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Building Cabinets

When it comes to building a case for a project, cutting the joinery is sometimes the easiest part of the job. The challenge comes when you get out the glue and clamps for the assembly. So, at this point, I take some of the stress out of the job by making sure I follow a few simple rules.

The Right Space

You need to give yourself plenty of room to work. The key is to have clear access to all sides of the assembly. So whether you’re working on the bench top or the floor, clear things out of the way and give yourself room. And don’t forget to leave space for the clamps you’ll need.

A Dry Run

When cutting the joinery, it’s easy to take the fit of some of the joints for granted. You figure if one fits, they all will. But before starting the assembly, it’s a good idea to take a step back and do a test fit of all the joints. One thing to remember is that glue makes the wood swell. If a joint is hard to assemble “dry,” you’ll really have a problem once the glue is applied. Shoot for a snug fit that’s effortless to assemble.

Clamps at Hand

Sometimes it’s difficult to know how many clamps you’ll need for an assembly, and where the clamps should go to do the most good. If this is the case, the solution is to do a quick run-through of the clamp-up. This gives you a chance to gather the clamps you’ll need, adjust them to the right length, and find the best position for them. And they’ll be right at hand when you have glue in the joints later on.

Pads & Cauls

Clamping pads and cauls are important to a successful assembly. If you don’t have pads on the heads of your clamps, thin strips of wood will keep them from damaging the case. Cauls are heavier pieces and actually help distribute the pressure applied by the clamps. Whichever you need for the job, have them ready and at arms length. You don’t want to be running to the table saw to cut a caul to size as the glue is tacking up. Here’s a time-saving tip you can try. If you tape the strips to the work piece, you won’t have to hold them in place while trying to position a heavy clamp.

The Inside Story

Every once in a while, I’ll catch myself starting an assembly before I’ve taken care of some of the “inside-the-case” details. This can be as simple as a little sanding or something more serious like forgetting to drill holes for the shelf pins or hardware. It’s better to double-check these details now than have to try to fix the problem later on.

Build in Stages

Whenever possible, I tackle large glue ups in several stages. This lets you concentrate on assembling just a few joints at one time. It’s a lot less hectic and I find that the job turns out better.

Slide Into Place

And along the same lines, I find it’s easier to add interior horizontal dividers last. You can simply slide them into place once the main case has been assembled. Again, it’s a good idea to test the fit to make sure the joint doesn’t bind before adding glue.

Gluing the Cabinets

The glue you put in the joints is what holds everything together. So it makes sense to think about where to put the glue and how much to use (the box on the opposite page offers a few pointers). Consider where glue will do the most good and also where it might cause hassles. Heavy squeeze out on the hidden part of a case isn’t a problem, but where it will be seen is a different matter.

Square it Up

After applying the glue and tightening down the clamps, the next thing I do is check to make sure the cabinet is square. And the best way to do this is by comparing opposite corner-to-corner measurements. If the two measurements are the same, you’re assured the assembly is square. If this isn’t the case, there are a couple things that I look at. First, see if the assembly is sitting flat. Then check your clamps (see box below).

A Once-Over to the Cabinet

Finally, it pays to give the assembly one last close look. Check to see that all the joints are pulled up tight and look for glue squeeze out that might need attention. Small beads of glue can be left to dry and then popped off later. But I do like to clean off any major squeeze out at this point. After making sure the assembly isn’t disturbed before the glue dries, I know that when the clamps come off, the results are a sure thing.

How to Square a Case

When my corner-to-corner measurements tell me that a case is out of square, the first thing I do is check the alignment of the clamps. A clamp that’s “skewed” across the case exerts unequal force on the joint and can distort the case. If you find a clamp that’s misaligned, simply adjust its position so that it’s parallel to the case and applying pressure directly over the joint. Now take another set of corner-to-corner measurements, and the results should be better. But sometimes, you’ll find that after realigning the clamps, the case will need a gentle push on one corner to persuade it into square.