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Behind my workbench at 360 Woodworking, I had a wall to fill. With storage in the shop being in short supply, I knew what I needed to build – shop cabinets. But I wasn’t interested in furniture-grade storage: My aim was a couple of “down and dirty” wall cabinets that would help keep my area clean and organized. To me, that meant inexpensive. And that had plywood written all over it. No plywood for the door and face frames. All that would be poplar. But the balance of the two cupboards would be from plywood.

A trip to my local home center store netted me a sheet of 3/4” birch veneer plywood (veneer core) and a matching piece of 1/4” thick stock for the backs and door panels. Poplar is available in many home centers across the country, but I have that in the shop. (If you need to purchase the face frame material, use whatever wood is inexpensive in your area.)

Breakdown Sheet Goods

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Making cuts on sheets of plywood is not a simple task – thick sheets are heavy and thin sheets are unwieldy. And both are difficult to hold tight to your fence.

Cutting plywood in the shop is not that easy when using a table saw. Whether you’re trying to rip the 4’ x 8’ sheets, or attempting to make a crosscut, hoisting a panel onto the saw and past the blade is difficult at best, especially if you want straight cuts – holding plywood tight to the fence as you move through the cut is challenging. There is a tool, however, that makes this task way easy. It’s a track saw.

You could simply rip the plywood with a circular saw, but I’m interested in tight connections and a clean look. I know I wouldn’t have that if I grabbed my saw and just started cutting. Track saws make breaking down plywood and other sheet-goods easy. It’s where most woodworkers come into contact with this relatively new woodworking tool setup that has a circular saw guided by channels, which keep the saw in line as it runs down a track. Set the track at the line and make the cut. There’s no holding the saw tight to a fence. It just glides along smooth as silk, and the resulting cut is dead straight.

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For perfect cuts when breaking down plywood, use a track saw. The True Trac system uses your circular saw mounted on a base that rides the rails.

I’ve used many of the different brands of track saws. I know the systems are costly, so when I learned about True Trac’s setup, which uses a plate that attaches to your circular saw to turn that saw into a track runner, I wanted to give it a whirl. I was not disappointed. It worked great, and at less than half the cost of other track saws.

Step one in breaking down the plywood was to do a layout or cut list for optimizing the panels. (My layout is included in the plans at the end of the article.) Because my aim was to be frugal, I disregarded grain direction when laying out my cuts – the only parts that have the grain oriented along the length of the part are the shelves, which are the first pieces cut from the 3/4”-thick sheet; wait until your cabinet is together before cutting the shelves to length.

After ripping the shelves from the plywood, it was all about crosscutting the remaining parts – this is where a track saw shines. Ultimately, cut four case sides and four pieces to make the tops and bottoms of the two cupboards. I suggest that you hold off on cutting the 1/4” plywood until you can get actual measurements from your work. (Learn more about True Trac here, and in the video below.)

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All my plywood parts were cut using a track saw. Time savings were huge, and the accuracy of the cut was greatly improved.

Tenons That Fit

Plywood is not the same thickness as it is called out to be. My 3/4”-thick sheet is not 3/4” in thickness. If I set my dado stack – a great way to cut dados in plywood – to 3/4”, the mating part would not be a snug fit. To compensate for this material deficiency, I set my dado stack around 5/8” thick.

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A dado stack is a great way to deal with plywood-thickness inconsistencies, but I use differently than you might expect. Once set, the depth of cut doesn’t change. With the help of a fence extension (right), I trimmed a plywood end as I dialed-in the perfect fit into my dado.

Yes, you could measure the thickness of your plywood and adjust your stack to that setting, but dealing with all the shims is tedious, and here’s the rub: Plywood thickness varies not only from sheet to sheet, it varies in thickness throughout the sheet. If you take the time to nail the setting for one part, chances are that setting would not result in a tight tenon as you fit the remaining parts. I, however, set the stack undersize and know that after I’m finished in my work I’ll have a snug fit to my dados.

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With the dado stack (leave the height set) and sacrificial fence already in place, it’s the perfect time to cut the 3/4”-wide rabbets for your backboards.

Raise the dado stack 1/4” above the table, and set the fence 2” to the far side of the stack. With the inside of the case side down to the saw’s table, make a pass at the two ends of all four sides.

With the dado stack set up in the saw, slip a sacrificial fence in place and slide the stack over to make cuts on the ends of the case tops and bottoms so that they fit tightly into the dados. The parts need to be vertical as they’re cut. Do not adjust the dado stack height. The space between the sacrificial fence and the dado stack should equal the exact thickness of the stack. Make the rabbets on each top and bottom panel.

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Adjustable shelf holes are easy to make with a simple shop jig and plunge router; one set for each shelf provides more than enough adjustment.

Another operation to complete while the dado stack is in place is to cut rabbets for the back of the cabinets. Again, do not adjust the height of the stack. The back rabbets are 3/4” even though the back itself is 1/4” plywood – you need room for the French cleats used to hang the cabinets.

I made the shelves inside the cabinets adjustable. The easiest method for that is to use shelf pins, and the easiest technique to cut holes for shelf pins is to use a router and a jig.

The 1/4”-diameter holes are spaced 1” on center, and there are five levels of adjustment. Each series of holes is spaced 1-1/2” from the front or back of the cabinet.

Half-lapped Face Frames

Mill the face frame material to thickness, length and width according to the cut list. The ends are connected using half-lap joinery, which is extremely strong if they are correctly cut. To keep the building process simple, all the face-frame parts are the same width.

When cutting the parts it’s important to remember that the stiles should run the full length of the cabinet from top to bottom, and the rails should appear to fit between the stiles when viewed from the front. This is less of a concern if you plan to paint these cabinets, which I do.

To begin, set your blade height to half your stock’s thickness, 3/8” for my cabinets. Your fence needs to be set to the width of the parts less a 1/8”, or the kerf of your saw blade. (Don’t get me started on thin-kerf blades; this is exactly why I stand by full-kerf saw blades – there’s just no way to easily calculate how to set the fence with a thin-kerf blade.)

Using your miter gauge and with the end of a face frame part tight to your fence, make a single pass to define the half-lap area. Make the cuts on each end of the rails and stiles, keeping the cuts on the same face for each part.

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The face frames are joined at the corners with half-lap joints. The first of two cuts is to define the half-lap. After your setup is tweaked, run the half-lap cuts on the rails. A tenon jig helps hold the work secure through the cut.

To complete the joinery, use a tenon jig to cut away half of the total thickness of each part. (This requires that your blade height be set to the overall width of the face frame parts.) To make sure you don’t over-cut the depth, cut all the stiles then test the fit of the half-lap using two stiles as a guide before making any rail cuts.

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The ends of two stiles positioned together indicates whether your setting is in need of adjustment, or is dialed-in just right.

If the joint is a true half-lap, make the balance of the cuts. If, however, your table saw work is slightly off, make an adjustment to the fence and tenon jig settings – move toward the blade to increase the overall thickness and away from the blade to decrease the thickness – before moving on. When you’ve dialed-in the perfect setup, finish the half-lap joinery.

Assembling the face frame can be tricky. The secret is to use clamps that are off the ends of the parts. Position the stiles on two long clamps so that the ends of the parts overhang the clamps. Add glue to the half-lap areas and slip the rails into place on top of the stiles. A second pair of clamps goes over the rails, but also off the ends. as you draw the four clamps snug, the corners are pulled tight in both directions. I used F-style clamps at each corner to guarantee good contact. Let the glue dry.

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Setting your clamps off the corners allows you to tighten the half-lap corners even if the fit is slightly off – F-style clamps are added for the best connection.

Assembly Required

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Glue in the dado and toe-nailed brads are a great connection that will stay together. Use a square to hold the parts at a 90° angle.

With the plywood parts and face frame cut and ready to go, we can now do a bit of assembly. You could drive screws through the cabinet sides and into the top and bottom pieces, but I’m intent on keeping the outside of the cabinets relatively clean. That means we need to use any mechanical fasteners inside, and for me that’s a 23-gauge pin.

For the plywood parts, toenail 1-1/4” pins through the top and bottom and into the sides. This is a hidden connection that also holds the case square. Add glue into the dado, install the top and/or bottom then drive the pins (two per joint) – a square helps to accurately position the pieces.

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If you keep your glue in the outside third of the plywood box, the majority of the squeeze-out is outside the cabinet, not dripping down the inside.

With the four plywood pieces assembled, flip the unit on its back. Add a thin bead of glue around the perimeter of the case keeping the bead on the outside third. (Most of the squeeze-out will be on the outside of the face frame instead of dripping down the interior of your cabinet.)

Position the frame to the cabinet, remembering that the rails run between the stiles. (If your orientation is not correct, simply flip the face frame over to get things right.) The face frame fits flush with the ends of the cabinet top and bottom, and overhangs the sides slightly. That makes it easy to hang multiple cabinets with the frame edges meeting.

Add a clamp to a top corner holding the frame in its exact position. Do the same at the second top corner. As you move to the bottom you can make small adjustments to get the case square to the frame – I check that my overhang is consistent from top to bottom. With everything set, add clamps at the bottom corners.

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To square your cabinet, use the face frame. Clamp the top corners, slide the box until you get an even reveal along the sides then secure the bottom corners.

Now that the cabinet is square, it’s important that you make sure the face frame is tight along each run. Position clamps wherever necessary and allow the glue to dry. You could use other connectors (nails, pegs or screws), but I don’t think they’re needed if you have a good glue joint.

Stub-tenon Doors

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You might think that a simple stub tenon lacks holding power. For shop cabinets, it has more than enough strength.

There are few doors that are easier to build than stub-tenon doors. There are board-and-batten doors and slab doors. But when rails, stiles and panels are in the mix, stub-tenon doors are the most elementary to build. A groove is cut into all the frame parts, and on the rails, a tenon is made to fit into the groove. A panel is installed as the assembly is made. Bingo, your door is complete.

To begin, mill the door rails and stiles to length, width and thickness according to the cut list. You could set up a dado stack, but I find it more than simple to cut a 1/4”-wide x 3/8”-deep groove in all the parts using my standard blade at my table saw. What’s important to keep the process simple is that the grooves be cut in the middle of the parts. And yes, it will take two passes with a standard blade and three with a thin-kerf blade. (Remember my dislike for thin-kerf blades!)

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Centered grooves in the door rails and stiles make the work on the tenons that much easier. Running both faces against the fence guarantees the groove is right.

To guarantee that the groove is centered, make one cut with each face of the parts toward the fence. You may need to adjust the fence setting a bit, but once you dial it in, it’s set for the entire grooving process.

With the grooves run in all door parts, set the stiles aside. The remaining work is only on the rails, and on them we need to form the tenons. To set the blade height, position a rail next to your blade and raise or lower the blade until the point of a carbide tooth just kisses the bottom edge of the established groove. It’s OK to be slightly below that height, too.

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When setting the depth of cut for the tenons, it’s OK to stay just short of the edge of the groove. With your fence set to form a 3/8”-long tenon, make a cut on each face of the door rail.

Next, slide the fence over so that you’re cutting a 3/8”-long tenon on the ends of the rails; that’s 3/8” from the fence to the far side of the blade. Using your miter gauge, hold the end of each rail tight to the fence and make a single pass over the blade. Flip the workpiece and make a second cut to define the tenons.

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Back to your tenon jig to cut the stub tenons. Make sure the fit is tight so you have good contact when glue is added.

To complete the tenons, use a tenon jig as was done when creating the half-lap joint, but this time remove the waste material on each side of the tenon, leaving it centered. (Arrange your setup so the waste piece is not trapped between the blade and the jig – it should fall freely away from the blade.)

Test-fit the door parts, but don’t use glue just yet. With the door assembled, measure the width and length for the 1/4” plywood panel that fits inside the door’s frame. (Don’t forget to add 2X the depth of the groove, or 3/4” to the exposed panel area.) Again, I turned to my track saw to make these cuts.

I’ve assembled stub-tenon doors in a couple of ways. The first is to assemble all the parts at once, which includes slipping the door panel into the mix. You add glue to the tenons and a bit in the grooves at the ends of the stiles, align the rails to one stile, install the panel and the second stile then add clamps. Set the door aside while the glue dries.

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Having problems keeping the door parts positioned? In a two-step assembly, you glue one end of the rails to a stile, let the glue dry, install your panel then add glue to the tenons and slip on the second stile. It doesn’t take a lot of pull from your clamps when using stub tenons. Two stretched from stile to stile across the rails does the job.

If you’re looking for a slightly less complicated method, make the assembly in two sections the first of which is to glue one tenon of each rail into the same stile. Position the second stile without any glue on the tenons or in the groove, and add clamps to square and hold the frame until the glue sets at only the two corners. In this scenario, during the second section of assembly you have only two joints to work. The frame stays together as you install the panel.

Wrap-up Work

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A portion of this High Molding router bit from Rockler gives me enough of a finger catch that I don’t need any pulls or knobs.

When my assembled doors came out of the clamps, I lightly sanded the faces cleaning up any squeeze-out and smoothing the surfaces. I decided that I did not want to worry about handles at this time, so I used a profile on the door edge that also provided an easy finger-catch. All four edges were shaped using the same router bit setup. And remember that the wider rails are the bottom rails as you hang the doors to the cabinets.

The hinges I used (from the resources listing) are of the self-closing style. They are inexpensive, easily found and simple to use. I placed a hinge just below or above the two rails, and drove in the three screws to hold it in position. I then positioned the door to the cabinet and marked where the hinges fit.

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The self-closing hinges used on my cabinets are hard working, easy to install and inexpensive – that goes along great with my plywood cabinets.

With the doors opened, I drove in the two screws that hold the hinge to the case. The screws fit into slots in the hinges so you can make slight up-and-down adjustments to the door positions after the cabinets are completed.

The plywood cabinet backs were installed next. Each back – one per cabinet – fits flush at the top and bottom of the cabinet, and is snug from side to side. A thin bead of glue around the perimeter supplies additional support for the brads used to secure the back to the case.

I plan to hang my cabinets to the wall using French cleats – I had scraps of 1/2”-thick plywood around the shop, but the cleats could just as easily been made from solid wood. Tilt the table saw blade to 45° and rip a 5” wide piece down the middle, or as close to the center as you can get. Half gets attached to the cabinet, and the other half attaches to the wall.

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The easiest way to hang cabinets is to use a French cleat. Half the necessary hanger attaches to the cabinet and the other half gets mounted to the wall.

The key to a French cleat, and the only way it works, is to have the beveled edges oriented so the two catch when slipped together. Make sure the part attached to the cabinet is correctly oriented. (3105.jpg)

The shelves for these cabinets were cut first from the 3/4” plywood. Each shelf needs to be cut to length so that they fit into the cabinet and rest on the pins – they do not cut tight to the two sides of the cabinets.

A 3/4” plywood shelf may not be strong enough for the many routers I plan to store. Plus, the raw edge of the plywood is not a good look. To cover those edges and to add support, a 1-1/4” wide strip of 3/4” solid wood is added to the front edge of each shelf. Apply glue to the shelf edge and to the back face of the edge material then slip the two pieces together keeping the ends aligned. Nails or brads are not necessary, but can be added to help keep the pieces lined up.

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For additional strength, a solid-wood shelf front was added. The extra piece keeps sagging at bay, and presents a nicer look compared to raw plywood.

I used a pair of pipe clamps to draw the four shelves tight as the glue dried. When out of the clamps, sand the shelf tops and front edges. Watch that you don’t sand through the first layer of the plywood.

Finish & Fit

My plan from the beginning was to paint these cabinets. If that were not the case, I would have worried more about grain orientation as I pulled parts from the plywood sheets. I decided to paint the cabinets black and the doors a nice barn red.

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My inexpensive cabinets needed a covering finish, so I chose milk paint. The cabinets are black and the doors are a barn red. I added a couple of coats of shellac for protection.

First, remove the hinges then lightly sand the cases and doors to clean up any errant marks and to rough the surface to better accept the milk paint. Mix the paint according to the directions and apply a coat of black – I use Arabian Nights from The Real Milk Paint Company. After the paint, sand the surfaces to remove any.

The same technique was used for the doors. I then added two coats of shellac over the entire cabinet for more protection. The hinges were installed and adjusted, and the cabinets were mounted to the wall.

If you need more storage, and who doesn’t, pick up a couple of sheets of plywood and knock out two cabinets over the weekend. At around $50 each, these cabinets are inexpensive and have tons of storage.

Being painted, they make an impression when you enter the shop. And, because they hang directly behind my bench, access is extremely handy. I expect to be much better organized in due time. Plus, you’ll get to see them in many of the forthcoming videos posted by 360 Woodworking.

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Two sheets of plywood (3/4″ and 1/4″) makes two cabinets – hang them in pairs or individually somewhere in your shop.

This article is also available in PDF format.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE PDF WITH EMBEDDED VIDEO (file size 279.9 MB – it’s a large file)

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD THE PDF WITHOUT EMBEDDED VIDEO (file size 11.4 MB – best for slow internet connections)


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