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How to Build Under-Cabinet Drawers & Increase Kitchen Storage

Gain extra storage space in the kitchen by installing toe-kick drawers under your base cabinets. Just assemble the drawer units in your shop, then slip them under the cabinets and screw them in place.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

How to Build Under-Cabinet Drawers & Increase Kitchen Storage

Gain extra storage space in the kitchen by installing toe-kick drawers under your base cabinets. Just assemble the drawer units in your shop, then slip them under the cabinets and screw them in place.

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

Overview

Installing below-cabinet drawers sounds like a tough job, requiring fussy planning, the skills of a cabinetmaker and child-size hands to work in that cramped space. But this project is amazingly easy. To simplify the whole process, we designed self-contained drawer units that you can assemble in your shop and then slip into place. To simplify planning, we'll show you three basic measurements that let you size these drawers to fit under any cabinet. Even if you've never built or installed a drawer before, you can do it. This project is economical, too—you can build the drawers for a fraction of the price a cabinetmaker would charge. The number of drawers is up to you; install them under all your cabinets or just one.

Will it work with my cabinets?

The vast majority of kitchen cabinets are similar to the ones we show here, with sides that extend to the floor (see Photo 1). But there are a few rare exceptions. Some cabinets, for example, stand on legs rather than the cabinet sides. Open the cabinet doors and take a look at the bottom of the cabinet box. If you see screw heads or holes near the corners, your cabinets probably stand on legs rather than the cabinet sides (the screws or holes allow for height adjustment). In that case, installing drawers will require different steps than we show here.

If your cabinets are constructed like ours, you can install drawers just as we did. There are just a few things to keep in mind:

  • If the cabinet is more than 30 in. wide, consider installing two drawers rather than one. Wider drawers tend to bind as you slide them in or out.
  • Your drawers will be shallow; don't expect to store kettles in them. A 4-in.-high toe space will give you storage space that's about 3 in. deep.
  • You can install drawers under a sink cabinet (or a bathroom vanity). But if the sink's plumbing runs through the bottom of the cabinet, the drawers will have to be shorter.

Figure A: Illustrates the drawer's details.

Figure A: Drawer Unit

The drawer, cradle and slides form a complete unit that's simple to build and easy to install under a cabinet.

Tools and materials

You could build the drawers with nothing but hand tools and a circular saw, but a table saw and miter saw will give you faster, better results. A nail gun is another big time-saver, though you can hammer everything together with 1-1/4-in. finish nails instead.

All the materials are available at most home centers. In the hardware aisle, choose “full-extension” side-mount drawer slides (see Photo 3). That way, only 3 to 5 in. of the opened drawer will be covered by the overhanging cabinet front. With cheaper “3/4-extension” slides, only about half the drawer will be accessible. If you can't find full-extension slides, or if you want “overtravel” slides that extend even farther, shop the Web. Search for “drawer slides” to find online suppliers. Slides are available in 2-in.-length increments. Most cabinets accept 18- or 20-in. slides.

Choose hardwood plywood like birch or oak for your drawers. Construction-grade tends to warp. Most home centers carry plywood in 2 x 4-ft. and/or 4 x 4-ft. sheets, so you don't have to buy a full 4 x 8 sheet. Pick out straight pine 1x4s for the cradle sides. For the drawer faces, you'll need hardwood that matches your cabinets. If your toe-space height is 4 in. or less, a 1x4 board will do. For a taller toe space, you'll need a 1x6. Most home centers carry only a few types of wood such as oak, cherry, and birch or maple. If your cabinets are made from a less common species, look for a lumberyard that carries a wider selection (check online or in the yellow pages under “Hardwood”). Or improvise—with the right stain, you can make birch or maple approximately match the color of just about any wood. The grain may look different, but that difference usually isn't noticeable in the dark toe space. We used maple faces, even though our cabinets are made from cherry.

Remove the toe-kick and measure

Before you buy materials, open up the cavity under the cabinets so you can take measurements. First, pull off the “toe-kick,” the strip of plywood or particleboard in the toe space. Usually, the toe-kick is held by just a few small nails and is easy to pry off. If you don't plan to cover the entire toe space with drawers, be gentle so you can later cut the toe-kick to length and reinstall a section. If layers of flooring have been added since the cabinets were installed, you'll have to pull the top edge of the toe-kick outward first and then pry it up to clear the built-up floor.

Next, remove the toe-kick backing under the cabinets (Photo 1). Simply drill a 1-in. hole and cut the backing with a drywall saw. Then grab a flashlight and check for obstructions. Break out any blocking with a chisel or pry bar. Pull out or cut off any nails. Now you're ready to take the three measurements to determine the sizes of the drawers. There's no need for complex calculations—it's all reduced to simple subtraction in Figure B.

Figure B: Illustrates how to measure the available
space so you can correctly size your drawers.

Figure B: Drawer Sizing Simplified

Measurement “A”

  • Subtract 1-1/2 in. from “A” to determine the width of drawer sides, front and back.
  • Subtract 1/2 in. from “A” to determine the width of drawer faces. The length of each face depends on the width of the cabinet.

Measurement “B”

  • Subtract 3-3/4 in. from “B” to determine the length of the drawer front and back. This will make the entire drawer/cradle assembly 1/4 in. smaller than the width of the cavity.

Measurement “C”

  • Subtract 1/4 in. from “C” to determine the length of the cradle and drawer sides.
  • This is also the maximum length of the drawer slides you can use.

Build drawers and cradles

If you've ever installed drawer slides similar to the ones we used, you already know how fussy they are. They require a precise 1/2-in. space on both sides of the drawer—build a drawer that's a hair too wide or narrow and you've got a drawer that won't budge. To sidestep that precision work, build each drawer first and then build a “cradle” around it. If you want to install two drawers under one wide cabinet, build a single cradle with both drawers sharing one of the cradle sides and the cradle base.

Our drawers are as easy as they get: Just nail them together (Photo 2). If you're using finish nails rather than a nail gun, predrill so you don't split the plywood parts. Remember to place the front and back between the sides. Then measure and cut the drawer bottoms. As you install each bottom, be sure the drawer box is square using a large carpenter's square or by using the plywood bottom as a guide (this only works if you've cut the bottoms perfectly square). Cut the 1x4 cradle sides to the same length as the drawer sides. In most cases, you can use 1x4s at full width (3-1/2 in.). But if your toe-space height (measurement “A” in Figure B) is less than 4 in., cut the cradle sides to a width 1/2 in. less than the toe-space height.

Next, mark screw lines on the drawer and cradle sides (see Figure A for measurements). Pull each slide apart to separate the drawer member from the cabinet member. Then screw them on (Photo 3). Our drawer and cradle sides were the same length as the drawer slides—yours may not be. So be sure to position the front ends of each drawer member and cabinet member flush with the fronts of the drawer and cradle sides. Slip the slides back together, lay the drawer upside down and screw on the cradle base (Photo 4). Then flip the whole unit over and inspect your work. Make sure the drawer opens smoothly. When the drawer is closed, the front of it should be flush with the cradle sides, give or take 1/16 in. Any problems are easy to fix by removing screws and repositioning the slides.

Note: With our drawer units assembled, the cradle sides are exactly the same height as the drawers. Your drawers may come out a bit higher or lower.

Install the drawers

Before you remove the drawers from their cradles, number them to avoid mix-ups later. Each drawer will slide smoothest in the cradle that was built for it. Slip each cradle into place and fasten it to the cabinet with four 1-5/8- in. screws. If you have flooring that's more than 1/4 in. thick, first set scraps of 1/4- or 1/2-in. plywood under the cabinet to support the cradle. The cradle base can be higher than or flush with the flooring, but not lower than the flooring. Position the cradle sides flush with the cabinet sides and tight against one side (Photo 5). Screw the cradle to the cabinet, starting with the tight side. On the other side, don't drive in the screws so hard that you distort the cradle. If the drawer doesn't glide smoothly, slightly loosen those screws. Also be sure the drawer doesn't drag on the floor when opened. Load a few heavy objects into the drawer and open it. If it drags, remove the front screws from the cradle and slip washers under it. That will give the drawer a slight upward tilt to clear the floor.

Next, cut the drawer faces to width. When you cut them to length, avoid measuring mistakes by marking them while they're in place. Leave a 1/8- to 1/4-in. gap between neighboring faces. At the end of a row of cabinets, make the face flush with the outer side of the cabinet. The method we used to attach the faces works best with a nail gun (Photo 6). Driving nails with a hammer can knock the drawer or cradle out of position. If you don't have a nail gun, stick the faces in place with double-face carpet tape. Then pull out each drawer and attach the face by driving two 1-in. screws from inside the drawer. With the faces attached, be sure they don't drag on the floor. If necessary, raise them with washers as described above.

Finishing up

Remove the drawers from their cradles for finishing. Unscrew the slides from the drawers and sand the drawer faces with 120-grit sandpaper. Also prepare a few stain-testing blocks, using leftover scraps from the faces and sanding them. We removed one cabinet door and took it to a paint store to have matching stain custom-mixed. If you have the patience to experiment, you could buy a couple of cans of stain and mix them to create your own. Either way, apply the stain to your test blocks before you stain the faces. The match doesn't have to be perfect, since the faces will be shaded by the overhanging cabinet fronts. After staining the faces, we finished our drawers—faces and boxes—with two coats of waterbased polyurethane. Before reinstalling the drawers, add the drawer pulls or knobs. We couldn't find pulls that closely matched our existing cabinet hardware, so we chose pulls that fit over the tops of the drawer faces and are hidden under the cabinets (see first photo).

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Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

    • Clamps
    • Miter saw
    • Air compressor
    • Air hose
    • Brad nail gun
    • Cordless drill
    • Tape measure
    • 4-in-1 screwdriver
    • Drill bit set
    • Framing square
    • Reciprocating saw
    • Safety glasses
    • Self-centering drill bit
    • Paintbrush
    • Table saw

You can use a keyhole saw instead of a reciprocating saw and a circular saw instead of a table saw.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

    • One 4' x 8' sheet of 1/4“ birch plywood
    • One 2' x 4' sheet of 1/2“ birch plywood
    • 12' of 1x4 pine
    • 6' of 1x6 maple
    • 3 pairs of drawer slides
    • Drawer pulls
    • wood glue
    • stain
    • polyurethane
    • 1-1/4“ brads or nails, 1“ and 1-5/8“ screws.

Here's what we used to build drawers to fit under three 24-in.-wide cabinets. Your quantities may differ.

Comments from DIY Community Members

Share what's on your mind and see what other DIYers are thinking about.

1 - 18 of 18 comments
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January 29, 5:05 PM [GMT -5]

Just started and got the toe kick out. In the back or space are brackets that take up the corner. Should I remove?

January 23, 10:13 PM [GMT -5]

Love it. Don't have the pulls yet - on order from mockett.com. But the drawers are already in use with baking pans and some other kitchen project stuff I haven't finished with (like drawer slides lol).
There were a couple of comments about the measuring guide - but I think those comments might have been made before the cradle was built. Whatever the case, just draw it out and write your measurements on the drawing. You will figure it out.
Took us a half day to build, then wait overnight for toe kick to glue on face, then a few hours to complete the faces and stare at it with wine and beer in hand.
We used 1/2 inch for the bottom of the drawers. But prolly not even necessary.
Do it! Good luck! OH! If you figure out your cuts before you go to home depot, they will do your rips (we had them doing 3.5-inch wide rips) 2 for free and then 50 cents after that. For $2.50 all the plywood was ripped. winning!

July 22, 1:39 PM [GMT -5]

The Drawer face plate does not stay on too well with just Nails stapled in. I purchased additional "L" Brackets and screwed mine in. I could not find the Metal pull handle and had too search for something similar. My house was built in the early 1980's, and when I still have the same kitchen it came with when I purchased it in 2008. I also purchased some additional "FRP" material and cleaned the inside top space, and then cut and glued the FRP. In the summer time, I sometimes have trouble with Ants. I went back and made a small hole in the back of my encasement, then on the back of the drawer made a space where I could place an Anti-Ant pack at the back outside of the drawer. This is extreemly easy to change every year, and effective this year so far.. Due to mopping and cleaning, I'm contimplating on adding additional trim to the bottom of the drawers to act as a mini-kick-toe and to protect the drawers.

March 12, 12:07 AM [GMT -5]

Come to Momma! I LOVE this idea!!!!

February 27, 7:01 PM [GMT -5]

I think this is a fantastic idea. As far as dust, etc. getting in, a piece of plexiglas or whatever on top should work and granted you do have to bend down, but I do not get cookie pans, pizza pans, wire racks etc out every day, so not a problem. I have a question-can anyone think of any reason why I could not put small wheels, or those little furniture slides on bottom of drawers, rather than the slides? Am a 67 yr old woman and think that would be easier for me to do. Thank you.

February 26, 4:25 PM [GMT -5]

When I designed my parents kitchen in Winnetka Il I added these toe kick drawers and she loves them. Great for seasonal items, platters, linens, muffin tins, cookie cutters, stuff like that.

January 17, 8:31 PM [GMT -5]

I am starting this and have taken the necessary measurements. I have to agree with DocHoliday's assessment: measuring and cutting as instructed leaves you with 1 1/2 inches of gap where the entire assembly goes. I am glad I didn't make any cuts yet.

July 06, 3:35 PM [GMT -5]

as a handyman and kitchen professional, and having completed over 7000 kitchen and bathroom renovations in the so called career, i can state with some authority this idea is one of those that sounds good, and can be done easily, but is somewhat crazy.

never mind the dirt and dust that will inevitably get into your cooking trays etc, but the bending over, the hardware deterioration and eventual failure, precludes me from ever suggesting this to anyone who wants a professional renovation.

as a handy man renovation, sure!

but a value enhancing, stylish, practical, clean and functional idea for a pro job,

sorry, but never.

does the author really think after all the billions of smart people before you and i and him, the he, now, after all these years, all that scrutiny, that he has discovered something new and improved?

frankly, i'm not that conceited, and wonder if he is, or should be.

especially when there are a million other ideas that work and are practical

just saying................................................

July 06, 3:35 PM [GMT -5]

as a handyman and kitchen professional, and having completed over 7000 kitchen and bathroom renovations in the so called career, i can state with some authority this idea is one of those that sounds good, and can be done easily, but is somewhat crazy.

never mind the dirt and dust that will inevitably get into your cooking trays etc, but the bending over, the hardware deterioration and eventual failure, precludes me from ever suggesting this to anyone who wants a professional renovation.

as a handy man renovation, sure!

but a value enhancing, stylish, practical, clean and functional idea for a pro job,

sorry, but never.

does the author really think after all the billions of smart people before you and i and him, the he, now, after all these years, all that scrutiny, that he has discovered something new and improved?

frankly, i'm not that conceited, and wonder if he is, or should be.

especially when there are a million other ideas that work and are practical

just saying................................................

June 04, 12:43 PM [GMT -5]

THIS PROJECT WAS A LOT EASIER THAN I THOUGHT IT WAS GOING TO BE. I WISH I WOULD HAVE DONE IT SOONER. YOU WOULDN'T THINK THERE IS A LOT OF SPACE UNDER THE CABINET, BUT THE DRAWER CAN HOLD QUITE A BIT OF STUFF.

January 19, 10:22 PM [GMT -5]

Love the look of this project, can't wait to try it.

January 17, 4:53 PM [GMT -5]

will be adding this to my kitchen in the spring

December 28, 7:21 PM [GMT -5]

I am currently doing this project. I finished the first drawer and am a little confused: I subtracted 3 3/4 from the overall width of the space and built my drawers accordingly. That is, the overall width of the front and back of the drawer is this dimension. Then I made the cradle around it and found that I have about a 1 1/2 inch gap on the side when I insert the cradle. I assumed the drawer guides would take up a lot of this space but ,not so. I've triple checked my measurements and can't figure it out. I will just follow the spirit of the directions and trust to my own common sense for the rest of the project, but I'm curious if anyone else interpreted the instructions as I did with a similar result.

September 02, 12:06 PM [GMT -5]

Excellent! Even with only 4" toe height, we now have a place to get many of those big bulky sheets and pans OUT OF SIGHT! My wife loves it too!

August 16, 8:29 AM [GMT -5]

This project was just as easy as they claimed. You could probably get another 1/4-1/2 inch of height on the drawers. In addition, I modified the fronts to ensure a toe-kick under the cabinets.

July 19, 6:23 PM [GMT -5]

This project inspired me to use an old piece of furniture for my fly tying gear. I purchased drawer slides and used scrap wood from other projects. It turned out fantastic! I saved an old piece of furniture and used wood that was doomed to the landfill. thank you for the inspiration.

May 18, 10:05 PM [GMT -5]

John,
According to the article in the May 2009 issue (as opposed to May 2005 as stated in the 'Summary') it is suggested that one does an internet 'Search' for 'EPCO architectural pull' as no source for the ones in the article are listed. They are said to cost between $3 to $8 each.

Hope this helps.

Ken

May 18, 9:34 AM [GMT -5]

We have the June 2010 issue and on page 36 there is an article "Rollouts at ankle level. We are interested in finding out where we can purchase the stainless steel drawer pulls that are shown. Please have some get back to us.
Thank you,

John Hahn
jandjhahn@yahoo.com
tel. 570-409-6226

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