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!
Awesome series, thanks a lot for putting this all together.
I might be out of date on this but Appleply is made from Alder and Birch in the US. I know they used to offer prefinished and since it’s us you can get 4×8 and 4×10 sheet size. For shop cabinets I would just use 5×5 Baltic Birch B/BB grade or BB/BB grade. I would guess it’s half the price and the exact same performance.
The cabinets are a bit overbuilt however they do look great and I can’t blame you for wanting nice stuff that you work around all day.
Another excellent post – thank you. One idea for an extra article or section of one would be a “lessons learned/what I’d do differently” summary. What worked well? What were the inefficiencies, and how would you change them?
Thanks, yes this is on my list.
that precut drawer thing is surprising. didn’t know something like that existed
thank you for the series.
The drawer pulls extrusions are killer! Might try that someday.
I absolutely adore soft-close everything, but I’ve been stuck on whether I want soft-close for my tools or not. The upsides are obvious, but the downside is, on every high-weight-rating soft-close drawer I’ve tried, you have to really *yank* those suckers to get them open once they’ve settled into their closed positions. Do your slides exhibit this?
Related: do you have any anti-tilt protection on these, and if so, what approach did you take? Full-extension slides + heavy tools give me the heebie-jeebies around kids. (Not that sharp tools around kids are inherently a wonderful idea to begin with, but I can teach a kid the concept of “sharp”; teaching them how to calculate moment of inertia is a taller order.)
They do require a small yank, but nothing crazy. We have some heavy drawers in our kitchen and they definitely require some effort.
In regard to anti-tilt. I did a little research on this but forgot about it. I should definitely look into it. There’s a good 1″ gap at the back of the cabinet, so there’s room for some mechanism in there….
I’ve seen two ways (possibly combined) in commercial drawer units:
1) Only allow opening one drawer at a time
2) Have some heavy ballast weight at the bottom
I do need to buy some ballast for one of my cabinets, it’s a bit too light. That could be an option.
I’m wondering if there’s a mechanism that I could 3D print….
Another option would be to anchor them to the wall with strong cord or L-bracket. You could make it removable to keep things mobile. Maybe an eye screw and cord + carabiner or similar.
I have the same concerns. In my office, several units are fixed in place and connected in an L configuration that would require herculean effort to topple. I do plan to secure them once the tops are in place, as an extra precaution. In the garage, my kids are supervised since they’re too young to be responsible with some of the things in the drawers. Eventually, I’ll use a tether or strap of some kind.
I *have* almost toppled a small Craftsman ball bearing tool cabinet before. Heavy tools from the bottom drawer were in use, and the top two drawers were open at the same time, as one was opened while the other was still being closed. If I wasn’t more mindful, it would have toppled down. It was a 26″ x 18″ unit. maybe 30″ tall. Deeper cabinets, such as 25″, are much harder to topple, but it can happen if the bottom becomes unweighted, especially if you factor a 40 lb child pulling down on the top drawer to see what’s inside.
Only allowing one drawer open at a time is hard to do in a DIY setup, or at least in my experience. I can’t even replicate Ikea’s Galant mechanism very easily.
With tip-over protection, the bracket or retention device doesn’t have to be extremely strong, it just has to prevent tilting. With tool cabinets, ballast on the bottom or rear can help a lot. But even then, offsetting the center of mass can cause pivoting about the front wheels or legs, and then it becomes a cascading effect. Soft-close drawers can actually help here. With my Craftsman box, the drawers slide open because there was no active or passive retention mechanism. Nothing keeping the drawers in led to their sliding.
There’s also potentially a way to lock all drawers at once. With older Craftsman chests, if the top lid is closed, the drawers are all locked unless they’re opened with the lid open and then closed 95% of the way with the lid down. Some newer styles have a lever in the top section that allows locking or unlocking all drawers at once. This is something I might eventually do with my drawers. “Unlocked,” and any drawer can open. “Locked,” and some kind of vertical bar engages all the drawers at once, preventing opening.
OR, there are t-slot pivot assemblies that could be used to create a lockbar preventing drawers from opening.
For ballast, weight can strategically placed towards the rear, with directly oppose shifts in center of mass. Think pipes filled with sand or cement, or steel weights, fixed in place. This will be more effective than evenly distributed weights, but could be a complication for mobile cabinets, if it puts too much weight over the rear casters. For the best of both worlds, there could be an anchor of sorts that can be disengaged if a lot of movement is anticipated.
Great series. I’m sure I’ve learned something new in each installment.
Thanks for your explanatory effort!
Oh. Maybe in the future how you’ve set up your in-drawer “dividers” and/or organization.
Thanks! And yes, that’s on my plan, I have most of it written, so I should post it soon.
Koko The Talking Ape
Beautiful! High quality stuff for sure.
If it were me, I might not have used that second layer of wood on the fronts. I might have extended the sides forward a 1/2″ or so and then rabbeted the drawer front into the sides. That way it would have inherent resistance to pulling loose over the years (even dovetails will loosen over time.) The sides with their end grain would be visible from the front, but what do I care?
I might also have just used a central pull knob on each drawer, to save time and money. Or I might have priced out some largish aluminum U-channel stock, to just hook over the top edge of the drawer fronts.
This is a really good point. I probably didn’t do it because I built the drawers and about a month later figured out the fronts. In hindsight, I would definitely go with that approach!
I was going to ask about not putting the drawer fronts on also – that was the second thing I thought of.
and I love the extrusion but I probably would have cut it down say inch or so from the end of each drawer – maybe rebate the back of the drawer front so it laid flush. and either taped or glued or short screws on it
it would look I think the same or very close – and save some pieces and work. I do like the extrusion for handles – price is about right too.
Skye A Cohen
Nice job those things are beautiful! I dig the pulls
Great writeup! What were the total costs on materials for each of these modular boxes you made?
The drawers or the cabinets?
To build ten drawers:
$200 in ApplePly 6″ drawer sides (comes with 10x 8ft pieces)
$60 for two 8×4 sheets of 1/4″ plywood for the base (enough for 16 drawers)
$50 for one 5×5 3/4″ plywood for the front
$90 for 10 pairs of drawer slides
$40 (plus shipping) for the Orange Aluminum Angled Bulb Pull
So for ten drawers (24x24x6) it’s about $44 each.
There’s a lot of variable though, so you could definitely get this price down.
How much do these weigh?
At a guess 100lbs unloaded, maybe a bit less.
I’ve come back to your build blogs multiple times during my 8020 bench build, and I looked at the Appleply link you have before and never saw the pre-cut drawer sides. Just realized you had a 2nd link to those…duh.
I added a set to a cart and then checked shipping, and shipping was $105! So, I am assuming you have a supplier local to you where you purchased these instead of having them shipped?
I live outside Seattle and they are in Oregon, so I think my shipping has been a lot cheaper! I know Crosscuts, a local woodshop, also stocks them, so you might have local companies who do. Their customer service is really good so it’s worth asking….
Thanks. I lived in the Edmonds and Mukilteo areas for about 15 years and miss it. Living in Savannah now, and options are extremely limited….can’t even find baltic birch plywood stocked around here.
Anyway, thanks for your posts….and keep them coming!
This is absolutely fantastic info. I wanted to to update my poor-man’s Harbor Freight Sortimo system (with the cases mounted on furring strips against a 2×4 frame), but I’ve been struggling to find a toolbox that has the right drawer heights to fit the tall and short HF bins without a lot of wasted space. The idea of building that many drawers was daunting considering how many other projects I have backed up, but you’ve presented a very optimized approach here. Thank you so much for sharing your progress and lessons learned! I have some 1.5″ square steel tubing laying around that I’ll probably weld up for the frame, but otherwise I plan to follow your plan (eliminating the drawer fronts for ease of construction). I may even transition to Schaller bins for the variety of sizes they offer.
Excellent, I’m glad it inspires others!
I have to say, it’s been 2+ years since I built these and I’d have no hesitation doing it again. They are still in excellent condition and have met my ever changing needs. I am pretty certain if I had brought storage 2-years ago I may well have brought something new by now!
So now the investment I made is paying off!