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Shortcuts to better built-ins: top-notch doesn't have to mean slow and difficult.

Sometimes you can speed up, simplify and still build a masterpiece. In the following pages, a veteran cabinet-maker spills some of his best secrets for cutting labor and hassles without sacrificing quality.


Set cabinets on a platform

Most lower cabinets include a base or toe-kick that raises them off the floor. But Ken doesn't build them that way. Instead, he builds a plywood platform that acts as the base for an entire row of cabinets. The platform can be undersized to allow for a toe space or full size for a more traditional look (shown here).


This approach has a couple of major advantages. First, cabinet construction is simpler. The cabinets are just boxes; no extended sides to form a base, no toe-kick cutouts. Second, installation is faster. Leveling one platform is a lot easier than positioning each cabinet individually. Ken sets the box 1/4 in. from walls to allow for wavy or out-of-plumb walls.

Quick, classic side panels

When the side of a cabinet box will be exposed, you have to hide the cabinet back's edge somehow. The usual method is to rabbet the side and recess the back. But Ken gets a richer look with less hassle. He simply glues and nails the back to the cabinet box and hides the exposed plywood with a frame and panel for a classic look. And since the cover panel is a separate part, it's easy to scribe it to the wall before fastening it to the cabinet.


Secret screws for shelves

Lots of designs have upper shelf units that rest on lower cabinets. Here's Ken's trick for fastening the shelf units to the cabinet top so that the screws are hidden: He sets the cabinet top on the lower cabinets and scribes it and sands it to fit the wall. But he doesn't screw it in place yet. Instead, he positions the shelf units on the top and carefully slides the top forward just far enough so that he can drive screws into the shelf sides and dividers. After sliding the top back into place, he screws the top to the cabinets from below and screws the shelf units to the wall.


Back-bevel wall stiles

Before scribing stiles that will meet walls, bevel the back edge on your table saw. That way, you'll have less wood to belt-sand off when you shape the edge to the contour of the wall. Ken cuts a 45-degree bevel about 1/2 in. deep, so he has only 1/4 in. of wood remaining. For more scribing tips, go to and search for "scribe."


Break down face frames

Pocket screws are a standard joinery method, but Ken has a nonstandard approach. He assembles face frames with pocket screws, but without glue. He sands the frames, labels the back of each part and then disassembles them for easier finishing. Transport is easier too: Ken can pack a mile of face frame parts into his van and carry them into the house without banging up walls. The cabinet boxes need less TLC too, since they're frameless during transport. Once on-site, Ken reassembles the frames with pocket screws and glue. For pocket joinery, Ken uses a Kreg Jig (


Thicker backs save time

Most cabinetmakers use 1/4-in. plywood for cabinet backs. But Ken prefers 1/2-in. material. The thicker plywood usually adds less than $5 to the cost of each box and eliminates the need for a hanging strip or "nailer" at the back of the cabinet. That means quicker construction and a cleaner interior look. Best of all, it allows you to drive a screw through the back anywhere, not just at the nailer.

Use prefinished plywood (sometimes)

With its tough, flawless clearcoat, prefinished plywood eliminates finishing hassles. But Ken uses it only for "no-show" parts like cabinet boxes and shelves. Finishing other parts to match the color and sheen of the factory-finished plywood is just too difficult.


Finding prefinished plywood can be difficult. Your best bet is a lumberyard that caters to cabinetmakers (search online for "cabinet making supplies" followed by the name of your city). Expect to pay about $40 to $120 per 4 x 8-ft. sheet, depending on the thickness, grade and species.

Ken Geisen has been a cabinetmaker in North Branch, MN, for 20 years. And he has a fat brag book full of built-in furniture projects; mostly cabinetry, shelving and entertainment centers. Not just a master woodworker, he often draws on his art background to design his projects. To see some of his work, go to

* If you don't use pocket screws, search for "pocket screws" and see what you're missing.

* Scribe cabinets and countertops for a perfect fit against imperfect walls. Search for "scribe."

* Search for "wood finishing" and find expert tips for a flawless finish.

See how to assemble a built-in bookcase and window seat using inexpensive stock cabinets.

Search for "stylish shelves."

by Gary Wentz
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Title Annotation:The Pro Section
Author:Wentz, Gary
Publication:The Family Handyman
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2010
Previous Article:Made for mixing.
Next Article:Knockdown texture: a fast fix for problem ceilings.

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