Build a Versatile Valet Cabinet

Adaptable and attractive, this long-legged performer gets our vote for best home furnishing in a supporting role.

Some woodworking projects require tricky joinery techniques or demand that you tame beautiful but highly uncooperative wood. This is not one of them. The biggest challenge in building the project you see here will come when you try to describe exactly what you’ve made. Is it a cabinet? A table? A display stand? All we know for sure is that it is useful, versatile, easy to build and pleasing to look at.

You’re not likely to find the term in any furniture catalog, but I’ve dubbed this household furnishing a “valet cabinet.” Based loosely on a conglomeration of familiar styles, it is straightforward enough in appearance to fit into just about any home.

In the bathroom, the valet cabinet can function as a washstand or a small supplementary vanity that holds hand towels or grooming products. It’s also a good fit in a dining room for displaying a silverware chest and storing table linens. You can position it near a door as a resting spot for gloves and keys or put it in the kitchen to use as a spare work surface or a microwave stand. You can even add a lock to the door and convert it to a minibar.

The cabinet I built requires some machining that’s best accomplished with a table saw. But by making a couple of minor modifications, you could easily build a comparable project with only a jigsaw, a router and basic hand tools (see “Simplification Strategies,” below).

About the design
If you described the style of this cabinet as Shaker, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. The wood species, the finish, the wide rails and stiles, the inset frame-and-panel doors, the curve of the tapered legs, the overhanging top and the overall tone of the piece all borrow from Shaker design. The cabinet shown stands just under 35 in. tall, so it is closer to countertop height than table height. This is convenient for use in a kitchen or bathroom. For other rooms, you may want to consider shortening the legs from 34 in. to about 29 in. But be aware that changing the height will detract from the cabinet’s appearance.

The joints in the door frame and in the side and back panel assemblies are reinforced with 1/4-in.-dia. dowels. Dowel joints can be tricky to align, but they’re easier to make than many other joints. I used inexpensive metal dowel points as guides for drilling the dowel holes.

The tabletop is made from two pieces of edge-glued stock. To allow for wood movement on this wide part, I attached it to the base with screws driven through oversize guide holes in the stretchers.

Relatively small furnishings such as this cabinet look best when made from wood that is not heavily figured. Maple, birch, poplar, beech and red alder are a few hardwoods that exhibit grain that won’t compete for attention. I chose red alder because it is workable and relatively inexpensive.

The most efficient way to build this project is to make the side assemblies and the back and front assemblies and then join them into a case by creating the long bevel-miter joints at each leg corner. Next, make and install the door, fasten the bottom panel on wood cleats and glue up and attach the top panel.

Make the parts
Mill all of the stock to uniform thickness (3/4 in.) and then rip material for the legs (3-1/4 in.) and the rails and stiles (1-1/2 in.). Also rip and crosscut stock for the edge-glued top panel (14 x 20 in.). Glue up the top panel using biscuits or dowels to aid alignment.

Next, cut the legs, rails and stiles to length. Mount a 3/8-in. straight bit in a router table and cut centered, 3/8-in.-deep grooves in the inside edges of all parts that will accept the panel inserts. Start the 15-1/2-in.-long grooves in the legs 1 in. from the top ends.

Make the 45-degree bevel-rip cut on the inside edge of each leg part with a table saw (photo 1). Feed the parts into the blade with the waste side of the cut farther from the fence. (With the saw I used, that meant moving the fence to the left side of the blade.) To form mating pairs of leg parts, you’ll need to rip four of the boards so that the top of the leg leads into the blade; rip the other four so the bottom of the leg hits the blade first. Save the 45-degree-beveled cutoff pieces to use as fill strips/corner blocks on each leg.

Rip the leg stock to width and cut the leg sections to length; then bevel-rip a 45-degree miter on one edge of each leg section. The table saw blade should tilt away from the fence.

Make a template of the leg profile using the drawing (see the PDF below) as a guide. Trace the template profile onto each leg and then cut out the profile with a jigsaw, favoring the waste side of the cutting line (photo 2). I refined each leg profile individually with an oscillating spindle sander (photo 3) and then ganged all eight boards together and sanded them to a uniform profile with a belt sander (photo 3). If you’re handy with a router, you could use a pattern instead of sanding.

Make a template for the leg section profile, using the pattern in the drawing as a guide. Trace the profile onto each of the leg sections and then rough-cut them with a jigsaw. Make the cuts slightly on the waste side of the cutting lines.

Refile the profiles using an oscillating spindle sander or a router with a template-following bit. Clamp all eight sections together and even them out with a belt sander if the profiles vary (inset photo).

Cut the insert panels and the bottom panel to size. Although you can find alder plywood, it typically comes in 3/4-in.-thick 4x8 sheets that cost at least $75. Instead, I bought a 2x4 panel of 1/4-in. birch plywood (which also seemed overpriced at $17). The color is slightly paler than the red alder, but the grain patterns are similar, and after being stained the panels matched pretty well.

Assemble the cabinet
Drill two 1/4 x 1-in. dowel holes in the end of each rail (including the door rails), keeping the holes away from the panel insert grooves. Use a drill press or right-angle drilling guide where possible to ensure that the holes are straight.

Insert a 1/4-in. dowel point (photo 4) into each dowel hole and press the mating stile or leg against each rail to mark drilling points (photo 5). Drill at the points, again taking care to keep the drill bit straight and perpendicular to the workpiece. Insert 1/4 x 1-1/2-in. wood dowels into the dowel holes and test the fit of each joint (photo 6). Glue and clamp the four assemblies. (Work carefully, the thin, beveled edges are very delicate.) Don’t forget to insert the correct panel into the grooves in the sides, back and door before glue-up, and be sure to keep glue off of the panel edges.

To make the dowel joints, drill two 1/4-in. holes in each end of each rail, making sure to keep the drill parallel with the side of the workpiece. Insert a 1/4-in. dowel point into each hole.

Using a framing square as a reference, press the rail with the dowel points against the mating board. The points in the end of the rail will make impressions in the mating board.

After all joints are drilled, test the fit of the parts and then clamp and glue the projects up into sections. Do not glue the panels that are inset into the door, sides and back.

Before gluing the assemblies together to form the carcase, attach the stretchers between the front legs and at the top of the back assembly (photo 7). Fasten the stretchers with countersunk No. 8 wood screws (2 in. long for the upper stretchers and 1-1/4-in. long for the lower front stretcher). Glue the legs together one pair at a time to create each corner. Because the length of these bevel-miter joints increases the chances that you’ll end up with small gaps at the seams, I used a stainable wood glue from Elmer’s. Pin-nail each joint in several locations with 1-in. (18-gauge) brads.

Attach the stretchers to the front leg sections using countersunk wood screws. The top stretcher is installed on edge with No. 8 x 2-in. wood screws, and the bottom stretcher is installed on the flat with No. 8 x 1-1/4-in. screws.

For more substantial legs, cut long corner blocks from the 3/4 x 3/4-in. triangular cutoffs that you trimmed from each leg during bevel-ripping. Glue the corner blocks into the crotch of each corner (photo 8) and then file or sand the edges where necessary to make smooth joints.

Glue the assemblies together, fastening each bevel-miter joint in a few spots with brads. Glue and pin-nail the 45-degree fill strips at the inside corner of each leg.

Lay out the assemblies for the valet cabinet and sand them, finishing with 150-grit sandpaper. Do not sand the long bebeled edges. The bottom panel (made of melamine-coated particleboard that does not require sanding) and cleats are not shown.

Nail and glue the cleats so that the top edges are 3/4 in. below the tops of the bottom stretcher and lower rails, and then attach the bottom panel of the cabinet to the cleats. Center the door in the opening and hang it with butt hinges. Drill extra-large guide holes in the stretchers; then center the top panel on the cabinet base. Attach the top with panhead screws driven up through the stretcher guide holes. The extra space in the guide holes allows the wood to move slightly with expansion and contraction.

Finally, apply your choice of finish. I used maple stain to even out the red alder and birch plywood tones and then applied a few coats of wipe-on varnish to preserve and protect the finish.

Looking to simplify an already simple design? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Build the cabinet out of milled dimensional lumber (1x2 and 1x4) such as pine, oak or maple. (Maple is the most difficult of these to work with.)
  2. Instead of the full-height bevel-miter joints on the leg corners, make the side half of each leg pair 3/4 in. narrower (2-3/4 in.) and butt it against the back edge of a square-cut 1x4 (actual width 3-1/2 in.). This will probably result in a less refined appearance, but it also lessens your chances of exhibiting inferior craftsmanship. (A long, poorly-fitted miter is a very obvious defect.)
  3. The door and the side and back panels are built using frame-and-panel construction techniques — during assembly, a floating panel is inserted into grooves in the inside edges of the frame pieces. Cutting these joints requires a table saw or a router table. A simpler method is to cut rabbets in the inside perimeters of the frames after assembly and then secure panels in the rabbets with brads or glazier’s points. (Use a router with a piloted rabbet bit, and square the corners with a wood chisel.)