A guide to choosing the best way to design and build your cabinets.

From a rich history to the brink of an exciting future

Whether you are an amateur or a professional, wood working is a vast subject. It has been an integral part of every human culture and activity for many thousands of years. Our relationship with wood reveals one of our essential links to our real selves and nature.

I often wonder at this fascination for wood, the beauty and the strength of wood. A precious gift of nature to fuel our creativity and create a better world?

It’s amazing that wood is present in all aspects of our history and activities, from simple cooking utensils, through simple and less simple cabinetry to houses, boats, aeroplanes, and in the past ships and even machines of war.

teak boat deck

No other natural living material has been so involved so closely with human activity.

One of the most diverse uses of wood where the value of its natural beauty has always been a source of creative inspiration is of course cabinet and furniture making.

Over the last 50 years with the invention of modern sheet materials the art of cabinet making has undergone profound changes, both in cabinet design and technique. These changes have made the construction of home furniture accessible to the amateur wood worker and revolutionised the wood working profession.

Strangely, a modern revolution in wood working has been preparing itself for the last 50 years and has in my opinion not really started, well, until now.

The missing ingredient, the catalyst for the whole mixture to explode, is the generalisation of computer design and manufacturing methods.

As these become more accessible and affordable, there are huge opportunities for a much wider participation in our craft.

Wood Designer is our attempt to make this revolution a reality, and a profitable and positive experience for the amateur and professional wood worker alike.

Cabinet Basics

Before starting to design your project it’s important to have an overview of all the techniques and possibilities that you have at hand.

Provided in this guide is a non exhaustive list of the most common tools, techniques and materials that you should keep in mind when making design decisions.

Note that there is a vast amount of information on the internet concerning basic cabinet building, materials, and hardware. The main problem today is to sort through the information and choose the right solution for your project.

This is where our Wood Designer Forum can help you sort through and choose what will be the most well adapted materials, hardware and tools for your project.

So please don’t hesitate to post your questions on the forum, I’m sure that lots of people will benefit from your questions and the answers.

Cabinetry today can be divided into two categories:

  1. Traditional cabinetry and,
  2. Modern cabinetry

Both may use a mix of traditional and modern techniques and materials, but the priorities will differ.

cabinet design
traditional cabinet wardrobe design
fitted units cabinetry

Roughly speaking, when building traditional furniture, you’ll be looking to adapt modern tools and techniques to the way you want to build your project, whereas when building modern furniture, the structure and aspect of your piece will often be determined by the techniques and materials you choose.

Traditional design

Of course traditional furniture can be made in traditional ways, but you will find that using more modern tools and techniques will make your work easier and faster.

If you are a purist and have lots of time to build your project you might want to build with hand tools and solid wood. I can fully appreciate this option and would love to be able to take this approach myself, but I have found that using some modern tools and techniques can not only make life easier, but also more creative and enjoyable too.

Using modern technologies for traditional furniture

Software

Traditionally a cabinet maker would have to more or less follow these steps:

  • Make a first draft of a project
  • Sketch out the general volumes and dimensions by hand
  • Draft scaled plans of the main layouts
  • Draw scaled plans of the details
  • Make out a cutting list

According to the complexity of the project, for non standard designs, these tasks could take from a day up to several weeks.

The disadvantages of traditional drafting and design:

  • Tedious and time consuming
  • Difficult to maintain coherence between the different drawings and cutting lists
  • Error prone
  • Difficult to make modifications

Today modern software can make this task much easier and less error prone.

You have several different types of design software to choose from.

Here’s a short list to consider.

Polyboard

Polyboard is mainly designed for building cabinets and furniture from modern sheet materials, so you might ask why use it for traditional solid wood working?

Polyboard kitchen cabinet project

Well, it depends on your project.

If you are building a rocking chair Polyboard or any other cabinet software will be of no help at all. On the other hand, if you want to build a standard cupboard with solid wood framed sides and doors you will find Polyboard a very good way of setting out your project.

Here’s an example of a cupboard built with traditional framed panels in Polyboard.

Polyboard cabinet design

Although Polyboard will not draw all the details, you can get a good 3D view of the general volumes, drawings of each part and cutting lists in a matter of minutes.

On top of this your model remains perfectly parametric so changing specifications, sizes and recalculating all the parts and drawings is instantaneous and error free!

Here’s the same cabinet redimensioned and set up with a door and drawers in under 5 minutes.

Polyboard cabinet design edit

With Polyboard, all the drawing and cutting lists are updated dynamically.

On the other hand, if your project is more complex, with intricate mouldings and traditional assembly details, I would suggest that you draft your plans with a standard CAD program.

Note however that it’s possible to set up fake detailing in Polyboard by applying images to flat panels. When the general shapes of the project lend themselves to Polyboard type construction this is a good way to get a good presentation of the project:

cabinet design detailing in polyboard
2D CAD (Computer Aided Design)

Using standard CAD programs like AutoCad, DraftSight, SolidWorks and so on are a great way to draw any wood working project.

Although much slower than using cabinet design software like Polyboard, these programs are like electronic drawing boards and you can draw practically all the detailing you need for any project.

Of course one of the disadvantages compared with cabinet software is the time factor. A simple project in Polyboard will take 30 minutes, but with standard CAD, you could spend a good day or more designing the same project.

CAD drawing a project will be as time consuming as doing it by hand, but you’ll find that inevitable design modifications will be much easier to do than with manual drafting.

The other great disadvantage of both CAD and manual drafting is the difficulty in creating accurate cutting lists and maintaining them as the design evolves.

Note that although modern CAD programs claim to be 3D, I would not advise creating anything other than simple 3D volumes with programs like AutoCad.

CAD is great for drafting dimensioned plans in 2D. 3D is another subject all together.

For quick 3D presentations of traditional furniture projects, I would suggest you look at something like SketchUp. More on that next.

CAD is great for drafting plans and the technical drawing of woodwork projects but not so great for 3D presentations.

SketchUp is a 3D CAD tool that’s the opposite, great for quick 3D mock ups, less good at detailed 2D drawings.

For traditional furniture, SketchUp can be a good tool to set up a 3D view and if you have the time you can also get dimensioned drawings.

On the other hand if your main objective is just to get working plans I would suggest you use a 2D CAD program like DraftSight or nanoCAD. These compare very well for 2D drawing with programs like AutoCAD.

Modern power tools

From software to tools.

Today most wood workers would not think twice about using power tools. If you are making traditional furniture, modern tools will take a lot of the grind out of an otherwise slow and painstaking task.

Today portable power tools have been invented for almost every task that before was done exclusively by hand.

Mass production and the spread of the DIY and hobbyist markets have pushed down the cost of a good quality tools to very reasonable prices, and even part time amateurs should find it worthwhile to be equipped with a few electrical power tools.

Using modern materials in traditional wood work

Although it’s possible to use only solid wood for traditional furniture, you can save a lot of time and often expense by using modern sheet materials for some parts.

When to use sheet materials

Consider using manufactured panels when parts are not seen or when they are surrounded by a solid wood frame or edging.

You will not only find this faster to build but the dimensional stability of the panel will make wide boards easier to manage and avoid problems arising due to shrinkage.

Typically these parts would be:

  • Panels framed in solid wood
  • Work tops that have solid edging
  • Inner shelves and separations
  • Tops and bottoms

Modern design

If your project is building modern cabinets or furniture you have lots of choice, tools and methods to choose from.

The advantages of using cabinet software, modern tools and material quickly become evident. Even an inexperienced amateur can produce beautiful and functional cabinets with minimum time and investment.

When building modern furniture, it’s a good idea to do the opposite to building traditional cabinetry and adapt the way you build the project to modern tools and techniques.

Using solid wood in modern design

Mainly built of manufactured panels, modern designs can be embellished and sometimes made more functional and robust by building certain parts in solid wood.

When to use solid wood

Consider using solid wood when:

  • You want a particular decorative effect, like mouldings, raised panels etc.
  • A part will receive particularly hard wear and tear, like worktops, edging etc.
  • A part has a structural function, like table legs, beds, ladders etc.

Modern assembly techniques

The important things to keep in mind when designing modern furniture are the modern options for assembly and hardware.

Here’s a quick run down of the different methods you can choose from.

Screws

The simplest and fasted way to assemble a cabinet is to screw it together.

screw hardware cabinet

This method requires no special tools and using only a simple electric drill you can assemble cabinets quickly and precisely.

Count on using 4mm screws with a length 3x the thickness of board you are drilling through.

The key disadvantages of this method are that the screw heads are visible on the side of the cabinet, and you will be screwing into the end of a panel so care must be taken not to split it.

cabinet carcass screws visible
Pocket screws

Pocket screws are a great invention for quick and strong assembly of two parts. Used widely by professionals and amateurs, they come in handy in a variety of situations, notably when you don’t want the screw heads to show on the side of cabinet.

pocket screw jig
Kreg R3 Jr. Pocket Hole Jig System

As well as a drill, to make a pocket screw joint you’ll need a special pocket screw jig and drill bit. Pocket screws are also very useful for assembling and attaching face frames.

face frame with pocket screws
Dowels

If you need the joints to be perfectly clean without any visible holes or screws, a great way to do it is using dowels. Dowels are readily available, cheap and make for a very strong joint.

dowel assembly

They can be used to join boards and solid parts and can replace a traditional tenon and mortise joint.

To make a dowelled joint you’ll need a standard electric drill and a dowel jig. Dowel jigs are usually quite cheap and well worth the investment if you regularly make cabinets.

There are a variety of jigs on the market or you can make your own. The disadvantages of dowels over a screwed joint is that you have to glue and clamp the parts together while the glue sets. Dismounting the parts then becomes impossible.

dowel jig
Wolfcraft 3751405 Pro Doweling Jig Kit
Biscuits

Biscuits are oval shaped pieces of compressed wood that fit into custom machined slots. Once mastered biscuits are much faster to machine than dowels, but you have to invest in a specialised machine called a biscuit or plate joiner.

biscuits

Like doweled joints, the parts will need gluing and clamping and cannot be disassembled.

biscuit joiner
DEWALT DW682K 6.5 Amp Plate Joiner
Cams

Sometimes it’s convenient to be able to assemble and disassemble cabinets. In this case, you can use cams to join the boards.

cam assembly

Most industrially made cabinets use a cam system that facilitates transportation as flat packed panels and requires only a screw driver to assemble the cabinets on site.

Like screws and pocket screws, cam systems do not require gluing and clamping.

cam system in cabinet manufacture
Hinges and drawer runners

Today’s hardware manufacturers offer a vast range of hinges and drawer runners as well as complete doors and drawer interiors that are ready to assemble to your furniture.

hinge

Installing these elements requires drilling holes into your cabinets at the exact positions specified by the manufacturer.

drawer sliders

Fitted Cabinets

When you have to make cabinets or indeed other furniture that needs to be fitted into existing spaces, between walls, other cabinets, under stairs, roofs or in tight spaces there are some special considerations you must be taken into account.

First of all it’s important to have the exact sizes of the space available and secondly, it’s important to design your cabinets so that they have enough play to make installation easy.

Adjusting the size of a complex assembled unit that’s been made only a few millimetres too big for a tight space can be a real nightmare.

Taking on site sizes

As with all aspects of wood working a planned systematic approach to taking on site sizes will save a lot of time and error. Although usually far easier than taking sizes for stair projects, taking sizes for fitted cabinets can also get quite complicated.

Measuring tools

Here’s a list of the tools you’ll need for taking on site measurements.

Meter rule or tape

Use a good quality tape measure.

tape measure

A laser meter is a great measuring tool if you can afford it.

laser meter
laser meter in operation
Bosch GLR225 Laser Distance Measurer
Spirit level

Use a high quality spirit level that you know is accurate.

Digi-Pas DWL-200 Torpedo Digital Level
beam level
Stanley 42-480 48-Inch Professional I-Beam Level
Adjustable square

To measure and verify wall angles.

For most projects a carpenter’s square or sliding bevel can be enough for measuring angles. But if your project has strange angled walls an adjustable square or better still a digital protractor will be indispensible.

adjustable square
Adjustable square
laser square
Bosch GTL2 Laser Square
digital angle finder
Bosch DAF220K Miter Finder Digital Angle Finder
Graph paper and pencil

It’s best to draw as neatly and precisely as possible. It’s not always possible to draw to scale or even draw with a ruler but at the very least use graph paper and try to get approximate proportions right.

graph paper and pencil

A clear well proportioned plan will make designing easier and more pleasurable. To draw neat straight lines without using a ruler try this on site/workshop drawing pack.

The measuring plan

1. Sketch out a rough plan and add the real dimensions

Start with a dimensioned plan of the space. Try to draw with a ruler on graph paper to get approximately the right proportions.

Label or name each wall section.

2. Check that wall angles are square

Measure or check that all the walls are square or at known angles.

3. Sketch out an elevation of each wall panel

Draw the elevation of each wall with its name or label on separate sheets of paper.

Mark and measure any specifics: windows, doors, ceiling heights, joists, and so on.

Mark out the adjacent walls as sections.

4. Check that walls are plumb

Check the plumb of each wall and mark out the slope of the wall in the wall section on the appropriate elevation.

5. Check that flooring is level

Use a level to verify the floor and ceiling are not sloping.

6. Take photos

If the situation is in any way complex take lots of photos.

Allowing for play

There is one golden rule

Never try to make a fitted cabinet the exact size between the walls. Always leave at least 10mm play and add a filler if necessary. If walls are irregular leave much more.

Design of aesthetic fillers to meet walls can be an art in itself. In all cases more play is better than less.

Setting out the general volumes

With the on site sizes and photos to hand you are ready to start designing your project.

If you are building a fitted cabinet it’s a good idea to draw an exact scale drawing of the available space and set up approximate volumes before you get into designing details.

This can be done by hand or using a CAD system like AutoCAD or directly in 3D using a program like SketchUp.

But for most projects the best solution is simply to use Polyboard in ‘Project Mode’.

Conclusion

Once you have done all this work you’ll be ready to start the real design of your cabinets or other furniture project. As with all things in life the foundations will be holding up the rest of the edifice.

So with wood working, a well prepared project will go smoother, faster, be cheaper to make, give you more pleasure and in the end create a more beautiful result.

If you feel it’s right for your project, please be sure to download Polyboard and get started with your design. Register for free here to do that. All design features are available in the free version, only the manufacturing output is locked (cut list, plans and CNC files).

If you’re a professional you may go on to buy Polyboard to unlock that output. If you’re an amateur woodworker, we have a subscription service where we send you the output, so you can use this pro software without buying.

Happy woodworking,

Ness Tillson

    1 Response to "Cabinet design preliminaries"

    • Peter Brown

      Well thought out article, Ness
      Cheers
      Peter

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