POPULAR WOODWORKING February 200354
Making built-in furnitureisnt tough. Ive seenlots of first-time wood-workers build bookshelves thatfit in the nooks by their fireplace.
But making built-ins that hugthe wall, sit level and are anchoredfirmly to the house requires a lit-tle more know-how.
Luckily, with a little planningand a few modifications to theplans of almost any cabinet, youcan make it a built-in. After try-ing different systems for makingbuilt-ins, this is the one that Iprefer. Its simple, rock-solid andalmost foolproof.
Cabinets in a Crooked HouseIf youve ever hung a cabinet orbuilt in a few shelves, youve prob-
ably noticed that your rooms arentall square and your walls arentall plumb. This is usually theresult of your house settling. Itsalso possible your framers or dry-wallers were sloppy.
Either way, dont build yourcabinets crooked to fit a catawum-pus corner or sloping wall. Alwaysbuild your projects square and adda couple features to allow themto fit in an irregular space. Thereare two tricks to accommodatingout-of-whack walls: oversized backrabbets and fitting strips.
Big Back RabbetsAll cabinets should have a backthat rests in rabbets in the sidesof the case. This ensure a tight fitbetween the back and sides. Withfreestanding furniture, if your backis 12"-thick, then the rabbets forthat back should be 12" wide. Thisis not so with built-ins.
You need to cut a rabbet thatis significantly wider. How wide?I usually make it between 114"and 112", depending on how outof kilter the wall is.
What this large rabbet does isit creates two long tongues on theback of your cabinet that can
Making a built-in is easy
once you understand
scribing, fitting strips and
French cleats. Heres a solid
lesson in all three.
by Christopher Schwarz
Comments or questions? Contact Chris at 513-531-2690 ext. 1407 firstname.lastname@example.org.
1/2" x 11/2"rabbetin sides of cabinet
3/4"x 1" fitting stripglued to side of cabinet
Biscuits press-fitinto slots (no glue)to hold fitting strip
Complex fitting stripPlan view
Simple fitting stripPlan view
Back Rabbet DetailPlan view
WEEKENDBOOKCASEYou can build the bookcase unit Iminstalling on the left using just onesheet of 34" plywood and one-halfsheet of 12" plywood.
Best of all, you can build thisunit in a weekend. I know, I know youve heard this story before(Chippendale Highboy in aWeekend!) but its true. I built thisbookcase in one day and finished itthe next. Weve included plans anda cut list later on in the article thatshow you exactly how to do it.
be scribed to fit almost any wall.Whats scribing? This is when
you cut the edge of the cabinetso it matches the shape of yourwall and fits tightly against it.Scribing isnt difficult, and Illshow you how I go about it later.
Fitting Strips, Scribe StilesFitting strips and scribe stilesare two other weapons in your ar-senal against the crooked wall.They are a lot like the large rab-bets on the backside of your cab-inet, except they help fit the sidesof your cabinet to a wall or to an-other adjacent cabinet.
If you are building and in-stalling a face frame cabinet, yourbest bet is incorporating a scribestile into your design. With thistechnique you make your face-frame stiles (the vertical piecesof the frame) wider so they ex-tend out over the sides of the cab-inet by 34". Cut a rabbet on thebackside of the stiles, which makesthem easier to scribe to fit, andyou then have a seamless wayof attaching your cabinets to wallsor to other cabinets.
If you are building a cabinetwithout a face frame then youshould turn to the fitting strip.
POPULAR WOODWORKING February 200356
There are a wide variety of cabinet levelers you can buy, but they all basically workthe same way. Many of them are adjustable at both the foot and from abovethrough an access hole you drill in the cabinets bottom.This feature is a hugeconvenience when leveling your cabinet on an uneven floor.
Fitting strips are attached to thecabinet sides and are cut to fitagainst a wall. Typically you cuta 45 angle on the backside of the34" x 1" fitting strip so when youscribe it there is a lot less mate-rial to cut away. There are a va-riety of different ways to attacha fitting strip to a case. Whatevermethod you use, avoid using metalfasteners because they could getin the way when you scribe andthen trim the fitting strip to size.
If the case is small, you cansimply glue the fitting strip to theside of the case. If the case is large,you should come up with an al-ternate plan. Its no fun turninga big case on its side, trimming alittle more and then setting itback up over and over again.
One solution is to glue a back-ing board to the cabinet behindthe fitting strip that is a little nar-rower. Then you attach the fit-ting strip to the backing boardusing several biscuits but no glue.This allows you to set the cabi-net against the wall, mark yourscribe, cut it and then put thecabinet in place. Then you finetune the fit by pulling the stripout for more trimming. See thedrawing on the previous page.
Attaching it to the WallThe other big issue when installinga built-in is how you actually at-tach it to the wall. There are anumber of ways to do it. Somepeople simply run some long screwsthrough the back and into thestuds. This works, but the screwheads are visible inside the cab-inet, and you must use really longscrews to reach into the studsacross your big back rabbet.
Another solution is to installa hanging strip inside your cab-inet. The hanging strip is usual-ly a piece of 34"-thick materialthat is about 3" wide and is nailedor biscuited between the sides right beneath the top. With thissystem, you attach the cabinet tothe wall through the hanging stripusing countersunk screws, whichyou can then plug to hide them.
The system I prefer uses aFrench cleat. It sounds compli-cated at first, but once you getit straight in your head youll seeit has some advantages.
The French cleat uses twocleats, each with one long edgebeveled at 45. One of the cleatsis screwed to the wall and theother is screwed to the back ofthe cabinet. The two 45 an-gles nest together, locking the
cabinet to the wall. This is a com-mon way to hang kitchen wallcabinets, but Ive found its greatfor hanging cabinets that go tothe floor, too. And Ive comeup with a method that makes iteasy to do. But before you can in-stall any cabinet, the first thingyou have to do is get it sittinglevel on the floor.
A Word About Cabinet BasesWhen building large cabinets, itsbest to build a separate base fromthe cabinet itself that is about 3"to 4" in height. You can then setthe base in place and level it usingwooden shims or leveler feet.Leveler feet are a piece of hard-ware that attaches to the insidecorners of your base and have feetthat screw up and down. You ad-just the feet until the base is leveland then set the cabinet on topof the base and move on to thesection on scribing.
With smaller cabinets, suchas the bookcase shown here, youcan skip the separate base and in-stall the leveler feet under thebottom shelf or use shims to levelthe entire cabinet. Either way,you must get the cabinet levelleft-to-right and front-to-backbefore you proceed.
Screw throughbottom cleatinto studs
cleat to cabinet
French cleat detailProfile view
ScribingScribing isnt difficult, but it re-quires practice. The first thing todo is take a look at your cabinet.If it is going in a corner, then youshould remove the big back rab-bet that goes into the corner itsonly going to get in the way ofscribing the other rabbet and thefitting strip (if you have one).
Now push the cabinet backagainst the wall or walls untilsome part of the cabinet meetsthe wall. Its time to mark a scribeline on your back rabbet. Get acompass that allows you to lockthe swinging arm. Using a ruler,find the biggest gap between yourwall and cabinet. Set the distancebetween the pencil and the pointof the compass to this distance.
Now trace the shape of thewall onto the back edge of thecabinet. Use the point of the com-pass to follow the wall and let thepencil draw that shape onto thecabinet. Keep the compass level.
In the photos, youll see I usea European-style scribing tool in-stead of a compass. This piece ofred plastic costs about $8 (ouch),but its a lot easier to handle thana compass. This scribing tool issold as the McGrath Scribe and
Once the cabinet is level front-to-back as well as left-to-right you can plug the holesyou drilled to access the leveler hardware. Many brands of levelers come with theirown plastic plugs, though a shop-made tapered wooden plug works just as well.
To set your scrib-ing tool, use aruler to find thebiggest gapbetween the backedge of yourcabinet side andthe wall. Set yourscribe to span thisdistance exactly.Now run thescribing tool upthe back edge ofyour cabinet being sure tomaintain contactwith both the walland cabinet. Thepencil will drawyour cut line onthe back edge ofthe cabinet side.
Many professionals use a belt sander to remove the material down to the scribeline. Belt sanders are a little too speedy for my tastes. I prefer to use a jigsaw to cutright up to the line and then clean up the cut with a block plane. Its still quick, andtheres little chance of obliterating your scribe line.
Profile Gauge, and it is availablefrom Diefenbacher Tools, 800-326-5316 or diefenbacher.com.Ask for item # 663-1000.