Designing and Building New Kitchen Cabinets

On Friday, October 1, 1993, I was talking on one of my ham radios when we got a phone call. I turned off the radio and TV to talk on the phone and when I finished, Kathy told me she could hear water running but couldn't determine where it was. We checked all the faucets, toilets, water heater, radiant heating, and even the outside sprinklers. We found no water running, yet we could definitely hear it running through pipes in the wall and floor.

I got out the stethoscope and began searching everywhere. I listened at every pipe, in the walls, in the concrete slab floor, and even in the exterior sprinkler pipes and the water main coming into the house. I could tell there was definitely something flowing in the wall between the kitchen and the living room. At the time, I decided the leak might actually be in the exterior sprinkler system, and maybe it sounded like it was in the wall because of some resonance or coupling between the pipes and the wooden frame.

Even thought it was then midnight and I had been searching for an hour, I went outside, turned on the twin 300 watt floodlights, and began disconnecting the sprinklers from the rest of the plumbing. After turning off the water main, I found I couldn't move at all the first two sprinkler pipe couplings that I tried. I did get the third coupling to move, but then I had another problem. Actually, then I had two new problems.

First, I found I didn't have any pipe fittings to cap off the disconnected sprinkler feed. I looked through a bag of spare sprinkler fittings that I hadn't used yet as the sprinkler was still incomplete. I found an adapter for a 3/4" threaded to non threaded pipe. Then I only needed a 3/4" cap. Naturally, the only one I had at that hour was already cemented to buried pipe. So, I dug up a length of that pipe and snipped off a section containing an end cap. After all, I was dismantling the sprinkler any way and could repair that pipe later.

So, I cemented the capped pipe section to the 3/4" threaded to non threaded adapter, connected the adapter to the feed pipe and turned the water main back on. That's when the second problem began. The house had some unusual water feed paths from the original owners. They had installed a water softener. Since it costs some amount of money to soften water, you don't want to use it to, say, irrigate the lawn. So they had rigged a set of pipes to guide softened water where you need it, such as to the bath tubs, and untreated water to, say, the sprinklers.

Of course, I had cut the wrong feed pipe, so when I turned on the water main, the other, still uncapped pipe end from my cut began gushing water. So I was back to needing to cap another pipe again. Again, I had to uncover a buried pipe, snip off a capped segment, and build a "Rube Goldberg" device to cap off the gushing pipe.

Finally, I turned the water main on and the sprinkler feeds no longer gushed or even leaked. Unfortunately, that did nothing to stop the original leak that we heard. At that point I turned off the water main and went to bed.

Saturday, I began calling leak detection outfits to see if anyone could help us. Most were closed. One did come out and suggested that the leak might actually be between the street feed pipe and where the main entered the house. I didn't tell him he was crazy to his face.

Well, it turned out that the leak was actually where I thought it was - below the concrete slab, underneath the wall, somewhere between the kitchen and the living room - though exactly where I couldn't tell. In fact, to repair the leak, several companies said they would need to jack hammer open the floor. This would destroy a section of wall, the kitchen cabinets, a section of concrete flooring, and, in my opinion, was likely to cause cracks in the copper pipes buried in the concrete which supplied the radiant heating to the house.

As luck would have it, I had begun designing and building a new set of kitchen cabinets, starting about a year before. The existing cabinets were about 30 years old and in poor shape. I offered a deal to the insurance company. If they would pay to replumb the cold water pipe over the house instead of attempting to repair the in-concrete pipe, I would pay to finish building and installing my own kitchen cabinets. Naturally, they jumped at the deal.

And so I was committed to actually finishing the cabinets.

The original cabinets had most of the flaws of commercial cabinets. There was a huge waste of space between drawers. The doors didn't open enough to give you complete access to shelves. The materials used did not have any resistance to water. Construction was of nails and staples. And, worst of all, there was very little consideration given in efficient use of space and usage patterns in the kitchen.

In my cabinets, I began by using 3/4" ABX plywood. This wood has good moisture resistance as it is intended for exterior use on a house. I also wanted every surface, hidden or otherwise, to be very easy to clean and not susceptible to stains and spills. So, I laminated Formica to both sides of the plywood. For the edges of the plywood, I laminated 3/16" thick strips of white oak. You'll see what I mean in just a minute.

I used actual joinery to build the units. Rabbets, mortises, tenons, and other joints were used to form an extremely strong box. Pieces were both glued with waterproof glue, and screwed together with stainless steel screws. The resulting units were extremely strong, very heavy, attractive, water proof, and easy to clean.

To make the maximum use of space, the whole design was "faceless" - there would be no wasted space to hold hinges and hide poor carpentry. I used European hinges for the doors with nearly 180 degrees swing so that all doors could open fully. Drawers were fabricated with metal sides with built in hinges. This allowed for a loss of only about 1/2" of space at the sides of drawers, rather than several inches loss with most commercial cabinets.

Let's see some of the construction and design. Click on any of the pictures below for a larger, jpeg version.

Here you see me leveling one of the base sections for the cabinets. This section will hold the sink, drawers, and the appliance cabinet. I ripped out the old wall between the kitchen and the living room to make it easier for the plumbers to cut off the old leaking pipe and to bring in new plumbing from over the roof. The old plywood walls were then replaced with the "green board" that you see. This provided some amount of water resistance and would serve as a foundation for the tile trim later.

With the base leveled, aligned, and glued to the floor, I began finishing work on the appliance cabinet. The power for the microwave and oven would come in through the hole you see me adjusting. Behind the cabinet to the right you can see the 220v power feed coming out of the green board. Besides adjusting the hole for the cable, I am installing the junction box were the power feed will connect to the appliances. To the left of the cabinet you can see the cutout left for the soil vent. This would be covered later by the base cabinet. The oak facing for the plywood would be added after all the cabinet parts were fitted together.

With help from our ever faithful friend Keith Gregg, I have fit the appliance cabinet in place, and also the adjoining sink cabinet and the cupboards above. The 2 by 4 you see below the cupboards is a temporary board to help me hold the very heavy cupboards while they are leveled and fitted to the appliance cabinet. Some of the base doors and all of the cupboard doors have been hung and aligned to make sure things are all going to work correctly before things are finally committed.

Kathy, who helped in the design, construction, and installation of everything, gives a well deserved "ta-da!" We were in a rush to get appliances hooked up by the end of the first day so that we could eat in and clean the dishes while we finished the detail work.

The stove and microwave are permanently in place, the dishwasher is installed to the left, and the rough surface for the counter top is in place. We hadn't made a final decision about counter top and sink at this point.

We finally decided to go with a Corian counter top. It was very pricey, but my total outlay for tools to build the cabinets, and materials, was trivial compared to what it would have cost to buy commercial cabinets that wouldn't be anywhere near as nice. I probably spent between $400 and $600 for materials (not including the appliances and counter tops), and about $1500 for tools - which included a Shop Smith multi purpose tool which was used to cut and join everything. And, I still had the tools to use when I was done.

Here you can see some of the oak trim around the doors and on the cabinet faces. Also note the European hinges which allow the faceless design and don't use much space inside of the cabinets. With these hinges, the doors are fitted so that there is only a 1/8" gap between them, as you can almost see in the previous picture.

Inside the cupboards, shelf racks allow adjusting shelves for maximum space usage.

The shelves themselves are cut from Melamine faced boards. Using formica laminated plywood would have made the shelves unnecessarily heavy and expensive. The Melamine surface is also durable and easy to clean.

Here you can see the detail of the rightmost drawer in the sink cabinet. Notice, again, the use of oak trim. The drawer sides are made from metal and have built-in sets of slides. The result is a drawer with very little lost space for the drawer carcass and slide mechanism.

The height of this drawer, and in fact all of the drawers, was determined ahead of time by measuring all the things which we had in the kitchen, and things we thought we might want to have. Then drawers were designed to accommodate everything.

To the left of the open knives, forks, etc. drawer is a cutlery drawer. Below the cutlery drawer is a drawer for trays, cooling racks, and other large flat objects. Below the open drawer is a cabinet with adjustable shelves for pots and pans.

You can also see the detail of the Corian counter top front. We contracted to have the counter tops made as working with Corian would have required purchasing even more tools and it would be very expensive to make beginner mistakes in the material. The front of the counter top includes a slice of gray granite looking material to match the Formica detail.

Here is a view of the pantry cabinet, to the left of the sink. Two sections of wire basket shelving allowed us plenty of options in storing different sized objects. Because we needed to allow some free space to the left and right of the wire shelving to accommodate the hinges (due to the length of wire shelves that we chose), we ended up being able to use that extra space to store cereal boxes and other such narrow items. We also had room to store a holder for the more frequently used spices on one of the doors.

Above the pantry is another multi shelf cupboard to hold miscellaneous items.

There is also a peninsula directly across from the sink. Originally, a wall existed where you now see an entry way at the right of the picture. That caused traffic problems, so I removed a section of that wall.

A Jenn-Air stove sits on the Corian counter top. Forced air is ducted from the stove to the roof via ductwork which is hidden in the wall between the stove and the refrigerator.

The open drawer again shows the metal side detail. As explained before, the drawer height was determined by measuring all the different things we needed to store in drawers. Thus these drawers are taller than the sink cabinet drawers. We can even store our toaster and other small appliances here, and several common grocery items fit well in these drawers.

The wall panels are of oak to match the trim detail of the cabinet.

On the hidden side of the peninsula are shelves built-in to the back of the cabinet and behind the refrigerator.

Finally, here is a shot showing more of the overall new cabinet assembly. With the new peninsula design, we had an opportunity to install a pot hanger from the ceiling. The large extra stove counter top allows us to store the bottled water dispenser in a handy place. Shelves visible in the stove cabinet hold cooking books, mixing bowls, and small appliances such as a large mixer and a bread maker. There was huge increase in available space over the original cabinets, and there is a much more useful traffic flow in the kitchen area.

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