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kitchen cabinets on the cheap

tuanj's picture

I've been back and forth about building my own vs. buying Woodmark at Home Depot but today, faced with poor finances, I've decided finally to build my own. Probably Shaker-style, solid maple doors, 3/4" ply throughout.

Can I get away with a good tablesaw (Rockwell) and a pocket jig kit (Kreg?) or do I absolutely need a joiner (if so, will a 6" do?) as well. Any advice appreciated.

AndyRey's picture

Depends on what kind of (post #169249, reply #1 of 15)

Depends on what kind of lumber you're buying.  The carcase is plywood so a table saw and the pocket jig are enough - I built a set of bookcases with just those, a drill and sander.

The solid maple is the problem - if you buy it rough (the cheapest way to get it) then you'll need to dimesion it.  You'll need a jointer and a planner for that.  A 6" jointer is plently big enough for face frames.  You can get away with not needing a planner if you buy S4S lumber but that stuf gets expensive.

The only way I could justify buying machinery is if I was going to use it on more that one project.  Having to buy tools and lumber are likely to push the cost way over what cheap pre-built cabinets cost.

tuanj's picture

thanks (post #169249, reply #2 of 15)

Thanks for that.

The truth is, I can't honestly foresee any other projects so buying an expensive piece of equipment seems a stretch. I do have to trim out doors and windows but that's not a prerequisite for that work. I guess I could find a shop and use a plainer/jointer for the day. I'm not wedded to maple, are there alternatives? I could paint the frames too, it could be popple.

If I do buy a planer/jointer, do you have a brand preference? I think Home Depot has a plainer/jointer for $500. Still a lot of clams for what I've got in mind. I've got Uncle Henry's here in Maine, they often have some deals.

Westchester's picture

Tuanj If you go with poplar (post #169249, reply #3 of 15)


If you go with poplar a hand plane will do the job - you'll save on the machinery cost and sharpen your hand skills.

When you say Planer/Joiner - do you mean a combo machine.  I would buy the planer before a joiner because good table saw work can provide decent edged boards for joining. 


AndyRey's picture

You should spend some time (post #169249, reply #4 of 15)

You should spend some time seeing if you can rent/borrow/steal some shop time from someone to do the project.  Here in my area there is a shop, "The Saw Dust Shop" where you can rent machine time by the hour or month.  Sometimes a shop onwer will let you rent time on their machines.  Also there are a number of wood working clubs and guildes whose members are often happy to rent/trade/lend shop time and even help on doing a project.  Look around you never know what there might be.  I've got a few projects around my house that I've done part or all of the work with some else's tools.

If you do buy something then I'd check out Powermatic and maybe the DeWalt planner.  Also look for on-line sources - sometimes you can get a deal there.  The first three I usauly check are Woodcraft, Rockler and Amazon.

You might also consider using a hand plane for jointing or looking into other methods with the tools you have.  A clever setup on a router table sometimes works as well as a new very sharp table saw blade with careful sanding.  You need to think about how accurate your edge really needs to be.

If you're willing to paint then poplar is a good choice - cheap, easy to machine. 

Red oak is another possiblity because the big box stores often carry S4S oak cheap and if you're willing to pick through their stacks you can often get pre-surfaced stuff that is okay for a face frame. But oak has it's problems with finishing and not everyone likes the look.

CedarGroves's picture

Definitely Build (post #169249, reply #5 of 15)

Both of these guys are giving great advice, and if you're on a budget then building your own is definitely the way to go. Pocket joinery and a dado set will get you across the finish line with some damn respectable cabinets too. 

You say you are looking for a Shaker-style and want to use maple - my question is are you looking for a pleasing woodgrain look or is paint ok? This affects your choice of wood because you can get that  Shaker look with painted poplar and plywood which is much cheaper. If you like the woodgrain, a quality lumber yard will stock prefinished Baltic Birch plywood which I love for carcases because if you're careful you can save a few steps finishing. 

The jointing and planing required for either choice can be accomplished fairly simply either by hand or machine. To joint by hand you would need a functioning #7 or #8 (read: tuned), a solid table or bench, and a sticking board consisting of a long plywood piece with a thin stop screwed to it for planing. You could also use your tablesaw with a sled clamped to the fence with the outfeed side being shimmed slightly thicker to account for kerf. Or you could pick up a planer/jointer combo machine, although thats expensive and as another already pointed out you might not get the best bang for your buck. Personally I feel you would be surprised how well a sharp block plane and #7 work. Or call in a favor from your brother-in-law etc. if you have that option.

You can also cut some nice coves for your door panels using the TS and some clamped guidebars - there was an article in FWW not too long ago but I forget the issue I apologize. 

What are you planning on doing for the countertops?



tuanj's picture

thanks (post #169249, reply #6 of 15)

Thanks to all who replied. Based on your collective comments, I'm inclined now to not buy any fancy machinery I don't absolutely need. Given the economy, I'm sure it's the right choice. So, I'm going to experiment with some of the techniques you gentlemen suggested. I've got an old Rockwell TS with a 3 horse, it's a decent saw and I should be able to make it work with a little jigging, plus some hand work. No brother-in-laws unfortunately.

I'm inclined to leave my frames natural. Ironically, the wood I'd like to leave natural is popple, it has some nice suble variations. Not sure how that weathers or what I'd use to finish it yet. My wainscot is "pickled white", maybe I can do something along those lines. I don't care for oak, it has a heaviness I'm trying to avoid. And I do like maple for that reason but I'll certainly eyeball some of the other blonder, cheaper woods for frame material. I'm not wedded to anything at this stage.

I'm still thinking about countertop. I like the 1/4" cement treatment; I also will install a section of butcher block. I'm nuts about verde pacifico granite but that would torpedo my cost savings, wouldn't it? Not too sustainable either. I guess I'm open to suggestions. Prefer an under-mount sink. There will be a tile backsplash over the length of the countertop.

The other thing I'm thinking of doing is stepping the whole unit out from the wall about 2". This will allow the horizontal stink pipe to run across the back of the units from the sink without cutting-and give me an extra 2" of countertop. I've superinsulated my walls with 1" rigid on the inside so I've got to stay out of the ext. wall.

Again, your comments are very helpful.


CedarGroves's picture

A good blade in that saw is (post #169249, reply #7 of 15)

A good blade in that saw is enough to handle all of the tasks we mentioned. Poplar is a good wood but one that I would only use when painted because of its tendency to yellow or green under finishes. Soft maple and ash would be a good choices for the face frames, with ash being relatively cheap (at least in my area) due to the Aisian Longhorn Beetle problem.

I have seen wonderful things done with colored concrete with results on par with granite, the only thing I don't like is how porous it is. You may end up having to reseal it and if a piece cracks there is no real good way to fix it. The texture and color combinations you can get are amazing though.

I happen to like formica quite a bit and I have used it on many projects - they have come a long way in terms of variety and quality of the material too. You can get a stone look cheaply and quickly and its durable too. Definitely a product to consider, it only needs a double 3/4 ply base.

Corian countertops are another consideration. Some of their models have shaped bowls in vatious designs for some interesting sink options. Very durable material. 

Remember if you're going to build the cabinets just build a chase into the base cabinets so you can rout the pipe - no need to hold the whole assembly out. Thats one of the nice things about making your own, you can do what you want. 



tuanj's picture

thanks (post #169249, reply #8 of 15)

Thanks again. Good to know about formica; I won't turn my nose up at it any more and may well end up using it.

I'll post some pics as the project progresses. Have a good fall.


TLROWLAND's picture

Hey tuanj.  I decided to do (post #169249, reply #9 of 15)

Hey tuanj.  I decided to do something similar a few years ago for the exact same reason.  That, and I just wasn't satisfied with the poor quality of the pre-made cabinets at the local home centers in my price range.  Judging by reading the comments here and responses to your post, I reckon you have not given up on using a good quality paint as the finish for your cabinets.

I've attached a PDF article you may find interesting for a kitchen idea that Norm Abram came up with that uses poplar, 3/8" MDF, and maple plywood for a beatiful and very cost-effective kitchen project.  This was what I used as a base-planning guide for a kitchen some years ago.  Although my wife and I ultimatley decided to just paint the cabinets we had due to selling our home, we used the same color scheme and it does look quite beautiful (Natural wood and white/off-white).

As far as the tools go, a good table saw will get you most of the way there for this one.  What I would do is get in touch with a local wood shop or wood mill.  Usually local cabinet shops in the area, or maybe stores like Woodcraft can get you in contact with a mill.  Poplar out here where I'm at (South East) is priced very well, and can usually be milled on one side for a small fee (and WILL be a lot cheaper than buying it at HD or Lowes).  This will give you a reference edge to use that you can take right to the table saw when you get home.  They should also be able to order you the plywood that you need, if it's not available at your local home store (where I live Lowes/HD only carry Oak and Birch Ply).

Hope all this helps!  Although I did not build the Kitchen, I have made doors this way, without the beaded moulding and they have turned out very nice.  And MDF and Poplar take paint very well.  Be sure to prime or use a glue-size on the mdf first.  Of course if you must have the stain look, a good quality gel stain with ply instead of mdf as the insert on your doors may be another design idea too, but that's another topic!  Take care bud,   -TL

Norms_Dream_Kitchen.pdf1.87 MB
tuanj's picture

I'm back to thank everyone (post #169249, reply #10 of 15)

I'm back to thank everyone again for all the good advice I received last fall about tooling up for my first cabinet project and materials to use for it. I was finally able to get a chunk of time to see the job through and thought I'd share a few pics now and a few later on when the drawers are finished and the countertop installed. My father who carpentered for 15 yrs before giving it up with a bad back, was my invaluable companion throughout; he had not built many cabinets but his instincts and memory for details (from his own projects in the 70s and 80s) were always a blessing. We fought of course and still do but I'm thankful I can always at the end of the day see his, er, finer qualities. Udo Schmidt's book was also very helpful and I would recommend it highly.

Plans sure do change ...
I was originally keen on maple for frames (and drawer fronts), I went with poplar and am really glad I did. Since my cases are poplar plywood and treated with a clear satin poly, I opted for a little contrast and decided to paint my frames; poplar is wonderful for painting, as people frequently note. I was sorry to be covering up some beautiful grain but I will show off some bare wood in the drawer faces when I get to them.

3/4" poplar plywood is avail at the Depot; I have not used either China or Baltic Birch so I have really nothing to compare it to but the veneer did seem a bit thin. No voids to speak of though and I was glad to have the "meat" of the 3/4 ply throughout. Maybe I overbuilt and lost a 1/4" but who cares? At any rate, 1/2" ply is more or less the same price as 3/4". My only regret is that I did not dig through the pile a bit because some of the sheets were just as pretty as my face frame stock. Not that it matters greatly because you'll never see much of the insides...

As you can see in the first pic, I stepped out my base from the wall about 2 1/2" to allow the sink stink pipe to pass behind everything. This obviated the need to let the pipe into the back of the cases and gives me extra width on the countertop (finished width will be about 29") ; case depth is still standard (I cut my side pieces 23 3/4").

I'm using 22" ,100 lb-rated, ball-bearing, full drawer slides, also from the Depot. I'm sure they're more than adequate for my deepest and heaviest drawer (10"X22"X31"). I did follow someone's advice and used larger ( #8) screws than those supplied by the slide manufacturer. My drawers are 3/4" poplar, with 1/2" bottoms.

The only tools I ended up using were the (basic model) Kreg pocket jig and my Rockwell table saw (with a table saw sled) and now a biscuit jointer. Aside from an initial snafu with the pocket jig-about which the less said the better (clue: blue shavings may be an indication that you have not set your depth guage correctly), I was pleasantly surprised at the nice tight joints that resulted.

I used Titebond glue and brads to affix the frames to the cases, pocket screws to put the frames together and glue and screws to do the cases.

My major expenses:

-(9) sets of drawer slides @ $17/pair

-(6) sheets of 3/4" X 4 X 8 poplar plywood @ $36/sheet

-(2) sheets of 3/4" X 5' X 8' MDF (for countertop) @ $36/sheet

-(1) sheet of 1/16" X 5' X 10" Formica laminate @ $95 (Lowe's)

-several hundred dollars of 1X4 and 1X6 poplar lumber (1X4= $1.04/ft)

Throw in a $200 sink with all the fittings and I'm probably in the $1000 range for everything. Not bad. Really glad I didn't buy the cabinets; there really is no satisfaction as great as doing something for yourself.

*Apologies for poor quality pics; somehow or other, the resolution got lost.

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Westchester's picture

Kitchen (post #169249, reply #11 of 15)

I look back at your first post in oct and it sounded like you were a new woodworker - man you've come a long way - some thanks to Dad I guess who always agrees with your determination. You can build me a kitchen anytime.  Yes the 3/4 was the way to go - I'd would have done the same -  ....... send more pictures !


tuanj's picture

amendment (post #169249, reply #12 of 15)

Dad and I did not agree on everything. Since he was free labor though, I always yielded to his inclinations. In practical terms this meant only that we ended up pocket-joining the drawer pieces instead of bisquit joining.

I should have also included in my total costs the corner cabinet hardware from Hafele and waste bin hardware from Rev-a-Shelf. These items were another $ make it $1500 for a total. Still way under low/middle-end Depot cabinets.

Westchester's picture

Costs (post #169249, reply #13 of 15)

Yea - like any Fathers + Sons ever agree !  Pricing wise:  I installed a kitchen in our home this past spring. Low end depot cabinets (in our price range + I didn't have the strenght to build my own) -  if I did the cabinet building - I'd need knee + back repalcement.  Anyway I purchased both uppers, lowers, and counters, custom drawer slides, sink, back splash glass tiles behind stove, new outlets, and one sheet of matching formica for the back splash over the counters - I spent $ 1500.00.  - my knees + back are still recovering.


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shuberts's picture

I wish you can check this (post #169249, reply #14 of 15)

I wish you can check this, this is the same store that I have gone and bought most of my furniture including doors.

leminhtien's picture

Download over 16,000 (post #169249, reply #15 of 15)

Download over 16,000 WOODWORKING PLANS at here Woodworking guide offers anyone of any skill level the ability to build amazing projects. The guide is extra helpful because it offers more detailed explanations, videos and blueprints then your typical woodworker magazine .
Hope it will help you next time !