Do-it-yourself (DIY) Guide to Building Kitchen Cabinets
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Do-it-yourself (DIY) Guide to Building Kitchen Cabinets

Someone recently asked for a simple do-it-yourself guide to building kitchen cabinets. Bearing in mind that most DIYers are not professional tradesmen, this question seems to me a contradiction in terms. I am a tradesman. I have experience in every residential construction trade and the family business just happens to be residential remodeling, handed down to my brother and me by our father. So I may know a little bit about that which I speak.

The first thing you need to do when considering kitchen cabinets is whether or not it's really gonna be cheaper for you to build them yourself versus buying them from either a big box home improvement store or a custom cabinet shop. Let's explore these options quickly, or the whole shebang is pointless for you.

  1. DIY cabinets. This is cost-effective if you have gobs of spare time (which implies that you're independently wealthy) as well as your own wood shop. You'll need at least a portable table saw, chop saw, and a hand held scroll saw if you're going to avoid pulling the hair out of your head and quitting halfway through the project. You'll also need a pretty good working knowledge of woodworking and residential construction to get these babies built and installed correctly.
  2. Store-bought cabinets. Your local hardware store, you know the one, with the big orange sign, has several styles of cabinets in stock from which you can choose that are already built and ready to install. I highly recommend going this route, especially if your primary motivation is to simply do things on the cheap. Stock cabinets, for the majority of individuals, will be the best option. Again, the most important question is, how valuable is your time? If you don't know much about the stuff in item one above, you should probably be choosing option two. For DIYers, this option still gives you plenty of work to do, as well as plenty of satisfaction when the job is done.
  3. Custom cabinets. This is expensive but beautiful, and all the work will be done by qualified professionals (provided you pick the right shop!) You can have them made of whatever you want, to whatever dimension you want. Speak and it shall be done for you. Just have your checkbook ready.

Now hopefully you have a better understanding of what you are looking for and what your options are. If you choose to build your cabinets from scratch, be sure to buy plenty of shop grade plywood for the face frames and doors, and even the cabinet bodies (if you want to go all out). Most times the cabinets are made from MDF, which is Medium Density Fiberboard. This stuff is much cheaper than plywood, which is made from plies, or layers, of wood which are glued together to form a solid sheet. MDF is just sawdust and formaldehyde and adhesive, and you should probably wear at least a dust mask when working with it.

Custom-building your own cabinets will require an intimate knowledge of building codes (for things like standard counter top heights, cabinet depths, appliance widths, depths, and heights, and even stud spacing in your kitchen, for when the cabinets are mounted). You'll also need to know what wood you want to use for the faces--the pretty part that everyone sees. Typically one would use either oak or maple, but alder and knotty pine are exceptionally pretty if finished well, and are probably more popular than the first two. One of the more striking looks is quarter-sawn oak with a very dark finish--it's very modern and chic, taking on a kind of tiger-stripe character. Choice of wood is mostly irrelevant if you're going to be painting the cabinets. You can buy as cheap as you want; even using MDF for the faces (though you'll probably want to throw on a fancy edge with a router--which is another tool you may need if you're going this route).

You'll need plenty of sandpaper and elbow grease, or a random orbital sander if you have one. Start with 120 grit and then finish with 320 grit, sanding with the grain. If you're going to stain the cabinets (so that you can see the wood grain), I recommend a three stage process: Start with a quality stain conditioner, then brush on the stain using a clean cotton rag to wipe off the excess, and finish it with at least three coats of a quality sealer like Sikkens. Remember to always brush from the inside out and top to bottom when you're working on doors. Always wear a respirator when working with these kinds of products, whether your workspace is well ventilated or not, and always be sure to follow the instructions to the letter. At any rate, if you're going to be building your own cabinets, get ready for tons of work and expense, buying all the raw materials (wood, fasteners, adhesives) and tools (or rented tools) and spending all that time on the project. Bear in mind that sometimes the distance between step one and step two is an entire day because of the glue or the clamps or the finish--which tends to inflate the schedule alarmingly.

Bear in mind that professionals always get professional results, but amateurs rarely do. Bankers don't do cabinets, and cabinet makers don't do P&L statements. There's a natural order to the world. If you build your own cabinets, you may hate 'em--I'm just saying. It's hard enough to install them correctly.

Which brings me to another recommendation: Don't tear out your old cabinets until the new ones are on site and ready to be installed. I cannot stress the importance of this point enough. Do all you need to do in regard to taking measurements and preparation without doing the demolition, if at all possible. Demo is fun, but even it has rights and wrongs. If you are ready to demo your old cabinets, bear in mind that they were installed in a certain order and that they were assembled in a certain way. The easiest way to take them out is to do it the opposite way of how they went in. With this in mind, and knowing that there are immutable laws in the remodeling and construction industries, let me give you a few pointers.

The first thing you need to uninstall from the kitchen is all the crap that is filling the cabinets and countertops. Next you'll want, at a minimum, to tape, tack, or nail up some kind of plastic from floor to ceiling between the kitchen and the rest of the house, unless you want to be dusting the candies in the candy dish in the living room and picking bits of fiberglass insulation out from between the keys of that old piano that hasn't been played in years.

Now that your workspace is reasonably prepped, the first thing you need to take out is the counter tops. If you're going to be re-installing the tops onto the new cabinets you'll need to be extremely judicious and careful as to how you take them out. If you have those old fashioned laminate style tops and you're crazy enough or cheap enough to want to reuse them, be very careful to look underneath for screws, nails, staples, glue, or whatever might be holding them on to the cabinets. Do what you must to loose the tops from the base cabinets (base cabinets are those that are sitting on the floor). It's really best to take things apart in as big a piece as you possibly can--it makes cleanup a lot easier. If the tops are granite or solid surface material they are probably just held in place by a few blobs of silicone caulk--no kidding--and they will be very heavy and very difficult to remove without at least partially destroying the base cabinets.

After the tops are out, you'll need to remove the bases. These are usually just sitting on the floor and are screwed to the wall along the top rear edge. Back the screws out and the cabinets should be free. If you're dealing with the kitchen sink, be careful not to destroy any of the plumbing. the water should be turned off, faucet risers removed, drain pipes unscrewed and removed (as much as possible), disposal removed, and sink removed (if it's a top-mount self-rimming type) so that you can easily get to the sink base cabinet. The interior of it will have a bottom that may need to be cut considerably in order to clear the drain pipes for the sink as you take the cabinet out.

Once the bases are all out, you can uninstall the uppers. Get a ladder and climb up so that you can see the tops of the cabinets. There should be screw heads along the top edge of these cabinets holding them to the walls. Climb down and look underneath the cabinets for more of the same along the bottom back edge. Start removing screws from the bottom of each cabinet and then remove them from the top, having a helper support the cabinet from underneath--this is the safest way to do this--otherwise you may end up with a cabinet landing on your head. Use this method and go slow, one cabinet at a time.

Now that your kitchen is completely empty you can start prepping for the installation of the new cabinets. You'll need a level of some kind and perhaps a chalk line, if you want to make things easy. You'll want to set the corner upper cabinets first, because all the other upper cabinets work off the corners to find their alignments. The corner(s) must be perfectly level in every direction. To find out where they go, you need to know:

  1. How tall your base cabinets are (typically 34")
  2. How thick your tops will be (typically 1.5")
  3. How much room you want between the finished height of the tops and the bottom edge of your upper cabinets (typically 14-16")
  4. Add these numbers together.

This is the dimension you will be working with. Go to the corner where you will set your first cabinet. Measure up from the floor this distance and make a mark on the wall. Using your level, make a level line on the wall wherever your uppers will be installed. You'll also need to use a hammer or stud sensor to ascertain the location of the studs in the wall, because your cabinets will be screwed to the studs (not just empty sheetrock!).  When you find the studs, use your level as a straight edge and mark a plumb (perfectly vertical) line on the wall along the centerline of the stud from about 7' to 3' above the floor.  Studs should be spaced at 16" on center.

Hold the first corner cabinet up to the wall so that its bottom edge rests on the level (perfectly horizontal) line you made earlier.  Be careful to only screw the cabinet to the wall where your studs are, which you marked earlier.  Once this cabinet is set, double check to be sure it is level and plumb both to the left and to the right.  You can set all remaining upper cabinets by referencing this one and the chalk line.  Face frames should be given priority as far as alignment is concerned, because that is the part of the cabinet you will see when everything is finished.  You'll need to have some cedar shims on hand to facilitate this alignment (one cabinet may lean toward or away from the wall in comparison to its neighbor).  Shims can be inserted between the cabinet and the wall, and then a screw run through the cabinet and shim together, keeping everything in place.  Walls are never perfectly straight.

The corner base cabinet should be set first, just as the upper corner cabinet was set, because it is like the cornerstone of your layout--everything depends upon it.  Check the floor with your level to find out which way it tilts as well as the location of any high spots, if any.  If you encounter a high spot, place one end of the level on it against the wall and then hold the other end of the level up until the bubble is perfectly centered in the glass.  Measure the height of the level on that end to determine the height of the shim you will need in that location.  Repeat this accordingly around the room wherever you will be setting base cabinets.  Shim the base cabinets up from the floor as needed to ensure they will form a straight line when mounted, perfectly level and plumb at the the face frames (the pretty part of the cabinets that you'll see for years to come).  Screw them to the walls, noting the location of studs and ensuring they are screwed to them. The sink base will require coordination with a plumber and electrician for the sink and disposal, but the carpentry is the same as it is with other cabinets.  The plumber will drill holes in this cabinet for your dishwasher drain hose and so on.  If you're unsure, coordinate the installation of this cabinet with him.

The base cabinets are especially important to get right because the countertops sit directly on them.  I have seen some installations that were so bad (performed by novices) that the countertop installers had to leave and wait for the cabinet installer to come back and fix them because every single box was misaligned, out of level and not plumb.  Be careful to set them as perfectly as you can; it will save more work and even more money later.

Doors and toekicks are pretty self-evident, but here are a few tips:  If a door seems to open the wrong direction, you can remove the hinges and mount them to the opposite side.  Most cabinets are pre-drilled for just this sort of thing.  The rule of thumb is, a door should open away from the center of your layout.  A cabinet mounted to the left of the stove, for instance, should hinge on its left side, and so on around the layout.  The far right side of your layout should hinge on the right, and upper cabinet doors should swing the same way as base cabinet doors.  If it doesn't feel intuitive you need to change it.

Jigs can be bought or made from scratch to simplify the mounting of hardware.  The easiest hardware to mount is the kind for which you only need to drill one hole.  Be precise.  My kitchen has white cabinets with expensive oil-rubbed bronze pulls that contrast dramatically.  If they were not mounted precisely they would drive me crazy.

Cabinets are slightly intimidating the first time, but like anything worth learning, once you wrap your head around it, it seems simple.  Again, I recommend for most people, buying stock cabinets at a big box store, limiting yourself to those three or four color options, adding individuality with your choice of hardware (pulls and handles), and having them professionally installed.  The potential for mayhem is great with the inexperienced installer, but the potential for adding value to your home is even greater with a beautiful, professional, clean, and quick installation.  I hope this article helps, if not in your understanding of cabinet particulars, then at least in a few moments' entertainment value.  Please comment on specific questions and I will respond as best as I can.

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Comments (7)

Don't sell the bankers of this world short. In many cases the only difference between someone classified as an "Amateur" and someone classified as a "Professional" is the fact that the professional gets paid for what they do. I've been around the building trades for over 40 years and I have had the honor of knowing many amateurs whose work outshined that of many "professionals" that I know. I once knew a retired lawyer, he passed on now, that was an amateur gunsmith. He had a gunsmithing shop set up in his attic that would rival the shop of any professional gunsmith. He did everything including boring his own rifle barrels from barrel blanks. He designed and built me a target rifle that won me two championships. I think that the problem is that too many "professional" just don't want to admit that there are "amateurs" who are just as capable as they are.

Perhaps I should have inserted "competent" before "professional". The example I provided in the article in regard to bad installations refers to a recent job I was on in which an installer , an incompetent professional, spent a week jacking up the cabinets so badly that a framer and tile setter improved on his skill and fixed his work for him. That's bad. The point of my article is to raise awareness in the reader that, much like you say, not all professionals are equals. There's quite a lot to be said for skill. It is worth paying for.

Good morning Chris I'll buy competent but it should be placed before both "Amateur" as well as "Professional." One needs to be aware of ones limitations where skill is concerned, professional and amateur alike. Some amateurs have spent years honing their skills and are as capable as any capable professional in that area. No one, not even the most capable professional is capable in all areas but they like the capable amateur should stick to the areas that they are capable in. I have been a do-it-yourselfer for over fifty years and I have spent over forty years in the building trades but I would never advertise myself as an expert in all trade areas. I'm competent in most areas but there are a few areas that I wouldn't say that I'm competent in because they are areas that I have had no professional experience or areas that I have had very little professional experience in, like excavation work and the operations of heavy construction equipment. Most of my professional experience in the trades relates to electrical work-residential, commercial and industrial. Those are my fortes. I'm competent when it comes to carpentry, plumbing, painting and related trades but I'm much slower than say a competent proffesional carpenter but the quality of my work rivals theirs. Which brings me to my point this morning: I think and truly feel that the only thing a competent professional has to offer over a competent amateur is speed. The competent professional who does it every day can get the job done faster but not better than the competent amateur. Like you, Chris, I have gone out on jobs that had been bungled by a previous worker. I recently took a job to complete a garage conversion. A relative of the individual had startetd the conversion by framing in the walls and running the electrical. When I saw the work-the height of the studded walls didn't match, the holes through the framing members drilled so close to the inside edge that even a thumbtack would have pierced the cable and the Romex jackets had been stripped back so far that the indidual conductors were left exposed for 2" to 4" outside of the device boxes, J-boxes and lighting outlet boxes. The customer wasn't happy when I told her that I would have to redo almost everything that had already been done but done wrong. She asked if I couldn't work around the mistakes and I told her that I might be able to but I wouln't because I wouldn't work except under a permit and the work already done wouldn't pass inspection. I still got the job and she loved the finished room even if the price I gave her for the job after actually seeing what had to be redone was twice the rough estimate I gave her over the phone. Overall I do think that your article was well writen and did provide valuable advice.

Brian Landblom

You can find the cabinets seen in the picture at AlpineCabinetCo.com.

cyndi

This is not "A guide to building kitchen cabinets", which is what I was looking for...Thanks, anyway

Vic

I've built several kitchens using melamine and installed them, however I am now considering building my own using MDF for the boxes and solid maple for door frames. I want a dark brown look to the finished cabinets. My question is what type of paint or stain is best and what clear coat (prefer a matte finish). Where do I get this stuff and is it possible to spray it on using an automotive sprat gun? Please respond. Thanks for posting the above instructions though.

Don Leher

I am in process of building a new set of kitchen cabinets for one of our houses. I have much experience with wood working, albeit not professional. I have a fairly full shop of wood working tools, and much design experience. I have built a house full of furniture {over the years] at least three times. The early years were quite basic, but the skills improved as time passed, and I spent more time in the shop. This is not my profession.

I would just like to comment that it takes a good plan before you begin. The adage have the end in mind before you start the journey definitely applies. I do my own designs, and I use a computer based drawing program now, but many designs in the past were on graph paper. Good dimensions are all important, and makes the measure twice, but once, adage shine.

While anyone with appropriate skills, patience, knowledge and, above all, good tools can do the work, it is not simply something that can be done with a portable table saw and a few hand tools, unless the result is not important.

As much as I hate to use the totally overused cliche, "Just Sayin". I would be pleased to offer support and advice as an "amateur" builder with 63 years amateur experience.

Don

Don

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