How To Build Frameless Base Cabinets

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Free Frameless European style base cabinet plans that you can build for your kitchen, bathroom, office, home theater or other renovations. This is more than just how to build a base cabinet. It's practically everything you need to know about building frameless base cabinets before you begin. 

When I first tried to learn how to build cabinets I had a hard time finding all the information I needed. There was a little bit here, a little bit there, but nowhere did I find all the information all in one place. I did my best to combine most of what you need to know in one place to make things easier for you. It's a bit of a long read but if you're serious about building your own cabinets it to save money it's well worth the time. One book I commonly saw mentioned was Build Your Own Kitchen Cabinets (Popular Woodworking) by Danny Proulx which might be worth considering. I haven't read it myself.

Frameless cabinets are easy and affordable to build. They also provide more usable storage space over face frame cabinets. Over the years I've looked into different construction techniques for frameless cabinets and have put all that information together to help you build your own frameless base cabinets. To build matching wall cabinets see my post on How To Build Frameless Wall Cabinets. Construction of the base cabinet is relatively straight forward. The most difficult aspect is planning and sizing which will make up a good bit of this post.

Frameless cabinets have a more contemporary look but can be dressed up with trim and more elaborate doors to have a more traditional look.

In this article we're going to focus on how to build a frameless base cabinet carcass. The cabinet carcass is the main box of the cabinet which does not include doors, drawer fronts or drawer boxes. The cabinet carcass can be configured in a number of different ways to allow doors, drawers, open shelving or any combination which suits your needs.

The frameless cabinet design I find easiest to build, install and provides exceptional strength is the one pictured right. It is made of 3/4" plywood throughout, including a full back. The top consists of 2 4" stretchers. Up to a 30" wide standard base cabinet carcass can be constructed out of a single sheet of 4' x 8' plywood.


This is the design we'll focus on but I'll address some other options and aspects.

Cabinet Base Options

There are 4 different ways you can configure the base of your lower frameless cabinet. Each one has it's pros and cons.

Standard Base

The standard base has the sides and back of the cabinet extend all the way down to the floor and is notched in the front to provide a toe kick. The notch is 3" deep and 4-1/2" tall. There is a "sub toe kick" that provides additional support for the bottom and makes it easy to apply your finished toe kick cover (such as a decorative baseboard) over a continual stretch of cabinets for a seamless look.

This type of base is marginally more difficult to build and uses a little more plywood but you get a single cabinet unit which has advantages. Each cabinet needs to be shimmed individually to make it level. This is what most semi-custom cabinets you buy look like.

Standard Base No Toe Kick

Sometimes you won't need a toe kick at all such as when you're building a built-in desk or library. This base has the same pros and cons as the standard base except it has no toe kick. Instead a decorative board, the same thickness of the doors, is applied over the base of all cabinets after installation for a seamless look.

Adjustable Cabinet Legs

Adjustable cabinet legs (such as these Platte River Cabinet Leveling Legs or better Blum Leg Levelers and Blum Kick Plate Clips) make installation of cabinets very easy on uneven floors and let's face it, most floors have some degree of unevenness to them.

What's more, it's easy to make changes to the cabinet height during installation (and with a little more work after installation) if the need arises.

The toe kick board gets screwed onto a plate that clips onto the legs after all cabinets have been installed and leveled. Unlike the standard base, it's easy to add a toe kick on the side of a cabinet such as the exposed end of a cabinet run. It also makes it easier to change the toe kick board to change the look of your kitchen at a later date.

Since the wood cabinet is kept off the floor these are good for spaces where dampness is an issue such as in basements, garages or other areas where cabinets are installed on a concrete slab floor.

The downside is it will add a little bit extra to the cost of each cabinet but not much and the benefts will usually outweigh the cost.

Separate Base Platform

Finally you can create a separate base platform that consists of a frame made up of 2x4's with a plywood top giving you a total toe kick height of 4-1/4" (3-1/2" 2x4 + 3/4" plywood). What's nice about this arrangement is you level the platform before installing the cabinets. Then you just need to place your cabinets on the platform without having to do much if any additional leveling. The base is also sturdier than a base that is part of or attached to your cabinets.

You can even create toe kicks on the sides of cabinets where necessary such as the end of a cabinet run or a kitchen island.

Cabinet Back Options

You also have a few options on how you construct the back of the cabinet.

Full Back

You can choose to use a full back that is the same 3/4" plywood used for the rest of your cabinet. (Some people choose to use 1/2" but I find it's easier to just use one thickness throughout.) This configuration will give you an enclosed cabinet with exceptional strength which is important when installing heavy stone countertops and supporting heavy countertop appliances. It can be a little more money but not much if you plan your cuts out well. We'll be using the Full Back in the example in this article.

Nailer Back

Sometimes you don't care if a cabinet has a back or not, such as in garage storage cabinets. This option can save on material. Instead of having a full back you create 2 nailing strips out of 3/4" plywood for the top and bottom of the back so you have something to affix the cabinet to the wall with and to provide rigidity and strength to the cabinet.

1/4" Back With Nailers

In some cases you'll want to have an enclosed back but you want to save some money. You can use nailers as in the previous option but also staple a 1/4" plywood back over the nailers to provide a finished look. This is cheaper than using a full back and provides a lighter cabinet. Many semi-custom cabinet manufacturers use this technique. It doesn't add as much strength as a full back but it does give you the look and feel of one. The 1/4" plywood is more prone to warping than the 3/4" plywood and may bow out over time.

What You'll Need

Tools

Materials

3/4" hardwood veneered plywood is the best option for building your cabinets. If you're taking the time to build your own cabinets might as well make them the best you can. You're still going to save money over most semi-custom cabinets that are usually made out of 5/8" particle board and wind up with a better quality cabinet. 

Plywood comes in different apperance grades. A1 being the best. If you plan on painting your cabinets or don't care about the apperance (garage cabinets) you can use a lower appearance grade cabinet. If you must use MDF to save money make sure you glue your joints in addition to using the appropriate pocket screws . 

Step 1: Calculate Cabinet and Component Dimensions

Chances are you will want to build a different sized cabinet than what I'm going to show in this example. In most cases you'll want to build multiple cabinets of different sizes so let's go over how to calculate the dimensions of the different components that make up the carcass. 

Cabinet Height

The height of the cabinet will be determined by the application. For example the standard height for the top of a kitchen work surface is 36". If our countertop thickness will be 1-1/2" that means our cabinet needs to be 36" - 1-1/2" or 34-1/2" tall.

Cabinet Height = Desired Top Height - Top Thickness

Some common work type heights are:
  • Kitchen 36"
  • Bathroom Vanity 33" to 36"
  • Desk 30"

Cabinet Depth

The standard depth for kitchen cabinets is 24" which includes the door. This should work for most situations but you may want to check the specifications of your appliances (slide in range, dishwasher, etc) to see if they require a different size. 

For bathroom vanity cabinets the standard depth is 21". For desks and other custom cabinets you can choose whatever depth works best for you though most are 20-30" deep.

Cabinet Width

This one is easy. The cabinet width is determined by your design and your preferences.

Cabinet  Component Dimensions

In our example we're going to be constructing a 30" W x 34-1/2" H x 24" D cabinet using 3/4" plywood. We'll be making it with a standard base and a full back. In all the dimensions below the direction of the grain will follow the height.

*Note: if you're using thick edgebanding you'll need to factor that in where appropriate. Most edgebanding is less than 1/32" thick which is pretty insignificant so I don't factor it in most of the time. As long as it's used consistently and applied before assembly I consider it an acceptable margin of error. Wood expands and contracts. Not all human cuts are very accurate. Consistency is more important over precision and it makes calculating sizes and cutting components much easier.

Cabinet Side Dimensions

We will need two sides for the cabinet. The height of the side is simply the height of our cabinet minus an external base if using one. The width is the depth of the cabinet minus the thickness of the door.

Cabinet Side Height = Height of Cabinet - External Base (34-1/2" - 0 = 34-1/2")
Cabinet Side Width = Depth of Cabinet - Door Thickness (24" - 3/4" = 23-1/4")

We'll need 2 34-1/2" x 23-1/4" sides for our cabinet.

Cabinet Bottom Dimensions

The height for the bottom of our cabinet will need to be the width of our cabinet minus twice the thickness of the sides. The width will be the depth of the cabinet mins the back depth minus the door thickness. (Be careful sometimes advertised size isn't true size. A digital caliper can help you get an accurate thickness measurement. Your 3/4" plywood may sometimes be 23/32" or something else entirely.)

Cabinet Bottom Height = Cabinet Width - 2 x Side Thickness (30" - 2 x 3/4" = 28-1/2")
Cabinet Bottom Width = Cabinet Depth - Back Thickness - Door Thickness (24" - 3/4" - 3/4" = 22-1/2")

We'll need one back that is 28-1/2" x 22-1/2".

Cabinet Shelf Dimensions

If you're installing a shelf in your cabinet (as our example does) you want to size it appropriately. It's basically the same dimensions as the Bottom minus a little depth (1/2") so that it stays clear of the doors even if there is some expansion.

Cabinet Shelf Height = Cabinet Bottom Height (28-1/2")
Cabinet Shelf Width = Cabinet Bottom Width - 1/2" (22-1/2" - 1/2" = 22")

Cabinet Back Dimensions

We can use some of the previous dimensions we calculated to determine the dimensions of the back of the cabinet. The back of the cabinet will rarely be seen and even when it is it won't be lit very well. While it's nice to have a consistent grain direction for the backs you might be able to save a sheet of plywood by mixing the grain direction up for the backs if you don't mind a little inconsistency in an inconspicuous location.

Cabinet Back Height = Cabinet Bottom Height (28-1/2")
Cabinet Back Width = Cabinet Side Height - Stretcher Thickness (34-1/2" - 3/4" = 33-3/4")

Our cabinet needs one back measuring 28-1/2" x 33-3/4".

Stretcher and Sub Toe Kick Dimensions

Grain direction should be along the long side but in most cases these components will hardly be seen so feel free to change the orientation if it helps you maximize the usage on your cut plan. 

Stretchers should be 3-4" wide, the sub toe kick should match the height of the notch cut into the base (4-1/2" in our example). The height of both should be the same as the Cabinet Back Height (28-1/2").

We'll need 3 stretchers (4" x 28-1/2") and one sub toe kick (4-1/2" x 28-1/2")

Step 2: Attach Side To Back

Wow! You've read all this way and we're just starting to put the cabinet together! Careful planning makes the rest of the process easy.

Start by applying edgebanding to the front of both cabinet sides.

Drill pocket holes around the top and sides of the Cabinet Back and attach it to one of the sides as shown.


Notice that the bottom of the back is flush with the bottom of the side. There is a 3/4" space on the top of the back for the stretcher that will eventually be installed.

Step 3: Attach Bottom

Apply edgebanding to the front of the bottom, drill pocket screw holes as shown and attach the Bottom to the Side and Back previously assembled. Notice that the bottom of the Bottom is flush with the notch for the Toe Kick. Use your square to make sure everything is aligned properly.

Step 4: Attach Other Side

Attach the other side to the cabinet assembly using the previously drilled pocket holes in the Back and Bottom pieces.

Step 5: Attach Stretchers

Apply edgebanding to the front of the 2 stretchers that will be attached to the front. Drill pocket holes and attach to the cabinet making sure everything is square. The bottom stretcher on the front is for the first drawer. To minimize visibility of the pocket holes install them with the pocket holes facing up. (The drawer will hide the second front stretcher holes.)


In this example we're assuming the cabinet will have a single full width drawer and 2 lower doors. The spacing for this bottom section will be determined by the desired drawer height. The standard top drawer height is 6". We're planning for overlay drawers and doors. A 1/4" gap should be on the top to avoid any binding against the counter top. That means the second front stretcher should be 6-1/4" down from the top of the cabinet.

Step 6: Install Sub Toe Kick

The Sub Toe Kick helps support the cabinet and add rigidity. It also makes it easy to nail in the finished kick board after installation. Drill pocket screw holes and attach it between the cabinet sides as shown.

Step 7: Drill Shelf Pin Holes

Using the Kreg Shelf Pin Jig make holes in the back and front of each side of the cabinet for shelf pins. Leave at least 3-4" on the top and bottom for room to install your door hinges depending on where you drill the bores for your hinge cups on the door.

Use the short side of the jig without the fence to get the holes 37mm from the front edge of the jig. When doing the back, flip the jig around.


When you're done, apply edgebanding to the front of the shelf, insert shelf pins in the appropriate locations and install your shelf.

To learn how to make drawers see my post on How To Make Drawer Boxes

36 comments :

  1. What about doors? Is that in another post?

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    1. Hi Tori. Doors are a little more complicated because there are many different styles of doors. I'll be covering some in future articles. Thank you for taking the time to visit my site and leave feedback.

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  2. Replies
    1. Hi Dee. Thanks for the comment. I still haven't gotten to the article on doors yet. You can always just build flat slab doors out of 3/4" plywood. Just cut to size and edgeband all 4 sides. That's the cheapest/easiest door to make. Some of the nicer raised panel doors need specialty router bits which not every one has or wants to buy. You might want to have a look at http://www.barkerdoor.com/ they have some nice options and decent prices.

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  3. I need the info on doors also ...about to start project, but don't want to quit in middle, Can you direct me somewhere?

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  4. When creating the Separate Base Platform cabinet option, is the cabinet bottom installed flush with the sides and back, or is there a gap?

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    1. Sue,

      Just saw your other reply. Yes, the bottom of the cabinet should be flush with the sides so that the bottom rests on the base platform.

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  5. Sue,

    The Base Platform gets installed first and secured to the floor and back wall. You'd normally use this when installing multiple cabinets and then place the cabinets on top of the platform.

    The back of the platform should be up against the back wall, thus back of the cabinet. The sides should also be up against the sides of the cabinet unless you want to include a toe kick on the side end cabinet (like I show in the illustration.)

    Exposed end cabinets if you have the platform extend all the way to the side of the cabinet you'll want to install a more decorative end panel to cover the entire side of the cabinet, including the platform since the platform is usually made from not so attractive lumber (2x4's).

    Hope that answers your question.

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    1. Thanks - but I was actually asking whether the bottom of the cabinet should be flush with the sides if the cabinet (and thus, touching the top of the platform), or if there should be a gap? Sorry if my question was confusing.

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  6. This was very helpful, seems to be a good consolidation of all the info I was looking for. Much appreciated!

    I found this after I drew it all in SU, I will have to make some changes based on what I read but I think reading your site has helped me avoid costly mistakes.

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  7. hi there,

    If I were to build carcasses with european door (like ikea style) I have to make the holes before assembling the carcasses right?

    All the intructions on internet doesn't say how to install the door...

    Thanks for your time.

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  8. Can you briefly discuss how you would use this design for cabinets that meet in a corner?

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  9. Where can i find the sketchup plans for these cabinets?

    They look awesome!
    Very nice building description btw!!

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  10. What if I wanted to do this with all drawers. Is there anything I should do different

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    1. You don't have to but I would put a stretcher in between each drawer. It will act like a stop to make it easier to get all your drawers flush and it also helps prevent dust from getting in the drawers a bit. Also looks a little nicer.

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  11. I am commenting again as i seem to have lost my first comment.

    Wanted to thank you for the excellent post and illustrations. they make matters very clear on how to construct these frameless cabinets.

    I am reading a book on making kitchen cabinets (udo schmidt - building kitchen cabinets). it is an excellent book and there is a lot of good information there. He focusses on making face frame cabinets predominantly. He contends that frameless cabinets have no tolerance for errors in dimensioning and that it is difficult to build them without expensive equipment. do you have any views on that statement. I cant really see why it should be a problem if you are careful and meticulous in measuring and cutting.

    Also, where do you get your plywood in the UK?
    thanks meera

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  12. I was thinking about building 3 of these cabinets for a Peninsula. How would I secure them to the floor.

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  13. Can you expand on this article with door installation?

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  14. Don't the doors of adjacent cabinets interfere with each other if you don't use faceframes?

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    1. Hi Kyudonv,

      With frameless cabinets you need to use the european style concealed hinges. They don't just pivot but they'll also move out of the way a little bit. The spec sheet for the hinges will give information on the minimum clearances.

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  15. These cabinets are the perfect design for cabinets in my new great room. What instruction can you provide if I want floating base cabinets?

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  16. Tom,

    Please write a book and create a DVD on frameless cabinetry. You have a great gift for explaining the subject quickly and clearly.

    This remains one of the best explanations I have ever seen.

    Jim

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  17. Hi, your article has been very helpful, but I there's something regarding the base unit which is niggling me since some time. Is it not better to have the side panel resting on top of the bottom panel, instead of it hanging to the side of the bottom panel?

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    1. Hi Juneid,

      Do you mean for the separate base platform version? That was just an example to show you can have a toe kick on the side at the end of the run. Normally the separate base will be longer than just one cabinet so you can put multiple cabinets on top of the base. You build the 2x4 base and then put all your base cabinets on top of it. I'll try to add another illustration that explains it better.

      If that's not what you meant can you clarify?

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    2. Sorry instead of posting my reply here I have added another comment...

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  18. i am sorry, maybe i was not very clear...I a newbie i must admit... I am planning to build one with the adjustable cabinet length. I am wondering whether the side panel should rest on top of the bottom panel and then screw goes from the bottom instead of on the side?

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    1. Oh I see. You don't want the sides to sit on top of the bottom. That leaves the edge of the bottom visible from the side which is not aesthetically pleasing.The pocket screws are strong enough to support the cabinet as I described and you can add glue to the joint for extra strength. If you need it stronger and have the tools to cut a dado (groove) around the bottom of the sides to slip the bottom into that would be even stronger and still hide the edge of the bottom from the sides. See the illustration on the product page for the adjustable legs. That's how they do it.

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    2. Thanks for your prompt response, i wasn't expecting to get answers so fast! Anyway the dado is a good idea. However regarding aesthetic, the edge of the bottom panel will not be visible once the unit are stacked together side by side; maybe for the last unit only if it's not against a wall. To cut short, do you feel it will be stronger if i do it the way I am suggesting? I am thinking the load will be transferred to the adjustable legs, via the side panel, in a more 'structurally' sound way.... i speak under your correction..

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    3. Juneid,

      Hard to say if it would be stronger. If you're concerned about strength go with the dadoes. When you install the cabinets you're going to screw them to the wall and to each other. That's where a lot of the weight will be carried. Personally I like to make all the boxes the same because it makes them easier to cut and get square that way.

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  19. Great article and easy to follow. I will use to build a base cabinet for my kitchen. I will be adding a countertop. Can I add it to this design or are there special considerations to the design of the base other than allowing for the height of the countertop. If countertops come in different heights or different ways to attach, should I therefor buy it first? Howard

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    1. Hi Howard,

      Thanks for the praise. If you're buying a premade countertop you should check the depth of it and adjust the depth of your cabinet to have the proper overlap but this is a pretty standard size in my plans that should work with most pre-made countertops. If you're having a custom countertop made then they'll cut it to fit the cabinet. You'll also want to adjust the height of the cabinet so that the top of the counter will be at 36" from the floor so take into account the thickness of the counter.

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    2. Thanks for the reply.--Great. That is the way I hoped it would work. I am building a 54 inch cabinet with 24 inches of it covering a portable dish washer on a separate wall.I was looking at building it in but there were too many issues and things to move--sink,heating vent,and I would need a new countertop. A standard top will cover most of the dishwasher and give us much needed counter space.First project of this nature, but I think I'm ready.

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  20. I recently built my tiny house and I'm getting ready to build my kitchen. I've been agonizing and putting it off. I have read numerous blogs and your's is by far the most comprehensive. I now feel like I can actually attack the project! Thank you so much for this!!!

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  21. just the way i build mines with the legs

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  22. how do you address the edges of the plywood that will show when you open a door/drawer?

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    1. Edgebanding. Have info on the materials list and you can click the link for more info.

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