces of stretchers (C). Next, clamp the pocket-hole jig in place on your layout lines and bore the holes as shown in Photo D. A base cabinet requires 10 pocket holes to secure the bottom to the sides, (5 per side) and four pocket holes to secure each stretcher to the sides at the top (Figures 1 and 2).

Bore five evenly-spaced pocket holes along the ends of the bottom for joining the case sides.

7 Cut edge banding to rough length for the front edges of sides (A), bottoms (B), and stretchers (C). A good rule is to cut strips about 2" longer than the finished lengths of the parts in the Cut List. Then clamp the cabinet part in a bench vise or use handscrews so the front edge stands up vertically. NOTE: If you haven’t used edge banding before, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Because it offers a quick and economical way to hide plywood and melamine edges, edge banding is often used on Euro-style cabinets, but you’ll also find it useful on other projects as well. Melamine edges can be finished with vinyl edge banding, which applies just like wood edge banding.

8 Tack one edge of the edge banding to the plywood by applying moderate pressure with the iron, as shown in Photo E. Make sure that a small amount of edge banding overhangs at both ends, so you can trim it flush. Move the iron slowly along the edging to activate the thermosetting adhesive backing and adhere it to the plywood. After adhering the band to the plywood, press it down to the edge, using either a rubber roller or scrap of hardwood. 

9 Trim the edge banding flush with the sides of the plywood, using an edge-banding trimmer, as shown in Photo F. Trim the ends flush with a 1"-wide chisel or a sharp utility knife. Repeat this edge-banding sequence on all the parts that will have exposed edges after assembly. 

Finish the front edges of parts with iron-on edging. Move the iron slowly across the edge as the thermosetting glue melts and adheres the edging to the plywood.

Use an edge-banding trimmer to trim both edges in one pass. Beginning at one end, squeeze the trimmer and push it forward,  creating twin curls as shown.

Assemble the cases

1 If making several cabinets, do your back a favor by building an inexpensive knockdown assembly table to have a work surface that’s dead flat and at a comfortable working height. See Figure 4 and the accompanying sidebar for complete plans for a knee-high table.

2 Next, gather the parts needed to build the cabinet. For the base cabinet, you’ll need two sides (A), one bottom (B), two stretchers (C), and one back (D). 

Use a pocket-hole right-angle clamp to secure the case bottom against the side while driving screws to hold the joint. Similarly attach the stretchers. 

Apply glue, then drop in the back panel (D). Clamp the case as needed to pull it tight to the panel and secure the back with finish nails. 

3 Place bottom (B) and side (A) front edges down on a flat surface, apply glue, and butt and clamp their ends together. (We used a Kreg Right-Angle Clamp for a tight fit.) Now screw the bottom to the side with 1¼" pocket-hole screws (Photo G). After pocket-screwing the bottom to both sides, attach the stretchers (C) to the sides with glue and pocket screws. Note: You’ll use two pocket screws where stretchers connect to case sides. Wall cabinets are built with top panels (B) instead of stretchers and also receive two pocket screws at each end.

4 Check the case for square, and then attach the back (D) using glue and 1¼" finish nails (Photo H). Because it is sized to fit into the rabbetted opening, the back helps square-up and strengthen the cabinet.

Start Smart: Knockdown Assembly Table

This easy-to-build table provides a strong, flat, and solid work surface. What’s more, it breaks down quickly and stows easily when not in use, as shown at right. 

The assembly table’s base is made from four pieces of construction-grade plywood slotted to interlock. The torsion-box top is made by sandwiching a square grid of ¾ × 1½" pine dividers and outer frame members between two pieces of MDF. We used ¾"-thick MDF  to make the torsion-box top, but you can substitute ½" seven-ply plywood and shave a few pounds without sacrificing strength. Give the top of your cabinet assembly work surface a few coats of polyurethane followed by a wax topcoat. This makes it easy to remove any dried glue and prevents glued-up cases from sticking to the work surface.

Three ways to trick out base cabinets

One of the great advantages of 32mm cabinets is that you can easily trick them out with different door, drawer, and shelf configurations. The holes you drilled earlier in your case sides hold door hinges, shelf supports, or drawer slides, making installation fast. Now, customize the interiors with these three storage options. Shelves provide generalized storage, drawers offer dedicated storage, and pull-out trays are ideal for portable power tools  

Option 1: Simple Shelves

1 Cut shelves (E) from ¾" plywood, MDF, or MCP, depending on the sheet goods you’re using. To make the shelves easier to slide in, cut them ¼" shorter than the cabinet’s inside dimension.

2 Edge-band the front edges of each shelf (not MDF), just as you did when working on the cabinet case parts. Then fit shelf supports in the holes inside the cabinet at your selected shelf height and install the shelves.

Option 2: Kit-Built Drawers  

1 Measure the cabinet to cut drawer fronts (F-I), backs (J), and bottoms (K). As shown in Figure 5, the Metal Box system allows you to build drawers of just about any size using factory-made metal sides that incorporate slide rollers (see sidebar on page 35). As per the Cut List, the bottom and back of the drawer are cut from ½" plywood. The front can be made from the same material used for the cabinets or, to eliminate edge-banding, step up to solid wood. NOTE: MDF cabinets do not receive edge banding, and MDF can serve as the drawer bottom and back to control waste and costs.

2 Cut the parts for each Metal Box drawer. Subtract 1¼" from the cabinet opening to get the required width for the drawer bottom (K) and back (J). For a 23¾" deep cabinet, make the drawer bottom 215/8" long. Subtract 1/8" from the outside width of the cabinet to get the finished width of the drawer front so that the ends don’t rub against adjacent drawers or cabinet doors. (If you are making the drawer fronts from birch plywood or melamine, edge-band the edges.) 

3 Assemble the drawer box by screwing the drawer bottom (K) to the Metal Box sides as shown in Photo I. Drive #6 × 3/8 panhead screws through holes in the side flanges and into the bottom.

4 Attach the back (J), using the holes in the back flanges. Drive a single screw through the back edge of the bottom and into the back, so that the bottom won’t sag. Finally, fasten the two angle brackets to the front of the metal sides and attach the drawer front. 

5 Fasten both drawer slide tracks to the inside of the cabinet. The predrilled rows of 5mm holes make it easy. Drive the 5mm Euro screws through holes in the tracks and into the holes already made in the sides as shown in Photo J.

6 Adjust the fit of the drawer fronts (F-I). The “margins,” or gaps between the drawer fronts, should be even. Also note how the fronts for the top and bottom drawers are ¾" wider to conceal the edges of cabinet bottom (B) and stretcher (C).  After installation, inspect the fit. Adjust the fronts either by shifting the front mounting brackets slightly or by removing the fronts from the brackets and reattaching them.

Attach the ½" plywood bottom by driving screws through holes in the side flanges and into the plywood. (Consider a ½" MDF bottom for the MDF cabinets.)

Fasten the drawer runners to the case by driving a pair of 5mm Euro  screws through the metal guide and into the predrilled holes.

Option 3: Shop-made pull-out trays 

1 Measure the cabinet interior from side to side, and subtract 1" to determine the width of the pull-out tray (Photo K). This provides clearance for the full-extension drawer slides. For reference, see Figure 6 and the Cut List. As shown, each tray has a back and front (L), two sides (M) and a bottom (N). Adjust the affected part dimensions as needed. Note: If using pull-out trays, you’ll need to purchase 165° hinges (instead of the standard 110° hinges) to provide the needed clearance for sliding out the trays or add ¾"-thick cleats to the interior cabinet sides and subtract an additional 1½" for the width of the tray. 

2 Next, cut tray parts to size. After cutting the sides (M) and  back and front (L) to finished lengths and widths, set up a dado cutter in your table saw or a straight bit in your router table to make a ¾"-wide rabbet 3/8" deep along the edges for the bottom.

3 Using a 3/8" dado blade, cut a simple lock rabbet joint as shown in the detail in Figure 6.

4 Join the front and back (L) to the sides (M) and then install the bottom (N) with glue and 6d finish nails. Attach the drawer slide hardware to the tray sides and to the sides of the base cabinet. 

Full-extension slides put everything on the tray within easy reach. Size the tray 1" narrower than the width of the cabinet opening.

Metal Boxes: Strong drawers made simply and quickly

The Metal Box drawer is an innovative, cost-effective system that saves time by eliminating corner joinery. A “kit” consists of a pair of powder-coated steel sides with flanges for attaching the bottom and back and a pair of brackets for attaching the front. The sides act as drawer slides, matching up with tracks that attach to the cabinet. You supply the drawer bottoms, backs, and fronts. To make the drawer, simply screw on the bottom, back, and front. 

Sides come in different heights, but we stuck to the same 3¼" height and varied the drawer-front heights. With a bulk purchase discount, the Metal Box drawer components for a set of cabinets cost $8.99 per drawer for three or more.

Build the doors and install the hinges

Note: Skip Steps 1-3 below if making slab doors from MDF or MCP. The hinge-installation techniques are the same, no matter what doors  you use. (See the sidebar about cup hinges on page 37.)

1 Cut the stiles (O), rails (P), and panels (Q) to size using the Cut List. As shown in Figures 1 and 3, each frame-and-panel door consists of two stiles, two rails, and a flat plywood panel. Cut stiles and rails to finished dimensions, making sure to account for ¼"-long tenons in the rails. 

2 Using your table saw and dado set, adjust the cutting width to match the thickness of your panel. Test-cut scrap to make sure that the cutting width and depth are correct and that the rip fence is positioned to center the groove on your stiles (O) and rails (P). 

3 Attach a wood auxiliary fence to the rip fence, so that portion of the dado set can be buried in the wood fence. Adjust the rip fence, so that the dado width is just a hair less than the depth of the groove. Next, adjust the dado set height, so that the resulting tenon fits snugly in the panel grooves. Now cut the ¼ × ¼" tenons on the rails as shown in Photo M. 

4 Coat the rail tenons evenly with glue, position a pair of clamps to center clamping pressure on the stile-and-rail joints, and apply moderate clamping pressure to assemble the doors. Check for square as you tighten the clamps (Photo N). Once the glue dries, level and smooth the rail-to-stile joints using a random-orbit sander and 220-grit sandpaper. Hand-sand all edges to soften sharp corners.  Use 110° hinges for all cabinets that do not have full- extension drawer trays; use 165° hinges for all cabinets that have full-extension drawer trays.

Make two passes over the dado cutter to cut each tenon. 

Check for square as you tighten the clamps on each door assembly.

Match the hinge mounting plate’s centerline on the door stile. Measure from the bottom and top of the cabinet to the mounting plates, then transfer these measurements to the door.

5 Transfer the hinge layout from the cabinet to the door by measuring up from the bottom and down from the top of the cabinet to the centerlines of the hinge mounting plate locations on the cabinet side (Photo O). Transfer these lines to the door stile with a square.

6 Now align the plastic hinge- marking jig with the centerlines and mark the three center points for boring the cup hinge (Photo P). Chuck the 35mm bit that came with the jig into your drill press and bore 12mm-deep holes. Use an 8mm brad point bit to bore 12mm-deep dowel holes. Install the cup hinges by tapping them in their holes with a mallet (Photo P Inset). 

7 Now screw the mounting plates to the front line of holes bored in the cabinet sides. Snap the mating cup hinges on the door to the mounting plates and adjust the door up or down, in or out, or left or right (Photo Q). Follow the same steps for the remaining door.

Use a plastic marking jig to accurately mark centerpoints for the cup hinge hole, and for the plastic dowel holes. After drilling, tap the hinge assembly in place with a mallet.

Use a Phillips-head screwdriver to adjust the fit of the doors, maintaining a reveal of 3/32" or the thickness of a nickel.

Cup hinges: Tap in and snap on

If you’re accustomed to basic butt hinges, cup (Euro) hinges may look intimidating, but this complex-looking hinge is astonishingly easy to install. What’s more, these hinges allow you to quickly adjust the door up and down or in and out after the door is installed.

    A cup hinge consists of a mounting plate that screws into the predrilled 5mm holes in the cabinet side and a hinge mechanism that’s installed in the door. The hinge mechanism includes a cup-shaped recess and a pair of barbed plastic dowels. If necessary, the hinge cup can be removed simply by unscrewing the screws that extend into the plastic dowels. 

Assemble the base and install the cabinets

1 Cut four base pieces (R, S) and corner blocks (T) to create a 3½"-high toekick under the base cabinet. (We used 1×4 pine, but base pieces can also be cut from ¾" plywood.) Assemble the parts as shown in Figure 1. Secure the corner blocks with pocket-hole screws as shown in Photo R.

2 Secure the base by driving 11/4" pocket screws through the corner blocks and into the bottom of the cabinet as shown in Photo S. Be sure to position the front edge of the base 1¾" back from the front edge of the cabinet.

3 Slide the cabinet into place against the wall and shim the base (Photo T) until the top of the cabinet is level side to side and front to back. Once the top is level both ways, secure the cabinet to the wall by driving 2½" screws through the back and into studs. 

Use corner blocks to strengthen and square the base. Fasten the blocks in opposite corners after assembling the frame.

Drive screws through the corner blocks to join the base to the case.

Shim up the cabinet before screwing it to the wall studs.

Install the wall cabinets

1 Bevel-rip enough ¾ × 3"-wide stock (we used pine) for wall cabinet cleats and mating wall cleats. If you also intend to make and install tool boards (see page 42), plan on extending the length of your wall cleats to accommodate these as well. Now cut the beveled strips to length and attach one cleat (U) to the wall at the desired height using a pair of 2½" screws per stud. (We located our wall cleats 78" above the floor.) Attach the mating cleats to the wall cabinet backs where shown in the Cleats and Spacer Side View in Figure 3. Crosscut a ¾ × 3½" piece of stock for spacers (V) and attach it along the bottom edge of the wall cabinet backs. 

2 Next, lift the wall cabinets into place (Photo U), lowering the cabinet cleat onto the wall cleat. This system allows you to relocate your wall cabinets quickly and easily.

3 To join cabinets together, first clamp their front edges flush, then drive 1¼" screws in line with the front holes. Two screws per cabinet should do it. 

With cleats attached to the wall cabinet and the wall, individual cabinets can simply be lifted into place.

About our Writer

When he’s not writing about woodworking, green building, and home improvement, you’ll probably find Tim Snyder out in his workshop (a converted two-car garage) making furniture or tackling built-in cabinetry and other remodeling projects. He lives in northwestern Connecticut with his wife, Barbara, and a yellow lab named Brawley.

Build-or-buy countertop options

For durability and low cost, you can hardly beat an MDF countertop. We made ours from two layers of screwed and glued ¾ × 23/8" pieces of MDF that we then trimmed to size. To protect edges, we glued on ¾ × 1½" maple and added a maple backsplash. We also included two other options: laminated maple and plastic-laminate countertops. All of the countertops were secured in place by driving screws through base cabinet stretchers and into the countertop material. 

Option 1: Make an MDF countertop assembly

1 Determine your countertop length based on whether you’re topping a single base cabinet, a bank of cabinets, or a pair of cabinets with space for a workshop stool in between. Determine the width. Our countertops, with edging and backsplash, measured 251/2" deep. That allowed for an overhang of 1½", making it acceptable for clamping. Now figure the edging and MDF needs. Note the double layer of MDF in the cutaway at right. Because MDF sheets are 49" wide, we could get both layers for an 8' length of cabinets from one sheet.

2 Cut the MDF pieces to rough size, making one sheet exact size and one sheet slightly oversized. Ensure that the outside edges of the bottom layer are straight and square. Now screw and glue the top countertop layer in place using 1¼" drywall screws at 8" intervals to pull the layers together. Allow the outside edges of this top layer to overlap the bottom layer by 1/8" to ¼". After the glue dries, use a flush-trim bit in a handheld router to trim the top layer flush with the bottom to create the countertop.

3  Rip enough 3"-wide maple stock for a backsplash for the length of the countertop. Plane or sand a 1/8"-1/4" chamfer on what will be the top outside corner of the piece. Now, rip enough maple stock to 19/16" for the end and front edging pieces. (Solid maple edging gives the MDF more strength and impact resistance.) Now cut the maple backsplash and front edging to exact length and install them with clamps, glue, and 6d finish nails.

4 Next, cut two end-edging pieces to length and attach them with glue and 1¾" Confirmat screws (ideal for MDF). Drill counterbored pilot holes for the screws using the supplied bit. Drive the screws and glue a wood plug in each counterbore hole. Now sand or cut the plug flush. Ease all edging corners with a sanding block.

5 Position the countertop on the base cabinets and drive four 1¼" screws through the base cabinet’s top stretchers and into the underside of the countertop.

Option 2: Buy a laminated maple countertop      

For a hard-wearing, good-looking alternative, consider purchasing a 1¾" laminated maple countertop (or benchtop). While the priciest of the three options, you’ll save time in construction. That said, you still need to crosscut and rip the piece to length and width. Because we needed a little extra length in our shop for a clamping edge, we cut countertop ends from the ripped off-cut and screwed them in place.

Option 3: Buy a plastic- laminate/particleboard countertop    

Visit a local countertop fabricator and buy a plastic-laminate countertop from his leftovers collecting dust in the corner. Plastic laminate is the easiest to clean and provides a tough surface for spills of glue, water, oil, paint, and finishes. For our sharpening station, we found a fabricator who cut a leftover piece to the needed length, laminated the cut end, and charged us a very reasonable $80 for a 75" length. 


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