When I switched my business to an electronic filing system, I ended up with several empty file cabinets, which I lugged out to my garage. The old cabinets were a handy way to organize garage stuff, but the drawers were a little flimsy for heavy loads. So I built a heavy-duty storage system modeled after my old filing cabinets.
One unit requires about $100 worth of wood. The fasteners, paint and poly will cost $60, but that $60 will also finish four to six more units. I decided to build a bunch of them and add shelves and a continuous top. The first one (my prototype) took me one full day to build and a couple hours to paint and finish, but I built the other five in just two more days. This isn’t a project that requires a high-end furniture maker’s craftsmanship: If you can build basic plywood boxes, you can build these drawer units.
I was thrilled to get rid of my old ratty file cabinets. It took no time at all to fill up the new units, especially since my wife commandeered half of them for her stuff.
I’ll focus on how to build one unit, but you can build as many as you like and arrange them whichever way works best. Refer to the cutting diagram (Figure B, below and in Additional Information), and cut all the plywood components except the back (C), drawer bottoms (D) and hardwood drawer fronts (L, M, N). Cut these parts to size as you need them in case one or more components get a little out of whack. Many home centers will help you cut your plywood so it’s easier to haul home, but don’t wear out your welcome and expect them to make all the cuts for you.
Figure A: DIY Garage Storage Unit
The overall dimensions of the DIY garage storage cabinet are: 16′ wide x 51-1/2′ tall x 24′ deep. See Additional Information, below, for a PDF version of these plans. (Note that there are three drawer sizes. See the Cutting List in Additional Information for dimensions.)
Cut and install the drawer supports
Photo 1: Mount the drawer supports
Attach the drawer supports to the side panels before assembling the cabinet. Glue each support and tack it down with brads. Then flip the panel over and drive 1-1/2-in. screws into the supports.Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
Lay the two sides (A) next to each other on your workbench. Position them so the surface with the most flaws faces up—this will be the inside and won’t be visible once the drawers are installed. Also, determine which of the plywood edges have the fewest flaws and voids, and arrange the pieces so the best edges face toward the front. Measure up from the bottom on each side 14 in., 26 in. and 38 in., and make a pencil mark near the outside edge of each side. Use a straightedge, and draw a line between your marks and across the face of both sides at the same time. These will be the guidelines for the tops of the drawer supports (P).
Cut 18 in. off the 6-ft. pine 1×4, and set it aside to be used as the center brace (Q). Rip down what’s left of the 1×4 into 1-in. strips to be used as the six drawer supports, and cut them to length (see Cutting List in Additional Information, below).
Install the drawer supports with glue and 1-1/2-in. brads (Photo 1). The drawer supports should be 1/2 in. short on the front side to accommodate the thickness of the hardwood drawer fronts. Flip the sides over and install three 1-1/2-in. screws in each support. Countersink all the screws a bit on the outside of the entire carcass so the holes can be filled with wood filler before painting.
Assemble the carcass
Photo 2: Assemble the carcass
Fasten the sides to the top and bottom with glue and brads, and then add screws. To avoid splitting the plywood, drill pilot holes for the screws and stay 1-1/2 in. from the ends.
Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
Photo 3: Add the back
Use the back to square up the cabinet. Fasten the whole length of one side, and then align the other sides with the back as you go.
Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
Photo 4: Install the center brace
The brace prevents the sides from bowing in or out. Clamp the brace in place, and then fasten it with 3-in. trim head screws.Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
Apply wood glue and tack on the top or bottom (B) to the sides with three or four brads. Even if you picked the straightest plywood available at the home center or lumberyard, it will probably cup and curl a bit after it’s cut up. So whenever you join two pieces of plywood, start on one end and straighten out the plywood as you go.
Secure each joint with three 1-1/2- in. screws before moving on to the next one. Whenever drilling close to the edge of plywood, avoid puckers and splits by predrilling 1/8-in. holes for the screws. And stay at least 1-1/2- in. from the end of the plywood that’s being drilled into (Photo 2). If a screw is installed too close to the end, it will just split the plywood instead of burying into it.
Spread glue on the back edge of the carcass and fasten the back with 1-1/2- in. brads along one whole side first. Then use the back as a guide to square up the rest of the carcass (Photo 3). Finish attaching the back with screws every 16 in. or so.
The center brace keeps the plywood sides from bowing in or out. Measure the distance between the drawer runners at the back of the carcass. Cut the center brace that same length. Install the brace between the two middle runners 4 in. back from the front. Make sure the brace is flush or just a little lower than the drawer supports or the drawer will teeter back and forth on it. Hold it in place with a clamp and secure it with two 3-in. screws through each side (Photo 4). Install a brace at more than one drawer support location if your plywood is particularly unruly.
Assemble the drawers
Photo 5: Build the drawers
Assemble the drawers just as you built the cabinets: Glue, nail and screw the sides, front and back. Then square up the box as you fasten the bottom.Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
Lay out each drawer so all the best edges face up. Then, just as you did with the carcass, assemble the drawers with glue, brads and screws. Cut the drawer bottoms after the sides (F, H, K) and fronts/ backs (E, G, J) are assembled. That way you can cut the bottoms exactly to size. A perfectly square bottom will ensure your drawers are also square. Make sure the bottom is flush or a little short on the front side of the drawer; otherwise the hardwood drawer fronts won’t sit flat on the front of the drawer (Photo 5).
Fasten the drawer fronts
Photo 6: Position the drawer fronts
Slip the drawer boxes into the cabinet. Center the drawer fronts and shim under them to achieve 1/8-in. gaps. Secure the fronts to the drawer boxes with glue and one brad in each corner.Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
The home center closest to me carried three options of hardwood plywood: oak, birch and one labeled just “hardwood.” I went with the generic hardwood, but if you do the same, make sure you get enough to finish your project because the grain and color will vary from one batch to the next.
The drawers may not sit perfectly flat until they are filled with stuff, so before you secure the hardwood drawer fronts, add some weight to the drawer you’re working on and the one above it. And center each drawer in the opening before you secure the drawer front. Start at the bottom, and cut the hardwood drawer fronts to size one at a time. Cut them so there’s a 1/8-in. gap between the bottom and the sides and the bottom of the drawer above it. Rest the drawer front on a couple of shims to achieve the gap at the bottom and eyeball the gaps on the side. Glue it and secure it with four brads, one in each corner (Photo 6). There’s no need for screws; the handle bolts will sandwich everything together. If you’re building several of these storage units and purchased a piece of hardwood plywood larger than 2 x 4 ft., you’ll have the option to line up the grain on the drawer fronts the same way it came off the sheet. It’s a small detail that can add a lot to the looks of your project.
Build and attach the handles
Photo 7: Add the handles
Build a simple jig and clamp it onto the drawer front. Hold the handle in place and drill holes for the carriage bolts.
Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
The handles are made from 1 1/4-in. dowels glued to a length of 1 x 2 wood.Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
Rout the edges of the handle with a 1/4- in. round-over bit before cutting the handles (R) to length. Next, cut the dowels for the handle extensions (S) to length.
Build one simple jig to align the dowels on the handles, and to position the handles on the drawer fronts. Cut a 3/4-in. piece of plywood the same width as the drawer fronts and rip it down to 4-3/8 in. Fasten a scrap of 3/4-in. material to the end of the jig. Measure in from each side and mark a line at 2-1/8 in., 3-1/8 in. and 4-3/8 in.
This jig is designed to center the top handle on the top drawer front and keep the others the same distance down from the top on all the other drawers. If you want all the handles centered, you’ll have to build two more jigs or mark center lines on the other drawers.
Set the jig on your workbench and line up the handle with the two outside lines. Line up the dowels on the inside and middle lines on the jig and glue the dowels to the center of handles. No need for clamping—just keep pressure on them for 10 to 20 seconds. Then set them aside for an hour or so to let the glue dry. The glue is just to keep the dowels in place until the handle bolts are installed.
Clamp the jig onto the top of the drawer front, and line up the handle with the guidelines. Drill a starter hole through each handle and the drawer front with a 1/8-in. drill bit before drilling the final holes with a 1/4-in. bit (Photo 7). The 1/8-in. bit probably won’t be long enough to clear all the material, but it still helps make a cleaner hole when you drill through the second time.
Mark the bottom of each handle extension and the area near the hole on each drawer with the same number so you can install that same handle on the same drawer after you apply the finish.
Build and secure the base
If you’re building only one unit, cut the base parts (T) and assemble them with glue and two 3-in. screws that are compatible with pressure-treated lumber. Secure the base to the bottom of the carcass with glue and 1-1/2-in. screws: three on the sides and two each on the front and back.
Finish the components
Patch all the screw holes, brad holes and voids on the carcass with wood filler or wood patch. I painted only the outside and front of the cabinet. I didn’t bother painting the wood on the insides, backs or sides that were going to be sandwiched together. Cover the hardwood drawer fronts and edges with two coats of polyurethane, or a similar coating of your choice. Avoid discoloration around the brad hole on the drawer fronts by filling them with matching putty between coats of poly. I stained the oak handles with a medium-tinted stain to make them “pop” a little more before finishing them with two coats of poly.
Install the handles with the carriage bolts, washers and nuts. Seat the carriage bolts with a hammer so they don’t spin while you turn the nut, and turn them tight.
Install multiple units
Photo 8: Set the carcass on the base
When installing multiple units, build, paint and lay down the base first, and then attach each unit to the base.
Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
Photo 9: Hang shelving between units
Install the bottom shelf on the base. Install cleats to support other shelves.Photo: Courtesy of The Family Handyman
If you’re building several units, build the base and then set each unit in place individually (Photo 8). Create a toe space by building the base 4 in. narrower than the units. My garage floor slants down toward the overhead door, so I had to rip down the base to make the whole thing level. You may just need a few shims to make yours level. Level each storage unit as you go and screw them to the base and to one another with 1-1/2-in. screws. Angle the screws a bit so they don’t poke through when you screw the units together.
Rip down a couple of cleats and screw them to the sides for the middle shelf to sit on. Leave them a couple inches short of the front so you don’t see them. Attach the lower shelf to the base before you install the middle shelf (Photo 9). Once all the units are in place, attach the top(s) so the seams fall in the middle of one unit. Screw the whole thing to the wall studs last using one screw per unit. The front side of the base may need a few shims to make it sit flush against the wall.
Touch up the exposed screw holes and scuff marks with paint. Now all that’s left is to file away all that clutter.
Figure B: Cutting Diagram
Follow this cutting diagram to make the most efficient use of the plywood.
Meet the Builder
Mark Petersen is a Contributing Editor at TFH. He spent 20 years in construction, first as a siding guy and then as a general contractor.
- Figure A: Storage Unit
- Figure B: Cutting Diagram
- Material List (for one unit)
- Cutting List (for one unit)
Required Tools for this Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Adjustable wrench
- Air compressor
- Air hose
- Brad nail gun
- Circular saw
- Cordless drill
- Countersink drill bit
- Framing square
- Miter saw
- Orbital sander
- Safety glasses
- Table saw
- Wood glue