Canadian Woodworking

Japanese-inspired shop storage

Author: Rob Brown
Published: June July 2017

It’s nice to have at least some of your shop storage solutions look fantastic. This cabinet is inspired by the tansu that have been hand crafted in Japan for centuries.


  • COST

If this cabinet is a bit too nice for your shop, there’s nothing saying you can’t build a similar one for your home.

There are times when the shop storage solutions I build are bare-bones and strictly functional. Sometimes even ugly. But other times I like to take a bit of time and create something that not only functions nicely but is fun to build and looks nice. I’ve always enjoyed Japanese design, but it’s rare I get to make something along these lines.

Install the Back Panel
To secure the back in place Brown routed a rabbet into the frame once it was assembled. A back was then cut to size, and its corners were rounded to fit the rabbet before being installed.

Groove Options
There are many ways to cut the groove in the backs of the drawer rails, and you should use a method you’re comfortable with. Brown clamped a stop block to his rip fence, made a simple plunge cut, turned the piece end-for-end then repeated the plunge cut. This left a groove that was centered on the rail. A router with a slot-cutting bit could also have been used.

Assemble the Drawer Rails
Glue and screws do a good job of securing the drawer rails to the inside face of the front frame assembly. They’re spaced to provide even drawer openings.

Stain First
Brown stained the gable panel, then assembled it to the top and bottom rails, so no stain would get on the rails. Notice the masked-off areas at the top and bottom of the panel. This stops stain from weakening the glue joint when the parts are assembled.

Dowels for Location
One dowel in each of the solid wood headers will assist with locating the gable during assembly. First, drill a dowel hole in the gable rails, then use a dowel center to transfer that location to the frame assemblies and drill those holes with a brad point drill bit.

Don’t Drill Too Far
When Brown drilled the first dowel hole in the frame assembly he blew right through to the back of the assembly; luckily it was the back assembly and won’t be seen. A simple shop-made collar can be fit over the drill bit and the drill bit adjusted for length in the chuck, to ensure holes are only drilled so far into the workpiece.

Getting Groovy
Brown drew the future location of the gable top rail on the inside face of the frame assemblies to visualize where the gables would meet the assemblies. This told him where to start and stop the grooves to accept the top. A similar groove was routed in the center of the bottom rails.

Drawer Runners
Simple wood runners, and drawers with notched backs, make for a simple yet effective system. The runner above a drawer stops it from tilting when open. The two vertical strips on the back of the cabinet are simple drawer stops. Notice the drawer runners finish 1/4" higher than the drawer rails.

Apply a Finish
A product like Varathane Professional Clear Finish is great for a situation where you want a durable yet simple finish. Brown brushed on three coats then used an aerosol can of the same product to apply a final coat.

Completed desk

Japanese inspired shop storage


The main reason I built this cabinet was partially to store sanding supplies, with a large storage area for some medium-sized tools and boxes, but it could be used to store almost anything shop-related.

The dimensions were for the specific spot I had in my shop, but in some cases I tried to use materials carefully, to reduce waste. Feel free to adjust the overall dimensions to suit your needs.


Being that this was for a shop fixture, I didn’t want to go overboard on spending. I opted for 2×4 materials for all of the solid wood, and was lucky enough to have a few pieces of plywood around, for some of the other parts. I purchased a sheet of ½”-thick, exterior grade spruce plywood for a few of the remaining unseen parts, as it’s not the best looking material. Other than the top, the two gables, the drawer faces and the door panels, the parts made of sheet goods will not be seen, so don’t break the bank; scrap interior / exterior plywood, particle board or even MDF would all work fine, especially if it’s what you happen to already have on hand.

2x4s are not as durable as many other woods, but I don’t mind some wear marks as time goes on. 2x4s are cheap and fairly easy to use, and if you search you can often find somewhat clear, straight stock to work with. Allowing this material to dry is important, as it’s often too wet to use right away.

Start with the frames

The two frame assemblies that make up the front and back of the cabinet is a good place to start. Both assemblies are the same size, and have a top, bottom and two side legs. The front frame assembly has an additional center divider, as well as three drawer rails.

Dress the parts flat, and to final width and length, then cut half lap joints to secure the top and bottom rails to the side legs and center divider. Also cut a half lap in the front top and bottom rails to accept the center divider. The drawer rails will be installed in the front assembly after it’s together. When cutting the half lap joints, keep in mind many of the joints will be different widths, as the top rail, side legs, center divider and bottom rail are all different widths.

With the half lap joints fitting nicely, cut the ends of the top and bottom rails at 7 degrees. This shouldn’t change the overall length of the rails, as the cuts should be aligned with the outside corner of these rails. At this point I planed the side legs and the center divider down by about 1/8″. This makes it unnecessary to flush the front faces of the half lap joints, and if there is any warping or movement down the road, it won’t be visible.

Assemble both the front and back frame assemblies, making sure they’re square. When the back assembly is dry, rout a rabbet in the inside edge of the frame with a rabbet bit. Cut and install the back panel into this rabbet. Trim both assemblies on the table saw, so they’re the exact same width, and so the top and bottom edges are smooth.

Drawer rails

The drawer rails are cut 2″ longer than the opening is wide, then a 1″-wide notch is cut into both ends of the rails, so they fit snugly between the side leg and the center divider. The depth of the notch should be cut so the front face of the rail sits about 1/8″ away from the face of the divider and side leg.

A groove on the back of the drawer rails will accept a tenon on the solid wood drawer guide and help hold it in place. There are many ways to do this, but I chose to use a table saw, and cut stopped grooves centered on the rail. A router with a slot cutter will also work nicely, as will a straight bit in a router table. To accept the bottom drawer runner, a groove will also have to be cut into the inner face of the bottom front rail.

Two screws through the back of each drawer divider, along with some glue, will help keep them in place. When dry, drill a 3″-deep × 3/8″-diameter hole through the sides of the side leg and the center divider, into the drawer rails, then glue in a long piece of dowel rod to add some more strength. Trim them flush when dry.

Gable assemblies

The top and bottom gable rails, as well as the gable panel can now be machined. A groove in both gable rails accepts the panel. The assembly is created slightly wider than required, then ripped to final width. It’s then edge glued between the front and back assemblies, with a few dowels to assist with location. When gluing the top and bottom gable rails to the panel, keep them about 1/8″ away from one edge of the gable panel, so you can use that edge of the gable panel to run against the rip fence when ripping the gable assembly to final width.

When the gable parts were made, I stained the panels, as I wanted a two-tone look. Staining after assembly would surely result in getting stain on the gable rails. You don’t have to stain your panels though. Use glue and clamps to assemble the gables, then trim the assemblies to final width on a table saw.

Drill for dowels

The gables are edge glued to the front and back frame assemblies, but dowels assist with locating the parts during final assembly. Although I drilled them later, it’s safest to drill these dowel holes now, so you can create the grooves to accept the top and bottom panels, knowing confidently where the grooves should start and stop.

First, drill a hole in the ends of the top and bottom rails with the help of a dowel jig. You can drill these holes freehand, but the bit tends to skate around in end grain. Next, insert a dowel center into the holes, position the gable in place and apply pressure to the gable assembly, leaving small imprints where the mating dowel holes are to be located. Finally, use a brad point bit to drill the holes in the frame assemblies freehand, being sure not to drill through the show face.

Grooves to accept top and bottom

Grooves in the inner faces of both front and back assemblies will be cut with a router equipped with a straight bit and an edge guide. When routing the top groove it should be positioned so the upper surface of the top will finish flush with the edge of the front and back assemblies. Use a 3/4″ piece for the top, or the lip above the groove that will accept the top panel will be too weak. The position of the bottom groove isn’t as crucial – somewhere near the center of the bottom rails will do nicely.

In terms of where to stop these grooves on the left and right sides of the frame assemblies, mark a pencil line where the mating gable is located. Rout your groove so it finishes inside the lines. Once you have the grooves in the front and back frame assemblies, you can add a mating groove in the rails of the gable assemblies.

Top and bottom panels

Cut the top and bottom panels to size. I used a piece of 1/2″ plywood for the bottom, so it simply fit into the 1/2″-wide groove I routed into the frame assemblies. I used a 3/4″ top, so it had to be rabbeted to fit the grooves.

I didn’t add a shelf or a divider panel to separate the drawer bank from the main storage area, but if you want to, now is the time to cut those parts and machine the appropriate joinery.

Assemble the cabinet in stages

During the dry-fit stage my cabinet was assembled, then taken apart, many times. I slowly snuck up on fitting the top to the routed grooves and made sure all the components fit together nicely.

A cabinet like this needs to be assembled in stages, as it’s too large a task to do at once. First, apply glue to the edge and dowel holes on the backside of one gable assembly, then install it against the back panel. Add some glue to the grooves that will accept the top, as well as a bit of glue on the rabbet in the top that will fit into the back and gable, then bring all three parts together. Without gluing any of the remaining parts, add the second gable and front frame assembly, before clamping the joints tight.

When dry, remove the unglued gable and front frame assembly. Next, apply glue to the rear edge of the second gable, as well as the groove in that gable assembly that will mate with the top panel. More glue goes in the grooves in the gables and back assembly that will accept the bottom panel. Assemble the bottom and the gable, then position the front frame assembly in place without glue, before clamping all the joints tight. When dry, remove the front frame assembly; apply glue, re-assemble, and clamp.

A quick note about assembling furniture in stages: It’s important to assemble most of the parts during each stage, even if they aren’t glued in place. This ensures the parts will fit back together during subsequent stages. Even if a piece is glued in place, if it is 1/16″ off it will create havoc down the road.

Drawer runners

Each drawer runner supports and guides the back of the drawer. They also stop the drawer below it from tilting downward when it’s open. These runners should be machined to 1/4″ thicker than the drawer dividers, but their width isn’t crucial. A tenon to fit the groove in the drawer rails can now be machined, and the pieces cut to length. You will need to cut the runner slightly shorter than needed, in order to be able to fit the runner in place, but don’t install the runners yet.

Build the drawers

At this stage the drawers can be made, then their backs notched to fit the drawer runners. All the drawer parts can be cut to the same width. From there, cut the fronts to finished length, and the sides slightly oversized. Set up a dado blade to cut a rabbet in the fronts and sides, then all the drawer parts can be trimmed to final length.

Bottoms can be cut to size, and the drawers can be assembled. When machining the groove to accept the drawer bottoms you have to consider the height of the drawer runners. If the runners are 1/4″ thicker than the drawer rails, you will want the lower surface of your drawer bottom to finish about 1/16″ closer to the bottom of the drawer sides – so about 3/16″; this is because once the notch in the drawer back is cut, the drawer bottom is what will be supporting the drawer on the runner. The 1/16″ difference is so there will be a slight gap between the drawer front and the drawer rail when the drawer is closed.

With the drawers assembled, set your table saw blade height to cut a notch that is flush with the underside of your drawer bottom. After some math to determine the location and width of the notch, make repeated passes, adjusting the fence slightly each time, to create the notch.

Install the runners

Starting with the bottom drawer, locate the rear end of the runner and fix it in place with an L-bracket. Glue the tenon into the groove at the front of the runner. Work your way upwards, installing the runners so the drawer fronts have even gaps and work nicely.

To stop the top drawer from tilting downward when opened, glue a length of solid wood to the underside of the top panel, flush with the lower edge of the top front rail.

Finally, screw two strips of solid wood vertically onto the back panel. Customize the thickness of these pieces to position the drawers so they look good when viewed from the front of the cabinet.


There are many ways to make doors, but I chose an approach in keeping with traditional Japanese design, at least visually. First, I cut the frame members to size, added bridle joints to their corners and assembled the frames. When dry I used my router and rabbet bit to create a rabbet in the backs of the doors, and cut a piece of plywood to fit that opening. To mimic the strips of wood some Japanese craftsmen use, I tilted a rip blade to 45 degrees, then made a series of cuts to add grooves to the door panels. A stop was positioned so the lower portion of the panel would appear whole.

I stained the panels, as well as the drawer fronts, while I was at it, then glued them in place. I cut thin panel strips to act as a horizontal frame member, and glued them to the door panels. While machining these two pieces I did the same for the cabinet gables. When attaching these pieces I had to sand away some of the stain to ensure glue would hold the strips in place. All of these pieces are strictly for aesthetic reasons.

Strengthen with dowels

All eight corners are now strengthened with 3″-long lengths of 3/8″ dowel rod. I used a simple drilling jig to align the holes and keep them straight. Two dowels were added to each corner, then trimmed flush.

Apply a finish

A quick sanding was next, and I made sure the edges were all eased heavily. To protect the wood from stains and wear I applied a few coats of Varathane Professional Clear Oil-Based Finish. It’s easy to apply, builds quite quickly and is very durable. I brushed on three coats, sanding between each coat, then used an aerosol spray can to apply a nice, even coat.

The details

Black carpet tacks are now added to the door panels to add to the traditional Japanese look.

Hang the doors with no-mortise hinges, add a block of wood to support the double magnetic touch-latch and install the latch. Pulls would work fine, though my knees don’t enjoy protruding hardware.

I installed T-nuts under the four corners and the center divider so the cabinet could be levelled once in place. It was now time to put it in its final home, fill it up and put it to use.

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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