How to Build Modular, Contemporary Built-ins

Easily customize your built-in cabinets and shelves by starting with a simple box. This story is an introduction and overview of the project.

Modular construction makes it easy and efficient to customize your built-in cabinets and shelves. You just build a simple standard box, shelf, and door. There's a simple base made of 2x4s below and plywood countertops above.

Once you set up to build any of these components, the main variable is the time it'll take to build however many you want. The completed project shown here has 10 boxes -- four with shelves, four with doors. Mix these components in whatever way suits your needs and your space. The Materials Needed chart lists what you need to build one cabinet with a door and a shelf. The instructions explain how to adapt the base and countertops to your needs.

Materials and finishing
The units shown here are built with birch plywood, edged with veneer banding tape and given a clear finish. Birch plywood also takes paint well. You might also check the price of medium density overlay (MDO) plywood that has face veneers designed to be painted. Oak or cherry plywood with a clear finish is another option.


About 4 hours for the first cabinet, door, and shelf. Add about 1 hour for each additional cabinet or door and 30 minutes for each additional shelf. Additional time for finishing.

Tape measure, hammer, nail set, combination square, 4-foot level, tablesaw or circular saw with straightedge guide, electric drill with stop, 1/4-inch bit, 3/8-inch bit, 1-3/8-inch Forstner bit, #6 counterbore bit, drill press jigsaw, straightedge or chalk line

Measuring, sawing, gluing

Measure installation space, configure built-ins, prepare workspace

Exploded View and Materials Needed
Configuring Your Built-Ins: Size Up the Location First

The cabinets shown here are built between two walls. Of course, your cabinets can be flanked by one wall or by none. In any case, the length of the bottom run of cabinets will have to be divisible by 23-1/2 inches -- the width of each cabinet. With walls on both sides, you'll center the bottom run and install filler panels on each side. With one flanking wall, you might be able to butt the cabinets against the wall and install a piece of molding where the cabinet meets the wall. But if the wall is much out of plumb, you'll need a 2-inch-wide, custom-tapered filler panel.

The cabinets sit on a base made of 2x4s. For built-ins flanked by two walls, measure between the walls at the floor. Make the base to fit minus about 1/2 inch on each end. Make the toe-kick cover to fit exactly.

Countertops protect the top of the unit. Cut the countertops to length after you install the cabinets, adding an overhang of 1/2 inch on any side that doesn't abut a wall.

Continued on page 2:  Cutting the Cabinet Parts


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