Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Kitchen Cabinets: Planning and Workshop Tips

     Just so you know, this advice is coming from someone who is NOT a master carpenter or cabinetmaker. I didn't grow up around woodworking, but I spent many Saturday mornings watching Norm Abram and Roy Underhill perform magic as they built whatever they fancied with a few tools and a lot of wood. It wasn't until college that I was exposed to power tools like the table saw and lathe. During my many studio hours in the shop, I learned and developed some woodworking mantras that are worth sharing. Many I learned from our shop tech/guru, David. Thank you, David. Before jumping to the list... Using personal protection and safe operating practices should be the standard for anyone working with tools that cut through hard surfaces. KEEP YOURSELF SAFE!

1. Projects will take twice as long and cost twice as much. If you are a master carpenter who has been in the business for 25+ years, you can probably skip to mantra two. The rest of us could spend hours coming up with how to cut every sheet of plywood, including the waste from the thickness of the blade, to be the most efficient. You will still come up short or realize that pieces need to be re-cut. The best advice: figure out how much material is needed then add 20 percent.

2. "Power" woodworking is all about reducing the variables. By variables, I mean anything that can keep you from cutting with perfect accuracy. For example, planing and joining makes certain that you have accurate reference surfaces (datums); and a table saw's surface and rip fence restricts the movement of the wood to one plane, ensuring a cut with little error. Using the factory edges on the cabinet-grade plywood as a datum also reduced the variables during our current project.

3. Sharp tools make happy builders. There isn't anything more aggravating than a dull blade. It destroys beautiful material and can be very dangerous. Instead of slicing smoothly, that dull blade will just chop up the material. Also, you could be pulled into the blade, or something could be thrown out at you. A good shop keeps extra blades on hand, has some way of sharpening tools, or knows where to go to get tools sharpened.

4. SAW DUST CAN CAUSE LUNG CANCER. If you are setting up a shop, start with a good air filtration system. I can tell you from recent experience that you will be much happier without all the coughing from the concentration of dust. You can buy a new system for about $400, and they are well worth the investment. I wish I had bought one when we started this house journey.

5. New is not necessary. It might have been sheer luck, but many of my tools were found on Craigslist in the span of about three months. Some were barely used, very new models, but I paid about half the retail price. New is nice, but used tools can also work like a dream. My favorite tool is my 1902 Stanley No. 8 jointer plane that I paid $80 for at a regional Mid-West Tool Collectors Association meet.

You don't necessarily need lots of expensive tools to make custom cabinets, and fully knowing how to use what you have can extend your capabilities. For example, a table saw is nice, but it is nothing more than a fancy rip saw. Its cousin, the circular saw, can do many of the jobs that are often associated with a table saw. During our process of building the base cabinet boxes, we used the circular saw on a fence (see below) more than the table saw. I mostly used the table saw for creating dados and rabbets in the side panels, but even those are not necessary in building a cabinet box.

Much of the cutting for the cabinet boxes was done with a circular saw and a made-from-scraps fence.

6. Design drawings make all the difference. On the design point, we were very fortunate to have an extremely helpful interior designer/neighbor, who worked with us to get the layout and dimensions just right (many thanks, Brittney!). Using the plan drawings and dimensions from Brittney, I created a detailed 3D model of the cabinets. This model allowed me to make up a cut list for every single piece going into the cabinet build. There are plenty of  free software programs that do 3D design, and I encourage you to give them a chance. It will reduce your guesswork and make the assembly process more enjoyable. My suggestion is to find a 3D program that is very concentrated on using dimensions and geometric attributes for its process. SolidWorks is my program of choice, but it's just what I've become accustomed to after using it for several years. Personally, I'm not a fan of SketchUp because I don't understand its interface, but many people swear by it in the woodworking world because it is inexpensive (or free).

An in-progress view from the 3D model of the kitchen layout.

     Over the past weekend, Mary Lee and I finished all but one of the base cabinet boxes. The plan for this weekend is to build the corner cabinet box, and get all the base cabinet boxes up on their toekicks.

The base cabinets in their future spots!


  1. Helpful tips! Your experience in kitchen renovation gives you the right to share them though you're not a professional cabinet maker. I think you still have lots of work to finish, Steven. I'll wait for your updates on your kitchen renovation. :)

    Ryann Hoyer @ Yancey Company

  2. Oh, you are going to have a nice kitchen. Very nice layout with plenty of space. Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Stephanie, thanks for checking in with us! We made some good progress over the weekend - need to post an update in the next couple of days :)