Great shop storage isn’t always built using plywood.
As I look around my shop, or most woodworking shops, I see cabinets built with plywood and screws. But there are other options. I decided to change things up and make a shop cabinet using hardwoods, and to use the project to experiment with a couple of different techniques.
I consider a router an essential woodworking tool. And because I have router bits and accessories stored in small boxes, stuck in drawers and in tool boxes (and hanging in less-than-ideal locations), a cabinet for all things router seemed the perfect project.
Build the Frame
The first order of business is to select and mill wood for the sides, top, shelves and center divider. Cut the top and sides to size, but leave the shelves and center divider 1⁄4” overwide and 1″ overlong.
Dovetails are perfect to join the cabinet sides to the top; the joint – tails in the sides – holds up extremely well under the stress of heavy use and weight.
The dovetails are hidden by an applied moulding – and if I’m hiding the work, I don’t wish to see any indication of the joinery. To pull off the disappearing act, cut 1⁄8“-deep rabbets on the inside face of the ends of the top. This reduces the apparent thickness of the top as seen from the ends, but doesn’t give up any actual meat. Plus, the small shoulder helps hold the cabinet square during assembly.
Lay out the pin board (the top) with a wide pin at the back. Make your saw cuts, remove the waste, then transfer the layout to the sides. Remember to set your marking gauge to match the remaining thickness on the top’s end before scribing any lines. I use a band saw to define the tails, then clear away the waste with chisels and fit the dovetails. Because the joints are covered by moulding, they don’t need to be perfect.
When the joints slip together, you can see the value of the rabbets and how they help to hold the cabinet square.
Position the sides on your bench with the insides up, rear edges touching. Mark the locations for all the shelves and the cabinet bottom. (All are 3⁄4” thick, excepting the 5⁄8“-thick router bit shelves . The tricky part is that the sides have different layouts. The left side has a 90° shelf and bottom and five router-bit shelves angled downward at 15°. The right-side layout is simply three 3⁄4“-wide dados, laid out following the plan.
Now calculate and cut the center divider to width (leave it overlong) and the long shelf to length and width. The vertical divider nestles into 1⁄4“-deep dados cut in the top and long shelf. Now’s a great time to locate and mark the top and long shelf for those dados.
Router Jigs Work Best
It’s time to cut the 1⁄4“-deep dados. I find two simple jigs are the best method of work. Each is built from scrap plywood and screwed together. The square platform jig is sized in thickness to work with a 3⁄4” pattern bit. (My bit has a 1 1⁄4” cutting length, so if it’s to cut a 1⁄4“-deep dado, the jig has to be at least 1” thick.) Stack three pieces of 1⁄2” Baltic-birch ply, screw them together, then add a 1⁄2“-thick piece at one end to catch the workpiece and hold the jig square. (Fine-tune it as needed to bring the jig square to the workpiece.)
Align the jig to the left side of the cut and clamp it in position. A single clamp secures the jig. Rout the dado, allowing the bearing to ride against the jig. Stop your cuts about 1⁄2” from the front edge of the workpiece.
The angled dados are made the same way, except that the catch on the bottom of the jig is angled to match the layout. The router bit I used here is 5⁄8” in diameter; I set it up in a second router for more efficient work. Cut the angled dados into the cabinet side so the top edge of the dado is 41⁄2” long.
Before moving on, cut rabbets for the back and rear support (the peg board). I used a 3⁄4” wide x 7⁄16“deep rabbet that I cut in two passes at the table-saw. I also cut a 1⁄4“-deep rabbet along the back edge of the top to make sliding in the center divider easy. (This creates a slight gap at the sides, but it’s covered by the moulding.)
Next, align the divider to the left side, then transfer the layout of the bit shelves. Mark both the top and bottom of the dados to account for the jig’s placement – always to the left of the cut. Before routing the dados, the angle of the jig needs to be reversed. Remove its catch, position the jig to the new layout lines, then locate and re-attach the catch in its new position. Rout the dados as before.
Now rout 90° dados into the top and the long shelf for the vertical divider. (See why I set up two routers?)
Router Cabinet Cut List
t w l
❏ 2 Sides 3⁄4 x 6 1⁄4 x 33 1⁄2 Walnut
❏ 1 Top 3⁄4 x 6 1⁄4 x 22 3⁄8 Walnut
❏ 1 Bottom 3⁄4 x 5 1⁄2 x 21 3⁄8 Walnut
❏ 1 Long shelf 3⁄4 x 5 1⁄2 x 21 3⁄8 Walnut
❏ 1 Vertical divider 3⁄4 x 5 1⁄2 x 25 Walnut
❏ 1 Router shelf 3⁄4 x 5 1⁄2 x 10 9⁄16 Walnut
❏ 5 Bit shelves 5⁄8 x 4 3⁄8 x 10 9⁄16 Walnut One edge angle cut*
❏ 1 Rear support 3⁄4 x 4 1⁄4 x 21 3⁄4 Walnut
❏ 1 Back 1⁄2 x 21 3⁄4 x 28 5⁄8 Plywood
❏ 2 Door stiles 3⁄4 x 1 5⁄8 x 24 1⁄2 Walnut
❏ 1 Upper door rail 3⁄4 x 1 5⁄8 x 9 5⁄16 Walnut 1 1⁄4″ TBE**
❏ 1 Lower door rail 3⁄4 x 2 x 9 5⁄16 Walnut 1 1⁄4″ TBE**
❏ 1 Drawer front 3⁄4 x 2 3⁄4 x 20 7⁄8 Cherry
❏ 1 Drawer back 1⁄2 x 2 1⁄2 x 20 3⁄8 Poplar
❏ 2 Drawer sides 1⁄2 x 2 1⁄2 x 5 Poplar
❏ 1 Drawer bottom 1⁄4 x 5 1⁄2 x 20 7⁄8 Poplar
❏ 3 Pulls 7⁄16 x 2 3⁄4 x 1 Walnut
❏ 1 Crown moulding 3⁄4 x 7⁄8 x 48 Walnut
❏ 4 Pegs 1⁄2 x 3 1⁄2Walnut
*Front and back edges are ripped at a 15° angle; **Tenon both ends
Puzzle Comes Together
To fit the interior pieces of the cabinet, cut the shelves to length, then notch them to step out of the dados. I use a table saw for this. Set the fence for 1⁄4” total cut (don’t forget to account for the blade thickness), raise the blade to just more than 1⁄2“, then, with a couple of quick passes, notch the ends.
Assemble the dovetail joints and slip the long shelf into position. With a couple of clamps holding things secure, fit the divider, making sure the angled dados align (small adjustments are easily made). Notch the ends at the table saw, then slip the divider into position.
Next, mark the location of the router shelf on the divider. Measurements taken off the assembled cabinet better allow for level shelves. Cut the shelf to size and notch the ends before checking its fit. Repeat these steps to fit the bottom.
Now disassemble the cabinet and place the two sides inside up on your bench with the back edges matched. The last step is to lay out and cut the quarter-round design at the ends of the sides. The radius is 5″; the height is 31⁄2“. To facilitate using a compass for layout, slide a scrap along the bottom edge of the matched sides, then draw the half-circle as shown at right. Make the cut, then smooth the edges.
Sand the insides and assemble the cabinet. The two flat shelves, divider and bottom are fit in their dados and secured using screws and plugs. (It’s simple, but this is a shop cabinet.) Glue and assemble the dovetails. Position the long shelf, then drill and countersink for the screws, two at each end. Repeat the steps for the divider and router shelf.
If you want to plug the divider holes in the long shelf, do that prior to attaching the bottom. There’s little room to work after that shelf is installed. To wrap up assembly, fill the holes with plugs of matched grain, then after the glue dries, sand the surfaces smooth.
The cabinet is topped with a simple piece of moulding cut with one of my favorite ogee bits, a classic design. Attach the moulding using glue and pins. (Don’t neglect to glue the miters.)
Now is the perfect time to add the rear support, which holds turned pegs. The support fits into the same rabbet you cut for the back. Two screws per end hold it in place. Lay out and drill for the pegs prior to installing the support.
Build the Door
Beginning woodworkers often build doors by joining the rails and stiles with mortise-and-tenon joints, then routing the back of the door using a rabbet bit. This results in a small section of exposed end grain at each corner. There is a better technique.
With just a couple of extra steps in the process, the rabbeted area is automatically formed in the assembled door.
With the joinery on the rails and stiles complete, add glue to the joints, assemble the door in clamps and allow the glue to dry. (After your finish is applied, install a clear Plexiglas panel, holding it in place with 1⁄4“-square strips pinned in position.)
Because this drawer is meant to house small parts and accessories, the joinery does not require superhuman strength. I built it using a down-and-dirty method: a lock joint cut at the table saw (the key to accuracy is set-up).
Mill your drawer parts to thickness, width and length. Install a dado stack in your table saw for a 1⁄4“-wide cut, and set the blade height to 1⁄4“. Position the fence 1⁄4” away from the stack, then cut dados at the ends of the drawer sides.
Now rabbet the ends of the back. I use a step-off block to align the stack with the ends of the front and back; a sacrificial fence is another option. Raise the blade height to 1⁄2“, then rabbet the 3⁄4“-thick drawer front.
With the blade height still at 1⁄2“, switch over to a tenon jig to cut the tongues that lock into the dados . Position the jig and stack to cut dados leaving a 1⁄4” of material at the inside face, as shown below.
When the cuts are complete and the parts fit properly, rabbet the bottom edge of the drawer front for the 1⁄4“-thick drawer bottom. The bottom is pinned in place, but left overwide – you’ll trim it to act as a drawer stop against the case back.
A new approach for me was to texture the drawer front to add some visual interest with a series of grooves. I cut them with a 1⁄2” round-nose bit (also known as a core-box bit) at my router table, creating a series of small arcs in the front.
The secret (if there is one) is to start your layout, and the cuts, at the center of the drawer front and work toward the edges. Take the time to align the first cut down the centerline (it needs to be very close, but there is a bit of course correction possible from a second pass). After the first pass, reverse the front and make a second pass. This may widen your groove, but it will not be noticeable, and it guarantees you’re centered. (As always, test pieces make setup easier.)
Slide your fence closer to the bit for the second and third grooves, making sure there is no flat between them. Repeat these steps for the fourth and fifth cuts (an odd number of grooves makes the layout much easier). With the drawer front textured, sand the grooves (a sandpaper-wrapped dowel works well), then glue up the drawer.
As the glue dried, I designed a few small pieces to use as pulls for the drawers and door. I began with 7⁄16“-wide stock, then laid out a simple undulating pattern. I made the cuts at the band saw, smoothed the pieces at a spindle sander and eased the edges using sandpaper.
The drawer pulls are set into dados cut in the drawer front. Determine the location for the pulls (I used them to equally divide the two sections of the cabinet), then make marks along the edge of the drawer front to show the start and stop points of the dados.
Set your table saw blade to cut just below the deepest point of your decorative drawer grooves and align the blade with your layout marks. Using the miter gauge, nibble away at the cuts until you’ve achieved the thickness of your pulls – check this with each pass when you get close to the second layout line. Repeat the steps for the second pull, then glue the pulls in place.
Wrap up work on the drawer by pinning the drawer bottom to the completed drawer box.
Build a Better Door
As we gain experience in woodworking, we find or learn new techniques that make our work better. A great technique to up your door-building game is to produce doors, which, with a few extra steps, have rabbets already in place for glass or flat panels. No more rabbeting after assembly.
Here’s how it’s done: Mill the rails and stiles to length, width and thickness, then lay out and mark the mortises in your stiles; I chose 1⁄4” shoulders for my tenons. Center the 1⁄4“-wide x 11⁄4“-deep mortises in the stiles as you cut or chop the four mortises.
Now rabbet the inside edge of all four door parts. Cut 3⁄8“-wide rabbets as deep as the front wall of your mortises (1⁄2“). I prefer the table saw for this task, but there are other methods.
How the tenons are cut on the rails is where the huge difference in technique comes to light. Set the blade height to 1⁄4” and set your fence to cut a 11⁄4” tenon. Don’t forget to account for the 1⁄8” blade kerf. With the rail’s front face against the tabletop, make a pass cutting the rail.
Next, leave the blade height alone, but slide the fence to cut a 7⁄8” tenon (11⁄4“-3⁄8” rabbet). Make a pass cutting the rear face of your rails at all four locations. Before moving on, rotate the rail so the outside edge is facing the tabletop and make another cut. (There is no cut needed for the inside edge – it was removed by rabbeting.)
The difference in the procedure when making the cheek cuts is that you have two different blade heights with which to work: 7⁄8” for the back face and 11⁄4” for the front. Plus, you’ll need to remove the shoulder waste using a band saw or handsaw.
As you slip the joint together, the extended shoulder at the back and outside edge of the rails fills the rabbeted area just as the front face snuggles tight to the stile. The rabbet for the glass or flat panel is done – and with no unsightly end-grain in sight.
Fit & Finish
Fit the door to its opening, making any needed adjustments to its width and height. I used simple no-mortise hinges and a shop-made catch with two rare-earth magnets – one on the triangular catch, one buried in the door (don’t glue the magnets in place before checking their polarity). The door pull is simply glued in place.
Lay out then drill holes in the router-bit shelves to accept the shafts of your router bits (for my layout, see the Online Extras – but know that your layout needs may vary). Before installing the shelves in the cabinet, plane or cut the rear edges at a 15° angle to match the slope of the shelves, then slip them into their dados. The cabinet back holds the angled shelves in place.
The back is plywood. Install it with screws after completing the finish.
Here, too, I, decided to switch things up a bit from my usual approach. Instead of shellac, I used a water-based topcoat – Enduro-Var from General Finishes. And to try it two ways, I brushed on the first coat, but sprayed the second after a thorough sanding with #320-grit. (I wasn’t surprised to find that I preferred the sprayed coat.)
My first thought as I finished the cabinet was that, had I not angled the router-bit shelves, this piece could have found its way into my house. But with the bitshelves in place, I’ve built a nice shop cabinet from something other than plywood. Plus, I played with a couple of new techniques along the way. And I have a great cabinet to help get a handle on my router bits and accessories.
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