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Simple, cost-effective wall unit that will last for decades

Author: Rob Brown
Photos: Rob Brown
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: February 2024
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Big projects don’t need to be overly expensive as long as you can be flexible with design and materials. Learn how to build a full-sized wall unit without breaking the bank.

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  • DIFFICULTY
    2/5
  • LENGTH/TIME
    2/5
  • COST
    4/5

As I’m sure you know, material prices are high right now. Whether it’s solid lumber, sheet goods, hardware or fin­ishing products, the cost of completing a project isn’t cheap. It’s one thing to buy enough materials to complete a small box or cabinet, but it’s an entirely different story when purchasing materials to make a large wall unit to store a lot of household items.

I needed to add storage to a basement rec room recently, but the price of materials gave me a shock. It also inspired me to come up with a bit of a minimalist approach to designing and building stor­age. I wanted to see if I could use the least amount of materials as possible, but create a lasting and functioning wall unit. After a few months of use, I think I’ve succeeded.

Simple Joinery
Shallow dadoes cut across the melamine panels will assist you in two ways. First, they will provide location assistance when assembling the wall unit on-site. Second, they will provide a surface to glue, so the wall unit will be strong once assembled. Dadoes can be cut on the table saw with a dado set, or with a router and straight bit.

Simple Joinery

Shelf Holes
Brown used his Kreg shelf hole jig to make a plywood shelf hole template large enough to drill all the holes in each panel he made without having to adjust the jig and potentially make mistakes.

Shelf Holes

Reduce Chipping
During assembly, the edges of the dadoes will chip if they’re not lightly eased. Doing this also reduces the risk of cutting your hands on these sharp edges. Notice the part label on the exposed particleboard, letting Brown know how the workpiece will be oriented in the final assembly.

Reduce Chipping

Tape, Then File
Once the iron-on tape has been applied to the exposed edges, Brown used a file to clean up the areas around the ends of the dado and rabbet joints.

Tape, Then File

Not Too Deep
A simple wood stop over the drill bit will limit the depth of the hole so you don’t drill through the other side of the workpiece. The depth of hole can be fine-tuned by adjusting the position of the bit in the drill’s chuck.

Not Too Deep

Level It Up
Brown uses one of the longer panels to check the base for square during installation. Notice the pre-drilled holes in the dado and rabbet joints in the panel.

Level It Up

Side Supports
Stop blocks attached to studs on the side walls go a long way to assisting with positioning the panels, but also give you a solid point to screw into when installing the panels. Ensure they’re plumb with each other and your installation will be smooth.

Side Supports

A Strong Base
A base that can be positioned in place, then shimmed to be level, will give you a solid foundation on which to build the rest of the wall unit.

A Strong Base

On Its Face
Rest the panels on their faces and attach the fixed shelves, tops and bottoms to them. When everything is assembled, it can be tilted up and into place on the base.

On Its Face

Drawer Parts
Simple rabbets and dadoes secure the drawer box parts together. Using the same material for the sides, fronts, backs and bottoms means only one setup is needed.

Drawer Parts

Handle Holes
Brown used a Kreg hardware drilling jig to locate and bore the holes for the handles.

Handle Holes

wall unit

What’s really needed?

This really is a “choose your own adventure” situation. There’s no one right answer for what materials to select, or what sort of design is perfect for everyone. Consider what’s important for your project, then design, buy and build accordingly.

I had to think outside the box while designing this wall unit, and included only what was truly necessary. Backs usually offer a lot of torsional rigidity, but I figured as long as I fixed many points of the gables and shelves to the wall so it can’t go anywhere, my storage unit didn’t need a back. The lack of a back meant the wall would be visible behind the open unit, but I just painted the wall white to match the material I was using.

Speaking of material, I opted for white melamine particleboard for the cabinets. I don’t love melamine, but the cost savings for a part of the wall unit that is rarely seen made it a no-brainer. And it’s light in colour, which makes the whole unit brighter on the inside.

Making the doors out of white melamine particleboard was also an option, but I decided to spring for maple veneered plywood which I could stain to match some of the other interior cabinetry elsewhere in the basement.

I used fully adjustable European hinges, which aren’t cheap. They are, however, long lasting and will allow me to adjust the doors to have even gaps and look good. If you really want to save money, hinges are one of the main things to focus on, as buying this many hinges adds up quickly. I will warn you, however, that other styles of hinges will likely give you a headache if you’re installing lots of doors, but could work nicely for just a few doors.

Another approach to doors is to simply not include many, or even any, of them. They go a long way to tidying up the over­all look, but other than that they aren’t overly functional. Door material is expensive and they require some labour on your end to machine, finish and install properly. They also require hinges and pulls, which are pricey.

Drawers are great storage devices, but they do require a fair amount of material and labour. I opted for the middle ground, and installed four large drawers in the lower, middle section of the wall unit. One-half-inch thick white melamine made for sturdy drawers that will function for a long time. I ended up using full-extension slides to be sure we could easily access the full depth of the drawer box. Three-quarter extension slides would have been a cheaper option.

Even the handles and pulls for this project came in at close to $200. We selected a style that matched the existing hardware else­where in the room. You could machine finger holes into both doors and drawers, so they can be opened without hardware or make wooden pulls to save money.

Joinery selection

Certain forces act on joints. Racking, twisting, tension and rota­tion are some of the most common forces that furniture and wall units will encounter. The forces acting on the joints we make are a large part of the decision-making process when it comes to select­ing what joints to use in a project. Strong forces acting upon the finished piece call for strong joints. When the forces aren’t overly strong, a weaker and often easier to machine joint can be used.

The joints on this wall unit aren’t necessarily considered overly strong, but the forces acting upon this wall unit will be surprisingly small, and there’s one main reason for this. The gables and top, as well as many of the shelves, will be fixed directly to the wall. This removes all the potential for racking, twisting, tension and rota­tion from the unit. This allowed me to use what are otherwise fairly weak joints to fix all these parts together securely.

The upside to using these joints is that they’re fairly easy to machine. These joints also make it relatively easy to assemble the unit once I’m at home, away from the shop. I could have assembled these parts as individual cabinets and screwed them to each other at home once they were in place, but that would have created yet another challenge; bringing cabinets into the house, down a tight stairway, making a tight turn and then standing them upright in a room with a low ceiling. All of these challenges were eliminated by making this wall unit from panels, rather than assembled cabi­nets. Making cabinets and screwing them together side-by-side also requires more materials, and therefore expense, which is the main thing I was trying to keep down on this project.

Dadoes and rabbets are the main two joints I used. They offer decent location assistance while assembling the parts and provide surfaces for the glue to adhere to. I generally machined these joints on my table saw with a dado stack, but they can also be machined with a router, straight bit and straightedge.

Buy some material

I have a large cabinet saw in my shop, and have the skills to break out parts from a full sheet of material. The challenge is moving these sheets around. They’re large and heavy. I went to my local supplier with a cut list and they were able to make a couple of cuts on each of the panels. This allowed me to fit them in my vehicle, move them into the shop without hurting my back and further machine them with relative ease. A bit of planning goes a long way here.

I bought enough 3/4″ material with which to make the bulk of the wall unit, and some 1/2″ thick material for building the drawer boxes. I also bought the 3/4″ maple plywood that the doors and drawer fronts would be made with, keeping the parts labelled so I could ensure pieces from the same sheet ended up being oriented beside each other so the grain and colour was continuous. If you can’t find 1/2″ thick material for the drawer boxes, 3/4″ material would work well, too.
The edges of white melamine particleboard can be covered with an iron-on edge tape, also made with white melamine. Both melamine sheets and the iron-on edge tape come in colours other than white. I bought a 250′ roll for this project.

I also bought the full-extension slides, European hinges and shelf pins at this stage. It’s never too early to purchase the basic hardware you’ll need for a project.

Some technical details

I designed my wall unit in two halves, as moving one very wide wall unit into place would have been difficult. Because the unit was being installed between two walls about 124″ apart, the two halves are about 60″ wide each.

The gables run the entire height of the wall unit cabinets and have a rabbet in their upper and lower edges to accept the top or bottom and a dado about one-third of the way up their height to accept the fixed shelf. Because there are numerous vertical and horizontal parts that need to mate accurately, and the depth of the rabbet and dado joints need to be considered, it’s important you have a clear picture in your mind of how the parts are going to connect with each other so you know how long to cut the differ­ent parts. There’s not usually a true right or wrong way to design these joints, and every situation is a bit different.

Rips and crosscuts

I started with the gables, vertical dividers, fixed shelves, bottoms and tops by ripping them to final width. I labelled the parts as I went to keep them straight in my head.

Although many people would machine the dadoes and rab­bets, then measure and cut the mating members to length, there’s nothing wrong with doing it the other way around with a bit of planning. This is what I did, as it allowed me to cut all the main cabinet panels to length before installing a dado set in my table saw.
I only wanted to machine shallow dadoes and rabbets, as that approach would leave the most material on the parts, giving me stronger material at each junction. I opted to cut these joints 1/8″ deep. This meant I needed to do a bit of math to figure out how long I needed to cut the gables. The gables were 3/4″ thick, but I subtracted 1/8″ (for the depth of each rabbet) from both sides to leave me with 1-1/4″ overall. This meant the tops and bottoms needed to be 1-1/4″ shorter than the overall width (60″) of the assembly. I now cut the tops and bottoms to 58-3/4″ long.

Next up were the vertical dividers. Using the same formula, I crosscut them to 1-1/4″ less than the overall height of the assembly. Last, but not least, are the two fixed shelves per assembly. Using the same joint depth, I worked out the length of the fixed shelves to be 29-1/8″.

Again, these are the numbers I was dealing with. Your overall width, joint layout and rabbet / dado depth may very well differ from mine. The examples above are just so you can work through the math on my wall unit and understand what my logic was, then use that approach to lay out your wall unit.

All of these details were recorded on a piece of paper that I referred to frequently while cutting the gables, vertical dividers, fixed shelves, bottoms and tops to final length.

Rabbets and dadoes

Once the parts were cut to finished dimension, I installed a dado blade in my table saw that would machine a groove the same width as the material I was using. Shims were needed between some of the dado set cutters. Take the time to end up with a groove that captures the joining panel just right. Too tight and assembly will be a nightmare. Too loose and gaps will be visible.

While machining these rabbets and dadoes I ensured the work­pieces ran along the fence evenly. If the thought of machining dadoes across large panels like these scare you, opt for a router, equipped with a straight bit, and guide it with a straightedge. Moving the blade, not the workpiece, is often a good approach, especially when dealing with large workpieces.

Important to remember

As you can imagine, accuracy is critical when cutting the work­pieces to length and when machining the rabbets and dadoes. With all the parts referencing off each other, small mistakes can cause large problems down the road.

Shelf holes

Adjustable shelves are easy to add and will give you flexibility over the years. I used a jig to machine a series of holes in a longer piece of plywood. This made it less likely that I’d make a mistake as I worked and also sped up the process.

There’s nothing wrong with adding shelf pin holes all the way up where the shelves are going to be located, though I prefer a more modest approach. Drilling three holes about 12″ apart, approxi­mately where each shelf will go, is fast and looks cleaner than a whole row of holes. It is less flexible, though.

Once the jig was made, I clamped the plywood jig to the gable or vertical divider and used the correct diameter bit to bore the holes. To ensure I didn’t go all the way through the workpiece and blow out the other side, I used a simple wood stop around the drill bit to limit travel of the bit. A piece of tape is one option, though the wood stop is foolproof. I have a few different thicknesses of stops that fit over different diameter bits, and the bit can be adjusted within the drill’s chuck to give you the correct depth of hole. To ensure the holes on both sides of a shared vertical divider don’t get drilled in the exact same location, I shift the jig on one side of the divider about 1/2″ towards the front or back of the workpiece when I’m clamping it in place.

Tape time

Iron-on edge tape will do a good job of quickly covering the exposed particleboard edges of melamine. I taped the front edges of all the parts, then used a file and sharp knife to notch the tape where the dadoes were.

Drill screw clearance holes

These panels were eventually going to get screwed together on-site. To make that process cleaner and more accurate I drilled screw clearance holes through the centre of the dadoes now, then lightly countersunk their outer faces to accept a screwhead. The main panels that make up this wall unit were now ready for installation, though they needed a base to sit on.

Build a base

A long, full-width base made levelling the entire unit easier. In order to not need to finish the base nicely, I made the base, then added a face to cover any screws and rough joints. It was also much easier to scribe the face to the floor and walls to reduce any gaps and provide a clean, finished look.

The structural part of the base was made of two half-width sec­tions that stretched to within an inch or so of either side wall. They were screwed together on-site and levelled so the main cabinets could be assembled on top of them.

I ripped the fronts, backs and sides of the base to 4″ wide, then added a rabbet in one long edge of each piece to accept another piece of 3/4″ material. I also machined rabbets in the ends of the front and back pieces so the sides could be joined to them. The joinery and construc­tion were very basic, yet strong enough to support the storage unit and all its con­tents. There was no reason to get fancy with the structural portion of the base.

I glued, pinned and screwed the base fronts, backs and sides together, then cut and installed 3-1/4″ wide centre divid­ers as well as top inserts at both ends and the centre of each base section. The top inserts would allow me to screw down­ward through the cabinet bottoms.

Last bits and pieces

Scribes to attach to the front of the base, above the cabinets and any walls the unit will butt up against were next. Before you start cutting, you’ll have to decide on what materials you will use where. There’s no true right and wrong in this scenario, as every situation is going to be different. I opted to use white melamine for the upper scribe and face of the base. The reason for this was twofold; it would match up with the ceiling and floor nicely and I had enough of it around the shop. Often, the practical approach selects materials for me. I was going to use stained maple plywood for the doors and drawer fronts, so I used the same material for the wall scribes. Thankfully, I could cut a few strips from the door material, as each pair of doors I was going to need were only about 32″ wide.

The face for the base is easy; a couple lengths to total the 11′ span would be butted together in the middle. The small joint would be care­fully filled with DAP to make it less visible. These two pieces would be pinned in place with 23-gauge brads, then the holes filled.

The pair of top scribe assemblies were a bit more complex. As opposed to the base scribe, I needed to attach another piece to the top scribe at 90° so I could screw up through the cabinet tops, into the top scribe assembly, in order to position it precisely and keep it in place. A rab­bet on the long edge of the top scribe, with a 4″ wide piece of plywood glued and pinned to it, would work nicely. A few glue blocks to main­tain a square, strong joint completed the top scribe assemblies.
The wall scribes were made in essentially the same way as the top scribe assembly. The maple plywood scribe received a rabbet, to which another piece of plywood was fitted and joined to. I stained and top-coated them at this point.

One thing to keep in mind when making both the top and wall scribe assemblies is that a portion of the sides of these scribes will be seen. This will be even more visible with the top scribe, as when the doors are opened about 3/4″ of the scribe is visible, compared with only a very small section of the wall scribes. Because this wasn’t going to be overly visible on either of these pieces, I just used matching material for the return, then applied some iron-on tape to the edge of the face piece that would be visible. For the melamine top scribe assembly, I used white melamine tape, and for the maple wall scribe I used maple tape.

An important note to make fitting these four parts much easier: Before gluing up any of these assemblies, cut a rabbet in the edge of the material that will need to be scribed to the wall, ceiling or floor. This will mean you only have to remove about 1/4″ (or less) of material, rather than the full 3/4″ width of the material. You would even be able to hand sand some of these parts to fit while on the jobsite.

To the jobsite

Whether you’ve made these parts in your basement workshop, detached garage or across town in your friend’s space, it shouldn’t be too much trouble trans­porting everything. Even the largest panels will fit in most vehicles. This is one of the benefits of working with panels, as opposed to cabinets. You’ll also find getting all these parts into a tight base­ment much more relaxing.

A quick check on how flat the floor is and how straight the walls are is a good first step to assembly. Really, this should be done before you make any sawdust, so you know if anything overly weird would need to be dealt with. Now is more of a refresher.

Start at the bottom, with the base. I screwed the two base halves together, put the base in place, then used a level to deter­mine how far off I was. Some shims helped me obtain a flat foundation to build on top of. The front of the base would be set back a few inches from the fronts of the doors. You could screw the base to the floor, though because I was dealing with a con­crete basement floor, I opted to secure the base to the studs and bottom plate.

If I was going to build this wall unit again, I would use kitchen cabinet leveller feet to support the panels. They get screwed to the underside of the bottom panel (or cabinets, if that’s how you’ve built the unit) and can be adjusted to level the wall unit. You can also purchase small clips that can be screwed to the rear face of a toe kick, allowing the toe kick to quickly and easily get attached to the front levellers.

In hindsight, I should have at least fit the base face piece at this point. I could have set it in place on the floor, sitting against the front of the base, then marked and scribed it to the floor and wall. If the top of this piece was still higher than the upper surface of the base, I could have very easily marked it with a pencil and trimmed it undersized by about 1/8″. I waited until the panels were in place on top of the base, which made fitting the base face piece much more tedious.

Assemble the panels

I was building my wall unit in two halves, then screwing them together once they were on top of the base. Every situation is differ­ent obviously. I knew the overall width of the cabinets, so a bit of math provided me with the thickness of space blocks that needed to be screwed to the wall. Ensure the blocks are plumb with each other. These blocks gave me a positive stop to screw the cabinets to.

I glued and screwed the joints on one of the cabinets together, then tilted it up into place on the base and moved it against the stop blocks. A few screws into the stop blocks gave it some stability. I checked for level, then added a few more screws into the base.
Since there were no backs on these units, I used L-brackets to fix the top and fixed shelf to a few of the studs. Now the cabinet was very solidly fixed to the wall.

At this stage I added stop blocks on the other wall so I’d have something to screw into. The gap between these stop blocks and the first cabinet should be slightly larger than the cabinet that was going to fill the gap, but only barely. Bevelling the leading edge of the stop blocks will help you with getting the next cabi­net in place.

Next, the other cabinet got assembled and brought into place. First, it was fixed to the first cabinet so the fronts of the gables were flush, then more screws were added into the spacer blocks, base and studs.

Install the wall scribes

Screw clearance holes can be drilled in the outer gables, the wall scribes fit and then slid into place, before using screws to fix them in place for good. I set them back from the cabinet fronts by an inch or so to help them visually disappear. Another option is to bring them out flush with the faces of the doors to create a wall-to-wall look. If that’s your approach, I would wait until the doors are installed and adjusted before installing the wall scribes, so you can keep the faces of the scribes flush with the doors.

Stage one is complete

Notice I haven’t mentioned the doors or drawers yet. Normally, with assembled cabinets, I would have made the drawer boxes and the doors and drawer fronts by now, but since this situation was slightly different, I decided to make them after the panels were assembled.

I measured the door and drawer openings and went back to the shop.

Doors and drawer fronts first

Because these would need to be finished, I opted to build them first. They were very straightforward. I cut them slightly undersize, taped their edges, bore for European hinges and sanded them.

While cutting, I kept doors in pairs as they were cut from the sheet so the grain and colour would be more harmonious. Labelling them makes things easier in the long run.

A bit of foreshadowing here. Double check the dimensions of the doors and drawers on the existing cabinets. You wouldn’t want to make any mistakes at this point, especially considering the price of sheet goods.

Drawer boxes

Made of 1/2″ thick melamine, the joinery on these drawers is straightforward. Rabbet joints fix the drawer sides to the fronts and backs. The same sized rabbets let in the drawer bottom. If you hap­pen to have some 3/4″ melamine left over from building the panels, I’d use it to for making the drawer boxes.

Once the parts were machined, I assembled them and let them dry, and then taped their top edges. I attached the drawer portion of the slide to the drawer box next.

I like to bore screw holes in the drawer box fronts to make drawer front installation smoother on the jobsite. I make sure to use a clearance hole that doesn’t allow the screw to move within it loosely. Instead, I undersize the hole slightly so once the drawer box is installed I can thread in a screw so it protrudes out the face of the box by about 1/8″, then with the drawer box hung on the slides and closed, I can position the drawer front correctly (in relation to the other drawer fronts and doors) and press it onto the drawer box. This leaves small dimples where the screw holes should be drilled. If needed, an awl helps make those dimples larger so a small drill bit can create screw location holes in the rear face of the drawer front. And as a general rule when installing drawer fronts, work from the bottom up, so you can simply place a spacer on top of the drawer front below the one you’re installing, and place the next drawer front on top of the spacers to locate it, while you press it into place to create the next set of dimples.

Install the drawer boxes

Hang the cabinet portion of the slide and test fit the movement of the drawer boxes. Once any adjustments are made to ensure the drawer boxes are running smoothly, you can move on to installing all the doors and drawer fronts.

Doors and drawer fronts

I start by hanging the doors. Fully adjustable European hinges make it easy to fine tune the gaps between doors. And if a situation is dire, you can always re-mount a hinge’s base plate. Be sure to purchase the correct European hinges for your situation; full over­lay, half overlay and inset are the most common types of hinges, and very likely what you’ll need for your wall unit. Adhesive bum­pers on the backs of doors keep them from making loud noises every time they’re closed. Another approach is using soft-closing hinges, though they are more expensive.

As I mentioned before, I press the drawer fronts onto protruding screws to locate and secure them in place. I also work from the bottom to the top. Align the drawer fronts as accurately as possible, as it’s not easy to adjust them. I usually start out with just two screws per drawer front so if I have to make a small adjustment I can use a few of the other screws to re-create the dimples and hang the drawer front.

At this stage it’s a matter of adjusting the doors in and out, up and down, left and right to give you even gaps around the wall unit. In my case, I quickly realized I measured incorrectly and had to make a spacer to fill a 1-1/2″ gap between two drawer front banks. If this had been for a paying customer, re-making the drawer fronts would have been the only option. I’m not proud of my solution, but life in our house goes on.

Shelf pins can now be added, followed by all the shelves.

The next step is to drill for all the handles. A jig comes in very handy, though it’s not overly hard to build a shop-made jig to assist you. Whatever your approach, make sure to not rush it, think about what you’re doing and avoid any mistakes. You’ve put too much into this project by now to mess it up at this point.

DAP, or some form of caulk, can now be added to conceal the slight gaps between the scribes and the ceiling and walls. If you do this step neatly the scribes fade into the background and never get noticed.

Final thoughts

I set out to build a simple but stylish wall unit to store all sorts of extra stuff we have around the house. And I wanted to do it without breaking the bank. I think the result­ing wall unit meets all these requirements. Not using backs, and using panels rather than cabi­nets, were both decisions I’m happy with. This strong wall unit should function for decades without troubles.


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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