I’m the shop manager at Kurzhaus Designs, a design-build
company with an office in Dennis, Mass., where we also have our
cabinet shop. To complement the custom work we do — both
new construction and remodeling — we design and build our
own kitchen and bathroom cabinets. In our area of New England,
there’s little demand for clear finishes, so for the most
part we build traditional painted face-frame cabinets with
frame-and-panel doors. We use soft maple for the frames, and
MDF and plywood for panels and carcass parts.
Design and Layout
Occasionally a client will come to us with a kitchen designer
in tow. We’ll work with outside designers, but to control
quality and fit, we still prefer to build the kitchen
ourselves. In our experience, most designers work from
manufactured cabinet catalogs: They put a kitchen together by
joining a bunch of individual cabinets under a common
countertop and call it a day. One problem with joining boxes
together is that you end up with double internal partitions
that waste perfectly good storage space, not to mention
plywood. Plus visually you’re stuck with double stiles
and seams between every two cabinets.
We prefer to build entire runs of cabinets as a unit, which
allows us to get rid of double partitions and to maintain an
equal reveal between every door and drawer, top to bottom and
side to side (see Figure 1). Also, building
cabinets to fit a specific space gets rid of scribe strips,
bolt-on end panels, and various gap moldings — all of
which make the cabinets look blocky and take up space that
could have been used for storage.
Figure 1. Reveals between drawers and doors
are uniformly equal, which gives the cabinetry a distinctive
look and a pleasing rhythm. To increase storage space and make
access easier, the interiors are left free of unneeded
On a new kitchen, I begin by reviewing design ideas with our
clients. We look at their magazine clippings and at photos of
our completed work to determine the overall look they’re
after, including door and drawer styles and paint color. We
then talk about function. Where do they want food storage, pots
and pans, utensils, containers, appliances, and lighting?
Together we outline their dream kitchen. We find that clients
tend to be most specific about what they don’t want,
having lived with it for so long.
I then head back to the shop, armed with the list of dos and
don’ts and a few nice-to-haves. At this point, I draw the
kitchen in plan view with a few elevations and renderings,
using KCDw software (508/760-1140,
which is intended specifically for designing kitchen cabinets
and closet storage (Figure 2). The version I
use costs $4,995. If you’ve worked with CAD, the program
is easy to learn; it takes about two kitchens to get used to
its ins and outs and customize the reporting tools. The program
yields not only cut lists and assembly drawings for the shop,
but also highly realistic 3-D renderings that can help the
clients visualize their new kitchen before committing.
Figure 2. The author develops both design
and production drawings using KCDw software.
Storage Where It Makes Sense
I make sure appliances are paired with the appropriate storage.
For example, under a cooktop I’ll put two 12-inch-tall
pot drawers as wide as the unit (see
sidebar). Because we bump the
cooktop cabinet depth out as far as 30 inches, these drawers
are extra deep.
I also try to bring all dish storage within arm’s reach
of the dishwasher. Stock upper cabinets are typically 12 inches
deep, leaving a scant 11 inches inside for storage. Dinner
plates larger than that have to be leaned upright or stored
somewhere less convenient. So I make my upper cabinets 14
inches deep and keep them free of inside partitions. If the
wall run is 8 feet, I build an 8-foot cabinet with no interior
walls and no stiles between door pairs (Figure
3). The only reason I will interrupt a cabinet run is
for an appliance, or because a larger cabinet simply
won’t fit through the doorway.
Figure 3. Complete runs of wall and base
cabinets are designed and built as single units. The cabinet
shown here, seen finished in Figure 1, fills an 8-foot diagonal
wall and contains continuous adjustable shelves accessed by a
series of doors along its length.
Cabinet heights. Stock wall cabinets usually come in
heights ranging from 30 to 42 inches and typically get
installed 54 inches above the floor (or 18 inches above a
standard 36-inch-high counter). While 42-inch cabinets work
fine with 8-foot ceilings, with higher ceilings you either have
to build a soffit — a space-wasting detail — or
leave a gap at the top. In my kitchens, I keep the 54-inch
baseline but build the upper cabinets to suit the ceiling
height, leaving only enough room for crown molding
(Figure 4). One recent kitchen had
64-inch-tall uppers under a 10-foot-8-inch ceiling.
Figure 4. These taller-than-average wall
cabinets are sized to leave a balanced reveal on the top rail
beneath a crown molding (top left). As long as he’s sure
he can bring it into the house, the author will build a single
cabinet to stand full height under an 11-foot ceiling (top
right). Crown molding is normally installed unfinished and
painted on site (bottom).
I also build tall floor cabinets in one piece, fitted to the
ceiling and ready for crown molding. We vary the crown height
according to the height of the ceiling. For ceilings under 9
feet, we install a stock crown of up to 5 inches tall. Any
ceiling over 9 feet deserves a tall, built-up crown, which we
mill using a mix of stock and custom profiles.
There are places where the height above the counter must change
— such as over the stove — but otherwise, I
don’t vary the 54-inch elevation. Some designers feel
that varying the baseline height adds visual interest, but I
think it spoils an eye-soothing horizontal line.
Base cabinets are a different story. I vary the heights and
depths of base cabinets to suit the application. I also bump
out my stove and sink bases by as much as 6 inches. That way I
have plenty of room for mounting fixtures behind the sink, and
the homeowner has a place to put cooking condiments behind the
stove. Varying countertop depths breaks up the otherwise flat
surface of a line of cabinets, and also provides a natural
place to divide a long run. I often add bun feet or column legs
to these bumped-out cabinets to give them a furniture-like look
Figure 5. The author provides extra counter
space behind sinks and cooktops by bumping these cabinets up to
6 inches forward of the line; bun feet add a furniture
I make the face frames first using pocket-screw joinery, which
allows us to assemble large, remarkably strong face frames
without interlocking profiles or tenons (Figure
6). I used to bore the pocket holes with a simple
manual Kreg jig (800/447-8638,
kregtool.com), but this proved way too
time-consuming. I now use Kreg’s three-head tub-boring
machine, which makes short work of this part of the job
(Figure 7). A companion tool, the face-frame
assembly table, clamps and holds multiple frame parts in
alignment for screwing. Together, the two items cost about
Figure 6. Face frames are the first step in
the author’s construction sequence. A frame for a cooktop
cabinet with deep drawers flanked by pull-out pilasters is seen
in the foreground.
Figure 7. The Kreg DK3100 can drill up to
three holes at a time about as fast as the operator can
position the workpiece under the air-driven clamp.
I also use pocket-screws for gussets, back rails, stretchers,
and other internal structural members, including sides and
bottoms. For finished partitions and bottoms, we use 3/4-inch
furniture-grade maple plywood; for horizontal and vertical
bracing, we use 3-inch-wide 3/4-inch Arctic birch, glued and
pocket-screwed. This plywood is strong and takes cabinet screws
well. The bracing squares the cabinet and provides mounting for
drawer runners and attachment points for the countertop.
Our cabinets are built to stand on their own and support heavy
stone or concrete tops and commercial appliances. I don’t
add backs to base units or uppers that don’t have glass
doors. I just make sure that the finish wall color is in place
before I install, or paint it later. I also don’t use
solid bottoms in my drawer bases when an open frame serves just
Finished ends. I build finished end panels to match
the door style or as a beadboard frame-and-panel. Either way, I
attach the panel to the face frame so that the cabinet looks
like one seamless, integrated unit. This is particularly
important for freestanding island cabinets, which need to look
good from every angle (Figure 8).
Figure 8. An island cabinet with pilasters
and a raised snack bar takes shape (top). The contiguous face
frames are directly connected to a structural, raised-panel
back. Interior bracing, partitions, and bottom panels will be
pocket-screwed from inside. The author and a helper plot the
final position for another island cabinet (bottom left), shown
finished in Figure 1. The island above is 9 feet long and
weighs more than 1,000 pounds empty. It’s supported
entirely on four bun feet.
My base cabinets don’t have integrated toekicks. Instead,
I rip 33/4-inch plywood strips in the shop and build separate
“ladders” on site (Figure 9). I
set these on the floor first, shim or scribe them level, secure
them with screws, then attach the cabinets on top. This simple
approach works just as well for island cabinets — and the
reduced cabinet height makes it more likely that we’ll be
able to get the units through the kitchen door.
Figure 9. The author cuts and assembles
toekick “ladders” on site. He levels and fastens
them to the floor first, then screws down the cabinets. The
rough toekicks are covered with a prefinished baseboard.
Before we had a spray room, we relied on a triple-stage HVLP
turbine gun to spray waterborne finishes. (Because of health
and fire hazards, if you don’t have a spray booth with a
high-volume exhaust system, you pretty much have to use a
waterborne finish.) HVLP guns lay on a really smooth coat with
little overspray. The turbine air is heated, making the finish
flash over a little faster. Dust control is a must because the
paint remains tacky for an hour or so after spraying.
Last year, we expanded the shop and invested in a spray room
with high-volume exhaust and a fire detection and suppression
system. We also bought a CA Technologies Cougar AAA (Air Assist
Airless) system (888/820-4498,
spraycat.com). We run air from a large
compressor through a five-stage air cleaner and dryer inside
the spray room. The compressor supplies air to the AAA pump
head at 60 psi, while the system has its own regulator, set at
45 psi. The gun has twin hoses; one supplies paint to the tip
at 600 psi and the other provides air to atomize the fan
pattern at around 15 psi. Because it lays a lot of paint on at
once, the AAA system takes a little getting used to.
We spray finishes made by ML Campbell (800/364-1359,
mlcampbell.com). For primer, we use
Campbell’s Clawlock, a two-part catalyzed undercoat that
you mix just before spraying. It has a working time of about
eight hours, after which it becomes too thick to spray and must
be discarded. Clawlock is made for sealing MDF, but it works
well on maple, too. It can be applied at a thickness of up to 5
mils per coat, and sands nicely.
For the top coat, we use Campbell’s MagnaMax precatalyzed
lacquer, which produces a hard, high-quality finish. It flashes
over completely in five minutes; parts can be stacked within 25
minutes (unlike parts sprayed with waterborne finishes, which
can’t be stacked for days). MagnaMax comes pretinted and
has a shelf life of about three months.
A typical installation takes us two days. I use a RoboLaser
RT-7210-1 (robotoolz .com, 800/984-0404) to mark base
cabinet height, upper cabinet height, and all plumb lines on
the walls (Figure 10). The laser displays a
level line of dots across the wall, which I can move
horizontally with a remote as I install. I watch for the dots
to be split, with the bottom half displayed across the top
front edge of the cabinet and the upper half on the wall line.
This ensures a level plane for the countertop.
Figure 10. Splitting the laser dots between
the front edge of the cabinet and the wall line provides a
level reference side to side and front to back. This ensures
dead-true support for a stone countertop and eliminates
unsightly shim gaps.
I shim behind the cabinet’s back rail to correct for any
unevenness in the wall (Figure 11), then screw
the cabinet to the studs with 4 1/2-inch HeadLok screws
(800/518-3569, fastenmaster.com). Using these may seem
like overkill, but I like them because they self-tap and have
large heads that don’t sink into the wood. They also
provide solid insurance against shear and pullout when
we’re hanging uppers, which can be quite heavy when
they’re loaded. We always install solid blocking behind
the drywall at the top and bottom lines of the upper cabinets.
In cases where a visible fastener is objectionable, I
countersink and cover with an inlaid patch of edge banding. If
the cabinets have glass doors, I use finish washers behind the
screws. I nearly always use obscure glass rather than clear
glass in these doors.
Figure 11. Here, the author blocks a
backless drawer base off the wall to increase countertop depth,
using structural star-drive screws to fasten it to the wall
When the cabinet installation is complete and the last coat of
floor finish is dry, I apply a finished facing to the toekick,
usually with a small profile routed into it for a little extra
customization. Nail holes in the toekick are hidden with wood
filler topped with latex paint.
Bob Cifelli is the shop manager at
Kurzhaus Designs in Dennis, Mass.