In recent posts, I discussed different aspects of my modular tool cabinets, from decisions I made during the design stage, to how I built the low-friction worktops.
In this post, the final part of the series, I will talk about how I build the drawers for my modular tool cabinets.
Other Posts in this Series
- Part 1: Designing the Modular Cabinets
- Introduction to T-slot Hardware and Fasteners
- Part 2: Adding Sides to Modular Tool Cabinets
- Part 3: Durable and Low-Friction Work Surface
Sizing out the Drawers
Having owned a few tool chests, I knew it was important to have a variety of different drawer heights. However, I also thought I could do better and stick to a small range of heights.
The reality is that tool chests and cabinets come with multiple sizes because you need them. Some hand tools, such as screwdrivers and pliers, can be at home in a shallow drawer, while a socket organizer or your favorite mallets might require a deeper drawer. Power tools, such as drills and circular saws, can require very different drawer heights as well.
After building 10 variations of my tool cabinets I have settled on three sizes:
- 2″ for layout tools, hand tools, and other shallow tools.
- 4″ for hand tools and power tools, and including Dewalt Flexvolt Batteries on their side
- 6″ for other stuff
- A single 12″ drawer for my router and plane.
I’m happy I stuck to these sizes, because it has allowed me to move drawers around between cabinets with relative ease. After all, one of my goals was to build a modular set of tool cabinets.
That said, the 2″ drawers have been a challenge, as I often find tools that need a 2.5″ height. Screwdrivers and tape measures fall into this category and end up in a 4″ drawer as a result.
Spacing the Drawers
The next puzzle to solve was how to maximize the use of the 25″ of vertical space. What I soon realized is I could build 24″ of drawers and the remaining 1″ gave enough clearance between each drawer. At times it’s a little tight, but minor adjustments to the drawers once installed always fixed the issue. One of the advantages of using metal like this is the consistence of parts – 25″ will always be 25″.
To help lay everything out I cut a few spacers from scraps of laminated MDF. These became invaluable and allowed me to quickly lay out the sides.
The first row of drawer slides is mounted 1/4″ from the bottom, and then I used these spacers to lay out the rest of the slides.
Building Drawer Boxes
I’m not sure how I learnt about Appleply, but I have been very impressed with their Drawer Sides. This felt the perfect opportunity to give them a try. For $115.20 you (10) 4″ pieces 8′ long. This is enough for (10) 24″ x 24″ drawers. That comes out to be $11.52 a drawer, which based on my research was a good price for quality wood.
What’s particular impressive about this plywood is how solid it is. It’s 11-ply, and I have yet to cut a piece and discover a void. It’s basically like working with real wood.
I could have used the same 1/2″ pre-finished plywood that is used for the side panels. A single sheet would have allowed me to build all 10 drawers, at ~$6 a drawer. However, it would have taken hours longer to complete, and the foiled edge of Appleply would have been very hard to achieve myself. I would have also had to fill in the gaps that are often found in cheaper plywood.
For the bottoms I used some 1/4″ White Birch plywood, finished on one side. These slot into the rabbet in the drawer sides. For these drawers they need to be 23 1/2″ x 23 1/2″, or maybe a little less to give some wiggle room.
To build each drawer box I needed two 24″ pieces for the sides, which are traditionally cut to the full depth of the drawer. Then, two 23″ pieces are needed for the front and back, which sit inside the side pieces. This gives you a 24″ square drawer, which fits a 25″ cabinet when you account for 1/2″ on each side for the drawer slides.
You slot this all together and I used 3/4″ staple nails to staple the sides into the front and back pieces. For good measure I also put a few staples from the bottom of the sides to hold the bottoms firmly into place.
There are other methods you could use for drawer construction, including dowels or pocket screws. The ApplePly side panels are cut to length in the same manner, regardless of how you want to build the drawers.
My first drawer took me about 15 minutes to assemble, but after that I was able to knock them out quickly, in about 3-4 minutes each. You don’t need a bunch of clamps to keep everything square because a tight fitting drawer bottom keeps everything aligned. Any misalignment is fixed when you have the front installed.
For the really big drawers I added some mending wedges to give them some extra strength. I got the idea from the years of assembling Ikea drawers!
Installing the Drawer Slides
As mentioned in a previous post, I went with GlideRite Hardware 24″ side-mounted soft-close full-extension drawer slides. The final part of finishing the drawers is to add the male part of the drawer slide. I created another spacer jig to make accurate installation a simple task.
Making Drawer Faces
This is probably my biggest mistake in the build. I am very pleased with the end result, but I dug myself a hole that wasted a lot of time.
I used 3/4″ unfinished Russian\Baltic Birch plywood, which comes in 5′ x 5′ sheets. I picked this plywood specifically because the dimensions made it more efficient to create 51.5″ x 25″ shelves which I need in some of my later builds. Again, my 25″ design created another inefficiency!
I also made a mistake when making my first batch of faces by cutting across the grain. By cutting across the grain like this I frequently trashed pieces as they splintered, even with a fine-cutting blade.
Creating 50+ of these drawer fronts was very time consuming, but they do look really nice!
Spray-Finishing the Drawer Faces
It’s easy to look at finished plywood and think it’s too expensive compared to unfinished. What I have now learned is that the increased cost is almost always offset by the time it takes to get unfinished pieces to a similarly finished state.
Getting a good finish with varnish is an art, and when it comes to using a brush, I have not mastered it. The only reliable way I have found to get a good finish is to use spray varnish.
I made the mistake in my previous garage to spray varnish with insufficient protection of my beautiful epoxy flooring. It took months for the varnish to fade. The solution I found was to use a HomeRight Large Spray Shelter which provides excellent protection, along with a large dust sheet.
Read More: HomeRight Large Spray Shelter on ToolGuyd
Applying a coat, followed by sanding, and repeating 3-4 times results in a pretty decent finish. I particular liked using 3M 03064 Trizact 3-2/3″ x 9″ 3000 Grit Performance Sandpaper for the final coat, as it leaves an almost glass-like feel when everything goes according to plan.
To finish everything off I need to pick some handles. Once again it became clear that you can spend a fortune on drawer handles. I’ve picked out drawer handles for various in-home cabinets before, but finding the right style for a workshop is tricky. You need something that works when you’re wearing gloves, as one example.
Whilst visiting the doctor I noticed how cool the triage room cabinets were. Researching these led me to Orange Aluminum and their awesome Angle Bulb Pull. It has exactly the look and functionality I wanted, and the price is very reasonable. $19.92 gets you a 12′ piece, which works out to be $3.98 per drawer.
Orange Aluminum offers free shipping on $100+ orders, but not for 12′ pieces. However, you can ask them to cut each piece down to a reasonable length. I had them cut them to 77″ to ensure I could get five 25″ drawer handles from each 12′ length. Each 77″ length yielded 3 full-width drawer handles, and each 67″ remainder yielded 2. If I had ordered the handle extrusion in 72″ lengths, I would only get 4 handles from each 12′ section.
Finishing the Drawers
With the fronts made and my handles picked it was time to install them. I started by putting a strip of 3/4″ double-sided tape to the top of the drawer face and pushed the aluminum drawer pull down on to it. Then I countersunk two holes on the inside of the drawer box and drove two screws into the face.
I thought I would need to use glue or more screws, but this turned out to be enough to hold the face and handle securely onto the box.
Done x 3!
So that’s it, the end of this series on how I designed and built my modular tool cabinets. I hope it provides inspiration for your own builds. Thank you for all the comments, they’ve been very much appreciated!
I have some more posts in the pipeline, where I will discuss how I have taken this basic design and applied it to a multitude of different solutions, as well as how I approached using all these drawers. If you are interested in other topics please let me know!