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
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.
Frameless style cabinet boxes have a more modern look and are quicker to build because there is no need to build face frames.
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.
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.
- 5 piece or shaker door: The 5 piece door style is also commonly referred to as a shaker door or shaker style door. It’s a simple, classic cabinet style and the front profile is endlessly customizable.
- Flat panel or slab door: A flat panel door does not have the frame-like detail of a 5 piece style door. It is made from one solid substrate like painted or veneered MDF (engineered wood) and offers a clean, modern look. They are much easier to fabricate than 5 piece doors and more budget-friendly.
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.
- Inset: The cabinet door is flush with and on the same plane as the cabinet frame and the frame surrounds the entire cabinet door.
- Full overlay: Also simply called overlay, a full overlay door covers the entire cabinet width when closed, and the inside wood edge of the cabinet box is exposed when the door is open.
- Partial overlay: In partial overlay, the cabinet door partially covers the cabinet box when the door is closed, and the inside wood edge of the cabinet box is exposed when the door is open.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Step 1: Set up safely
- Always wear safety glasses and earplugs while using the table saw.
- Connect to a dust collection system, or work outside to prevent breathing in dust particles.
- Make sure the table saw blade is square with the table using a digital angle gauge or a speed square. Use the table saw’s tilting arbor to adjust as needed.
- Never cross your arm over the blade area.
- Use a push stick for tight cuts.
- Use a sacrificial fence when the saw blade may come in contact with the actual fence.
- Make multiple passes for great lengths of wood.
Step 2: Cut the panels
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.
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.