Years ago, I began building what I call post-style cabinets
— a hybrid design that combines features of traditional
and frameless construction. Because there’s no face
frame, my cabinets have the extra storage capacity associated
with European frameless cabinets, but vertical
“posts” make them adaptable to a range of styles,
including more traditional American designs with
frame-and-panel doors. The joinery is simple and fast and
doesn’t require heavy equipment, so the technique is
well-suited for building cabinetry on site.
Layout on a Stick
Instead of laboring over detailed shop drawings, I do all of
my dimensioning on layout sticks or full-size drawings. In
addition to being faster, this cuts down on math mistakes and
allows for a high degree of customization. For example, we can
tailor drawer sizes to the things our customers want to store
inside (see Figure 1). Horizontal sticks are
ideal for accurately noting window casings, outlets, pipes, and
other details that can easily get confused on a drawing. I draw
the key cabinet details right on the sticks and refer to them
often while building and installing the cabinets.
Figure 1. Horizontal layout sticks provide an
accurate record of room dimensions and details; later,
they’ll also be used to lay out the kickspaces during
cabinet installation (left). Cut to the height of a cabinet,
the drawer layout stick gives key construction details,
including the top and bottom of the carcase, the size of each
drawer, the position of the slides, and the size of the applied
drawer fronts (right).
We make our cabinet boxes with 3/4-inch PureBond birch plywood
This plywood has a soy-based adhesive in place of the usual
urea-formaldehyde glue, but it costs about the same as any
other birch ply, and our customers like the environmentally
friendly approach. We buy it from Boulter Plywood
a vendor who delivers absolutely flat sheet goods — a
critical detail when building cabinets.
Our joinery isn’t fancy; the boxes are just rabbeted and
screwed together. Since we don’t use glue, we can easily
modify cabinets if necessary later on. If there’s any
shelving, we drill 1/4-inch-diameter holes for shelf
To cut perfectly square plywood parts, we invested in a
Festool TS-75 track-saw system (Figure 2). We
fit the track with a custom-fabricated T-square that has an
integral DeStaCo clamp. Although we have a designated cutting
station for sheet goods in the shop, we can easily get the same
results with this setup at the job site.
Figure 2. The author uses a Festool track saw to cut
plywood cabinet parts. A custom T-square fitting allows for
accurate crosscuts (top left). A dedicated router is set up to
cut 1/4-inch-by-3/4-inch rabbets for carcase corner joints (top
right). A hardwood gauge block makes quick work of setting the
fence and blade height for rabbeting the posts (bottom).
Posts. The vertical posts can be made from any 8/4
stock. Our standard post — installed where two cabinets
join — measures 1 13/16 inches by 1 1/2 inches, but we
also use wider posts for scribes and other special situations.
A 3/4-inch-by- 3/4-inch rabbet cut into one edge allows each
post to fit flush with the inside edge of the cabinet
Instead of doors, our lower cabinets usually feature drawers
custom-sized for their contents and mounted on full-extension
hardware. These drawers increase storage volume by about 50
percent over typical base cabinets with doors — plus they
provide better access.
Most of the time, we build dovetailed drawers with
3/4-inch-thick stock, using a router and Porter-Cable’s
Omni Jig to cut the joinery (Figure 3). To
speed the process, we leave the template and a properly
adjusted router permanently set up. This allows us to cut the
dovetails for a single drawer in five to 10 minutes. Our
customers appreciate this detail, and I never have to worry
about our drawers coming apart.
Figure 3. For fast drawer production, the author
keeps a workstation set up with a router and dovetail jig for
making parts (top left) and a simple squaring jig for assembly
(top right). He also uses Blum’s Metabox system, which is
ideal for site-built drawers because it requires only a plywood
bottom and a finished front (bottom).
Rather than cutting dadoes, I simply screw the plywood drawer
bottoms in place. This simplifies construction and helps square
up the drawers. It also gives each one a little more
For big drawers, we like to use Accuride’s 4034
full-extension side-mount heavy-duty file-drawer hardware (562/
For smaller drawers, we use the company’s 3832 or 7434
slides. Some customers request concealed undermount hardware,
which works okay but requires thinner 1/2-inch or 5/8-inch
drawer stock and a dadoed drawer bottom.
Another option we’ve been offering lately is
Blum’s Metabox system (800/438-6788,
blum.com), which reduces
drawer cost by about a third. This is a good choice for
site-built cabinetry, because you only have to supply the
drawer face and bottom. The metal drawer glides are the drawer
sides, and they attach quickly with a couple of screws to a
5/8-inch- or 3/4-inch-thick plywood bottom. The drawer fronts
attach with clips that have built-in adjustment cams. Tall
drawers use a stabilizer rod at the top to help support the
For customers who want a traditional-looking cabinet, we
usually build frame-and-panel doors. We make them on the table
saw, cutting a 1/4-inch-wide by 3/4-inch-deep tongue-and-groove
profile in 2 1/4-inch-wide by 13/16-inch-thick frame stock. We
cut flat panels from 1/4-inch plywood and glue them into the
grooves when we assemble the doors.
We use similar joinery to build breadboard doors, which give
the cabinets a more contemporary look. When we glue up the
panels, we reverse the grain of adjacent boards to offset the
inevitable cupping. After squaring up the panels, we cut
1/2-inch-by-1/4-inch tongues at each end (Figure
4). The end cleats are 2 inches wide and have a
matching 1/2-inch-by-1/4-inch groove. You can’t glue the
end cleats to the panel along their entire length or the door
will eventually explode from expansion and contraction. So I
glue only the middle 5 or 6 inches of each cleat, then draw the
joint together with a pair of countersunk 2-inch drywall screws
at each end, relieving the inside of the pilot holes a little
so the screws can bend slightly as the wood moves.
Figure 4. To avoid cross-grain shrinkage problems on
bread-board doors, only the middle section of the crosspiece is
glued; screws are used at the outer ends. Oversizing the
countersink holes allows the screws to flex slightly,
accommodating expansion of the door panel.
Regardless of their style, we hang doors with Blum concealed
cup hinges (800/438-6788,
blum.com). For most
applications, the 107-degree inset-type hinges are fine.
rockler.com) sells jigs
that make working with these hinges a snap.
Sanding and Finishing
We sand most of the parts as we make them. For plywood panels,
120-grit is adequate, while doors and drawer fronts get sanded
again with 180-grit paper. Most of the time, we use
random-orbit sanders, saving the belt sanders for heavy-duty
work on big panels.
We usually don’t bother to finish the insides of drawer
cabinets; exposed carcase parts receive a couple of coats of
brushed-on satin poly, plus a sealer coat on the backs to
reduce warping. Shelves and drawer boxes also get two coats of
poly, while drawer fronts, posts, and doors usually get three
coats of Murdoch’s Hard Oil, a tung-oil finish
that’s easy to use, good-looking, and relatively tough
We’ve tried clear water-based finishes but haven’t
been happy with the results.
When the design calls for paint, we’ve had good luck
with Benjamin Moore’s low-VOC Aura paint (800/622-0550,
Although our shop isn’t equipped with a spray booth, we
do have a separate dust-proof finishing room with good
ventilation and lighting and lots of drying racks. We finish
the parts as we make them, rather than waiting until the
cabinets are assembled. To minimize cleanup, we keep a varnish
brush immersed in a covered container, so we don’t have
to wash it out every time we use it.
To help organize cabinet assembly, we’ve borrowed
Toyota’s “one-piece flow” idea. Instead of
doing the same operation for all cabinets at once — say,
installing the posts in all the cabinets, then moving on to the
next step — we do as many operations as is convenient on
a cabinet at one time. This means that we typically work on a
particular cabinet twice.
This approach — which lends itself especially well to
small shops and site-built kitchens — offers a couple of
advantages. If we’ve made any mistakes, such as in
positioning hardware, we’ll catch them early and can make
adjustments on the next cabinet. The method also reduces the
number of times we have to move cabinets around.
The first time through, we attach the drawer hardware,
assemble the box, and screw on the posts. We make simple
mounting jigs for the hardware and use the layout sticks to
give us the drawer locations, so it usually takes only 10 or 15
minutes to mount the hardware (Figure 5). We
usually put in all the screws at this point, knowing we can
make adjustments with the other elements later.
Figure 5. It’s faster to install drawer
hardware before the cabinet is assembled; a simple mounting jig
helps ensure accuracy (top left). The boxes are screwed
together without glue, making assembly reversible (top right).
The masts at the side of the assembly bench hold the cabinet
square as drawers are adjusted and the backs are tacked on
(bottom left). The post is screwed to one cabinet, and the
adjacent cabinet is notched to tuck in behind it (bottom
The second time through, we hang the drawers and doors and
mount the drawer fronts, clamping the cabinets to a rack that
holds them perfectly flat and square. This allows us to make
adjustments before applying the back and practically eliminates
the need for on-site tune-up after the cabinets are
Most of our kitchens — even small, economical ones
— now feature a section of stone counter with an
undermount sink. Instead of hanging the sink from special
fittings drilled into the bottom of the stone after the
cabinets are installed, we rabbet the sink opening in the
plywood top of the cabinet with a router and straight bit
(Figure 6). It’s a fast way to make a
strong connection, and it saves a lot of time when installing
Figure 6. Instead of hanging undermount sinks from a
stone countertop, the author rabbets the sink opening in the
plywood top of the cabinet before the cabinet is
We build continuous, level kickspace bases on site, referring
to the same layout sticks we used to measure and build the rest
of the kitchen. Kickspace stock needs to be straight and
stable, so we typically use 3/4-inch plywood and joint the
pieces in the shop. Sometimes we scribe the base right to the
floor as the finish kick, but it’s faster to simply level
it and apply a 1/4-inch plywood face after the cabinets are
Getting the bases leveled can be fussy work, but once
they’re done, box installation is simple. We just drop
the boxes in place and bump them back and forth until
they’re in the right position, then screw them together.
Since we use flat and square plywood and true up each cabinet
as we assemble it, there’s rarely any fine-tuning to do.
The cabinets are stable and have a lot of mass, so once
they’re screwed together and fastened to the kickspace
base, we seldom need to secure them to the wall.
For the most part, we build our upper cabinets the same way we
build our lower ones (particularly those with doors), but we
usually don’t bother to install cabinet backs on the
uppers. Instead, we install hanging cleats and mount the
cabinets directly to the wall, often incorporating the wall
finish into the cabinet design.
We also use a lot of open shelving in place of upper cabinets.
Open shelves cost less than cabinet boxes, of course, and
they’re easier to build on site. They also offer greater
flexibility. They can be shallower, for instance, which opens
up the counter space a bit, and they can be positioned lower on
Sam Clark designs and builds kitchens in Plainfield,