Can-Do Cabinet

Designed to organize mail and mailing supplies near the back door of my home, this cabinet has proved so useful that I’m considering making a few more. At just larger than 2 ft. wide and 30 in. tall, it’s the perfect size to hang over a small desk or even in a bathroom. And you can easily adapt the design to suit specific needs.

Even novice woodworkers can tackle this project. The joinery method is an easy-to-complete new twist on an old technique: Those aren’t wood plugs in the sides and top, and they aren’t just for show - they’re pegs that hold the cabinet together. Instead of traditional straight pegs, I used an updated version made by the Miller Dowel Co. (see “Modern-Day Pegs,” below).

I built the cabinet out of rift-sawn white oak, but you can use any furniture-grade lumber. To add contrast, I made the back panel out of tongue-and-groove bead boards (commonly used for wainscoting), but 1/4-in.-thick veneered plywood would work just as well.

Cut the parts
Finding 3/4-in.-thick boards that are flat and wider than 8 in. is not always easy. It’s often a better option to edge-glue narrow stock to create the sides, shelves, top and door.

To achieve a good bond, the edges that will be glued must be flat and perpendicular to the faces. A jointer is the best way to prepare the edges, but a table saw equipped with a sharp blade can also cut smooth, perpendicular edges. If you don’t have either of these tools, you can use a circular saw with a sharp blade and a straightedge to guide the cut, but you must be careful to maintain a steady cut rate and keep the saw firmly against the straightedge throughout the cut.

Once you’ve made the cuts, glue each panel together, being careful to keep the faces flush. After the adhesive has cured, remove any dried glue with a scraper and cut each panel and the rails to their final dimensions. Next, cut a 1-in.-dia. radius in the front corners of the top piece. Finally, sand all parts smooth, working up to 220-grit sandpaper.

Assemble the cabinet
Begin by attaching the bottom shelf to one of the wide rails with glue, keeping the top face of the bottom shelf and the top edge of the rail flush (photo 1). Clean up excess glue after it has cured.

Next, assemble the cabinet facedown on a worktable, clamping the sides, rails, bottom and middle shelf together (photo 2). Leave the clamps in place while you install the Miller dowels.


Apply glue to the front edge of the bottom shelf, and clamp the wide rail so that the top edge is flush with the top of the shelf.


Clamp the cabinet parts together facedown. Use scraps of beadboard and the stock for the French cleat to help determine the position of the top rail.

The dowel depth and the size of the exposed dowel ends are determined by how deep you drill the pilot holes. I chose to insert all four sections of the dowel into the shelves and to insert three sections of the dowels into the rails, leaving exposed two different cap sizes.

Drill each dowel hole, being careful to remove all shavings (photo 3). Apply glue to the ribbed sections of the dowel, insert it into the hole and tap it with a mallet to secure it (photo 4). To prevent any glue squeezeout from smearing and getting on the saw, wait until the adhesive has cured to trim and sand the dowels flush (photo 5).


Mark and drill the dowel holes. Drive the stepped drill bit deep enough for all four dowel steps in the shelves and for three dowel steps in the rails.


Apply glue to the ribbed sections of the dowel and insert it into the hole. Tap the dowel until the top section has reached the end of the hole.


Trim the exposed portion of the dowel flush. I used a flush-cut saw with a blade that flexes to maintain contact with the workpiece.

Next, glue and clamp the top to the sides and rails. The top is also secured with dowels. I inserted four sections of dowel through the top and into the sides, but because they are too long, I inserted only three sections of each dowel through the top and into the top rails (photo 6).


Clamp the top to the sides and to the top rails with the back edges flush. Then secure the top with dowels.

Add hardware and finish
The door is mounted on free-swinging concealed hinges and supported by an adjustable tension lid support. This type of hinge is typically used on cabinet doors that swing horizontally, but it also works well for this application. Install the hinges in 35-mm-dia. x 1/2-in.-deep holes drilled in the back of the door, and fasten the mating hinge-mounting plates to the cabinet. Connect the hinge parts and center the door in the opening using the hinge-adjustment screws. Then fasten the lid support and handle to the door and cabinet (photo 7).


Mount the door to the cabinet with two concealed hinges. Attach the lid-support brackets to the door and to the cabinet. Fasten the lid support to the brackets, and adjust the support tension with an allen wrench.

Test the door and adjust the hinges and lid support as necessary. When you are satisfied with the door’s operation, remove the hardware, clean up any remaining excess glue and give the piece a final sanding with 220-grit sandpaper. Then apply the finish of your choice; I wiped on three coats of satin polyurethane.

Make the back panel
The back panel is constructed from seven 5/16-in.-thick tongue-and-groove wainscoting boards. I centered the boards in the back opening and trimmed the two end boards to fit. (Be careful not to cut off the wrong edge.) Paint the boards before attaching them, applying light coats to the tongues and in the grooves so that the boards will still fit together. Attach the back panel to the cabinet by driving 1-in. brads through the center of each end of each board (photo 8).


Attach the tongue-and-groove beadboard pieces to the back of the rails with 3/4-in. brads. Next, attach one French cleat with 1-5/8-in. screws.

Hang it up
The cabinet hangs on a set of beveled cleats, sometimes called French cleats. One long edge of each cleat is beveled 45 degrees. Attach one cleat to the cabinet with the beveled edge facing down and toward the cabinet. Position the bottom of the wall cleat 4-1/16 in. below where you want the top of the cabinet to be on the wall. (I mounted the cabinet with the bottom edge 4-1/2 ft. above the floor.) Attach the wall cleat level and with the beveled edge up and facing toward the wall. Drive at least one screw into a stud, and use one or two wall anchors or toggles as additional fasteners.

Slide the cabinet down onto the wall cleat, being careful not to scuff the wall (photo 9). The cabinet will hang on the cleat securely, but for added stability, it’s a good idea to drive a 1-in. brad through the back panel and into the wall cleat. This helps to ensure that no one will lift the cabinet off of the wall by accident – or in an attempt to kidnap your creation for his or her own use.


Attach French cleats to the cabinet and the wall. When you hang the cabinet, the bevel in the cleats pulls it tight against the wall.


Modern-Day Pegs
This cabinet owes its ease of construction to Miller dowels. All of the parts are butt-jointed and secured with these modern pegs, which are designed to fit into a special stepped hole that matches the dowel size. You drill the hole using a corresponding stepped drill bit. The stepped design makes the dowel easier to insert than a straight peg because about three-quarters of the dowel goes into the hole before you seat it with a mallet. (Friction and adhesion can cause traditional straight pegs to get stuck before they are fully seated.) In addition, the stepped dowels are self-aligning and provide a larger gluing surface than a straight peg.

This project is part of HANDY's Top 5 Collection: Furniture Projects.
Click here to check out the other four furniture articles in this collection.