Home Office Cabinets
A flexible design for today's totally wired family.
By George Vondriska and Ken Collier
Has your computer become the nerve center of your home? Are you finding that your family spends more and more time at the computer, both for work and play? If so, this set of home office cabinets is for you. It’s not a cute little “let’s hide the computer when we’re not using it” design. It’s a woodworker’s version of a well-tested line of metal office furniture, with tons of capacity, convenience and flexibility.If you need space for a phone and a fax, a printer and a scanner, in addition to your computer, this unit can hold them all. Plus, it’s got storage for all the paper, CDs, reference material and miscellaneous clutter that an office always generates.
A “Power User” Design
The dark side of having lots of electronic gear is the mess of cords. We’ve devised a unique solution that not only keeps them hidden,but makes it simple to plug and unplug devices (see top photo, above).
Another problem with work areas is lighting; we’ve designed the upper cabinets with halogen lights underneath. And if you’re taking care of taxes, investments or business out of your home, you need plenty of space for files. We’ve included three spacious file drawers. We’ve avoided a separate compartment for the computer. Computers are getting smaller every year, and our guess is that it won’t be long before a separate computer compartment goes the way of fold-out typewriter tables.
This design is modular, so it gives you a lot of options.You could build just the lower unit or just the upper.You could build the desk with two of the left-hand drawer units instead of one.And if you’ve got the space, it would be simple to add base units and top units to make the system longer.
A distinctive feature of these cabinets is the web frames used for the desk sides, the upper cabinet doors,and all the other “show” surfaces. We used a new adjustable matched tongue-and-groove router bit set (see Sources, below) to make the frames on the router table,but however you make them, they’re probably the simplest, fastest way to turn simple boxes into fine-looking furniture (see below).
The overall dimensions of the cabinets shown in these photos, when installed, are 76-in.wide by 66-in.high.
Click any image to view a larger version.
Manage Those *$%# Cords!
A loose panel at the back hides all the mess. It gives access to power strips on narrow shelves behind the desk, making it easy to connect and disconnect equipment.
Three File Drawers
…that accept hanging files give you the capacity for serious home office work. They operate on heavy-duty ball bearing slides.
Store Paper Supplies
…and reference materials behind flip-up doors. Cords for the under-cabinet lighting are concealed behind the bulletin board.
The bane of biscuit joinery is this alignment
The first rule to remember is this:
Tools and Materials
These cabinets are built using a plate joiner for almost all the case joints. You’ll find that it makes the pieces come together quickly and easily. Besides the plate joiner,you’ll need a tablesaw (with dado blade), a jointer and thickness planer, and a router table. A miter saw and tablesaw sled are handy, but not essential. A 35mm bit is useful for mounting the flip-up door hardware, but you could also use a 1-3/8-in. Forstner bit.
We chose cherry for these cabinets, with drawers of Baltic birch. In our area, the materials for both the desk and two upper cabinets, including the hardware and lights, cost $1,100. You could also make the cabinets out of birch, which would bring the cost down to around $800.
Measure in Place, or Use the Cutting List?
It’s great to have a Cutting List,so you can simply cut and assemble. However, for cabinets like this, it’s better not to follow the Cutting List slavishly.There are some parts that must be cut exactly; for those, the Cutting List is fine. For other parts, the safest procedure is to mark or measure from the partially completed assembly. That way, small differences due to sanding, the accumulation of small cutting errors, or plywood that’s less than 3/4-in.,will not throw you off. In the step-by-step instructions, we’ve indicated when to cut to the Cutting List dimensions, and when to measure from other parts. Now let’s get started!
Start with the Drawers
Begin with the drawers, because they have to be a precise width to hold the hanging files properly.You can then work outward from the drawers,making the cabinets fit the drawers perfectly.
1. Rip two sheets of Baltic birch plywood as shown in Fig. K, below. Crosscut the drawer parts (D1 through D5) from these pieces. Save the scrap pieces for testing your joinery setup later.
2. Cut the groove in the drawer sides (D2 and D5).We used the groove cutter from the adjustable tongue-and-groove set, in a router table.Use a featherboard and make test cuts to fine-tune the setup. Cut grooves in all the drawer parts, and don’t move the router table fence when you’re done.
3. Make a support/layout board for cutting the biscuit slots (Photo 1). Cut biscuit slots in the drawer sides first, then in the drawer fronts and backs.Use the support/layout board to lay out biscuit locations.
4. Measure the width of the drawer bottoms (D3).Dry-assemble one drawer and measure from the inside of one groove to the inside of the other.Subtract 1/16 in. for clearance (Photo 2). Trim the drawer bottoms to size if necessary.
5. Cut rabbets in the drawer bottoms, using the slot cutter in the router table. If the fence is in the same position, the width of the rabbet will be correct.Adjust the height of the cutter to produce the correct rabbet thickness. Dry-fit the drawers to test.
6. Assemble the drawers. First, sand all the drawer interiors.Then assemble the drawers (Photo 3),using #0 biscuits and white glue (for extra working time). Check drawers for square by measuring from corner to corner.
Cut and Edge-Band the Plywood
Now is a good time to cut and edge the 3/4-in.-plywood parts.Notice that two of the desk parts (C1 and C2) are of birch for the sake of economy, because only the front edge shows, and that is edged with cherry.The other parts are cut from cherry plywood. Choose the better of your two cherry sheets for the desktop (T1).
The general approach we suggest for making the plywood parts is to rip the plywood to width,but only roughly cut them to length. Glue on the edge banding,sand it flush,and cut the pieces to length (Photo 4). This ensures that the banding is cut cleanly at the ends.
7. Rip the birch plywood as shown in Fig. K,to the widths required for the desk top and bottom (C1) and the dividers (C2).
8. Rip the less-good sheet of cherry plywood into four strips, as shown in Fig.K, to give you material for parts U2, U3 and U4.Save the remainder for other parts.Cut a 36-in.-long piece from each strip to make them easier to handle.
9. Prepare the 1/8-in.edge banding.You’ll need around 45 ft.of it,but make plenty, because it’s a drag to run out.Plane your cherry to the thickness of your plywood plus 1/16 in. Rip 3/16-in.-thick strips, then plane these to 1/8 in.
10. Glue edge banding to the plywood (Photo 4). Because these pieces will be trimmed later,you can leave the banding slightly short of the ends of the plywood. Note that parts U4 require no edge banding, and parts U1 require banding on two adjacent edges. Mark the U1 parts so you can orient them with the good side facing the inside of the cabinet (Fig. E).When the glue is dry, sand all banding flush with the plywood and crosscut all the parts to final length.
Choose the Best Boards for Drawer Fronts
The best way to get a good grain and color match among the drawer fronts is to cut them all from one board. It’ll have to be clear enough to get eight pieces,6- in. x 15-in. Each file drawer front (F2) will be glued up from two of these pieces. If you can’t get them all from one board, match the color and grain pattern carefully.(It helps to wet the wood so you can see the color better.) Set aside all this wood.
Machine the Frame and Panel Parts
In this phase of building, you will make the web frames for the desk sides, the kneehole panel (between the pedestals), the ends of the upper cabinets and the upper cabinet doors. All are made the same way,and differ only in dimensions.
11. Cut the rails (P2, P6, P7,UP2, and DR2) and stiles (P1, P3, UP1 and DR1) for the frames (Photo 5).Try to get all the parts that make up one frame from a single board,or from boards with similar grain and color.Keep the grain as straight as possible in the parts,even if you need to cut them at an angle to the edge of the board. Make a few extra and save the less-good parts for setup and insurance. Mark all parts to indicate the good (outside) face and which frame-and panel unit they belong to. Use a stop block to ensure that matching rails and stiles are crosscut to the same length. Note:Do not cut the center stiles (P3) to length yet.
12. Set up your router table to cut the grooves in the rails and stiles (Photo 6). All parts will be machined good face down on the router table. Plow the groove into all the frame pieces (Photo 7).Note that the center stile gets grooves on both edges.
13. Set up the tongue cutter in the router table. Set the height of the tongue cutter by aligning it with the groove you just machined.Position the fence so it’s flush to the router bit bearing.Make test cuts in scrap to check the bit height.When the tongue height is correct,the sample piece should fit in the groove so the good faces are perfectly flush.Fuss with the height of the tongue cutter until it’s dead on.
14. Cut the tongue in the end of each rail. Support the edge of the rail with a square piece of scrap (Photo 9).The good face should again be face down.
15. Determine the length of the center stile (P3). This is an example of a situation where it’s better to measure from the work,rather than working from a Cutting List.Dry-assemble the frame, using light clamp pressure.Measure the groove-to-groove distance (see Photo 2).While the frame is together, find the center of the opening and make an accurate hash mark at the top and bottom to help with assembly later (Photo 11).
16. Cut the center stiles (P3) to length, then cut a tongue on both ends.Mark the center of the width of the center stiles, and dry-assemble the frame using light clamp pressure.Align the center mark on each end of the center stile with the center marks on the frame.
17. Measure and cut the plywood panels (P3, P4,P5, P8,UP3 and DR3). Measure groove to groove, as you have before, and cut the plywood panels 1/16 in. undersize. Keep the panel parts organized so the grain is in the correct orientation and the panels that go into one frame all come from the same part of the plywood sheet, so the grain matches. Lay out the panels on the plywood so the grain is well situated on the panels. This may require shifting the cuts, either horizontally or vertically (see Fig.K).
18. This is a convenient time to cut the beveled cleats (U5 and K1) that are used to hang the upper cabinets. Angle the blade of your tablesaw to 45 degrees and rip the parts out of scraps of plywood or solid wood.
Assemble the Web Frames in Stages
It’s much safer to assemble the frameand-panel units in stages, so you have plenty of time to make corrections and remove glue squeeze-out.Before you get out the glue bottle, though, sand all the inner edges of the frames and the show side of the plywood panels.
19. Glue the center stile (P3) into each frame (Photo 11).Make sure the upper and lower rails are square to the center stile,and the center rail is centered on the hash marks you made earlier.When the center stile/rail sub-assembly is clamped, insert the plywood panels and glue on the stiles.You can glue in the plywood panels for strength, but use only a little glue to minimize squeeze-out mess. Clamp, check for square and be sure the frames are flat.
20. Run the five frame-and-panel assemblies for the desk through the tablesaw to trim them to a uniform length. Then do the same for the two sets of web frames that go into the upper cabinets. Sand the rail/stile joints to feather out any unevenness. Rip 1/2 in. from the top of the kneehole panel, so there is a little gap for wires when it is assembled.
21. Cut grooves and rabbets in the webframe desk sides, to house the plywood backs (C4).Mark the frames to indicate their orientation in the finished desk: outside left, inside left, inside right, outside right. Label the top and back of each panel. Set up a dado head in your tablesaw to cut the groove shown in Fig. A.The plywood you’re using for the back should fit snugly in the groove.Cut the grooves in the outside web frames, and the rabbets on the inside web frames.
Assemble the Desk Pedestals with Biscuits
22. To lay out the biscuit slots for the desk, make a support/layout board as you did for the drawer boxes (Photo 13). Make it 3-1/4 in. x 20-7/8 in. Lay out biscuit locations on the board, 1-3/4 in. and 7-1/2 in. from each end.
23.While the rip fence is set at 3-1/4 in. for the support/layout board, rip two toe boards (C5) from leftover cherry plywood.
24. Cut biscuits slots in the frame-andpanel sides and the plywood tops and bottoms (Photos 13 and 14).
25. Cut biscuit slots for the drawer dividers (Photo 15). Use two support/layout boards, cut at 15-1/4 in. and 21-3/8 in.The shorter board is used on both units to locate the slots for the lower dividers.The longer board is used only on the left unit to locate the upper divider. Cut slots in the dividers themselves while they are flat on the tablesaw, as you did with the case bottoms.
26. Prepare for assembly.Sand the inside faces of all parts to 220 grit. Attach masking tape to the faces of the cabinet top, bottom and dividers, immediately adjacent to the biscuit-slotted edges.This tape prevents glue squeeze-out from getting on these parts.Dry-assemble the cabinet. Attach masking tape to the inside faces of the panels where they meet the top, bottom and dividers. Disassemble the cabinet.
27.Assemble the pedestal units.Lay one frame-and-panel side on a pad,with the good (outside) face down and the front edge toward you. Brush white glue in the slots and insert biscuits. Brush glue into the slots of the cabinet top,and set it over the biscuits.Make certain the front edges are flush. Continue with the dividers and the cabinet bottom. Brush glue and place biscuits into the exposed slots on the cabinet components.Brush glue onto all of the biscuit halves now projecting up from the cabinet components. Carefully lay the mating frame-and-panel side over the glued biscuits.Align the parts carefully to avoid getting glue from the biscuits all over the interior of the panel. It’s a good idea to get an extra pair of hands to help.
28. Clamp-up the desk pedestals (Photo 17). Clamp across the cabinet top and bottom, using a caul at each joint and clamps front and back. Make sure the front edges are flush.Clamp across the divider in front. Check the cabinet for square. After the glue gets rubbery, in about 10 to15 minutes, peel off the masking tape.
Complete the Desk
Once the two pedestals are glued up, you can get the entire lower part of the desk ready for finishing.
29. Attach skids (C3) to the underside of the pedestals and glue and nail on the toekick boards (C5).
30. Drill holes for mounting the desk top (Fig. A) and install the plywood backs on the two desk pedestals. Cut, drill and attach the mounting cleats (C6) for the kneehole panel.
31. Install the drawer slides in the desk first, using a spacer board to ensure that they are perpendicular to the front of the case (Photo 18). Separate the slides and install the drawer slide half on the drawer boxes, keeping it parallel to the drawer edge. Install the drawer boxes in the desk.
32. Cut the drawer fronts (F1 and F2). Rip them to the dimensions given in the Cutting List, page 74. Finish-sand, and attach them temporarily to the drawer boxes (Photo 19).When they’re perfectly aligned, screw them to the drawer boxes from the inside.
Cut Biscuit Slots in the Upper Cabinets
33. Mark the ends of the upper cabinet for biscuits. There should be two web frames for the ends and two plywood parts (U1) that face each other between the two cabinets (Fig.F).Make sure you are laying out both lefts and rights.
34. Cut biscuit slots to join the back (U4) and the bottom (U3). Start by laying out slot locations in the bottom edge of the backs (U4).Center the slots 1-3/4 in., 9-3/4 in.and 17-1/2 in. in from each end.Use the hanger cleat (U5) as a spacer to rest the biscuit joiner fence on as you cut the slots. Set the fence to place the slot in the center of the plywood, and use the back face of the material as a reference.Cut mating biscuit slots in the back edge of the bottom (U3).
35. Cut biscuit slots to join the ends (U1 and frame-and-panel units) to the tops and bottoms (U2 and U3). Rip a support/layout board 2-1/4-in. wide, and crosscut it to the width of the bottom (U3).Lay out biscuit locations at 1-3/4 in. and 6-7/8 in. from each end.Using the support/layout board, cut biscuit slots on the inside face of the ends. Transfer layout lines to the ends of the bottom (U3), then cut those slots.Do the same for the tops (U2).
36. Cut biscuit slots to join the ends to the back (U4). Lay out the biscuit locations on the ends of the back (U4) where it will join the ends, 1-3/4 in. and 7 in. from the end.Cut the slots.
37. Dry-assemble the cabinets to make sure all biscuit slots are in the proper locations.
Assemble the Upper Cabinets
38. First, it’s time to take care of a few odds and ends. Screw and glue the hanger cleat (U5) to the cabinet back (U4).Drill and countersink the holes in the top (U2) that will later be used for mounting the finished top (UT1). (Make sure you’re countersinking the inside surface.) Cut the four rails (U6), sand them,and glue two under the front edge of the bottom (U3), 1-in. back from the edge. Clamp the other rails to the back bottom edge of U3, and attach with screws.Then remove the screws and the rail. It’ll be easier to clamp the case without the rails there, and it’s hard to drill the holes after the case is assembled. Dry-assemble the case and mask-off around the biscuit joints.
39. Assemble the upper cabinets in stages.You’ll need about 28 #20 biscuits. First, glue and screw the top (U2) to the back (U4) and hanger cleat. Hold the assembly upright by using a 14-in. spacer under the top.Keep the ends flush, and use a square to check that the top and back are square.Glue,biscuit and clamp the bottom (U3) to the back (U4). Use the 14-in. spacer to help hold the assembly upright, and be sure the back and bottom are perpendicular (Photo 20). Allow this assembly to dry.
40. Glue and screw the rear rails (U6) in place. Glue and clamp the front rails in place, keeping the ends flush.
41. Glue, biscuit and clamp the end panels (U1 and frame-and-panel assemblies) to the partially complete assembly.Check for square, and remove the masking tape.
42. Install the doors.First, trim the doors so they fit the cabinets with an even 1/8- in. gap on both ends. Then install the hardware (Photo 21). For the slides we specify (see Sources, below), the included instructions are clear. (Other brands may have slightly different installation procedures.) Begin by drilling holes in the doors, centered 2 in. from the edge, to receive the cup hinges.Follow the hardware directions to determine the filler-strip dimensions, cut them, and install the slides.
Build the Tops
43. Rip your better sheet of cherry plywood to size for the tops (T1 and UT1). Rip strips of Baltic birch for buildup strips (T4,T3,UT2 and UT3) on the underside of the tops, and crosscut them to length. Note that the buildup strips for the desktop extend 2-in. beyond the top at the back and they hold up the loose access strip (T5).Also,you’ll have to piece together parts T3 and UT2 to get the necessary length.Glue cherry edge banding to all four sides of the access strip (T5) and the back edge of the top (T1).
44. Glue and screw the buildup strips to the underside of the plywood, long edge first. On the desktop, place two buildup strips 15 in. from each outside edge so they rest over the edges of the pedestals. For the upper cabinet top, there are buildup strips on either side of the centerline.
45. Mill the edge-molding stock, T2 (Photo 22). Saw and plane pieces of 6/4 cherry so they’re 5-1/2-in. wide and 1- 1/4-in. thick,or to match the thickness of your top. This piece will be ripped in half to produce your molding. Run the pieces through your planer to clean off the saw marks from the edges. Rout a 1/4-in. roundover on both top edges. Angle your tablesaw to 45 degrees, and rip the angled edges.Keep the wide side of the material, the side with rounded corners,resting on the saw top as you cut. Feed slowly, because you’ll be cutting with the show side down. Rip the molding to 2-9/16 in.,with the beveled side facing up.Then joint the sawn edges. Be especially careful and use push blocks,because these are narrow pieces. Sand off saw marks on the beveled surfaces after the molding is glued to the plywood.
46. Cut miters on the molding.For each top, cut the miters on the short end pieces first,but do not cut them to final length. Instead, keep them 1/4-in. long. (Notice that the short molding for the desktop is longer than the top,T1,Fig.B.) Now cut the long front molding piece. Try to get the end pieces and front piece from one length ofmolding to keep the grain continuous.Clamp the long front molding piece in position and use the short end pieces to test the miters.Adjust if necessary.Trim the short end pieces to final length.
47. Lay out and cut biscuit slots in the top and molding.Use the fence of your plate joiner and register it from the top edge of the plywood and the molding for all the slots. There are two biscuits at each location; one in the 3/4-in. plywood, one in the 1/2-in.plywood.
48. Glue and clamp the edging to the plywood.Attach the long edge first,using the end pieces to get the long edge precisely located. After the glue is dry, glue on the short edging (Photo 23), gluing the miter joint at the same time. When the glue is dry, flip the top over. Sand the beveled edge smooth, ease the corners and finish sand both the edging and the top.
Apply the Finish and Put it all Together
49. Remove the drawer fronts from the drawers, the drawer boxes and slides from the desk,and the doors and flip-up door hardware from the upper cabinets.
50. Give a final sanding to the entire project,vacuum,and apply your favorite finish.We used two coats of Danish oil for everything and after the oil had a few days to harden completely, an additional couple coats of a wipe-on polyurethane on the desktop for extra protection. Install the Cabinets
Install the Cabinets
51. Locate a space on your wall that’s 76-in. wide by 67-in. high. Indicate the vertical boundaries of this space with masking tape. Keep the tape plumb (Photo 24 and Fig. J).
52. Attach the mounting cleats (K1) for the upper cabinet, screwing them into studs. Use a 4-ft. or longer level to be sure they are level and the upper edges are perfectly parallel. Hang the upper cabinets, and see how they fit together. We had to remove one and put a thin shim on one cleat to get the cabinets to come together tightly. When you’re satisfied with the fit, clamp the cabinets together, and drive a couple screws through the back of each cabinet into the mounting cleats.Clamp on the top,screw it in place, then reinstall the flip-up door slides and the doors.Adjust the doors if necessary.
53. Build small shelves (S1) to hold a pair of power strips. The exact length and position of these shelves will depend on the location of an outlet, but they should be mounted at the height and distances from the masking tape shown in Fig. J. Install the halogen lights on the upper cabinets, and the light switch wherever it is most convenient.
54.Assemble the desk pedestals and the kneehole panel a couple feet away from the wall.Attach the top to the pedestals, reinstall the drawers and drawer fronts, and attach the drawer pulls. Screw on a commercial keyboard tray to the underside of the top. Slide the desk up to the wall.
55. Make the bulletin board (BB1) and the mounting strips (K2).Measure the space between the desk and the upper cabinets, and adjust the width of the bulletin board if necessary; the tighter the fit the less the cords will show. The fabric can be just about anything, but if it has some stretch it will be easier to work with.Staple and glue it to the back of the acoustic panel. Glue and staple pieces of hook-and-loop tape to the panel and the mounting boards.Attach the bulletin board so it covers the light cords, and you’re ready to move in!
1. Cut biscuit slots for drawers, using a
2. Measure groove to groove to ensure the
3. Assemble the drawers with biscuits,
Web Frame Panels
These cabinets are made using what is perhaps
There are several good approaches to
If you’re only doing a small number of
Similarly, you have a number of options for the panels. If they’re small, as
Flat frame-and-panel construction is
Cut grooves for web frames either on
Note: Product availability and prices are subject to change.
Freud, freudtools.com, 800-472-7307, in Canada 800-263-7016, Adjustable Tongue and Groove Bits,
Woodworker’s Hardware, wwhardware.com, 800-383-0130, Hanging file rail (CPF 32501);
This story originally appeared in American Woodworker September 2002, issue #95.