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Monday, February 17, 2014

Bathroom - How to build a tall medicine cabinet

It took me a few days and a couple of wasted plywood cuts to build my first medicine cabinet.  The second took one day.  I'm quite proud of them and as it turned out they were quite easy to make if you have the right tools (and make two .  I had a general idea of how to make them and a desire to learn how to work with new power tools!  So, here goes...

Warning: This is a VERY detailed set of instructions to accomplish what I did.  My guess is that it is not the only way, nor is it the best way.   I'm learning and appreciate any tips from someone who has experience working with wood.

Tools I used

Table Saw
Chop saw (Miter saw)

Biscuit joiner

  Clockwise:     Tape measure, Cutting plan, Wood glue,  Safety goggles, Speed square, #0 Biscuits, Pencil

Oh - add a drill to the list!

Materials for 2 medicine cabinets

  • 1 sheet of Oak Plywood 1/2 inch thick - 4 feet x 8 feet*
  • 1 sheet of Hard Board - 4 feet x 2 feet

  • 4  lengths of Solid Red Oak - 4 feet x 2 inches x 1/2 inch**

  • 2  cabinet doors

  • 4 hinges

  • 1 3/16 inch dowel - 4 feet long

* I may have been able to get away with a 4 x 4 sheet of plywood, but my initial cuts for the first cabinet I made taught me some lessons, so I needed a bit more.

** I bought 4 Solid Oak boards each 6 feet long, but learned I only needed 4 boards each 4 feet long

Start with a cutting plan

I laid out the items I plan to put into the cabinet to get a general idea of how many shelves to cut.  I used graph paper to draw out the 4 x 8 sheet of plywood and play with the layout of what needs to be cut.  This is not precise because I changed things as I learned along the way, but it should give you an idea of my planning process.  I do this before buying the material as well, because it will give you the sense of how much of the material is needed and what size to have your lumber store cut it so it will fit into your car.  They do simple cuts for free, so take advantage of the service, but double check their measurements at the store.  I found they did not account for the 1/8th inch size of the cutting blade so my wood ended up 1/8th inch short.  It was something I could live with this time. 

Here are the pieces you need to cut assuming you want a cabinet 6 inches deep, 43 inches tall, and 12 inches wide as I made:
Hint: Cut shelves after cabinet is built to get a more accurate measurement for height.  I ended up 1/8 off somehow.

Hard board and shelves not shown here
The dowel will be cut into 1 inch pieces later.  I plan to stain them before I cut them.  They will be used to support the shelves.

Cutting a dado

After cutting all pieces, you will need to cut a dado into the sides and top of the cabinet pieces.  This will be used to hold the hard board which will be the back of the cabinet.  The dado cut will be on the inside of the cabinet, so be sure to cut the correct side of the boards.

Here is how I created the dado cut.  I used the table saw setting the height of the blade to just half the height of the wood.  The plywood is 1/2 inch thick, so the blade was about 1/4 inch high.  I don't want to cut completely through the wood.  I only want to make a grove.  I had to make 2 passes, adjusting the fence a tiny bit over to widen the grove so that the hard board would fit easily, but snugly.

Setting the height of the blade
Set rip fence 3/8 inches from the blade

The end result
Test the fit to ensure the back fits properly into the groves and the sides and top align correctly.  On to the next power tool skill!

Joining pieces of wood

I had three choices as I saw it for deciding how to join the cabinet pieces together.  
  1. Kreg Jig - this was my Christmas gift!
  2. Dowels
  3. Biscuit joiner

Kreg Jig 

I really wanted to use the Kreg Jig, but my test cuts ended up splitting the wood.  Even though you should be able to use it on 1/2 inch thick wood it didn't work out for me.  The screws went too close to the end of the wood.


I actually used these for the first cabinet I made to put together the frame.  For this you need to use a drill to drill holes to fit your dowel pieces.  My dowel is 3/16 wide.  I eyeballed the size of the drill bit to be a tad bigger - so much for technical accuracy!  I used tape on the drill bit to ensure I did not drill too deeply.  Since I wanted my wood frame pieces to line up, I put some chalk on the dowels that were fit into the first piece then butted the two pieces together imprinting the chalk dots onto the other board showing me where to drill. 

Drill holes where you see the chalk dots
Joined pieces


This was my first time using the biscuit joiner I bought Don for a gift some time ago.  (Yes, I really bought it for him!)  

First, I needed to set the depth to accommodate the biscuit size I needed.  I needed #0; however, after some testing, I needed to adjust this, so I read the manual and was able to accomplish that.

I set the biscuits onto the wood to determine the center point.  I marked the center of each biscuit with a pencil mark
I transferred the same point to the piece I needed to join.  I used a speed square to ensure a straight line precisely perpendicular to the edge of the wood.
The biscuit joiner tool has a saw blade that will cut out a grove in the wood when you align the tool properly.  After some testing (HIGHLY Recommended), I found I needed to add a scrap piece of hard wood under the wood piece I wanted to cut, so that the blade fit nicely in the center of my 1/2 inch wood.
I lined up the center marking on the tool with my pencil mark and made the cuts.

These are the holes made by the biscuit joiner (left) into which you insert the biscuits (right).

Since I'm joining pieces that must be perpendicular to each other, I learned I needed to use the joiner on its end to cut the adjoining holes on the surface of the other piece of wood.

This required more testing to measure where to place the tool.  You need to have a scrap piece to butt the joiner up against and make sure it is square on the piece you are cutting.

Okay - this is not a tutorial on the precise use of the biscuit joiner, so I'll move on.

One of the main things I learned using this tool was to be sure you are not pushing in the blade before you pull the trigger.  This made quite a mess in the side of my cabinet, but luckily it is on a side that won't show.

Be sure to load up each biscuit hole with glue and wipe off the excess right away.  Join pieces together inserting the biscuit between the two pieces.  BUT WAIT!  Glue everything only after you do a complete dry fit of all the parts and after you drill holes for the shelves... next topic.

As promised...moving on:

Drilling holes for adjustable shelving

I wanted to have the ability to adjust my shelves so that it would accommodate a variety of bottle sizes and other items I'll store in my medicine/hair care cabinet!  I took a piece of plywood the same width as the side of my cabinet.  I marked off points every 2 inches starting 8 inches from the top of my cabinet side.  I did this about 1 inch from each end of the cabinet so that I end up with 2 marks for each shelve on one side of the cabinet.  Again, I used tape on my drill to ensure I didn't go all the way through the side of the cabinet.  I clamped this piece of wood to the side piece for the cabinet aligning the front edges.  The first time I drilled through these marks basically ended up providing me with a template for the other side of the cabinet.

Making a frame

I used the biscuit joiner on my 2nd cabinet to join the frame that will go on the face of the cabinet.  I used 2 pieces of solid oak which was 1.5 inches wide (that's the actual size you get when you purchase a 2 inch wide piece of wood!) for the long sides of the frame.  I used the plywood for the top and bottom of the frame because I really wanted 2 inches.  I needed the solid oak so that the side of the frame did not show the layers of wood that show on the side of plywood.  I would have used oak all the way around, but I wanted to ensure my door covered the opening, so using a 2 inch piece of plywood at the top and bottom gave me a bit more surface.  The top and bottom pieces of the frame won't show the sides of the plywood on the outside.  One problem that I'm willing to live with is that the plywood was a tad thicker than the solid oak.  I think a tad = 1/16th, so there you go!

Clamp the frame together and let it dry overnight.

Putting it all together

Before gluing all parts together, I fit them without glue to ensure it all worked.  Once glued, I clamped it together using some scrap wood to prevent the clamps from making marks, wiped off all the excess glue, then let it sit overnight.  I stained the cabinet and frame separately before joining them together and adding the doors and hinges. 
Back of cabinet and separate frame

The top of the cabinet is even with the top of the sides.  The top has the dado so the back board fits within the sides and top.  

The bottom is set two inches from the bottom so that it sits just at the top of the bottom frame board.  

Add 2 pieces of oak to provide for a strong piece of wood to mount the cabinet to the wall.

Stain first, then add 3 coats of polyurethane (sanding between coats if needed).  I put the frame onto the cabinet with glue and 1 inch brad nails directly into the face of the frame.  It just seemed simpler at this point to do this, then to use one of the joining methods described above.  

I would have loved to show you the final finished product, but I ran into a problem I did not account for.  The hinges I'm using are the ones I pulled off our kitchen cabinets several years ago.  They actually match the hinges that were on the bathroom cabinets.  When I attached the hinges I realized that the door would be off center to the cabinet frame.  I don't like off center!  So I learned how to use a new tool - the coping saw.  I needed to recess the hinges a bit.  Unfortunately I 'practiced' on my new cabinet frame and botched it.  I am waiting for the wood filler to dry before installing the door.  
Botched cut to recess the hinge

Added some wood filler to even out the cut.

Second cut is wavy, but much better.

Here is a look at the cabinet and door with the door propped up against the frame and on its side...

Who out there is hoping to do some cabinet building?  I know there is at least one of you!  I hope that you can pick up some tips from my project.  I did!  Practice makes perfect, but there is so much yet to do to get just one side of my bathroom done, so see you in two weeks.  I hope my counter top arrives and is cut to perfection. 

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