Built-ins for Odd Spaces
A simple, foolproof method for off-angle cabinets.
Synopsis: Odd-shaped cabinets are often found tucked under a stairway or next to a sloping ceiling. Trim carpenter Gary Striegler explains his construction method for these off-angle cabinets, beginning with a back panel that becomes a template for the cabinet box. He walks through the steps of building the box and installing shelves before aligning the cabinet and installing the face frames and trim.
Just about every job I work on has one or two odd cabinets that aren’t quite what your typical kitchen-and-bath cabinetshop is used to dealing with. What I call “off-angle cabinets” are a great example. Sometimes you find them tucked under a stairway, but they are also common in second stories with sloping ceilings. The room shown here was an unfinished bonus room that the owners wanted to turn into a play and study room for two young boys, and I had to make two off-angle cabinets to fit against the slope of the gable roof.
I developed a method to build these odd-shaped cabinets so they fit every time. It all starts with the back; I scribe-fit a piece of 1/4-in. plywood that will become the cabinet back, but first I use it as a template to build the cabinet. The face frame exactly matches the template, but the cabinet box doesn’t. Instead, when I draw the layout on the template, I shift the lines for the sides close to the wall and ceiling in about 1/4 in. That leaves 1/4 in. of face frame overhanging the cabinet box to be scribed to fit the wall and ceiling.
My construction methods for off-angle cabinets are a little bit different than standard cabinets. I essentially build a box within a box. The interior box supports the shelves and reinforces all the joints in the outside box. For the room here, I realized it would be a lot easier to get all the pieces of material I needed up the narrow stairway than to bring the assembled cabinet upstairs. So I started by ripping 3/4-in. plywood into eight 111/4-in. strips in my shop. I also cut and sized all the lumber I needed to make the face frames. I planned to make all the plywood cuts with a track saw, but first I had to figure out what angle to cut the plywood. I cut a scrap of lumber and made a couple of test cuts comparing them to the layout on the plywood back; it turned out to be 44°.
I’m sure there are some carpenters who could just take some measurements and go build this cabinet. When possible, I am much more comfortable marking the length in place than measuring. Working from a full-scale pattern reduces the chance of error, in my experience; once I have the pattern right, I just cut pieces to match and put them together. It is pretty simple, but I’ll take simple every chance I get.
Make a template
It all starts with the back panel, which also serves as a template for the carcass. I already know the height and width I’m aiming for, and how far off the floor it has to be to accommodate a built-in-desk below. I simply draw the outline of the cabinet’s perimeter on the wall, then cut and scribe the back to fit in that space.
Build the box
I prefer to mark trim lengths in place rather than use a tape, and I use that same method for the parts of these cabinets. The layout lines and the edge of the plywood back are my starting points. I precut all of the plywood to width on a tablesaw at my shop, and cut all the parts to length on-site with a track saw.
Stiffen and trim
The plywood back and 1-in. (nominal) face frame give the cabinet rigidity, and cleats provide the needed strength to hold it on the wall. Trim is optional, but I never miss an opportunity to add a little flourish.
From Fine Homebuilding #298
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