Even with the vast selection of ready-made cabinet styles on
the market, sometimes the only way to get the look you're after
is to build them yourself. I've been called on more than a few
times to construct a kitchen from scratch as part of a
restorative remodel of an antique Cape Cod home. While the
intent is to recapture the look and feel of an earlier era,
this is homage, not true reproduction. These kitchens feature
modern amenities such as hot and cold running water, high-end
appliances, granite countertops, top-quality hardware, and
carefully designed lighting -- things the original builders
never imagined. In this article, I'll explain how I site-build
a vintage-look cabinet to function in a modern kitchen.
Authenticity is important, but not as important as stability.
Given my preference, I'll use 3/4-inch lumber-core
birch plywood for the cabinet base and sides and
3/4-inch MDF (medium-density fiberboard) for the
raised door panels. I also use 1/4-inch MDF for
drawer bottoms. It's stable, smoother than lauan plywood, and
sufficiently strong for the job. I prefer solid 5/4 (1 inch
dressed) maple for the face and door frames because it's
stable, durable, and it takes paint beautifully. I do meet some
resistance, however, when I recommend pricey maple face frames
for a paint-grade cabinet. I can substitute a less expensive
material, like poplar or pine, but pine isn't as stable as
maple, and darkly striped poplar tends to bleed through a
painted finish. For the kitchen described here, we knocked
maple out of the budget and worked exclusively with 5/4 sugar
pine for the exposed surfaces (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. To match the budget,
the author used clear, 5/4 sugar pine for the face frames on
this job, although he prefers maple for its hardness,
stability, and paintability.
Wide end panels are best made of stable, engineered
material to avoid warps and splits. Unless the cabinets are to
receive a clear finish, I'll simply use birch plywood for the
end panels. For a clear finish, I'll overlay the plywood with
the lumber of choice. The pine we purchased for this job came
from a reliable source with a warranted maximum 6% to 8%
moisture content on delivery. I carefully went through the
select-grade lumber and selected the best, flattest stock for
wide pieces, setting aside less desirable boards for rips and
Rather than using an absolute, final design, I work from a
general layout, some detail views, and on-the-spot input from
my client. I want the appliances purchased and delivered so
that I can work with precise dimensions. This also eliminates
scheduling snafus down the line when we're ready to template
the countertops, because we already have our hands on the
drop-in cooktop, sinks, deck-mount faucets, and any other items
that might require a cutout or accommodation. Moreover, this
allows me to make final layout decisions as the job progresses.
I draw the full-size cabinet plan on the floor and wall and
walk my client through the design. At actual size, we can go
through the motions of using the sink and appliances, reach for
upper and lower shelves, and generally troubleshoot the layout.
With this kind of participation, I always have happy customers
at the end of the job because the kitchen has truly been
customized for them. The process requires a good deal of
flexibility and creativity on both our parts, but it's how I
like to work.
In the job shown here, cabinet construction began with the
back wall. To provide a solid, universal attachment surface, I
removed the drywall from the cabinet areas and replaced it with
5/8-inch AC plywood (Figure 2). In old homes like
this one, framing centers are wide, eccentric, and insufficient
for countertop cleats, cabinet spreaders, or the
51/4-inch tongue-and-groove center-bead pine I use
to cover the finished wall surface and cabinet backs.
Figure 2. AC plywood replaces the
drywall behind the cabinets to provide uninterrupted fastening
for the cabinets and beaded wall paneling.
Other quirks you can count on are an out-of-level floor and
out-of-plumb walls. I use a laser level to establish my
horizontal lines, and, in this case, found discrepancies as
great as 11/2 inches in the floor plane and a
7/8-inch lean to the walls.
Uneven floors are a challenge. I find the highest point in the
layout and establish my finished countertop height (36 inches)
there. I cut and install the cabinet sides first, so I can size
the panel accordingly when I encounter a low spot in the floor
-- a simpler and neater solution than shimming a
standard-length panel. I also scribe the panel to the wall,
having allowed extra width for that purpose. The scribe removes
the eccentric difference between the panel's projection when
held plumb against the wall and the predetermined face line.
Rather than using a compass, which can be tricky to hold
absolutely parallel, I use a small wood block, ripped to the
maximum width of the scribe, and trace it along the panel edge
for perfect results.
Figure 3. The author installs the
beaded paneling after fitting the cabinets to the wall, letting
the beaded profile die neatly into the carcase. The wall
cabinet sides drop beyond the bottom by 2 inches, forming stops
for an undercabinet lighting valance.
All of these cabinets were built backless, relying on the wall
for a finished surface. Even though the interior and back of a
door-base cabinet gets little scrutiny and could be left as raw
plywood, it's the little things that make a difference, so I
paneled the wall below the countertop cleat line with the 1x6
beaded pine. When I built the wall cabinets, I carefully fit
the beaded board around them, inside and out (Figure 3), taking
care to keep the pattern aligned. Because the walls were far
from plumb, I also scribed these cabinet sides to compensate
for any unevenness. Applying the beaded board after the
cabinets are in place lets the bead profiles die into a solid
edge and makes the cabinets look truly built in, not hung there
like pictures on the wall. I let the sides run long, 2 inches
below the bottom, and notched them back to serve as stops for a
dropped, recessed valance that would conceal undercabinet
lighting. Instead of crowding the window, I held the cabinets
back about 10 inches and made a nice transition from cabinet to
window casing with quarter-round, open shelves (Figure 4). I
continued the valance strip all the way around to the wall,
band-sawing the radius sections from a wide block of
Figure 4. Wall cabinet sides run
long to support an undercabinet light valance, which returns
around curved open shelving to the wall.