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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.