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Simple All-Purpose Shop Cabinets

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Simple All-Purpose Shop Cabinets

Organize your shop in a weekend, for less than $20 per cabinet!

By Jean Bartholome


Walk into a typical small cabinet shop, and you’re likely to find simple, functional cabinets made of inexpensive sheet goods. Not that these pros couldn’t make furniture-grade cabinets for their shop if they wanted, but when there are customers waiting and bills to pay, shop cabinets get built fast, cheap and solid.

These cabinets are right out of this tradition. They’re fast to build, so you can move on to building real furniture for your home. They’re sturdy and flexible, so you can adapt them to all sorts of storage needs, even heavy tools and hardware. And best of all, they’re cheap. All the material and hardware should be available at your local home center.

 

Multi-purpose cabinets

These basic cabinets can be used on the wall, on the floor, on wheels, backto- back—any way you want. As you can see, we used them as the foundation for several basic pieces of shop furniture. The drawers range in size from a bit more than 1-in. deep, for small tools, to almost 6-in. deep for heavy stuff. The drawer design is so simple you can easily modify the dimensions and customize the sizes.

You can also use these cabinets as outfeed support for your tablesaw. With a 3/4-in. top and casters or a base underneath, the total height of the cabinet will be 34 in., a common height for tablesaws.

 

Materials

We made our cabinets out of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) because it’s strong and inexpensive. MDF paints like a dream, but you could also use a clear finish or no finish at all on these cabinets.

Although MDF comes in 49-in. x 97-in. sheets, the cabinets are designed so you could also use fir or birch plywood in normal 4x8 sheets without changing any dimensions.

MDF is not a perfect material, however. It’s heavy, for one thing, so get help if you’re going to install these cabinets on a wall. Attach them very securely to studs using 3-in. drywall screws. The drawer unit should not be hung from a wall at all. It’s simply too heavy.

The other drawback to MDF is that it only holds screws well when they are correctly installed. The screws can’t be too close to an edge, or they’ll split the material (see Oops!, at right). You must drill good pilot and clearance holes (Fig. B) or the screws will snap or fail to hold. And finally, coarse-thread utility or deck screws will hold better than fine-thread drywall screws.

 

Oops!

 

Modifying the design

We have designed these cabinets so you get the most number of cabinets from the least amount of material. However, it is easy to modify the dimensions to suit your needs. You can put more shelves in the cabinets, more drawers in the drawer unit, or turn the drawers into trays. Don’t make the cabinets more than about 32-in. wide, however, because MDF sags under its own weight.

You may want to use a different material altogether. You could go upscale by choosing birch plywood with solid-wood edging. Or make the cabinets white and easy to clean with melamine-covered particleboard.

 

Tools and supplies

We’ve come up with a building process for these cabinets that makes handling the sheet material as easy as possible. The first step, whether you’re making one cabinet or a dozen, with drawers or without, is to rip each full sheet into three long pieces (see Cutting Diagrams, below) These more manageable pieces can then be crosscut and ripped narrower, as needed.

An easy way to crosscut sheet material accurately is with a crosscut sled on your tablesaw. You can build a full-featured sled, but we’ve included a simpler design here that’ll work just fine.

In the tool department, very little is required. You’ll need a tablesaw, a drill, four 18-in. capacity clamps and a quick-change driver/countersink attachment for your drill (Photo 3). In addition, because MDF is extremely dusty stuff to cut, we strongly recommend wearing a good dust mask and having a dust collector on your saw.

This is the kind of project where air tools excel, so if you can get your hands on them, you’ll save a lot of time. A brad nailer speeds up building the drawer boxes (Photo 8), and can eliminate clamps during assembly of the cabinets (Photo 4). A narrow crown stapler does a fast and effective job of holding the backs on the cabinets and the bottoms on the drawers.

 

Construction overview

The first thing to consider is how many and what type of cabinets you want. We suggest you build the basic shop cabinets in multiples of four or eight. This makes the most efficient use of your materials (see Cutting Diagrams).

The drawer units are best made in multiples of two. You’ll be able to make seven drawers in each cabinet with only one sheet of 1/4-in. plywood. If you’re only building four of the basic cabinets, there will be plenty of 1/4-in. plywood left over for additional drawers, but if you’re building eight, you’ll have to buy more. No matter how many drawers you make, one sheet of 1/2-in. plywood is plenty for two cabinets full of drawers, and a crosscut sled.


Building the cabinets

If you’re going to build the simple crosscut sled at right, the first thing to do is rip your 1/2-in. plywood into three strips: two 14-3/4- in. wide and one at 18-in. wide. Crosscut the 18-in. strip using a circular saw, a jig saw or a tablesaw. Then proceed with the building steps for the simple crosscut sled given at right.

The basic building steps for the cabinets are shown in Photos 3 through 11. Begin by ripping your MDF into 15-1/2-in.-wide strips. Then crosscut to give you the sides (A), the doors (E) and the tops and bottoms (B). Rip the shelves (D) to width and cut the nailers and cleats out of the remaining material. Check all the parts to be sure they’re square and that all parts of a given size are within 1/16-in. of each other.

The cabinet assembly process is pretty fail-safe, because you clamp the pieces together first to get all the edges lined up, and no glue is used. Even after you’ve screwed pieces together, they can be taken apart and redone if you’ve made a mistake.

 

Building the drawer units

The drawer units start with a case that’s the same as the basic cabinet, except it doesn’t have a door, shelf or nailer. With the cabinet boxes made, install the cleats that support the drawers (Photo 7). Build the drawer boxes next. Use glue on all the joints, because the nails aren’t enough on their own. Attach the drawer fronts (Photo 10), the pulls (Photo 11) and that’s it.

 

A Simple Crosscut Sled

This sled makes it much easier to accurately cut large pieces of sheet stock and pieces that are too wide and awkward for your miter gauge. With only three pieces, it shouldn’t take you more than an hour or so to build. We’ve included a simple stop, which makes it much easier to cut multiple parts to the same length.

Begin by cutting out the three pieces for the sled. Make sure the strip that goes into your miter gauge slot has a snugsliding fit. Screw the strip to the sled so the sled overhangs the tablesaw blade by about 1 in. and is square to the back edge of the sled. Attach the fence so it’s also square to the back edge of the sled. Screw the fence through the elongated slot, so it has a little adjustability. Run the sled through the saw to trim it even with the saw blade (Photo 1, below). Test cut a 12 to 16-in.-wide piece of plywood (Photo 2, below) and check the cut for square. Adjust the fence position until your cut is perfectly square. Fasten the fence permanently with a couple more screws.

The stop can be flipped out of the way for the first cut on a board, then flipped down and used for the final cut.

 

1. Build the sled wide enough so that your first cut trims off the end of the sled. That way, the end of the sled will line up perfectly with the blade.


2. Test for a perfect cut by cutting a wide piece of plywood, flipping one half over, and butting the pieces together. The edges should be perfectly straight.


Hardware


Utility Cabinets (4)


Drawer Units (2)


Cutting Diagrams


Fig. A: Shop Cabinet


Fig. B: Screw Holes


Fig. C: Drawer Unit


Fig. D: Simple Crosscut Sled


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker June 2001, issue #87.

Click any image to view a larger version.

Rolling shop carts are always handy. This one uses two cabinets, and is the same height as our tablesaw. You could also use four or six cabinets for a larger rolling assembly table or an outfeed table.


A rolling tool chest is made from two drawer units, with a top and casters. Because this chest will carry a lot of weight, reinforce the bottom with braces.


Support a workbench with two or three cabinets. This bench has a plinth to raise the cabinets up off the floor, and a top of MDF edged with hardwood.


A wide cabinet is easily made from one of the basic cabinets. Flip the cabinet sideways, cut a new, longer nailer, and use double doors in front.


A miter saw stand is built from four or six cabinets with a shorter box in the middle to support the saw. A narrower base ties all the units together and provides a toe space.


Make extras for the laundry room, garage, or wherever you need utility storage.


1. Rip the sheet material first, to get it to a manageable size. The MDF is heavy and produces tons of fine dust when cut, so have a helper and some dust control handy.


2. Crosscut the strips of MDF. A simple shop-made sled makes it easier to get accurate cuts on these large pieces, although you’ll need to support the far end. A hinged stop on the sled allows you to flip the stop up for the first cut, then flip it down for the final cut. The result: every piece is accurate and identical.


3. Join the top and the nailer with utility (drywall-type) screws and no glue. Clamp the pieces to get the alignment perfect, then drill the pilot hole and countersink. A quick-change unit and combination bit makes this operation go quickly.


4. Join the rest of the box the same way, using clamps to get parts aligned. These joints are plenty strong with just screws, so no messy glue cleanup is required. Plus, if you ever want to modify the cabinet, it will come apart neatly.


5. Attach cleats for the shelves, using a piece of scrap to align them. This may not be the prettiest shelf support in the world, but it’s strong, cheap and completely adjustable.


6. Hang the door from inside the cabinet. This is a pretty weird-looking way to do it, but it works great! Simply attach the hinges to the door, then clamp the door to the cabinet box so it’s aligned all the way around, and then screw the hinges to the inside of the cabinet. Finally, screw on the back of the cabinet.


7. Attach drawer cleats, using a spacer to get them square and the same distance from the bottom of the side. Start at the bottom, and as you move up the side, rip the spacer to a narrower width, as needed.


8. Drawer boxes are made from 1/2-in. plywood, held together with nails and glue. You can simply hammer them in, but a brad nailer makes this part of the project go much faster. The 1/4-in. plywood bottom is glued and nailed directly to the bottom of the drawer.


9. Drawer stops, one on the drawer and one on the cleat, prevent the drawers from falling onto your toes if they’re pulled out all the way. Remove the front stops if you prefer to be able to pull the drawer out to use as a tray.


10. Attach the drawer fronts to the drawer boxes while they’re in the cabinet. Use double-faced tape to hold each front in place, once you have it perfectly aligned.


11. Bolt on the pulls so they hold the drawer front to the drawer box securely. Center each handle on the drawer front.


Tip: Paint before you assemble. If you want to paint your cabinets, save yourself some work by painting the parts before assembly. The paint might get a little scuffed while you’re building, but all it’ll need is a final coat and some work on the screw holes.