Building Upper Cabinets

Building Upper Cabinets


The standard upper cabinet is the most basic cabinet in this building system. As previously discussed, it consists of two sides, a top, a bottom and a back board. A wooden face frame is attached to the front of the carcass to complete the assembly. Figure 5-1 details a basic standard upper cabinet.


Normally, upper cabinets contain two shelves. These are adjustable so that you can configure the cabinet to your particular requirements. The easiest and most effective method for installing adjustable shelves is to drill a series of holes at 2″ centers in the side boards prior to assembly. To eliminate measuring and layout when drilling holes, a simple jig can be constructed (see Figure 5-4). You can also use a piece of perforated peg-board as your jig.


A steel pin with a plastic coating works best for my needs. Many adjustable shelf pins are plastic only and tend to break under heavy loads.

Hole spacing for the shelf pins is entirely up to you. If you want more than the normal adjustment range, drill your holes at 1″ centers. The European standard for hole spacing is 32mm, or about 11/4″, which should be suitable for the majority of situations and requirements.

Shelf support pins come in many shapes, sizes and colors. Select the type that is suitable to your needs prior to drilling the holes, as most pins require different hole diameters.


The face frame, which is made out of hardwood, consists of two stiles and two rails. The stiles are the vertical members of the face frame and the rails are the horizontal members. In the standard cabinet, the stiles are 1″ wide by 313/4″ long; the rails are 11/2″ high and as wide as the inside dimension of the cabinet carcass. When we say that the face frame rail is as wide as the inside dimension of the cabinet carcass, we should qualify a point that might cause confusion later in the book. I make the top and bottom boards of the cabinet carcass 1 / 16″ wider than the face frame rail. This ensures that the inside carcass dimension is just slightly larger than the inside dimension of the face frame, which guarantees the carcass edges will be fully covered. It gives us a small error factor in case any of our face frame rails are not perfectly cut to size. This extra width wont cause any problems when you are mounting the door hinges. All face frame material referred to in this book is assumed to be 3/4″ thick.


As briefly discussed earlier, the back on this cabinet design is a very important part of the system. Its unique in that quite a number of cabinets on the market use a 1/4″ veneer back board with two 1 x 2s for wall mounting. The vs” full backing gives the cabinet tremendous strength and rigidity. It also permits the screws used to attach the cabinet to the wall to be placed anywhere through the back board.

At this point I want to review the many advantages of full % ” cabinet backing. First, mounting screws can be placed anywhere through the back board to hold cabinets securely to the wall. Second, the cabinet stays very rigid and is less likely to rack or twist during installation. Third, the wall behind the cabinet is fully covered and never needs painting. And finally, the back board, if cut square, will cause the cabinet carcass to be square after its secured. After building your first cabinet, try to twist it from side to side and take notice of the movement. Compare that with cabinets that have 1/4″ back boards or those that use two strips of wood as wall anchor boards, and you will see the remarkable difference.


A strong carcass that is almost maintenance free, because we are using “” melamine-coated PCB, and that is functional, with options such as adjustable shelves and without a center stile blocking the cabinet space, is a very desirable product. It’s fine to have great-looking cabinets on the exterior, but we also want to achieve a high degree of quality within the interior spaces.

The sides or gable ends of the cabinet perform very important functions. Primarily, they define the height of the cabinet box and give it strength.The sides also support the European hidden hinges and are drilled for the shelf support pins. Also, in this particular cabinet style, the face frame is nailed onto the side edges as well as the top and bottom board edges.

The bottom and top boards of the cabinet carcass in conjunction with the sides form the box shape of the cabinet. More importantly though, the bottom and top boards define the interior width of the carcass. It is very important that care is taken to cut these two boards accurately and square. Interior width accuracy is important because the doors and the resulting door overlay are calculated based on the inside dimensions of the cabinet. This measurement determines combined door width, hinge style and individual door width. Obviously, if the bottom and top boards are not cut accurately and square, as well as equal to each other, the cabinet will not be square and will cause problems with door fitting and operation. Accuracy in cutting of the cabinet pieces is important and cannot be stressed too often. Take your time and double-check your measurements. Correctly cut boards will turn the assembly tasks into a very simple process.

Cabinet sides are cut to a length of 3 1″, and the face frame stiles are cut at 313/4″. This is done so the face frame hangs 3/4″ below the carcass bottom. This feature gives a little flexibility when assembling cabinets and hides the edges of under-cabinet finish boards that will be applied.Standard doors are 301/2″ high and mounted flush with the bottom of the face frame so that 11/4″ will be left at the top of the cabinet for installation of edge molding.

Standard upper cabinet doors are mounted using European-style hidden hinges. A 3 5mm-diameter hole is drilled in the door, and the other end of the hinge is attached to the carcass side. Initially, I was a little intimidated by these hinges. Now, after using them for ten years or more, I feel that they are the best thing that happened to cabinet door hardware. They are strong, fully adjustable in three directions, available in a variety of opening configurations and virtually maintenance free. They are so dependable that some of the manufacturers guarantee them for life. Installation, although appearing somewhat complicated, is a very simple process.

Standard upper and base cabinets, as detailed, form the building blocks to the design. Knowing the design and terminology and understanding the reasons for the sizes of the parts will allow you to adapt these cabinets to any special situation.

You will get to a point, after studying this design, that will allow you to plan, order materials and list your finished cut sizes, as well as order industry-standard doors or make your own doors, because you understand the size relationship of each part of the cabinet.

Cutting Upper Cabinet Parts

Standard upper cabinet size and construction practices will beaddressed first. The following table is a cut list with all the carcass component sizes based on vs” melamine-coated particle core board material. I normally use the white melamine-coated material because of its availability and the “clean” interior look it gives to the cabinets. Also, all the accessories, such as towel racks, drawer slides and lazy susan assemblies, are readily available in white as a stock item from most suppliers.

In addition to the pieces for each upper carcass assembly, you will require a minimum of two shelf boards for each cabinet. The shelves for the upper cabinets are always 10 vs” deep and 1/16″ less, in total width, than the top or bottom carcass boards. For example, in the case of a 30″-wide standard upper, you would need two shelf boards at 10 vs” deep by 28″ wide.

It may appear a little strange that some of the dimensions are as close as 1 / 16″, such as in the case of the top and bottom carcass boards. I calculate it that way to ensure that the interior dimension of the cabinet is just slightly wider than the inside dimension of the cabinet face frame. This guarantees the face frame will completely cover the exposed edges of the PCB carcass.


Upper Cabinet Two Sides Top and Bottom One Back

12″       10 5/8″ x 31″ 10 5/8″ x 101/16″ 11 1/2″ x 31″
15″       10 5/8″ x 31″ 10 5/8″ x 131/16″ 14 1/2″ x 31″
18″       10 5/8″ x 31″ 10 5/8″ x 161/16″ 17 1/2″ x 31″
21″       10 5/8″ x 31″ 10 5/8″ x 191/16″ 20 1/2″ x 31″
24″       10 5/8″ x 31″ 10 5/8″ x 221/16″ 23 1/2″ x 31″
27″       10 5/8″ x 31″ 10 5/8″ x 251/16″ 26 1/2″ x 31″
30″       10 5/8″ x 31″ 10 5/8″ x 281/16″ 29 1/2″ x 31″
33″       10 5/8″ x 31″ 10 5/8″ x 311/16″ 32 1/2″ x 31″
36″       10 5/8″ x 31″ 10 5/8″ x 341/16″ 35 1/2″ x 31″

The back board width is slightly wider than required for another reason. If you take the 30″ cabinet as an example and add the bottom board width of 281/16″ plus the combined thickness of both sides (2 ® vs” equals 11/4″), you have a total of 295/16″. The back board dimension in the chart for the 30″ cabinet is 291/2″, obviously too wide. However, there is some slight thickness variation in material from different production runs and manufacturers. To eliminate problems, the back board is cut a little wider and then trimmed flush with a router bit after installation on the carcass.

Complete coverage of the carcass edges on the back of the cabinet is important. As previously mentioned, this vs” back board adds strength and stability to the cabinets. The back board, secured to the carcass edges with 2″ particle board screws at 4″ centers, creates a freestanding, extremely strong modular unit. The cabinets are secured to the wall by screwing through this back board. The upper cabinets are actually hung by screwing through the back board and into the wall studs. The base cabinet back board is anchored to the wall to stabilize the cabinet position only, since most of the base cabinet weight is taken on the adjustable legs. And since it fully covers the carcass, screws can be placed in any location on the board.

The back board is an asset because, unlike some cabinets on the market without a full vs” back, the interior of the cabinet is virtually maintenance free. You don’t have to paint the wall behind the cabinet. However, the major advantages are structural stability and ease of installation for the cabinetmaker.


In the case of upper cabinets, first ensure that all PCB and face frame components are accurately cut to size.

1 Drill Shelf Holes

Drill the holes in each side board for the adjustable shelves if the cabinet is to be so equipped. During assembly, ensure that the top-to-top relationship of each side is maintained, particularly if the holes are started at different distances from the top and bottom of the side.

2 join the Sides

Fasten one side to the edge of the bottom board, making sure the joint is square and flush. Drill a 1/2″ countersunk pilot hole for each of the three 2″ PCB screws. Do not overtighten or apply so much force to the screws that they strip their threaded hole. Take care as well to drill the pilot hole so that it’s in the center of the edge on the board you are fastening the side to; in this case, the bottom board of the carcass. Connect the remaining three corner joints in the same manner.

3 Check the Size

For purposes of verification at this point, referencing a 30″ upper cabinet as an example, you should have a four-sided box with inside dimensions of 281/16″ wide (the width of the bottom and top carcass boards) by 293/4 high (the length of the side minus the thickness of the top and bottom carcass boards).

4 Attach the Back

Attach the back board to the carcass, flush with three edges of the box. This will square the carcass. Remember, the back board is intentionally cut wider to accommodate thickness variances in the PCB material. As discussed earlier, you will have one side with a slight overhang. Secure the back to the carcass frame using 2″ PCB screws at 4″ centers. Use a marking gauge to draw lines 5/16″ in from the edges as a guide for the pilot holes. As one side of the back has a slight overhang, take this into account when you are marking your guide lines on that side.

5 Trim the Back Board

After securing the back, flush-trim the overhang with a flush-trim bit in a router. This joint will not be seen, so I use an old carbide router bit as the PCB material tends to dull cutting tools.

6 Check the Square

At this point, ensure that the holes for the adjustable shelf pins are in correct side-to-side relationship with each other and that the carcass is square. Either measure the diagonals of the carcass and verify that they are equal or use a framing square on the inside of the carcass.

7 Build the Face Frame

Assemble the face frame as discussed earlier. With reference to a 30″ upper cabinet, verify that the outside measurement of
the face frame is 30″ wide by 313/4″ long. The stiles should be 1″ wide, and the rails should be 11/2″ high.

8 Install the Face Frame

Apply glue to the four carcass edges and place the outside face frame top edge flush with the outside top edge of the carcass. The face frame should fully cover the carcass edges; it should, in fact, be slightly smaller on the inside dimension vs. the inside dimension of the carcass. The carcass bottom and top are cut 1 / 16″ larger than the face frame rails to guarantee full carcass edge coverage by the face frame. Divide the difference between the two inside edges. Secure the top corner of the face frame to the carcass body using 2″ spiral finish nails in a pilot hole slightly smaller than the nail thickness. Drill the pilot hole so that it centers, as much as possible, on the PCB edge. Secure the other top corner so that the top outside of the face frame is flush with the top outside edge of the carcass. Secure the bottom two corners, keeping the slight overhang of the face frame inside the carcass maintained equally on both sides. Install the remaining nails at 8″ centers, maintaining the overhang. The bottom rail should hang below the cabinet carcass by 3/4″, and the sides of the face frame should extend Vs ” beyond each side of the carcass. The inside edge of the bottom rail will be slightly above the bottom board.

9 Finish Detail

Set the nails below the surface and fill the holes with a wax stick that will match the finished color of the cabinet wood. Doors and shelves can be installed at this point.


An upper corner cabinet with a lazy susan assembly is a very popular and useful addition in a kitchen renovation project. It’s very common to plan for corner cabinets as most kitchens, with the exception of the galley style, have a corner wall.

This cabinet is called a 24″ upper corner because it takes up 24″ on each wall of a corner. The face is at a 45° angle to the cabinets on either side. Dead space, often found in corner wall cabinets, is minimized by the installation of a two-shelf lazy susan assembly.

This cabinet is probably the most difficult unit to build in the system. Face frame members have to be cut at 221/2° angles so the two parts of each stile form a 45° angle. However, don’t let the construction details intimidate you: It’s easier than it appears.

The following is a cut list for the standard 24″ upper corner cabinet with an 18″ round, two-shelf lazy susan unit. Refer to Figure 5-13 for assembly and angle-cutting details, as well as reference and detail for the face frame cutting and assembly.

Like all the other cabinets, cutting the boards to their proper size is important. Cut the top and bottom boards to the size stated in the table, leaving the angle cut until you are ready to assemble the pieces. As illustrated in the table, pay particular attention to the back board cut sizes. One back is vs” wider to allow for the required overlap of the boards during assembly.


Type              Required Size                Comments
Side              2         10 5/8″ x 31″
Top and Bottom    2         22 1/8″ x 22 1/8″    Cut as illustrated in drawing
Back              1         22 3/4″ x 31″
Back              1         23 3/8″ x 31″

1 Cut the Parts

There are six particle core boards required for this cabinet; cut as indicated. This cabinet is almost always fitted with a two-shelf 18″ lazy susan assembly and, therefore, holes for adjustable shelves are not required.

2 Assemble the Boards

Assemble the boards as shown in Figure 5-13 and ensure all joints are square and secure. Drill 1/8″ countersunk pilot holes and use 2″ PCB screws at 4″ centers.

3 Join the Face Frame

Cut the six wood parts for the face frame assembly and assemble as indicated. This face frame can be a little difficult to assemble; however, the use of angle clamps will aid in holding the stiles in place while they are glued and screwed to each other. Cut the parts as close as possible to the indicated angle and assemble with care.

4 Install the Face Frame

Glue and nail the face frame to the carcass as shown in Figure 5-14. Install the face frame so that the outside top of the face frame is flush with the outside top of the corner carcass.

The inside surface of the stiles are not flush with the sides, as in the other cabinets, so a special face frame hinge plate is used to secure the hinges and door for this cabinet.


Stove cabinets are not as large as standard upper cabinets because a range hood is normally mounted under the cabinet. Also, greater clearance between the stove and the upper cabinet is required to properly work at the stove.

I normally install a 30″-wide, 191/4″-high cabinet with 18″-high doors. These measurements are for cabinets over standard-size stoves. I use a 30″-wide cabinet with 1/2″ added to the adjoining stiles of the cabinets on either side. I want the space between the base units on each side of the stove to be 31″, and the wider upper stiles allow me to accomplish this when the base cabinets are lined up with the uppers. I can then overhang my countertop by Vs” on each base cabinet beside the stove, which allows for a maximum opening, between the countertop ends, of 301/4″ for the stove. Widening the cabinet stiles on the right and left of the stove upper permits counter-top overhang and allows for proper clearance of the stove.

You can custom design any size over-the-stove cabinet you need following the design rules. Refer back to the industry-standard door sizes when designing custom cabinets. The basic rules of the inside width of the face frame equalling the inside width of the cabinet carcass, the face frame being 3/4″ greater than the cabinet carcass in total height, and the doors being 11/4″ less than the face frame height determine your cabinet dimensions.


Take note of the width of the range hood prior to finalizing your cut list. Most, if not all, hoods are the required 30″ wide, as its an accepted industry standard. However, there may be variances from manufacturer to manufacturer and it pays to check up front. Also, range hoods with built-in features such as microwaves are becoming more popular and, although they should conform to the standard dimensions, it would be worth checking.

The stove cabinet I normally use follows the rules. The face frame is 191/4″ high, with two 141/2″-wide by 18″-high doors, the inside carcass width is 28″, and the sides are 181/2″ high. The 28″ inside cabinet width plus the total width of the two 1″ stiles equals a cabinet that is 30″ wide.


There are two sizes of cabinets that I use as over-the-fridge cabinets. You have a choice based on your requirements.

The majority of refrigerators on the market today are 31″ to 32″ wide, so my normal cabinet width for either style is 33″. Refrigerators are approximately 65″ high, leaving a clearance of about 20″ for a cabinet above the appliance. I use a standard maximum cabinet height of 85″, made up of a 36″ base unit and countertop height, plus 18″ countertop surface to the bottom of the upper cabinet distance and 31″ upper cabinet height. I want the top of the fridge cabinet even with the uppers at that 85″ height.

Your choice depends on how much clearance you would like between the bottom of the cabinet and the top of the fridge. A 171/4″ cabinet with 16″-high standard doors will leave a 23/4″ space, and a 141/4″ cabinet with 13″-high standard doors will leave a 53/4″ space.

Follow the standard rules for building either one of these cabinets, and install an adjustable shelf in both the over-the-stove and over-the-fridge cabinets. If these shelves are not required you can always remove them.

Calculating parts for any cabinet can be easily accomplished by working backwards from the door dimension. The over-the-fridge cabinet, called a 171/4″-high upper, takes 16″-high doors. We know, based on the standard design rules, that there is a 11/4″ space above the door; therefore our face frame is 171/4″ high. Each door is 16″ wide because of our rule that the face frame is 1″ wider than the combined width of the doors on the two-door 33″ fridge cabinet.

Since the stiles on a regular face frame are 1″ wide, the bottom and top board of this cabinet must be 31″ wide. Also, the standard face frame hangs 3/4″ below the cabinet bottom and is flush with the top, so our sides must be 161/2″ high. The back board is the height of the sides and as wide as the bottom or top board plus the thickness of the two sides.

Cabinet depth on this upper is a matter of personal choice. Some people like the look of a recessed cabinet (standard 12″ depth) over the fridge, while others want a cabinet flush with the appliance door. Simply adjust the depth of the sides, top and bottom boards, taking into account the thickness of the face frame and the cabinet door, to get the desired total cabinet depth.


Clearance is required when working at the sink; therefore, over-the-sink cabinets, when installed, are not normally full-height cabinets. Standard widths are used, a 3 6″-wide cabinet in most cases; however, the height is the same as the over-the-stove cabinet at 19 1/4″.

This reduced-height sink upper is by no means a hard-and-fast design rule. I have used both standard full-height and reduced-height uppers over the sink. I will usually install under-cabinet lighting, as discussed in chapter eight, on this cabinet. In kitchens where a window is not over the sink cabinet, task lighting is a very practical feature.

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