Utilitarian Cabinet


This project is a utility cabinet to hold paper and related tools, with a space for the rotary trimmer on top. It seemed like a good opportunity to use up 1.5 sheets of walnut plywood that I bought years ago for a project that got canceled. I also had a walnut board I had bought to use for edging, and some iron-on walnut veneer tape. Of course, the first thing I had to do was hit the lumberyard for three more sheets of plywood and another chunk of walnut. But the plywood I needed to buy was Baltic birch for interior structure.dsc07887_sm

In addition to storing standard sheets of letter size paper, I wanted storage for stacks of over-sized paper, large sheets of Japanese paper that are rolled onto tubes, and assorted bottles of glue and paint.  To do this I decided to put racks on the door. I threw in some drawers because I figured they would be useful.  One odd design element was two skinny cubbies on the left, which are there so that you can open the drawers without having to open the door more than 90 degrees.


The drawers can open when the doors are only open ninety degrees. A friend gave me some leftover quarter sawn sycamore for the left hand rack. I used the some maple scraps for the right hand rack.

For hardware I wanted to give knife hinges a try because I’ve always liked their elegant, minimalist look.  I decided to use rare earth magnets to hold the door closed, with a magnet on the bottom edge of the door and another one in the case.  This would be elegant and unobtrusive.  However, experimentation with this idea suggested that the magnets weren’t strong enough, so I did a direct and inelegant magnet-to-metal closure. Even this seems surprisingly weak: it holds the door closed but it won’t pull it closed. It seems like my kitchen cabinets close more strongly with weaker magnets.  Note also the layout of the drawer pulls:  I placed them all the same distance from the bottom edge of the drawer, which looks a bit odd if you view the cabinet from directly in front, but it looks right when you see the cabinet from a normal viewing angle, where the top of the top drawer is hidden by the cabinet’s case.


This door rack was meant to hold all the bottles. I had a lot of trouble figuring out the right dimensions. What can I put in the tiny shelf in the middle that is empty right now? Another observation is that the rack is full already.


This rack holds tubes with oversized sheets of paper. Plenty of room remains for expansion on this side.


The top provides plenty of space for using the paper trimmer.


The back of the cabinet is finished. This required a lot of extra work. Did it make sense, given that I’m planning to put the cabinet against a wall?

Construction Notes

It’s been a while since I made a piece of furniture out of plywood. I think it will be a long while before I do it again. Plywood and solid wood each call for different tools and impose different design constraints.  I’m not set up for plywood.  I cut my parts with a circular saw and some of the cuts weren’t perfect. Truing up edges of plywood with a hand plane is not a pleasant task. I realized one of the reasons for frame and panel construction beyond dealing with wood movement: all four sides of the panel are (mostly) side grain, which is easily planed.

I decided to join the case together using dowel joinery, so I made a jig by drilling holes in a scrap of wood with the drill press and tried to fit a test joint together. It required huge clamping forces to close the joint and it would pop back open the moment I removed the clamps. I figured the holes must be slightly crooked due to slop from using a wooden jig, so I bought metal bushings and tried again, but I couldn’t get that to work either. I gave up and bought an expensive commercial jig, which worked fine; the need for that extra jig was kind of annoying because I don’t anticipate doing a lot of dowel joinery in the future. (What could I have done instead?)

Another problem I didn’t notice soon enough is that all of the plywood was warped. Once the joints were cut and I fit the case together I noticed that the sides bowed out and the bottom bowed up. I tried to force the bottom flat by gluing a stiffening piece of solid wood on the underside, but my piece of wood was only 1.5″ thick, which was evidently too wimpy to help. When I glued in the dividers I used clamps to force the sides flat. This process was successful. However, I neglected to pay attention to the top, which had previously been the only flat part of the case. Forcing the sides flat caused the top to bow upwards, so the top is not flat.  If I’d been paying attention I could have corrected this before the glue dried.  With solid wood I could plane the top flat but not with plywood. So I’m stuck. It seems like the solution to this problem is to assume that every piece of plywood will be warped and to build into the design some sort of straightening element.

I chose a mitered edging for the doors and I realized a disadvantage of mitered edging: the nice corners of the miter get messed up if you have to plane the door to fit. Of course, the doors turned out to be warped as well. I hoped that attaching the racks would help hold them flat, and I think it did help, but they remain slightly curved, which complicated the fitting of the knife hinges.  I tried to tune the fit of the doors in the opening by shimming the hinges, but this shifted the hinges out of alignment with each other.  They got harder to turn and I found that brass was wearing off into the hinge joint.  I’m hoping that brass will wear until the hinges work smoothly. The warped plywood also created mismatches where the doors met each other. At the bottom the right door sticks out from the case. I tried to conceal this by rounding off the edge of the door. At the top the doors don’t meet. I couldn’t think of anything extra to do that would actually make this look better. At least I was able to get a small, uniform gap between the two doors.


Note the mismatch of the doors at the top. I think this occurred because of the warped case. Efforts to shim the hinges didn’t fix it.


A modest roundover and slight shaping actually hides this problem rather well.


The right hand door sticks out from the case it looks pretty bad.


I worked the edge extensively with a plane and spokeshave to make the doors meet, and the result is surprisingly good. A casual observer doesn’t notice anything amiss.

I made the space for the drawers 18″ deep, but I realized belatedly that once the drawer front was taken into account, a full 18″ long drawer slide might not fit. Fortunately some manufacturers’ slides are 450 mm (17.7″) instead, but this limited my options. I wanted overtravel because the drawers would be underneath a 4.5 inch overhang. Accuride tech support insisted that for twenty inch wide drawers I needed to use their premium slide (7434) because of concerns about racking even though the weights would be very small. The cheaper one is explicitly listed only for drawers less than 16″ wide. I wonder if this is really necessary? Luck was with me and I was able to find exactly the slides I needed on ebay for half price.


The drawer slides cover the dowel pins, but one is visible on the top drawer.

Because the cabinet is utilitarian, and because the drawers are hidden inside, I made the drawers entirely out of Baltic birch plywood. I cut the drawer fronts so that the grain runs continuously across all four drawers, but the grain of the Baltic birch is so mild it’s hard to notice. I made the drawers with rabbets in the front, which I cut on the router table, and I pinned all four joints with quarter inch dowels. Even so, the drawers did not come out perfectly square and true. The process of fitting the drawer slides was long and tedious. I discovered that at least in one case, the reveals changed when the drawer was loaded. It seems like fitting solid wood drawers is a simpler and less frustrating process. (When I installed metal drawer slides in the file cabinet I also found it difficult and time consuming.) I had thought about using an applied front, but wasn’t sure how I could hold them in place accurately enough and long enough to screw them on. I think the applied front is the way to go when dealing with these slides. Maybe three minute epoxy is the answer.


Note the gap between the cabinet wall and the top and bottom shelf. The center fixed shelf has no gap.

I bought some inexpensive shelf support sleeves and pins, thinking that the pins would slip neatly and snugly into the sleeves. It seems that the hardware makers have a different concept: the pins sit loosely in the sleeves. This is not satisfying. Brusso makes expensive solid brass pins and sleeves that I might try in the future, but they seemed too expensive for this project, especially considering that I wanted to have shelf holes every 3/4 inch for fine adjustment of the shelves. I selected some L-shaped brackets. They fit well in their 1/4″ holes, but I don’t really like these either because they force you to leave a larger gap at the end of the shelf. The handles I selected taught me another hardware lesson.  They look good, but they are hard to use because you have to bend down to reach the graspable part of the handle. Even my short kids have complained about this!

I edged all of the shelves with the iron-on walnut veneer edging. This stuff is easy to apply, but trying to get a nice finished result seems difficult unless you like sharp corners on the edge of your work. As I sanded I would start to sand away the edge of the walnut and expose the edge of the top layer of veneer underneath. It’s a good thing the Baltic birch has very thick veneer layers, or I probably would have exposed more than one. I don’t think I’ll use this type of edging material again because of this. Another sanding difficulty was that I found it remarkably easy to sand through the walnut veneer on the plywood, and difficult to notice that I had done so until much later. Advice on fixing this problem involves coloring the wood with pencils or something like that. I must not have the right pencils, because when I tried that it just looked worse. After I realized the dangers I felt very nervous about sanding. Should I just leave that defect in the wood because it’ll look even worse if I sand through the veneer?

I  learned many things with this project, and despite the various problem I have identified above, the cabinet looks decent in the same room with the walnut coffee table, and it meets the goal of being utilitarian—it works.