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Built-In Cabinets

Built-in cabinetry (sometimes called site-built cabinets) usually refers to linen cabinets, small closets, shelves and occasionally bathroom vanities or even kitchen cabinets. Most homes have small nooks or unused spaces that are perfect for built-in cabinets. Builders often add these small features to homes to enhance the value of a space. You may have a space that would be perfect for a small built-in cabinet. Building your own cabinet is pretty easy and within the scope of do-it-yourselfer projects. It is also something that a good handyman or carpenter should be able to create quickly and for a reasonable price.

A basic built-in cabinet typically will have a basic design with simple slab doors (flat doors with no panels or moulding) and a painted finish. Common materials include plywood with smooth, sanded exposed faces (both sides) or 3/4" MDF (medium density fiberboard) for the body of the cabinet and for shelves, 1" thick boards for a face frame and shelf supports, hinges and knobs.

You can build a cabinet and then move it to its final location, but built-in cabinets are often built in place and take advantage of the structural support of existing walls. For instance you could easily install shelves onto cleats mounted between two walls in a small nook. However, for a more finished appearance you may choose to build a cabinet with side panels, which take some of their support from surrounding walls, floor and ceiling. Sheets of plywood or MDF are used for the sides and back (if needed). A nice touch is to use bead board or a thin oak or luann "skin" for the back panel to give it a finished or furniture-like look. Cleats can be positioned along the sides and back to support the shelves. For light duty shelves, 1"x1" or 1"x2" cleats should be adequate. For shelves that will carry more weight, 2"x3"s should be securely fastened to existing wall studs.

When designing your cabinet, consider the door swing. Make sure there is room for it to open all the way and decide which way it should swing. Two doors can be used if there isn't room for a single wide door. For tall cabinets, it is best to use more than one door so that the door is less likely to sag or warp.

For a floor to ceiling cabinet, measure the height of the space and the available depth for the cabinet. If you will build a face frame for the front of the cabinet, remember to consider its thickness when planning the cabinet depth. Your cabinet will require 3/4" depth for the face frame and another 3/4" for a overlayed door (unless you are making inset doors). So, for example, if you have an 18" deep space, your shelves will be 16.5" at most (18 - 3/4 frame - 3/4 door = 16.5), a little extra clearance may be needed depending upon conditions. If you add a rear panel, you can deduct its thickness from the depth of the cabinet, or you can rabbitt the edges of the side panels to accommodate the thickness of the rear panel. Don't try to fit a back panel between the two side panels because it will be difficult or impossible to make it perfectly flush with the side panels and to make it look neat. Place the back panel in first, then let the side panels cover the edges of the rear panel for a nice clean look.

Assembly usually goes in this order: Install the rear panel, install the top panel and floor panel, install the side panels, install shelf supports, install the shelves, install the face frame, then finally, install the doors.

This is a basic cabinet and there is no end to the variations that could be employed. One enhancement to consider is to make the shelves adjustable by drilling shelf bracket holes or by installing adjustable shelving supports.

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