Canadian Woodworking

Custom shop cabinet

Author: Rick Campbell
Published: August September 2002

Eliminate bench top clutter for good with a couple of these inexpensive and easy to build shop cabinets.


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Mine was built to store a collection of chisels but the design is easily adapted to create a permanent home for any treasured hand tools that may be laying around the shop.

This cabinet features mitred corner joints reinforced with attractive contrasting wood splines. The door includes an erasable whiteboard insert to provide a convenient place to jot down on-the-fly measurements. If you prefer you can substitute glass for the whiteboard to display a vintage tool collection or use pegboard to further increase your storage capacity.

I made my cabinet from oak, but any material you can get your hands on will do just fine.

Start With A Jig

Before you get started on the cabinet you need to construct a simple jig that will be used to make slots for the wooden splines that add strength and character to the mitred corner joints. The jig consists of a large vertical panel and ‘V’ shaped base that supports the cabinet at the correct angle as it is passed over the saw blade.

Begin by cutting the vertical panel to size from a piece of plywood or MDF, then use a combination square and a pencil to mark the location of the angled base pieces (Photo 1). Refer to the detailed plans for all the necessary dimensions.

The base of the jig must be exactly the same width as the cabinet. If you customize the cabinet dimensions, be sure to adjust the jig measurements to match. Proceed to cut out the base pieces and end supports with 45-degree mitred ends where required, then secure these parts to the vertical panel with glue and nails (Photo 2). Avoid placing nails where they can come in contact with the saw blade when the slots are cut.
Complete the jig by attaching a face board to the outside of the base. This panel will add strength and prevent the box from sliding out of place (Photo 3). As before, consider the path of the saw blade when placing the nails.

Make A Box

Cut out the four sides of the cabinet with the 45-degree mitres on the ends, then rip a 3/8” deep groove on the inside face of each piece to receive the back panel (Photo 4).
Cut the back panel to size, then dry assemble the box to make sure everything is going to fit. Make any necessary adjustments, and then reassemble the cabinet using glue and clamps (Photo 5).

After the glue dries, remove the clamps and prepare to cut the spline slots using your shop-made jig. Begin by planning the layout of your splines on a scrap piece of paper. I created an interesting pattern by alternating the height of the slots and making the cuts with the saw blade tilted 15-degrees (Photo 6) but you can experiment and come up with your own creative joint design. Just be sure the slot depth does not exceed 1” or you may cut through the inside of the corner joint.

Once you have settled on a layout, position your fence and blade to make the first series of slots. Proceed by cutting all the way through the jig with the box in place, clamped to the vertical panel (Photo 7).

Complete all four corners, and then rotate the box 180-degrees to make the cuts on the opposing side. This technique will result in perfectly symmetrical joints. When you are done, reposition the fence and adjust the blade height for the next series of slots.

Make the splines by ripping thin strips of contrasting wood that will fit snuggly in the slots. They should be slightly wider and longer than the openings. Apply glue, and then gently tap the splines into place with a mallet. No clamps are required here because friction will hold the thin wood slices in position while the adhesive dries. Don’t worry about glue that squeezes out from the joint – this will be taken care of next. When the glue cures remove most of the excess spline material with a handsaw (Photo 8), then sand the splines flush with the surface of the box.

You will need to customize the inside of the cabinet to fit your specific storage requirements. I used a combination of dowel pegs and slotted racks to hold my collection of chisels. Install the racks using screws inserted from the outside of the box. For appearance, countersink the screws 3/8” and conceal the heads with tapered wooden plugs (Photo 9). To make my plugs I used contrasting material that matched the splines.

Add a Door

Cut out the frame pieces for the door with 45-degree mitres on the ends, then rip a 3/8” deep groove along the inside edge of each piece to fit your insert panel. An easy way to centre the groove is to run the material through once, flip the piece end for end, then make a second pass. To avoid ending up with a slot that is the wrong size, it’s a good idea to make test cuts on scrap first.

Dry assemble the door to check the fit, then reassemble using glue and a web clamp. As before, the splines are installed after the glue cures. Clamp the door to the side of the jig and carefully position your fence to cut a single slot in each corner (Photo 10).

Keep the blade height well below 1 1/2” to avoid cutting into your panel insert. If you are using glass for the door, a long sleeve shirt and work gloves are a good idea in case the panel shatters while you are working.

Once you have cut the slots in all four corners, make splines as before and glue them in place. When the glue dries trim off the excess, then sand the splines flush.

Finishing Up

I hate sanding as much as you do but there is no avoiding this step if you want to end up with a great finish. While you’re at it you may as well use sand paper to slightly round over all the crisp edges. It’s also a good idea to mask off the back panel and door insert to prevent the finish from getting on these parts.

If you want to show off your contrasting splines, avoid using stains or tinted finishes that can obscure the joints. I used three coats of a wipe on polyurethane product to provide durable protection.

After the last coat dries install the door using a length of piano hinge (Photo 11), then add a handle and latch of your choosing.

Before securing the cabinet to the wall studs with lag bolts, place hardboard shims behind the box to fill the 1/4” gap between the back panel and wall.

Now that your cabinets are complete you can get on with the task of organizing your shop, comforted by the fact that every tool has its proper place.

Rick Campbell - [email protected]

Rick Campbell is an award-winning woodworker who has been making piles of sawdust for over 30 years. Rick got his start driving nails into a 2 x 4 in his father’s workshop.

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