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How to Build Your Own Kitchen Cabinets – The Ultimate Guide

When it comes to remodeling on a budget, most homeowners automatically think of the do-it-yourself kitchen cabinets approach. It’s not like you have to start completely from scratch — there are standardized sizes used throughout the industry that are appropriate for almost all kitchens, so that’s some guesswork out of the way. In general, building a classic set of kitchen cabinets implies constructing base and upper cabinets that are about thirty inches high. The principle behind this is that you have sufficient space between the base and wall cabinets and you can make the best out of the available distance to the ceiling.

But you have many more factors to consider other than size, and it’s not that simple to build your own kitchen cabinets. The quality of your materials, the skill of your craftsmanship, and your grasp of proper design techniques all come into play. Building cabinets from scratch might seem like a breeze, but it’s actually an incredibly precise science. The time that it takes to design and build a cabinet out of nothing can take a large chunk out of your life, and even then there’s no guarantee that it will come together right. It can be very easy to turn your project into a pile of scraps of wood and hinges, and then you’ll be even worse off than before.

So what’s the solution? Let’s take a look at the best way to build your own kitchen cabinets.

Should You Build Your Own Kitchen Cabinets?

Let’s face it: top-quality cabinetry is not cheap. The primary reason to build your own kitchen cabinets is to save money. It is important to note that the DIY method is cost-efficient, and can be a good idea for those that already have the necessary tools and knowledge for the job. If this describes you, you only need to invest in the materials and purchase the blueprints.

However, carpentry is a skill acquired through intense work and practice, usually over the course of years. It’s not something you can learn by reading an article. Experience is only gained through hands-on tenacity, success, and failure. And when it comes to cabinets, the process is so much more than just gluing pieces of wood into a rectangular box — cabinetry needs to be strong enough to support the weight of everything you keep inside it while maintaining its shape without warping, and durable enough to withstand the rigors of daily kitchen use. This is why the highest-quality cabinets come at a price: because quality matters.

If you’re not that good with tools, or if you do not have a lot of free time on your hands, a more feasible alternative of getting new kitchen cabinets on a budget is to go for ready-to-assemble (RTA) cabinets. RTA kitchen cabinets come with all the necessary pieces pre-cut, so you won’t have to handle that part yourself. The hardware you need (such as hinges) also comes in the package. All that falls to you is to put them together and install them.

Perhaps the best thing about the RTA cabinet system is that you don’t need to worry about whether you’ve cut the lumber properly, if you have the right tools, or even if you’ve designed the cabinet correctly to begin with. In addition, most RTA cabinet kits offer the freedom for you to customize the cabinets according to your needs, such as by choosing a slightly different cabinet depth, and the kit you receive will be put together according to your specifications. (In this way, you have even more of a hand in building the cabinets yourself!)

That’s why we recommend RTA cabinets for every DIY project, unless you’re already a skilled carpenter with the necessary tools and experience. With RTA cabinets, all the technical carpentry has been done for you ahead of time, leaving you with a cabinet-building process that is well within the reach of the average person. You’ll still have fun and gain some valuable experience, and you’ll also save tons of time, money, and headaches over trying to build cabinets yourself from scratch. You can use the time you saved to make other decisions about your kitchen, like figuring out which cabinets would look best in your home!

Before You Start

In this article, we’re focusing on the process of building the cabinets themselves, so we’re not going to discuss any of the preliminary tasks such as measuring your kitchen and choosing the cabinets you want. If you’re not at this point yet, take a look at our Kitchen Design Help guide to learn how to take those first crucial steps. When you’ve finalized your cabinet selections and the RTA packs are on their way to you, you’re ready to continue with the instructions in this article.

Prepare to Build Your Own Kitchen Cabinets: What You Need

It’s best to have your tools and work area ready before you receive the RTA kit, and to be aware of the time restrictions involved in a job like this. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A work area. A smooth, flat location is highly recommended, and we suggest covering the area with an 8-foot by 8-foot white drop cloth to make it easier to see everything as you lay out the parts. (This will also help protect the surface.)

  • Tools. You can rent or buy them in many locations such as hardware stores. We suggest:

    • A no.2 Phillips screwdriver

    • A white rubber mallet

    • Titebond II glue

    • A compressor capable of a minimum of 80 PSI

    • 3/4-inch brads

    • An 18-gauge brad nailer

  • Time. Allow yourself enough time to build the cabinets that you don’t feel rushed into possibly making mistakes. Each cabinet will also need 12 hours for the glue to set before installation. Installing them early can weaken them, so be aware of this 12-hour setting time as a hard limit.

  • Our Cabinet Guidelines for Assembly. This is a PDF guide fully illustrated with photographs that demonstrate how to do every step of the cabinet-building project, and the right order in which to do them! You are almost certainly going to want to print it out — it’s only 7 pages, so spend a little extra ink to get a good full-color print. We recommend putting the pages into plastic sheet protectors and binding them together in a folder to keep the guide safe in your work area, but that is optional. You can just staple it to ensure the pages stay in order.

When the RTA packs arrive, make sure everything looks good before going any further. You’ll need to do a quick inspection before your shipping carrier leaves after making the delivery.

Inspecting Your RTA Kits

It’s extremely important to inspect your RTA kits for any visible damage before the carrier departs. If any damage has occurred during shipping, you’ll need to immediately notify the store you purchased the RTA kits from, otherwise you may not be able to get a replacement.

Check the packing document and compare the listed items by SKU to make sure everything has made it through shipping. If there’s any damage or missing items, write notes on the Bill of Lading (BOL) describing the issue. Notations of damage should reference in detail issues like crushed or torn boxes, holes, weather damage, lost items, etc. and should be as thorough as possible. Take pictures with your camera or phone as well. This will allow a claim against the shipping carrier to be processed. For example, Online Cabinets Direct requires you to email or fax a copy of your notated BOL so we can start the claims process and replace any lost or damaged products, and may ask for pictures of the damage.

Once you’re sure your RTA packs have arrived in perfect condition, and you have everything else you need, you can get started building.

Building Your Own Kitchen Cabinets

The first step is to make sure your assembly area is organized, and the most important thing here is to ensure you know which boxes have parts for which cabinet. To prevent damage, all the components for a single cabinet are not necessarily packaged together. Online Cabinets Direct packages the cabinet face frame, door, and some other parts (depending on the cabinet) separately from the shelves and the side, top, bottom, and back panels. You can tell which boxes go together by checking their SKUs. You can see an example of matching SKUs in our Cabinet Guidelines for Assembly.

In fact, if you haven’t downloaded the guide yet, now is the time to do so. The rest of this article is by necessity a summary of the guide, and you should refer to the PDF for greater detail and photos of the process.

Steps to Build a Kitchen Cabinet: In Brief

It’s vital that you follow all assembly steps in the correct order and have a good idea of what you’re doing before you start. You will put the cabinet pieces together in sequence. Note that some of the steps may refer to parts your particular cabinet doesn’t have (like drawers), so you can obviously skip the steps that don’t apply at the moment.

If you’re new at this, remember to give yourself time to learn. Another tip is that the first brads you pin into the wood should be ones that will be out of sight, so they can afford to look a bit imperfect as long as they do their job.

  1. Apply glue to face frame. Make sure there is no sawdust or other carpentry debris in the dadoes and then apply a continuous line of glue inside. Escaping glue can be wiped away.

  2. Apply glue to side panels the same way you did the face frame.

  3. Insert side panels. Drop the first side panel down into the face frame dado and tap it gently into place with the rubber mallet. You will then need to secure it with brads. Do the same for the other side panel.

  4. Insert bottom floor or bottom panel. The bottom floor is for base cabinets, while the bottom panel is for wall cabinets. Either way, the process is the same: slightly tilt the side panels outward and insert the bottom, then attach it to the face frame with brads.

  5. Install stretchers or top panel. Stretchers are for base cabinets and they serve the purpose of stiffening and squaring the cabinet top, while top panels do the same for wall cabinets. Stretchers are installed from front to back fitting into the left and right side dadoes of the side panels. Top panels are installed similarly to bottom panels.

  6. Insert cabinet back panel. Apply glue to all back panel dadoes and insert the back panel. Tap the side panels to ensure a tight fit and pin it into place with brads.

  7. Install hanging rails. These are installed on the back of the cabinet. The top rail must be flush with the top of the back panel, while for wall cabinets, the bottom rail must be flush with the bottom of the back panel, and for base cabinets, the bottom rail must be positioned to the bottom of the floor.

  8. Install toe kick board. Only base cabinets have this; it’s the front of the recessed area below a base cabinet. It must be held between the side panels.

  9. Install cabinet door hinges. Fasten the hinge cup to the door with the provided screws, and then attach the hinge to the cabinet frame. Pilot holes are drilled to help you position the hinges.

  10. Install drawer glide assembly. Depending on whether you opted for soft close glides on your drawers, this step will vary a little. You will begin by inserting the plastic boot into the bored holes in the back of the cabinet. Soft close glides require you to insert the boot into the outboard holes while white epoxy under mount glides require the inboard holes. Once the plastic boot is in its proper place, insert or connect the glide assembly over the plastic boot. Then use the pre-drilled holes in the cabinet face frame to screw the glide in place. You will need to do this for each glide.

  11. Assemble drawer box. The drawer box comes dovetailed for easy lining up and assembly. Start by applying a light amount of glue to the dovetail indentations on the drawer box front, make sure the dado for the drawer box floor is properly aligned, then gently tap the side panels into place. Then attach the back panel in the same way and pin the dovetails with brads.

  12. Install soft close glides (optional). If you chose soft close glides for your cabinets, now is the time to install the glides onto the drawer box. For this step it is best to refer to the PDF Cabinet Guidelines for Assembly.

  13. Allow 12 hours for the glue to set before installing the cabinet! As mentioned earlier, the bonds need time to cure or risk coming out of place. The glue is what holds the cabinet together; all those brads we used were to help keep everything connected while the glue dries.

  14. Remove cabinet doors and drawers before installing. This will protect the hinges and drawers from becoming stressed as you move the cabinet for installation, and it also makes them easier to carry and handle. Removing the doors is as simple as unscrewing the hinges and just as easy to put back on later.

Did you find this process challenging? Each cabinet you assemble will be better than the last, and soon you’ll get the hang of it well enough to build the next ones faster and more smoothly. But even if you ran into a little trouble, it’s a far cry from what you may have experienced if you’d tried to build a cabinet from scratch instead of going with RTA!

Get Excited About Building Your Own Kitchen Cabinets

Sure, building an RTA kitchen cabinet isn’t the same as being a master carpenter. But it’s still something to be proud of — you put this together with your own hands, so how much does it matter if the pieces were cut by an expert? When you see how beautiful the finished result is, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that will renew itself every time you enter your kitchen. And of course, by choosing RTA cabinets rather than pre-assembled ones, not only did you earn some experience, you also saved quite a bit of money. This is what makes RTA cabinets the best of both worlds: they’re still a rewarding hands-on job, but without the hardest technical craftsmanship that takes years to perfect!


Charley Jordan

Date 9/17/2017

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Date 5/15/2019

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