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Build a Shaker Wall Cabinet, Step-by-Step
Tools and Materials
Learn how to build a simple Shaker wall cabinet using biscuit joinery.
Last week I posted a blog urging folks to feel open to augmenting "traditional" furniture designs to suit their own needs. I used a small Shaker wall cabinet as my example and have been busy sketching out design possibilities ever since. Now I'm back, and with colleague Lisa Morgan, I'm ready to get to work converting my sketches into a reality. Follow along and learn how to build this simple Shaker wall cabinet. It's constructed from 1/2-in. thick poplar you can find at your home center and will feature an aged milk paint finish.
Follow the Entire Project Series
In the end, I opted to make my design a bit taller and deeper than the Shaker original. You'll also recall that in my last post, I spoke about omitting the vertical face frame pieces along either side of the case front. Well, after having mocked up the cabinet in the shop, I realized that just having a solid door stretching across the entire front made for a pretty boring-looking piece. By adding those two vertical elements, you add a bit of visual appeal. Those two pieces also serve to really stiffen up the case. I did however, make my face frame components considerably more narrow than the originals.
This week, we'll cover the construction of the basic case, as Lisa uses biscuit joinery to build a cabinet that's strong, yet simple to assemble. Then next week, we'll wrap up construction by building and mounting a door, adding the decorative top and bottom pieces, and the signature arch over the top that really screams "Shaker" when it comes to this piece.
Next week I'll release a downloadable PDF with all the measurements laid out. For now however, you can consult this simple cut list to get the ball rolling:
How to Make
Step 1: Cut Your Parts to Size: Most well-stocked home centers will carry 1/2-in. thick poplar. Just be sure to select the straightest boards you can. Once you get them home, get busy cutting them to size. Remember, it's always a good idea to cut your pieces roughly to size at first. You can come back and trim to final length as you assemble. For the cabinet itself, you'll need the following materials: (2) sides that measure 18-in. x 5-in., (2) "inner" top/bottom pieces that measure 11-in. x 4-1/2-in., (1) shelf piece that measures 11-1/2-in. x 4-1/2-in., (2) face frame pieces that measure 18-in. x 1-in., and (2) "outer" top/bottom pieces that measure 13-1/2-in. x 6-1/4-in.
Step 2: Set Up to Rout a Dado: The center shelf in this little cabinet is held into the two case sides with a "dado." Basically, you've got to cut a groove across the grain of the inner face of each shelf side. The shelf will later slide into place. To do this, I used a small trim router. I began by laying out the lines for a 1/2-in. wide dado, across the center of both boards (highlighted in black). Notice how I have the boards back-to-back, in order to rout both at once. Next, I clamped a fence down to run my router alongside of. Be sure to offset the fence, from the beginning of the dado cut to account for the distance from the bit's cutting edge to the outer-most side of the router's bottom plate.
Step 3: Rout Your Dado: With your workpieces and router fence clamped down firmly, use a 1/2-in. straight cutting router bit to route the dado. Final depth of the dado should be 1/4-in. (half the thickness of the stock). It's best to do this in a few passes of the router, readjusting for a deeper cut after each pass, until you reach the full 1/4-in. of depth on the cut. This makes the job safer, and won't tax the small trim router's motor as much.
Step 4: Mark for Biscuit Joints: The case will be assembled using simple biscuit joints. To begin, make a tick mark on the center of the outside faces of the inner top and bottom pieces (both ends of each piece).
Step 5: Mark for Biscuit Joints: Now, position the top and bottom pieces alongside their mating side pieces, and transfer that tick mark to the end grain of the side pieces. Note: when you begin to make your biscuit joint cuts in step 6, you'll need to make sure the base of the biscuit joiner is always resting atop the end grain of the side and the face grain of the top and/or bottom pieces you're joining. In this way, the slots will line up. It's all about "reference surfaces" when it comes to making a cut like this. The tool needs to reference off the same plane on each part.
Step 6: Slot Your Top and Bottom Pieces: Set the biscuit joiner up so that it makes a slot in the center of your 1/2-in.-thick stock. Next, clamp your two top/bottom pieces down firmly, align the center reference mark on the fence of your biscuit joiner with the tick mark you made on your stock, and make the cut. I used #10 biscuits for this project-be sure to set the tool up for making that size slot. NOTE: It's generally a better idea to hold the tool using the black handle on top, and not at the fence assembly which is in front of the blade (like I'm doing here).
Step 7: Slot the Case Sides: In order for the case sides to connect with the top/bottom pieces with biscuits, you'll need to cut these slots in the face gace grain of the cabinet interior-side of the sides. This means that the bottom plate of the biscuit joiner will register atop the end grain of your case sides (see photo). Notice how I clamped the workpiece to the side of this bench. Not only does this set-up hold the piece firmly in place, the piece of wood it is clamped to, also acts to essentially "widen" the workpiece I'm cutting into, giving the biscuit joiner more real estate on which to rest. And notice the proper technique for holding the tool.
Step 8: Glue the Case Together: With all 8 biscuit slots cut, you can go ahead and assemble the basic case. Apply glue inside each biscuit slot as well as on the end grain of the top.bottom pieces. Next, insert your biscuits and clamp the assembly together. Don't apply glue to your biscuits. This will cause them to expand, making it very difficult to insert them into the slots. Finally, be sure to check that the case has been clamped up square before allowing it to dry. To do this, use a tape measure to verify that both diagonal measurements (from upper left of case down to lower right, and upper right of case down to lower left) are equal.
Step 9: Glue in the Shelf: Once the case is dry, you can get ready to glue in the shelf. Apply glue only to the first 3/4-in. and the last 3/4-in. of the each dado. You don't want to apply glue along the entire dado, as this will cause the wood to swell, making it difficult to slide the piece into place. The red circles in the accompanying photograph indicate where to apply.
Step 10: Glue in the Shelf: Now just slide your shelf into place and clamp it down. If the shelf fits a little tight (be sure to do a dry fit before glue-up), don't worry. You can use a rubber mallet to help nudge it down. Make sure the shel lines up flush with the OUTER faces of the case sides.
Step 11: Attach the Back: I opted for a 1/4-in. plywood back beside plywood doesn't expand or contract. If I were to attach a hardwood back in this case, it might very well expand enough in the summer humidity, to burst my case apart. I began by ripping a small plywood scrap to the exact width of the case back opening. Then, I squared up one end on the tablesaw (photo 1). Next, I aligned that square end with the bottom of my case and marked the other end (photo 2) for an exact cut (photo 3).
Step 12: Attach the Back: Apply a small amount of glue to the back edge of the shelf, top, and bottom, and nail the back into place. I used a pin nailer, but you can use a hammer and some very small brads. You don't need a ton of nails here, just a few to hold things in place.
Step 13: Measure and Cut the Face Frames: This cabinet has two face frame pieces that run along either side of the front. To cut these pieces accurately to size, begin by making a square cut on one end of each piece. This is referred to as "squaring up a piece." Next, lay the pieces down on the cabinet, align the square end flush with bottom of the cabinet, and mark the other end for a flush cut to the top.
Step 14: Mark for Face Frame Biscuits: Now with the face frame pieces resting in their respective positions, make tick marks along the edge of the frames, and down onto the case sides. You'll want to mark out for three biscuit slots.
Step 15: Cut Biscuit Slots: Cut the six biscuit slots in the edge grain of the case sides. Note: make sure you've got your cabinet firmly clamped down to your work surface.
Step 16: Cut Biscuit Slots: Cut the mating biscuit slots in the face frame pieces. Remember to rest the biscuit joiner atop the proper reference surface to be sure your slots line up correctly!
Step 17: Cut Your Hinge Mortises: Before you glue the face frames to the cabinet, you'll need to cut two mortises into the left face frame component for door mounting later on. To do this, I began by marking out the locations on the edge grain of the frame piece. I marked for one hinge to begin 2-in. down from the top of the cabinet, and the other, 2-in. up from the bottom of the cabinet. Be sure to make these marks precise.
Step 18: Rough Out the Hinge Mortise: To cut out the mortise, I simply nibbled away stock using my tablesaw and the miter gauge. The hinge mortise should only be as deep as one hinge leaf is thick. Of course, another even cleaner way to cut this mortise would be using a router and some stop blocks.
Step 19: Clean Up the Mortise: You'll notice that the tablesaw blade won't necessarily leave a perfectly flat bottom for the hinge mortise. This is because the teeth on a conventional combination (rip and crosscut) blade aren't actually flat. Rather, they are set out at slight angles. To clean up the ridges, I simply used a sanding block to level everything out. Just be careful to keep the mortise square. The poplar should sand easily, and quickly. Try using some 150 or 180-grit paper.
Step 20: Glue on the Face Frames: Now just apply glue to the face frame and the biscuit slots, insert biscuits as before, glue, and clamp. That's it. You've now constructed the basic cabinet assembly. In the next installment (look for it the week of August 15), we'll add the decorative top and bottom pieces, the arched piece that sweeps over the top, and we'll build and mount a door. Be sure to check back!