Cabinetry is, without a doubt, the hardest part of the van-build in my mind. This also makes it the most rewarding and will make your van stand apart from the rest.
Good, solid cabinets make a van feel like home. However, they’re also difficult and time consuming to build. Thats why custom cabinets are extremely expensive. For those who don’t want to dive full-on into cabinets, modifying a prebuilt cabinet unit from Ikea or any thrift store can save a lot to time and headaches. Simple shelves and storage bins is another solid option that can save a lot of time and money.
That said, for those brave souls out there who care to test their skills in the art of fine cabinetry, this page will lead you onwards in this great endeavor. Now that you’re mentally braced, lets get started!
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Get yourself a Kreg Pocket Jig! They aren’t as cheap as I’d like but they’re worth every penny. I use this jig extensively throughout the build for joints and hiding screws.
Step 1: Buy all your appliances first! Don’t trust the sizes given by the manufacturer. 1/8 of an inch makes a big difference.
Step 2: Draw out your plan to scale. It’s important that your ideas actually match the space you have. I typically do a 1:12 scale where one foot becomes one inch. Don’t forget to account for venting space required for most appliances. Also plan for plumbing and water tanks even though most plumbing work will be done after the cabinets are completed.
Step 3: Watch some cabinet making videos on Youtube.
Now for the hands on part.
Step 4: Start by cutting your vertical supports (also the sides of your cabinets) out of a solid sheet of 3/4”ply. 1/2” ply can also be used to save weight and money but it gives a cheaper and more flimsy feel. I cut my vertical supports to 36” high by the desired depth of my countertop (about 22” dictated by the depth of my fridge). The vertical supports don’t need to be flush with the wall of your van but you will need a few attachment points and a backing (typically 1/4” ply, step 8) if you’re doing cabinets instead of drawers. Notch out a toe kick at the bottom of each support if desired. A typical toe kick is 3 1/2” high by 3” deep. Add holes or notches for wiring, plumbing, light switches and ventilation as needed. Lastly, use your new pocket jig to add holes to the top and bottom edges for attaching the countertop and anchoring the cabinet unit to the floor.
Step 5: Place your new cuts in desired location and take measurements for the horizontal supports. Then retake your measurements.
Step 6: Stack your horizontal supports and cut them at the same time (gang cut) to make sure they’re the same length. They need to be within 1/16” and ideally should all be within 1/64” of each other. If you are doing shelves these will be big rectangular pieces of ply. If you are going with drawers these can be strips of 3/4” ply or boards about 4 inches wide. Gang cutting your horizontals to exactly the same length is very important for drawers to guarantee that your cabinet walls will be parallel. If they aren’t parallel your drawers won’t close properly. Add pocket holes to both ends of your cuts
Step 7: Use the pocket jig to attach your horizontal supports to the vertical ones.
Step 8: Add a sheet of 1/4” ply to the back of your cabinets or shelves, not necessary for drawers but adds strength. Before attaching this backing, measure diagonally corner to corner. If the measurements are the same, your cabinets are square and good to go. If not, square up (rack) the cabinets till the diagonal measurements are the same. Attach your backing. I use a brad nailer and wood glue.
Step 9: Paint everything
If you are just doing shelves, cut out your counter top, attach it with pocket screws and you’re all done. Don’t forget a rope or bungie cord to hold things in place. Adding curtains to the front of the shelves can be a nice visual element.
Step 10: Optional: Build a cabinet face by adding stiles and rails to the front of your cabinet frame. Skip this step for less work aka “euro style” cabinetry (very small gaps between drawers, pictured at top of page).
Step 11: Purchase your drawer slides and then build your drawers and/or cabinet faces. Pre-made cabinet and drawer faces can also be purchased.
Step 1: Select materials. I use finish grade 1/2” ply for the sides and 1/4” for the bottom and 3/4” for the faces.
Step 2: Set your table saw to your desired drawer height. I do the height of the drawer opening minus 1 inch. Run all 4 pieces of your drawer sides on the table saw, keeping the blade in the same position. This will make sure they all match. Repeat if you are doing multiple drawers at the same height.
Step 3: Now that the boards are the right height, gang cut the matching pairs (the sides are one pair and the front/back is the second) to the desired length. Don’t forget about the 1/2” overlap.
Step 4: Join the boards at the corners. I use wood glue and brad nails but there are lots of options. The pocket jig can also be used or a dovetail jig and router if you want to ball out.
Step 5: Cut out a rectangle of 1/4” ply for the bottom of the drawer. Make sure the corners are square. If you measure corner to corner diagonally and the numbers match, you’re good to go.
Step 6: Line up the corners of the 1/4 ply and your jointed sides. Secure it with glue and brad nails.
Back to building cabinets
Step 12: Install drawer slides and cabinet hinges (check out youtube).
Step 13: Install cabinet faces and adjust your cabinet hinges using a phillips head screw driver and the 3 adjuster screws for the perfect fit.
Step 14: Attach drawers to slides. Make sure they are even and level on both sides. Now is when you discover any and all mistakes and imperfections you made. If your drawers don’t close or are hard to close, it’s because the drawer slides aren’t parallel or the size of your drawer is off. Even a 1/16” proud or shy can prevent a drawer from closing. Double check the drawer slide positions and sand down or shim your drawers as needed.
Step 15: Attach drawer faces by sticking 3-4 double sided mounting squares to your drawer and sticking on your drawer face. Then add 4-6 screws from the inside. Size your screws so they don’t ruin the face. Then remove screws and mounting squares and reattach drawer face by lining up the screw holes. Start with the bottom drawer. Stack 2 quarters as a spacer (or any desired gap thickness) on each side of the first drawer to position the face of the 2nd drawer.
Step 16: Add drawer pulls/knobs and cabinet magnets.
Step 17: If you made it this far, pat yourself on back and take some photos for Instagram!