Step-Back Cupboard

A Casual Country Classic

Project designed and built by Steve Rigrish

This charming cupboard earns its step-back name from the fact that its upper section is shallower than the base. But it’s also a step back in time in terms of materials, joinery, hardware, and finish. Its overall dimension is 19"d x 48"w x 82" h.

The entire piece—front and back—is solid hardwood, without even a sliver of plywood. And the hand-planed surfaces and joinery duplicate the no-nonsense practicality of time-tested country craftsmen. The tradition continues with authentically-styled vintage nails and hardware. We distressed the cupboard to replicate generations of wear, using milk paint and shellac finish formulas that have remained virtually unchanged over hundreds of years.

What makes this piece better than a real antique is that you can easily customize the cupboard to suit your needs. Rearrange the upper shelves to create space for a flat-screen television, or omit some of the doors to create an open display storage piece.

Begin with the case sides

1 JOINT AND PLANE STOCK TO MAKE THE SIDES. After thicknessing the boards to /" thick, rip and crosscut the pieces to size. To save time and wood, each side is made of three pieces: parts A, the side (rear); B, the side (middle); and C, the side (front). When glued together as in Figure 1, the three boards create the step-back profile and the basic shape of the feet without a lot of extra sawing.

2 Make a foot profile template. To do this, use a compass to draw a 3/" radius on a piece of ¼" hardboard. Bandsaw along the waste side of the line then drum-sand to final shape for the smoothest possible curve.

3 USE THE TEMPLATE TO DRAW THE FOOT PROFILE on one end of parts A, the sides (rear), and C, the sides (front). As you make your cut, stay about /" to the waste side of the line.

4 ATTACH THE TEMPLATE TO YOUR STOCK, and clamp the stock to your workbench with the pattern on the bottom. Chuck a flush-trimming bit (see the Convenience-Plus Buying Guide) into your handheld router. Adjust the bit’s depth so that the bearing rides along the template as shown in Photo A. Rout clockwise (viewed from the top) along the edge of the pattern. (If using a pattern bit with a bearing near the collet, clamp the stock so that the pattern is on top of the stock.)

Used with a template, a flush trim bit makes quick work of removing saw marks and making a perfectly shaped foot.

Careful clamping creates the decorative stepped offset. Insert wood strips between the clamp jaws and side panels to avoid denting the edges.

5 ASSEMBLE THE SIDE ASSEMBLIES ONE BOARD AT A TIME. Start by positioning part B, the side (middle), next to part A, the side (back), to create a ½" offset above the foot, as shown in Photo B. Glue these boards together before attempting to add part C, the side (front). To check the positioning of the last side board, butt a straightedge or carpenter’s square against the bottom of the side assembly to make sure that both feet are on the same level. 

6 REMOVE THE CLAMPS AND INSPECT THE SIDE ASSEMBLIES. Also, scrape glue squeeze-out from the joints. 

Rout the dadoes

1 CLAMP THE SIDE ASSEMBLIES TO A FLAT SURFACE, with their inside faces up and back edges touching, as shown in Figure 3. Positioning the sides back to back will enable you to rout two dados at once. The mirror-image dadoes should also ensure a hassle-free glue-up. Referring to Figure 2 and Figure 3, carefully mark the position of the dadoes across both side assemblies. 

2 FIND THE ROUTER’S BASE-TO-BIT OFFSET. To do this, install a ¾" straight bit (see the Buying Guide) into your router and set it for a cut depth of /". Clamp a straightedge guide to a piece of scrap stock, and make a short test cut. (Make sure that the router’s base stays in constant contact with the guide.) Measure the offset between the guide and the edge of the dado as shown in Figure 3. Use this measurement to position the edge guides on the side assemblies.

3 CLAMP OR SCREW THE GUIDE STRIP TO THE SIDE ASSEMBLIES, as shown in Figure 3. When routing the dadoes, focus on keeping the base against the guide, as shown in Photo C. Make the cut in /" increments until you reach final depth. (Note that all but one of the dadoes are ¾" wide. To fit the /"-thick counter shelf, you’ll need to widen the dado above the side assembly’s step. To do this, rout a ¾" dado, then reposition the guide and remove an additional /" of material from the top edge.) 

4 Clean up the side assemblies. You can use a sander, but this is another opportunity to practice your planing skills. Using a No. 4 or 5 bench plane, as shown in Photo D, can fix any glue-up irregularities, such as offset edge joints, and finish the surface as quickly as any power sander. In addition, you’ll feel the difference that the plane will make through the milk paint finish.

Rout a rabbet, and make the shelves

1 ADD AN EDGE GUIDE TO YOUR ROUTER, and adjust it for the first pass of the ½ x ½" rabbet along the back edge of each side assembly. As shown in Figure 2, the rabbet runs from the bottom dado to the top of the side assembly. Rout this rabbet in /" increments until you reach the final depth of ½". With a sanding block and 220-grit sandpaper, clean up any splinters or fuzz on the edges.

2 JOINT, THEN PLANE THE COUNTER SHELF (D) AND LEDGE (E), so that it’s a little too thick to fit (about /" thick). Use a hand-plane to remove any machine marks, then test-fit the counter shelf in the /"-wide groove. Continue hand-planing the top (or machine-planing the bottom) until the shelf fits. Don’t force the shelf into the dado—if it’s that tight, removing it could splinter the edges of the dado. Finally, rip and crosscut the counter shelf and ledge to their final sizes.

3 DIMENSION STOCK FOR THE SHELVES, including the upper shelves (F), and lower shelves (G) to /" thick. Edge-glue stock to make the width required for these parts. When the glue is dry, rip and crosscut the shelves to final dimensions. As when fitting the counter shelf, Steve uses a hand plane to erase milling marks and to sneak up on a perfect shelf fit. After fitting, mark the dadoes and the ends of the shelves with a pencil so that you can reposition them later.

4 ROUT THE PLATE GROOVES WITH A V-GROOVE BIT INTO YOUR HANDHELD ROUTER. (See the Buying Guide for a V-groove bit source.) To set your router, adjust the bit’s depth to ¼" and set the edge guide so the tip of the bit will cut 2" from the shelf’s back edge. As shown in Figure 1, you’ll want to stop the groove about 4" in from each end. After routing, square off these ends with a chisel to give the groove a hand-cut appearance.

Glue up the carcase and add the top

You may want to recruit a helper or two to assist with this big glue-up. The carcase starts out on its side, but after inserting the shelves, you’ll stand the entire assembly upright to apply the cauls and clamps. Make sure that the spot where you’ll stand the carcase is perfectly flat, or you could introduce twist into the assembly.

1 Make four custom clamping cauls 17½" long from 2 x 2 pine and eight cauls 12½" long to distribute the clamping pressure across the width of the side assemblies. Next, gather your clamps. You’ll need eight bar or pipe clamps that are long enough to span the width of the case. A pair of strap clamps can help squeeze the case together, giving you time to carefully position the caul/clamp combination.

2 SPREAD GLUE IN THE DADOES AND ON THE ENDS OF THE SHELVES. When you insert the shelves, make sure that the plate groove is on the upper surface and at the rear of the cabinet. Temporarily pull the case together with strap clamps, then carefully stand up the carcase. Beginning at the bottom and working up, use the cauls and clamps to apply even clamping pressure across the width of the side assemblies. Make sure that the shelves’s back edges do not interfere with the rabbets you cut in the sides before tightening the clamps and squeezing the shelves into the dadoes. (Consider using Titebond Extend Glue during this long assembly. See the Buying Guide.)

3 CHECK THE CARCASE FOR SQUARE with a framing square or by measuring diagonally from corner to corner. If the measurements are not equal, you can position an extra clamp diagonally across the longer dimension to pull the case square. (You may need to clamp some blocks to the sides to provide anchor points for the clamp.) Let the glue cure overnight before removing the clamps.

4 MAKE THE TOP (H). Use the dado locations shown on Figure 4 as a guide, but to be safe, place the top on the case and mark out the exact dado locations. Position the top so that the back edges are flush and it’s centered from side-to-side. Hold the top firmly in position while you use a pencil to mark the edges and front end of the dadoes. Your pencil marks should match up with the dadoes shown on Figure 4.

5 CUT THE DADOES IN THE TOP (H) using the same procedure you used to cut the dadoes in the sides. The only difference is that you’ll need to stop the dado to fit the sides. Stop routing about /" in from your pencil line and finish up the cut with a chisel. Test-fit the top to check your handiwork. Reattach your router’s edge guide and rout a ½ x ¼" stopped rabbet along the back edge.

6 FASTEN THE TOP TO THE CARCASE with glue and 1¼" hinge nails.

Old-fashioned cut nails provide a nice authentic touch. Tremont’s 3d fine finish nails left (see the Buying Guide) have a flat brad-style head; the 3d hinge nails right have a slightly domed head. The article identifies where to use each type. When driving these nails, drill a 3/32" pilot hole and orient the wedge-shaped shank with the grain to avoid splitting the boards.

Make and attach the face frames

1 JOINT AND PLANE STOCK FOR THE FACE FRAMES, including the lower stiles (I), the lower rail (J), the upper stiles (K), and the upper rail (L). Rip these pieces to width, but for now, leave the stiles at least 1" longer than listed. The extra material will allow you to cut the parts to fit the carcase. (Note that both face frame assemblies are sized so that the stiles overhang each side by /". You’ll trim away the excess after assembly for a flush fit.)

2 CROSSCUT THE LOWER STILES (I) to match the distance between the floor and the countertop. Use the foot profile template you made for the side assembly to cut and then rout the bottom ends.

3 CUT THE MORTISES INTO THE UPPER INSIDE EDGES of the lower stiles (I) where shown in Figure 5. You can do this with a mortising machine or drill press and chisels. Shape the tenons on the ends of the lower rail (J) using a tablesaw or router table. Next, cut the shoulders. After fitting the joints, lightly clean up the outside faces of the pieces with a hand plane.

4 ASSEMBLE THE LOWER FACE FRAME ASSEMBLY. Be sure that you glue and clamp the face frame on a flat surface so you don’t introduce any twist. To make sure that the stiles stay parallel as you apply clamping pressure, make a spacer equal the shoulder-to-shoulder distance of the lower rail (J) and temporarily insert it between the stiles’ lower ends.

5 LAY THE CARCASE ASSEMBLY ON ITS BACK and position the lower face frame assembly in place. (Remember that the outer edges are supposed to overhang each side by /".) Remove the face frame, spread some glue on to the mating surfaces, then reposition the face frame and clamp it to the case. After the glue dries, remove the clamps and drive the 3d (1¼") hinge nails.

6 TRIM THE EDGES OF THE LOWER STILES (I) FLUSH WITH THE SIDES, using a flush-trim bit. (See the Buying Guide for more on this bit.) If necessary, you can remove evidence of a machine-made cut with a pass or two of your hand plane.

7 EDGE-GLUE THE LEDGE (E) TO COUNTER SHELF (D), centering it side-to-side. (It should overhang each side by approximately /".) Fasten it with glue and 3d fine finish nails.

8 CUT THE UPPER STILES (K) TO FIT between the ledge (E) and top (H). These stiles do not require any shaping at the ends. Otherwise, construction and installation of the upper face frame follows the same procedures used for the lower face frame.

After attaching this frame, the ledge (E) and top (H) will prevent your router from trimming the ends the upper stiles flush with the sides. In those areas, you’ll need to switch to a chisel or chisel plane to finish the cleanup work.

9 LAY A STRAIGHTEDGE ON THE LEDGE (E) to check that the front surfaces of the upper stiles (K) align with each other. Make any adjustment necessary, then drive a 6d (2") nail up through the bottom face of the ledge and into the end of each upper stile. 

Make the beadboard back

1 JOINT AND PLANE SIX BEADBOARD PIECES (M) TO MAKE the cabinet back. Rip and crosscut to the size in the Cut List.

2 CHUCK A BEADING BIT INTO YOUR TABLE-MOUNTED ROUTER, and adjust the fence so that it’s flush with the bit’s bearing. (To order a beading bit, see the Buying Guide.) If possible, attach a featherboard to hold the stock firmly against the bit, as shown in Photo E. Rout this profile along one edge of each beadboard (M).

3 SET UP TO CUT A ½" RABBET ¼" DEEP, using a dado head in your table saw or with a straight bit in your table-mounted router. (With a router-table setup, you’ll probably need two passes.) Referring to Figure 6, you’ll see that one rabbet is on the edge opposite the bead and the other is behind the bead. Note that the board at one edge does not have a back rabbet, while the board at the opposite edge doesn’t have a rabbet at the front.

4 FIT THE BEADBOARDS (M) INTO THE CARCASE, with a gap of approximately /" along each rabbet in the carcase. The intermediate gaps between the individual boards should all be equal, at approximately /" each—the thickness of a combination square rule—as shown in Photo N, on page 30. When you’re satisfied with the spacing, make pencil registration marks on each board and the carcase so that you can easily install them in the same position after finishing.

Make and attach the cove molding

1 JOINT THEN PLANE STOCK FOR THE COVE to 1" thick. Rip blanks 3/" wide, crosscutting the cove front (M) 50" long, and two blanks to 20" for both the cove sides (N). It’s a good idea to also cut a test piece about 16" long. Always mill the test piece first to prove your setups. Also, some woodworkers find it helpful to draw the molding profile (shown in Figure 8) on the end of the workpiece to ensure accurate setups, as when determining where the cove cut ends when the blade is raised to final height for fence location.

2 CLAMP A BOARD TO YOUR SAW TABLE TO SET THE COVE-CUTTING FENCE as shown in Figure 7. Note that when the saw blade is raised to /" high, its leading edge is /" from the fence. Attach a featherboard to help guide the blank.

3 LOWER THE TABLE SAW BLADE TO 1/8". This cove-cutting procedure involves an angled cutting direction, something that the blade was not engineered to do efficiently. As a result, you need to minimize stress on the blade by raising it in very small increments between passes and not forcing the stock during the cut. As the cut deepens, more surface area comes into contact with the blade, so you need to raise the blade in even smaller increments. Mill all of the cove blanks before raising the blade to its new setting. As shown in Photo F, Steve uses a flat pushblock to hold the stock against the table and the fence and a pushblock with a hooked end to advance the stock.

4 CUT A 11/16" DEEP COVE as indicated in Figure 8. Tilt your table saw blade to 45º, and with the cove facing the table, make angled cuts along both edges of the blanks as shown in Photo G.

5 CUT FILLETS ALONG BOTH EDGES OF THE COVE, with the concave face up, as shown in Photo H. Referring to Figure 8, you’ll see that the fillet is ¼" wide and cut at a 45º angle.


See the Buying Guide for a cabinet scraper set. Also see the Tip Alert for scraping suggestions. Sandpaper wrapped around a curved form will complete the smoothing. Use spray adhesive to attach sandpaper to a piece of 3" PVC drain pipe or a cardboard mailing tube. You can also use a spindle sander arbor and sleeve.

7 Cut the cove front (N) and opposing cove sides (O) using the non-compound cutting method in Figure 9. This simple approach requires that you squarely rest the bottom of the molding against the fence and the top of the molding on the mitersaw table. (See Photo J.) To do this effectively, place a molding retainer strip in front of the molding as it rests in its angled position against the fence. This prevents the workpiece from slipping during the cut. Note, too, that when cutting the cove front (N), you’ll need to sneak up on its exact length, ensuring that the short ends align with the cabinet corners. Cut the sides long at first for easy trimming of the 90º ends later. Mark all pieces and edges to avoid confusion.

8 MITERCUT THE LEFT FRONT CORNER OF THE COVE FRONT (N). Now, cut the miter on the mating cove side (O). Use these two pieces to match the corner joint, and clamp the long piece of molding in place, as shown in Photo K. Also refer to the installed view on Figure 8 to see the ¼" reveal between the edge of the molding and the edge of the top (H). Position the cove side (O), and mark the 90º cutline on the piece at the rear of the carcase. Cut this end to final length. Fasten this cove side  with 1¼" finishing nails. 

9 MARK THE RIGHT MITER CUT AT THE OPPOSITE END OF THE COVE FRONT (N), and unclamp it from the carcase. Make this cut, then install the molding. 

10 FIT THE OTHER SIDE COVE (O), cut it to length, then glue and nail this piece to the cabinet.

Using a pair of push blocks keep your hands safely away from the blade during the coving operation.

For safety, don’t raise the blade higher than absolutely necessary when you make the back cuts on the molding.

Cutting the fillets on the molding is another operation that requires push blocks and extreme caution.

Strive for shavings, not dust, when you scrape the profile of the cove molding.

To use the non-compound method for cutting crown, place a retainer strip on your mitersaw to keep the angled molding from slipping during the cut.

With the cove front temporarily held in place, fit the right cove side to it and mark the end at the cabinet’s rear edge.

Make and attach the doors

1 MAKE THE RAISED-PANEL DOORS by referring to the companion article “Trouble-Free Raised-Panel Doors” on page 32. The Cut List provides you with the finished dimensions of the rails and stiles, but you’ll want to carefully confirm these sizes with the face frame openings in the carcase that you built. Consider making the doors slightly oversized, then trimming them to final size after assembly. Here’s an easy way to increase the size of the door by /" in both height and width: add /" to the width of each rail and stile, and lengthen each stile by /". The size of the raised panel is unaffected.

2 Fitting and installing the doors is easier when you lay the carcase on its back. A gap at the edges and ends of the door should be, at a minimum, /". With a rustic or country-styled cabinet you can make the reveal larger, but /" would be the maximum. Be careful to remove equal amounts from a pair of stiles or rails to keep their width identical. You can use your jointer to trim doors to length. To do this without blowing-out the edges of the stiles, make an initial jointing cut about 1" long, as shown in Figure 10. Back the cut out of the jointer, and turn the door to restart the cut at the opposite edge of the door. The initial cut will help prevent grain blow-out at the door’s edge.

3 BACK-BEVEL THE MATING EDGES OF EACH DOOR PAIR with a block plane to create opening clearance. Referring to Figure 11, you’ll see that the bevel starts /" behind the door’s front edge. This maintains the appearance of neatly tailored square corners along these edges. Beveling the entire thickness of the door would produce a fragile knife edge that could be easily damaged.

4 MOUNT THE HINGES ON THE DOORS, vertically positioning them 3" from the top and bottom ends of the stile as shown in Figure 1. For the horizontal placement, position the hinge on the door so that the hinge pin is centered in the gap between the door and the face frame stile. Drill pilot holes for the hinge screws, and drive the screws.

5 POSITION THE DOORS INTO THE OPENING, and use shims to set the reveal and keep the doors from sliding. Mark the centerpoints of the hinge holes on the face frame stiles with a scratch awl as shown in Photo L.

6 FASTEN THE LEFT DOOR OF EACH PAIR TO A SHELF with a simple hook and eye fastener (the type used on old-fashioned screen doors). Attach the hook to the back of the door, and the screw eye beneath the middle shelf in both the top and bottom sections.

7 CENTER AND ATTACH THE CATCH TO THE FRONT OF THE DOORS as shown in Photo M. Drill pilot holes to avoid splitting the wood.

Mark the hinge hole centerpoints with a scratch awl or choose a self-centering pilot bit to skip the marking operation.

Attaching surface-mount hardware is a quick and easy process with predictable results. Center the latch along the length of the doors.

Drill pilot holes through the beadboard back and into the shelves to avoid splitting. Use a square's blade to maintain a small board-to-board gap.

Ready for finish and final assembly

1 REMOVE ALL OF THE HARDWARE, and store it in zip-top plastic sandwich bags so that you don’t lose any screws or other parts.

2 APPLY THE FINISH TO THE CUPBOARD, following the procedure in the companion article “Go Antiquing with Milk Paint and Shellac” that begins on page 36.

3 LAY THE CUPBOARD FACE DOWN on an elevated padded surface, making sure that there is no pressure against the cove molding. Referring to the registration marks you made earlier on the beadboards, install them one at time into the opening in the back. Refer to Figure 6 to see the installation sequence for these shiplapped boards. As shown in Photo N, space the boards and drive two nails though each board into each shelf as well as into the rabbets at the top and bottom using fine finish nails. Do not fasten the boards to each other.


About our Builder/Designer

Steve Rigrish is a freelance designer/builder based in Columbus, Ohio. He has a BFA in furniture design from Kendall College of Art and Design. He also spent a year at the Rio Grande Fine Woodworking School in Rio Grande, Ohio. During the construction of the cupboard, Steve had to stop everything as his wife, Kristen, gave birth to their first child, Maxwell. You can get in touch with Steve through his email address:

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