How to Build Cabinets: Complete Step by Step Guide

There are many different types of cabinetry—built-ins that are secured to the wall (think kitchen cabinets), moveable modular cabinets, wall cabinets, and base cabinets. There is also a wide range of styles from cabinet fronts finished with ornate trim, classic simple looks like the shaker style door, and minimalist modern styles with sleek inset doors. But, they all start with one essential piece—the cabinet box.

In this article, you’ll learn now to build a frameless style cabinet box and flat panel door, as taught by cabinet builder Ken DeCost in his online course Introduction to Cabinetry. Ken prefers the frameless style because of its simplicity, approachability, and clean look, but the opportunities to get creative with cabinetry are endless.

“People now have access to a lot of the same tooling that high-end cabinet shops and mass-produced furniture companies have right in their own small shop, and I think that we’re entering the next stage of people really valuing that handmade furniture.” – Ken DeCost

Anatomy of a cabinet

Upload image placeholder

There are many different types of cabinets, but the basic components remain the same. All cabinets are composed of a cabinet box and a cabinet door mounted with some type of hinge.

Cabinet box or case

The cabinet box, also called the cabinet case, is the foundation of any cabinet, and it’s as simple as the name implies. It’s a box shape made of two side panels, a top and bottom panel, and a back panel.

Face frame style cabinet boxes have a more traditional look but require building the frame piece that is visible when the doors are open and closed. Keep in mind that this style may require you to drill pocket holes and use the specialty pocket hole screw type.

Upload image placeholder Frameless style cabinet boxes have a more modern look and are quicker to build because there is no need to build face frames. 

Upload image placeholder

When choosing between face frame or frameless cabinets, consider the style of the rest of your home interior and choose the look that fits best.

Doors

While there are many different styles of cabinet doors, the two general categories are 5 piece and flat panel. The both offer the same full access to the inside of the cabinet so the choice is about aesthetics.

Door mounts

There are two main styles of door mount—inset and overlay—and the functionality is the same for both. The choice is more about aesthetics, or what you want to see (or do not want to see) when the cabinet door is open or closed. 

Edges

How the pieces of the cabinet are joined together is called joinery and the edges of the cabinet will often reveal what type of joinery was used.

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3 Exposed edges: Most cabinets will have exposed edges because the top, bottom, and back edges are typically not going to be seen and therefore do not require finishing. This is especially true of base cabinets where the edges will never be seen.

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3

Mitered edges: For cabinet styles where the wood edges will be exposed, mitered corners help achieve a clean, finished look. For example, you might see this technique on an upper cabinet where the joint will be exposed and at eye level.

Hinges

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3

It is critical that the hinge type you use matches the overlay style that you are building so that the door is mounted with the proper amount of clearance. Ken prefers European hinge styles which are installed on the interior of the cabinet and concealed when the door is closed. They work with inset, partial, and full overlay style doors and offer flexibility and greater room for adjustments.

Decorative hardware

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3

Hardware attaches to the front of the cabinet and is the mechanism to open and close the doors. In the cabinet building industry it is referred to as decorative hardware. There are infinite options for handles, knobs, pulls, or routed in handles, and the choice is largely aesthetic. The hardware should fit the personality of the home, any existing cabinet or drawer fronts, and the homeowner’s preference. It’s the last item to install but is an important final touch. 

Step-by-step guide to building cabinets 

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3 In this guide, we’ll build a cabinet that is 30 inches tall, 24 inches wide, and 14 inches deep, flush on all the edges and the same depth throughout.  In the videos, Ken uses prefinished wood scrap from around the shop, but feel free to use any type of solid wood, plywood, or other suitable prefinished material. His shop saw is a large scale table saw but a track saw, or circular saw with guides will also work.

Upload image placeholder

The cabinet box will consist of 5 basic pieces: top and bottom pieces cut the same, two sides cut the same, and a third cutting setup for the back piece.

Upload image placeholder

Step 1: Set up safely

 Step 2: Cut the panels

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3

First start with the rip cuts. A rip cut is a cut that runs in the same direction as the grain and is typically the long cut on a piece of wood. Measure from the fence to the inside (or rip side) of the saw blade and set your fence to 14 inches wide. Cut the sides, top, and bottom to width. Double check measurements once complete. 

Tip: For a continuous wood grain look, aim for a vertical grain on the side panels and back piece and horizontal grain across the top and bottom pieces.

Cut List: Upload image placeholder

Learn about the anatomy of cabinets, common materials, and the proper techniques to build quality pieces with cabinet maker Ken DeCost in MT Copeland’s Introduction to Cabinetry online course

Then reset the fence to the back panel width (23 ½ inches) and repeat the ripping process.

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3 Once your ripcuts are complete, make the cross cuts. A cross cut is a cut that goes across the grain. Switch to the crosscut fence if you have one. If not, use a guide piece. Measure from the inside of the blade (depending on the set up you’re using, you may need to reference on the opposite side) out 23.5 inches to the fence. Cut the side panel pieces, top and bottom pieces, and back panel piece resetting the measurement to the fence as needed. Double check all measurements when complete.

Step 3: Make cuts for joinery

There are many joinery techniques to construct a cabinet box like hidden mortise and tenon joints done on a CNC machine, half-lap dado joints done on a table saw, or a series of dowels or dominoes. Ken uses a rabbet joint, which is similar to a dado joint.

Rabbet joint dimensions:

Upload image placeholder

Step 4: Assemble the cabinet box

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3

To assemble, place the top piece’s rabbet edge down and facing what will be the center of the cabinet box. Marry the top and side pieces by sliding them into the rabbet cuts. Then add a clamp across the top piece and attached sides. Upload image placeholder

Pre-drill the countersunk hole and then drive in the screw at one joint. Repeat for the other side. Move back and forth alternating between each of the cabinet sides and installing a screw every few inches. When you get to the final hole, make sure you are clearing the rabbet cut by moving up an extra ¾ inch.

Unclamp, rotate the cabinet, add the bottom piece and repeat the process. Run your hands along the inside of the cabinet corners to make sure you didn’t blow out any of the wood edges with the screws.

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3 Flip the cabinet face down to assemble the back panel. The back panel should fit snug into the rabbet joint. Trim the panel as needed for an exact fit.

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3

Repeat the pre-drilling and drilling process that you did for the side panels, taking care to stay in the center of the panel edges.

Tip: Make a shelf pin template to pre-drill interior shelving holes before you begin assembly. If you’re not using a standalone machine for this, use the template after the cabinet is assembled.

Step 5: Finish the edges

Edge banding is a thin wood veneer material that will cover the exposed grain of the plywood edges along the front edge of the cabinet. There are many different types of edge banding and ways to apply it. Ken uses an iron-on application in a prefinished maple that matches the interior of the cabinet box.

Lcvrw7hgq96moc6obrtp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image3

Start with the side panels so that the edge banding runs long. Make sure edges are debris and dust free. Set iron to medium with a dry (no steam) setting. Lay the edge banding down and apply light pressure directly to the banding. Use a wooden block to smooth out any bubbles. Lightly roll the iron along the edges to finish.

Learn about the anatomy of cabinets, common materials, and the proper techniques to build quality pieces with cabinet maker Ken DeCost in MT Copeland’s Introduction to Cabinetry online course

Tip: If you are having trouble with the edge banding, warm it up, pull it off and start over.

Hozxbkhzryipsqmjbxdp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image14

After finishing the cabinet sides, move along to the tops and bottom. Cut the edge banding using a speed square so that it evenly butts up against the side panel banding that you already installed. Carefully finish the corners where the edge banding meets and use the speed square to make the final cut.

Hozxbkhzryipsqmjbxdp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image14 Trim the excess edge banding using a chisel that is burr free and smooth. Hold the flat end against the inside edge of the cabinet and slide to remove the excess banding.

The final finishing step for the cabinet box is light sanding that prevents the edge banding from lifting off. Lightly roll a fine sandpaper on the edges avoiding the prefinished material. 

Step 6: Build cabinet doors

Hozxbkhzryipsqmjbxdp cbnt how to build cabinets seo image14 Note: Read our step by step guide to building cabinet doors for a full breakdown of the process.

Since this is a cabinet with a flat panel door design (also known as a slab door), building the doors is similar to cutting and finishing the cabinet panels. Cut two identical panels with the wood grain running vertically and finish the edges with banding. Install the door hinges and pre-drill the holes for the hardware. Now your cabinet is ready to install. 

It’s much easier to install cabinets without the doors attached. Slide the doors off their hinges before you begin installing and reattach the doors once your cabinets are in place. Once the doors are on, finish with a knob, pull, or handle of your choice.

MT Copeland offers video-based online classes that give you a foundation in construction fundamentals with real-world applications, like building cabinets. Classes include professionally produced videos taught by practicing craftspeople, and supplementary downloads like quizzes, blueprints, and other materials to help you master the skills. 

Build Smarter

Get the latest updates about new courses, special trainings, resources, and more.