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Straw Bale House: Kitchen Cabinets and Counters

Dave L HeadshotWhen Barbara and I decided to build our home without professional assistance, the decision was based on a variety of motives. First, we didn’t have a lot of money and we wanted to own our home with no loans, debts, or mortgages. Second, we wanted to demonstrate that a couple with little or no construction experience could build a safe, efficient, and affordable home. Third, we wanted to demonstrate that this experience was not confined to young people – I was in my mid-60s and Barbara was in her late 50s. Last, and perhaps most important, we wanted to know our home.

  Straw Bale House Dining Room 

When I sit down for a meal, I can look around the house and remember every board and load of plaster and feel the love and care that went into the building process. Despite all these reasons for doing everything ourselves, I was nervous about constructing the cabinets. The precision and care needed for this part of the house was daunting.

I had had some building experience over the years. I worked on a house framing crew in Colorado during the 1950s and, about twenty years ago, did the decks and flooring on our Minnesota home. But cabinets? No way. I was the kind of carpenter that 1/4“ wood putty was made for.

When we built the straw bale house, we planned and set securing 2 x 4 anchors in the kitchen walls to support the cabinets.  But this was an area where we felt ok about compromise and buying a manufactured system. When we had our layout and design pretty much done, we paid a visit to our nearby building supply box store. The store designer was helpful and ran out a cost estimate for island, kitchen, and bathroom cabinets. Even with a lower end cabinet, we were going to spend nearly $9,000 without countertop tile work. Ouch!

Our straw bale home, including septic system, cost under $25, 000. No way in the world was I going to move that far from our intent to build as economically as possible. So it appeared to be time to learn to build cabinets. This blog is not intended to be a step by step guide to building cabinets. Rather, I’m hoping that the following pictures and narrative will give courage to anyone who wants to build for themselves and keep costs down.

Router Table Cutting Grooves

Once again, we bought a couple books and read them carefully, comparing their suggested techniques to our needs and our available tools. We had hand tools, a router, an old table saw, a reciprocating hand sander, a chop saw and some power drills – hand held and drill press. It was time for another vertical learning curve. We did not have a big shop with planer, joiner, band saw, high end router table or many other power tools that would have simplified our process. We made a very workable router table from scraps and a piece of masonite and moved the cutting and assembly of large stock outside to our sawhorse and plywood work table.

            Barbara with face frame 

We chose to build simple frame and panel doors using select pine for rails and stiles with a birch plywood panel. The cabinet boxes were 3/4” plywood with select pine for the face frames. The boxes, with the exception of the island, were built and hung first, starting with the wall mounted cabinet boxes.

             Wall Cabinet Casework        

We built the boxes complete with shelves and hung them for use prior to making the doors so we could move into our house that much sooner. It was a happy day, however, when we put up the doors so we could walk through the kitchen without taking an inventory of glassware, spices, and corn chips.

Sliding Shelves 

Being the size and age that I am, the prospect of either getting down on my knees or bending low to get into a base cabinet shelf was just not at all appealing. So, in nearly all cases, the base cabinet shelves are sliders. We did splurge a bit on the quality of the slider and drawer hardware and feel that it was a good investment in durability and ease of building.

We spent a fair amount of time designing cabinet function such as pots and pans, plastic storage containers, baking pans, etc.  By taking the time to do this before we built, we are able to avoid collisions when two or more of us are working in the kitchen. As our neighbor says, this is really a “two-butt kitchen”.

   Setting Pocket Screws 

Because my wood shop is only 8’ x 16’, we do a lot of work on a sawhorse table outside. Thankfully, Arizona weather lets us get away with that, at least most of the time. When we were assembling the cabinet cases and screwing and gluing the face frames, we worked on our “portable” table outside the shop.

To fasten the face frames, we bought a jig, a special drill bit, and Kreg pocket screws. With this system, we never split a frame and the screws drew the joints together so well that people thought I actually knew what I was doing. 

     Tile Counter Top 

After two coats of polyurethane, we shimmed, leveled, plumbed, and firmly attached our cabinet casework to the walls and base frames of the kitchen. After installing the shelves, we were ready for the tile counter top. We installed cement board on 3/4" plywood as a base for the counter top. Barbara did the design and layout of the tile and I did the cutting. We used an inexpensive, wet tile saw and it worked fine, albeit a bit slow. Then it was glue, grout, seal, and use.

     Finished Kitchen Cabinets  

The final step in the process was the assembly and installation of the doors. If I were doing cabinet doors again, I would buy a middle priced router table. My home-made version worked fine, but stabilizing the fence accurately was very time consuming and the lack of a feather board made for a bit of wobble when cutting the grooves and was not as safe as I liked.

Barbara and I want to wish all of you who might be taking on building projects around your place the best of good building and hope you derive as much satisfaction from the process as we did. 

dave larson
6/11/2011 10:52:20 AM

Hi Betty, We love our straw bales house for its ease of building for a couple of people hovering on both sides of 60 years - I'm rapidly sneaking up on 70, for its "green-ness", and for its low cost. Our straw bale house is a load-bearing, Nebraska style construction. Although, we modified out window and door bucks (see the blog on that)to more securely tie the roof to the stem wall. We used Bill and Athena Steen's book, The Straw Bale House and The Natural House by Daniel Chiras. We read them,and others, and then adapted what we felt would work for us. The results were good. I recommend straw bale for cost and efficiency. For cabinets, I used a little Better Homes and Gardens book like you see on the racks at Home Depot or Lowe's and other building supply places. The slider and door hardware is available online or at most builder supply houses. We bought ours at Woodcraft in Tucson. For our drawers, we bought slider hardware with sides as one piece. We just screwed back, bottom, and face on and Voila! a drawer. Cabinets are really not all that difficult if you're willing to be patient. Remember the old carpenter's adage, "Measure twice and cut once." Have a wonderful time with whatever you decide to build and feel free to contact me with questions.

betty yuill
6/11/2011 12:10:44 AM

Dave, your idea of the straw bale house is one I have been entertaining and I did take a wood working class at the local adult eduation to learn to do wood working with the idea of building my own cabinets. However, after making a lovely table (which I never got finished) and thinking about all that squaring up of the boxes for the cabinets and where do you find out about all those slide out things to make to drawers slide, it have grave doubts about my building ability outside of assembling precut with directions things. I have built my chicken a pen and will rebuild it as I moved it and revamped it, it pretty confident about that... but cabinets...doubtful. I do like the idea of a straw bale house tho. Did you frame it timber frame style? I have bought a few books about that. Do you have any references for building the cabinets for beginners?

dave larson
6/6/2011 10:14:27 PM

Nebraska Dave, Thanks so much for the kind words. Most of my previous building and fixing has been more for strength than for aesthetics. As I mentioned, I'm the reason they developed 1/4" wood putty. Working through the close joints without the Norm Abrams tools was an interesting exercise. I learned a bit about myself going through that experience. I have thought, and still think, that this whole experience has a book in it somewhere. I am pleased and encouraged to hear you say what you did about the prospect. You hit our intent on the head. Real people with "average guy tools" building a home. And you're right, the financial and emotional aspects were fully as important as the more obvious physical. On the fires, the Horseshoe is still well across the valley, but the mountains behind us are hidden by the smoke from the fire north of us in the Apache Natl. Forest. We're staying indoors a fair amount because of it. Have a great week and enjoy your Nebraska garden.

nebraska dave
6/6/2011 2:16:26 PM

Dave, you and your wife did a great job at starting from nothing and building a beautiful home. The cabinets are gorgeous. I tried my hand at cabinet making about 40 years ago and decided it was not for me. I'm more of a sawsall kind of guy. A sawsall is not a tool of construction but a tool of destruction. I can get the walls up, the drywall on, maybe some tile work if not too complicated but that's about as far as I go for a house. Now outside I can build and construct a retaining wall or a patio with the best of them. My forte is rough and tumble and not precise and delicate. It seems that you have mastered both. Yeah, I gave up watching Norm Abrams and his million dollar New Yankee workshop shop. That's a guy that could actually build anything and make it look easy. I'm glad to see that normal folks have a chance to build good quality things for the house with average guy tools. Have you considered writing a book about your financial, emotional, and physical experience as each step was worked through. With this amount of work, I sure there were times when you wondered whether you would ever see the home completed. I'm sure many folks have suggested the same thing but really consider it. I think it would be a fantastic read. Have a great Arizonia day and stay away from the fires will ya.