I’m celebrating my baby’s due date not by having a baby (how silly!) but instead posting my biggest DIY to date – these built-in dining room cabinets. (Warning: long post ahead!)
Our dining room came with zero storage – our furniture situation was not helping things – and when we ripped out the kitchen cabinets (in favor of these floating shelves!) we sacrificed some overflow storage space for things like wine glasses, pitchers, and the like. So, these items were left to collect dust out on various surfaces in the dining room for months until I could figure out some sort of plan.
The dining room is actually fairly large, and to me one corner of it was screaming for some sort of cabinet. So I did what I do – I started dreaming big. What if I could design and build a custom built-in cabinet to act as a sort of dry bar? A little cruel to do this to myself while pregnant, yes, but you work with what you got.
Had I ever built cabinets before? Painted them, yes. Built them? Heck no. But, armed with a copy of SketchUp, a circular saw, a miter saw, a Kreg jig, and the good folks on Youtube, I figured I could probably make this happen…
The hardest part of this process required a bit of a reality warp – just deciding to take the plunge. I don’t know what I was thinking, but on the other side of it now I’m really glad I went for it. I’m also relieved to have finished everything pre-baby! It took me from March all the way till about a week ago, so this was a very slow-moving project.
I did a bunch of research on cabinet construction and standard dimensions before diving into SketchUp, and the model took me a really long time to refine. I think it’s one of those learning curve things – learning the tool and cabinet design process at the same time just added a multiplier to things. After about a week of tweaking, I was happy with things, ready to start laying out my cuts & creating a cut list.
Creating a cut list, as it turns out, is a whole lot easier than actually making the cuts. I whipped up an 8′ guide for the circular saw out of an MDF shelf and thin, straight(?) piece of trim so I could make decently straight cuts. At many, many points during this build I longed for table saw/panel saw access like I had back in my Stanford days. (I had no idea how good I had it!)
I ran into some issues using my new saw guide which meant that a few of my cuts weren’t exactly straight. This was unfortunate, given the cabinet design’s reliance on straight edges for assembly, and not easily fixable, given that the only way for us to transport giant sheets of plywood from Home Depot is out the back of our Subaru with the back hatch wide open (unless we were the sort of people to rent a pickup truck from them! Bah! Far too lazy for that.) So, I pressed on anyway.
My original setup to cut the plywood down to size was less than ideal. I bought a thick sheet of insulation as a work surface and plopped that on the floor of the garage, setting the plywood on top of that. Turns out getting down on your hands and knees (while pregnant, to boot) to make the cuts isn’t the most fun. I wised up later and put the foam on top of sawhorses – really, was it that hard? – and it made a world of difference. The cuts were better, things went quicker, and my grumpiness level was greatly reduced!
I felt pretty accomplished after making all the cuts for the lower cabinet and was reluctant to jump into assembly. It made me nervous. This was commitment! I drew a diagram of where all the pieces would go and where I needed to drill pocket holes. Once the holes were drilled, there was no reason not to proceed.
I learned the value of having clamps. Lots of them. Big ones. Did I have enough/the right kind? No. I’m lucky the cabinet didn’t end up wonkier than it did! Things aren’t exactly square, but it turns out it didn’t matter all that much. Perfection would have been nice, but it was unrealistic.
The carcass (that’s what the bare cabinet frame is called) complete, I put together the face frame out of select pine 1x2s again using pocket hole screws. This was quick work. When it came time to put the face frame on the carcass, I noticed all the places things weren’t quite square. This mattered most towards the top, where the drawers were supposed to be. Drawer slides require very specific clearances, so I’d need to figure out a way to shim things so everything would fit.
Drawers proved tricky, though they didn’t need to be. There are tons of ways to construct drawers, but I went for one that would challenge me a bit. A drawer is really just a box without a top. The basic construction method is to take the 4 sides of the drawer, route out a 1/4″ channel near the bottom of each, and slide a piece of (slightly oversized) plywood into the grooves. The plywood’s trapped, and the ridge that it rests on all the way around gives it some good stability.
This would have been a piece of cake with a router table – but as it is, I don’t have one of those! I set up a janky system of guides and clamps that would allow me to route out the channel using my handheld router, but I didn’t realize until I was assembling everything that my channels were just slightly tilted. Once the plywood slid in, it gave each drawer a slightly MC Escher-ish look – the bottoms/tops were a little topsy-turvy. Nothing too dramatic, and since they were still miraculously square, the drawer slides would still work fine, but I was frustrated with myself for not coming up with a better cutting jig. Next time!
I bought the Kreg drawer slide installer jigs to help with drawer installation, and though I don’t think I’ll use them for all my future drawer projects, they gave me more confidence as a first-timer. The reason it was all a pain is because of the drawers’ uneven bottoms and all the lateral shimming I needed to do to get a perfect fit. (Pro Tip: craft sticks are 1/16″ thick and awesome for this!) Drawer slides are great at moving forward and backward – they can’t really help compensate laterally more than a tiny fraction of an inch. Otherwise, they’ll bind up and the drawer movement is hindered and clumsy. I pressed on, though, and after hours of tweaking, I got my three drawers installed satisfactorily.
It doesn’t look like much at this point, I’ll admit that. It’s functional (except, you know, not having a countertop) but nothing to sing about. I ordered the doors and drawer fronts online for a pretty reasonable price after measuring the exact openings and allowing for a 3/32″ gap everywhere. I didn’t attempt these on my own because of the tight tolerances necessary for inset doors & drawers and my lack of confidence in cutting things straight to 1/16″.
I brad nailed on the 1/4″ plywood backing and then we removed the baseboard trim so we could screw it to the wall. If we weren’t committed before, we were committed now! After the cabinet was fixed in place and once the doors and drawers had arrived, I painted everything, cabinet base and new doors/drawer fronts, using the same type of paint as I used here. I’ll say this – if I never have to paint another cabinet door ever again in my life, I’ll be soooooooo happy!! I’ve heard it’s much, much easier with a paint sprayer, though, so perhaps in the future we’ll spring for one of those. I coated the inside of the cabinets and drawers with a few coats of polycrylic after plugging the visible pocket holes.
Then came the fun part – hardware!! I sprung for some good stuff from Restoration Hardware & Rejuvenation. I also bought little magnetic stops for the doors. I particularly love the door latches – to me, they are so fun and add so much personality. All the hardware and the fresh coat of paint completely transformed things – all that was left for the lower cabinet was a countertop! (and some trim along the bottom…)
Unfortunately I took no photos of this part of the build. Dumb dumb dumb. I cut down a piece of 3/4″ plywood to fit exactly the corner it would sit in (definitely not exactly square) and then lay poplar 1x2s at an angle across the surface, gluing them in place when I was happy with how they looked, and then using a flush trim bit to trim everything to the size of the plywood. From there, I mitered the outer pieces for the edge banding and attached them with glue/clamps/brad nails where necessary.
I debated for awhile about which wood to use for this, because this part was getting expensive. It’s a lot of wood. Poplar was by far the cheapest hardwood option (for someone with no planer/jointer) but I was concerned about how it would stain. Luckily, I found a thread online singing the praises of this miracle gel stain and decided to go for it despite my reservations. I am so glad I did! The poplar stained beautifully with just one coat of the antique walnut and I couldn’t be happier with the look. I coated the countertop post-stain with 5-6 coats of wipe-on poly, and that was that. Fit into the corner like a glove!
But wait, there’s more!
Given the baby’s impending arrival, I hesitated to start on phase 2, the upper cabinet. But, I figured some progress is better than no progress, and I set a goal of putting at least the carcass together before little baby showed up. I must have been a sight to behold out in the garage – 8/9 months pregnant waddling around with a saw/drill/paint roller, wearing a respirator/nitrile gloves/hearing protection… At one point the UPS man came down our driveway with a package that needed a signature, and at the time I was using the random orbit sander, kicking up all kinds of dust and making a general ruckus. I can’t imagine what he thought when I took off my hearing protection and respirator to get the package!
Anyway. The uppers came together pretty quickly all things considered. Pretty much the same process as the lowers – except for the fancy wine rack! For that, I needed to use a Forstner bit to cut holes in a piece of wood and then split that in half. Worked great. I decided to paint the insides of this cabinet in addition to the outside, so painting took a lot longer. Fortunately I’d wised up and put the thing on its side on top of sawhorses, so maneuvering around to get into the corners was less awful than it otherwise could have been. Though, at 9 months pregnant, everything is awkward!
With everything painted, it was time to bring it inside and mount it on the wall! This wasn’t too hard to do. I measured how high off the countertop I wanted the bottom to sit (16″) and screwed a 1×4 to the wall at that height. Made it easy(ish?) for husband to hold it in place while I screwed it to the studs. It’s doorless for the time being, and it may well stay that way. The plan was to have glass-panel shaker doors and the same hardware as the lowers, but I’m out of time now and kinda like the no-doors look. We’ll see after I have to keep dusting the cabinets all the time!! Open shelves work great when you’re using all the things stored on them all the time. We aren’t exactly going to be cycling through all the wine glasses we own multiple times per week!
The, uh, wine selection isn’t quite what I’d like it to be. Chalk that up to 9 dry months for me, and the fact that husband’s drink of choice isn’t exactly a glass of pinot noir.
So that’s it! Definitely the biggest, longest DIY project I’ve attempted so far, and I have to say cabinets are a lot less scary to me now. Which is good, because I doubt this is the last one I’ll build…