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How to Build Custom Cabinets - Part 5

Spraying a finish on cabinet door The Earlex SprayStation 5500 is a great way to apply a smooth, even coat of finish quickly and easily.

NOTE: Be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 on How to Build a Custom Cabinet. 

With all the major construction done we are in the home stretch but there's still a lot of work to be done in order to have a professional-looking, finished product. We need to install the drawer slides and drawer fronts, sand and apply a finish, and then install the cabinets.


I try to sand everything as I go in order to keep the final sanding process manageable. Individual pieces are easier to sand than a fully assembled box. Cabinet boxes get sanded before assembly. The face frames likewise get sanded before installation, as do the doors and drawer fronts. This means that these parts need a minimal amount of work to be ready for applying a finish. Depending on the finish, I'll sand to a minimum of 180-grit, making sure to start with a coarse enough sandpaper to remove machine marks (usually 80 grit). On this project I started with 80-grit and sanded to 220-grit on all hardwood parts. The plywood boxes received a quick sanding from 120- to 180-grit.

Mirka sander in use The Mirka Deros Dust-Free Sanding System keeps the air clean in your shop while sanding.

Sanding can definitely be a dreaded chore, but a good sander can make all the difference. The Mirka Deros is by far the most comfortable sander I have used. When hooked to a dust extractor and using Mirka Abranet sandpaper, it has the most efficient dust collection. When you consider that you get a sander that has the feel and power of a pneumatic sander without the need of a very large, loud air compressor to drive it, the Deros is definitely an option to consider.


Mixing dye into clear top coat General Finishes makes a variety of stains, dyes, and top coats for almost every application.

The finish we chose for our cabinets is General Finishes High Performance Satin Top Coat. Because this is a water-based finish you don't have to worry about fumes. It dries very quickly allowing  sanding and additional coats to be applied in hours rather than days.

The High Performance product is a clear finish that doesn't impart the amber color that an oil-based finish will. To achieve the results we wanted we tinted the finish with another General Finishes product: Light Brown Dye Stain. Adding 1 tablespoon of dye stain to 1 pint of High Performance yielded a nice, natural maple finish. It adds a tone to the wood to reduce the noticeable variations in the color of the raw wood. The natural character of the wood shows through but not to the extreme that it would had the clear-coat not been tinted. Adding a tint to a clear top coat is a great technique to experiment with.

Earlex Spray Station applying finish to cabinets The Earlex Spray Station is portable and convenient to use when applying a finish to large projects.

The Earlex 5500 Spray Station took care of the application and made it very easy to spray all parts of the project. We traded out the stock 1.5mm needle in our Earlex spray gun for a 1mm needle after testing the viscosity of our finish. This allowed for a smooth, even finish with a minimal amount of runs or drips even when spraying full wet coats of the High Performance product which has great leveling characteristics.

Drawer Slides

Installing drawer slides with Kreg Drawer Slide Jigs Kreg Drawer Slide Jigs help locate the drawer slide on both the cabinet and the drawer.

Once the last coat of finish is dry it is time to install the drawer slides and finish assembling the cabinets. We used full-extension drawer slides. When choosing slides for your project consider how much weight will need to be supported and choose accordingly.

Installed drawer in cabinet Once the drawer slides and drawer fronts are attached to the drawer box, slide them into the cabinet. The profile created by the Infinity Finger Pull router bit makes it easy to slide the drawer out.

There are a lot of different types of drawer slides. We chose a basic model for our project that mount to the side of the drawer. The mating piece either mounts to the side of the cabinet or the back of the cabinet box. We used a spacer for mounting the slides for the sliding trays. Rear brackets support the slides for the upper drawers. Kreg makes a handy jig for mounting drawers. Aptly named the Kreg Drawer Slide Jig, Pair (116-263) these jigs are simple and easy to use.

Attaching drawer front A simple cleat helps align the drawer fronts as you temporarily attach them to the drawer box using double-sided tape.

Mounting the drawer fronts to the drawer boxes is easy. To do this I clamp a strip of wood to the face of my cabinet to act as a cleat for the drawer front to get everything lined up just right. Double-sided tape holds the drawer front in position on the drawer box. Then it's a simple matter to remove the drawer from the cabinet and use a couple of screws from the inside to attach the drawer front. We used an Infinity Finger Pull Bit (56-503) to add a decorative detail and eliminate the need for drawer pulls. If your project require hardware like drawer pulls, the Kreg Cabinet Hardware Jig (116-015) and True Precision Cabinet hardware & Shelf Pin Jig (TPG-001) are worth a look.

To re-install the doors, I again use a simple cleat to locate the door vertically on the cabinet and then attach the hinges to the cabinet box. Once the doors are installed minor adjustments can be made to the position of the door using the adjustment cams in the hinges.

Cabinet Installation

Installing the cabinets is not difficult but is definitely made easier with an extra set of hands. I start with the upper cabinets and install a temporary ledger strip that acts as a cleat to support the cabinet while you attach it to the wall. Take extra care to level the ledger and locate all the studs before you start hefting the cabinets into place. Doing thi will make the process much easier.

The first cabinet is the cornerstone so make sure to take your time to get it plumb and level side-to-side and front-to-back. Installing the adjacent cabinet is a matter of aligning the face frames, screwing the two cabinets together and then to the wall. Attaching the two cabinets together first ensures that any variations in the wall do not cause misalignment.

Installing a base cabinet The lower cabinet boxes rest on the toe kick. Fasten the cabinet both to the wall and toe kick, making sure the cabinet is level and plumb.

The lower base cabinets go in much the same way the upper cabinets do. Except in this case, I've installed the toe kick, making sure it was level all the way across its length. The toe kick acts as a level platform that eliminates any variations in the floor. Take extra car to get the toe kick perfectly level because any variation will translate straight through to the countertop.

Once the toe kick is in place, installing the base cabinets is just a matter of setting them in place, double-checking level and plumb, and attaching them to the wall and toe kick. Again, after the first box is installed I attach the subsequent boxes together first, then to the wall and toe kick. I check for level and plumb as I go.

Final cabinet installation Once all of the cabinets are in place, drawers and doors installed, and countertop added, you can stand back and admire your work.

When the last box is in place the cabinets are ready for the countertop and trim. Trim at the floor to cover the transitions can be installed as well as crown molding at the ceiling. If you have cabinets that will have exposed backs, a panel can be installed to cover the unfinished backs. This could be as simple as a finished piece of 1/4" plywood tacked into place or as elaborate as raised panel that mimics the doors found on the opposite side. The possibilities are endless but the basic methods of construction remain the same. It is all up to you to design and build whatever you or your client can dream up.

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