Living Room Built-in Cabinets

This page is about the set of built-in cabinets I built for our living room. The purpose is to give others ideas for their own project and also to provide information on cabinet design & construction.

The finished product

Design

Our living room had one empty wall, a little over 12′ long. With no windows and only a cold air return, outlet, and thermostat, it was a good area to make more useful with cabinets.

The house only has 8′ ceilings so we wanted to use full-height. I had gotten this mostly not-useful book from the library about built-ins; while it provided zero construction advice it did at least have a lot of pretty pictures and ideas. Somewhere in there was a wall of cabinets roughly matching what I did, and I grabbed the idea of using a pre-fab butcher block counter top from this blog.

Advice: grab a stack of books from your library system, just search for “built in cabinets”. Mine has a range of good nuts & bolts construction books to photo books.

We went with a lower run of cabinets separated from upper bookshelves by a butcher block countertop. We painted them primarily because our simple ranch house “couldn’t handle” that much busyness. The right-most box has three drawers – it is closest to the hallway & dining room so it’s a great place for a junk drawer. Otherwise It’s just doors with adjustable shelves inside.

The cold air return presented a bit of a design challenge. I didn’t want to make the vent dimensions any smaller because there are only three returns in the whole system. That precluded putting in a toe kick vent, so I had to make the middle cabinet a bit different. I took that opportunity to make that box the same depth as the uppers, this breaks up the monotony of the long run.

Dimensions

Our living room isn’t terribly large so I didn’t want the cabinets dominating the space which is what I felt standard 24″ deep boxes would do. I wanted something with the same presence as bookshelves. The bottom boxes are 15-1/2″ deep with the upper shelves being 11-1/2″ deep. The bottom cabinets hold living room junk such as board games and spare batteries so they need not be super capacious.

To give some more visual variety there are three different box widths. The left two boxes are 24″ wide, the two surrounding the middle box are 18″ wide, while the right-hand drawer box is 15″ wide. The middle shelf filled the remainder of the space, about 37″. Each upper shelf cabinet is a mirror of its downstairs neighbor.

Butcher Block

I researched a number of options for the butcher block but ultimately went with a Floor & Decor cherry counter top. The 12′ x 25″ x 1.5″ top was only $340 and I was able to pick it up myself. Here are the other options I looked into, perhaps one of them will be more suitable for your project:

  • Perfect Plank – good pricing but shipping from CA is pricey
  • LL Flooring (née Lumber Liquidators) – similar pricing as Floor & Decor but the samples displayed in their store were pretty crappy; lots of glue gaps.
  • Custom Woodworkers – I spoke to a number of custom millwork shops who do butcher block tops but the pricing was quite high, as in over $1000. These would have been finished, but still not worth it for me.
  • DIY – nope. I don’t have enough clamps, don’t have the right router bit, and didn’t want to spend a month on the counter top.

In the end I am happy with the choice we made. There aren’t any gaps in the glue joints and the top was quite straight and square. BUT – I’d estimate that about 25% of the strips are maple, not cherry! They are clever with how they sneak them in, kind of looking like sapwood streaks. Given that the top was cheap and of otherwise good quality I just laughed it off.

I finished the top with Clear Wipe-On Polyurethane. I put on around 7-8 coats, or until I got a nice consistent glossiness. The top was ripped to width (25″ down to 18″) with a circular saw and shop-made straight-edge.

Cabinet Construction

Bob Lang’s The Complete Kitchen Cabinet Maker was my primary source for how to build the cabinets. For each construction decision to be made the author offers up one or more options with pros/cons of each. Face frame vs. frameless, inset vs overlay doors, dados vs pocket screws, etc. Here is the list of decisions I made:

  • Separate kick base
  • Face frames attached with dados. 1/4″ deep
  • Face frames assembled with dowels
  • Squaring the top: I went with corner blocks instead of strips
  • Overlaid doors

Bottom Cabinets. These are pretty standard face frame boxes; here are the parts:

  • Face frames – only the vertical pieces (stile) are dadoed.
  • Sides pieces:
    • Rabbeted on the bottom by 3/4+” to receive the 3/4″ bottom panel (a bit wider than 3/4″ in order that the boxes rest on their walls instead of unevenly on the bottom).
    • Rabbeted on the back by 1/2″ to receive the 1/4″ back panel. The extra 1/4″ is to allow for wall undulations
    • Both of these rabbets were sink about 7/16″ into the panel
  • Bottom panel – no rabbets but sized to fit in between the back panel and the face frame. Note that there is no mechanical joint between the bottom panel and face frame, just glue/nails
  • Back panel – a piece of 1/4″ plywood
  • Corner blocks – triangles of 3/4″ plywood which were glued/nailed into place. They keep the box square and provide a place to attach the counter top

Top Shelf Cabinets. These have an oddball design; no bottom because I wanted to maximize the amount of cherry counter top exposed to the world.

  • Face frames – same as bottoms just without a bottom rail
  • Side pieces – same as the bottoms but rabbeted on top instead
  • Back panel – same as bottoms
  • Top panel – same as bottoms

The side panels received 1/4″ adjustable shelf pin holes.

Assembly

I assembled the cabinets with PVA glue (Titebond Original) and 18 gauge brad nails. 1-1/4″ brads for everything going into 3/4″ plywood and 5/8″ brads for tacking on the back panels. The boxes seem quite strong, and given that they are in a living room won’t be abused as much as kitchen cabinets.

Installation

The kick bases were levelled across the room using a 6′ level, and brought into frontal alignment with string. They were then toe-nailed into place with 1″ brads.

The bottom cabinets were both screwed to the kick base and into wall studs.

Because the top cabinets do not have bottoms they needed to be positioned (read: muscled into square) while being installed. To do this I simply toe-nailed them with 1-1/4″ brad, and thankfully it worked out OK! I only nailed them along the front edge so that the counter top would be able to freely move. At the tops of the upper cabinets I secured them to the wall using toggle bolts.

Trim

There wasn’t a ton of trim to do with this project, and because I live in a 60s ranch matching the style of the existing trim is very simple. The “crown” molding is a piece of pre-primed MDF plus a 3/4″ quarter round. In retrospect I think a 3/4″ cove would have looked better.

Other than the ceiling trim I scribed filler pieces by the wall and support beam.

Paint

We chose to go with painted cabinets for 2/3 aesthetic reasons, 1/3 practical reasons. Aesthetically, our relatively small living room would have been visually dominated by stained cabinets. They occupy an entire wall. In addition the white paint allows the objects on the shelves to stand out more.

Practically, paint allowed me to more easily cover up my mistakes, and to use a variety of less-expensive materials for the project.

Photos

This is my photo dump of the process of building the boxes

Sketchup File

Here is my sketchup drawing (2017 Make version) of the project, it will show you how stuff fits together. I’d highly recommend the OpenCutList extension, it’s amazing.

Mistakes

While I thankfully didn’t make any huge mistakes on this project there were certainly a good list of smaller ones. I’ll try to list them out there. I’m going to predict that caulk and wood putty will be common themes in this section.

  • Too-deep face frame dados. I cut a set of 1/4″ deep dadoes at the 7/16″ setting… To remedy this I ripped thin filer strips (3/16″ wide) and glued them in the dado
  • Too many hinge cup holes. I had a stack of door stiles ready and drilled hinge cups into two extra stiles…. On the lathe I turned a 35mm-ish dowel and then on the bandsaw cut cookies off of it. After gluing they were planed flush with gaps wood-puttied to near perfection.
  • Large cabinet gap. I wound up with a good 1/4″ gap between the sunken middle cabinet and its deeper neighbor. For this one I used a length of backer rod and caulk to disguise the gap – no problemo
  • The bottom face of one of the upper shelf boxes just wasn’t very square… I got it securely fastened into place on the counter top but the gaps looked bad to my eye. A tidy bead of caulk fixed this right up.
  • Painting pre-finished plywood. For a good price, Menard’s had a quality pre-finished (as in stained/clear coated) 1/4″ plywood for about the same price as some warped junk. So I went with the flatter product but for some of the panels painted the pre-finished side.. mistake. Even with a scuff sanding the non-porous surface didn’t let the pain soak in and it scratches pretty easily. After I wised up to this fact I then painted the unfinished side of the plywood.

What have I left out?

If you have found this article useful and still have questions please don’t hesitate to drop me an email about your project. I enjoy woodworking and helping out others.