I’ve built hundreds of single-door cabinets like this one. Some people use them as spice cabinets. Others use them in the bathroom as a medicine cabinet.
As I was building this particular cabinet, it occurred to me that it would be an excellent project for beginners. It has all the traditional components of larger-scale cabinetry, yet it doesn’t need a lot of material or tooling. Once you’ve built this cabinet, you can build something bigger using the same principles. Intermediate woodworkers might also pick up a trick or two because I build my cabinets just a bit differently.
Choose Your Wood
I used tiger maple for this project, but if this is your first cabinet, you might want to use poplar and then paint the finished item. Poplar is easy to work with and less expensive than maple, especially if the maple has some figure. As in larger cabinets, most of the major components are made from 3/4″-thick stock: the case sides, top, bottom, plus the rails and stiles for the door and the face frame. This cabinet has a solid wood shiplapped back that’s made from 1/2″-thick pieces; the door panel is 5/8″ thick.
Face Frame: the Place to Start
It seems logical to begin by constructing the case. Don’t. The size of your case and door are all determined by your face frame. Build it first and then you’ll use your face frame to lay out your case and door. All face frames are made up of rails and stiles, much like a door. The stiles are the vertical pieces. The rails are the horizontal pieces that go between the stiles. When you rip your stiles to width on your table saw, make the rip 1/16″ wider than stated on the Schedule of Materials. You need this extra to overhang the sides of your case so you can trim it flush with a flush-cutting bit in a router. Once your pieces are cut to size, join the rails and stiles using mortise-and-tenon joints.
Begin by cutting the tenons on the rail ends. I know the books say to cut the mortise first, but I’ve found it’s easier to lay out your mortises after your tenons are cut. Try it, and I think you’ll agree.
The tenons should be 3/8″ thick (one-half as thick as your stock), centered on the rail and 1″ long. I cut 1/2″ shoulders on the tenons. If they’re any smaller, the mortise might blow out. Now use your tenons to lay out your mortises on the stiles. Hold the tenon flat against the edge where the mortise will go and use the tenon like a ruler to mark your mortise.
Now cut your mortises. Make them all 11/16″ deep, which will prevent your 1″- long tenons from bottoming out. You don’t want your tenons to wobble in your mortises, yet you don’t want to have to beat the tenon in place.
Dry-fit your face frame, then put glue on the mortise walls and clamp it up. While you’re waiting for it to dry, turn your attention to the bead moulding that goes on the inside edge of the face frames. Years ago, I used to cut the beading into the rails and stiles. Then I would have to miter the bead and cut away the beading where the rails and stiles were joined. It sounds like a pain, and it was. Now I simply make my bead moulding separate from my face frame and miter, nail and glue it in place. It looks just as good.
To make the bead moulding, put a 1/4″ beading bit in your router and mount it in a router table. Then take a 3/4″-thick board that’s about 4″ wide and cut the bead on one edge. Take that board to your table saw, set your rip fence to make a 3/8″-wide cut and rip the bead from the wide board. Repeat this process three more times.
Now take your strips and run them through your planer to reduce them in thickness to 5/16″. Miter the corners; then glue and nail them in place. Sand both sides of your face frame with 100 grit sandpaper and move on to building the door.
Why make the door next? Well, for one thing, it is easier to hang your door in your face frame before you nail the face frame to your case. I build my doors so they are the same size as my opening, then I shave off a little so there’s a 1/16″ gap all around. This way if the door or face frame is out of square, I can taper the door edges to fit, hiding my error.
The door is built much like the face frame, using the same size mortises and tenons. The biggest difference is that you will need to cut a groove in your rails and stiles for the door panel, so your tenons must be haunched. A “haunch” is a little extra width in the tenon’s shoulder that fills in the groove on the end of the stile.
Begin by cutting a 3/8″-deep x 3/8″-wide groove down the center of one long edge of your rails and stiles. Cut your tenons on your rails. Then cut your mortises on your stiles. Dry fit the pieces together and measure how big the center panel should be.
You want the panel to float to allow seasonal expansion and contraction, so cut the panel to allow 1/8″ expansion on either side. Now raise the door panel using your table saw or a cutter in your router table. Practice on scrap pieces of 5/8″ stock so you achieve the right lip, angle and fit.
When the panel is complete, sand the raised section, then glue up the door. Be careful not to get any glue in the groove that holds the panel. When the glue is dry, hang the door in your face frame.
Finally, the Case
The case is simple. The top and bottom pieces fit into 1/4″-deep dadoes and rabbets on the sides. The back rests in a rabbet on the sides and is nailed to the back edge of the top and bottom pieces. You’ll use your face frame to lay out your joints on the sides. You want the bottom piece to end up 3/16″ higher than the top edge of the bottom rail on your face frame. This allows your bottom to act as a stop for the door. Mark the location of that 1/4″-deep dado and cut. The top piece rests in a 1/4″-deep x 3/4″-wide rabbet on the sides. Cut that using your table saw. Then cut the 1/2″-deep x 1/4″-wide rabbet on the back edge of the sides.
Drill holes for shelf pins and space them 1″ apart on the sides. Sand the inside of the case. You’ll notice that the top and bottom are 1/2″ narrower than the sides. This is to give you a good place to nail the back pieces to the case. Assemble the case using glue and nails, making sure the top, bottom and sides are all flush at the front. Attach the face frame to the case using glue and nails. Trim the face frame flush to the case using a bearing-guided flush-cutting bit in your router. Finish sand the cabinet to 180 grit.
Take your scrap pieces and use them to make a shiplapped back. Cut a 1/4″ x 1/2″ rabbet on the edges and then cut a bead on one edge using a 1/4″ beading bit in your router table. You want to give the back pieces room to expand and contract, about 1/8″ between each board should be fine.
Cut the moulding for the top so it resembles the drawing detail at left. Finish sand everything, then nail the moulding to the top. I like to peg the tenons in my doors to add a little strength. Drill a 1/4″ diameter hole most of the way through the stile and tenon. Then whittle a square piece of stock so it’s round on one end, put glue in the hole and pound it in place. Cut the peg nearly flush. You want it to be a little proud of the stile — it’s a traditional touch.
Break all the edges of the case with 120-grit sandpaper, and putty all your nail holes. Paint, dye or stain the all the components (I used a water-based aniline dye). Then add two coats of clear finish and nail the back pieces in place. Hang the cabinet by screwing through the back boards into a stud in your wall. PW
Troy Sexton is a contributing editor to Popular Woodworking.