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Kitchen Cabinets: Should You Build or Buy?

Outside of appliances, kitchen cabinets are the most expensive part of any remodel. When I remodeled my kitchen, I put a ton of research and time into deciding if I should buy new cabinets, or spend a ton of time trying to buy my own.

Building your own kitchen cabinets is only a feasible plan if you have plenty of time, a shop full of tools, and intermediate woodworking skills. While building your own cabinets saves about 66%, the cost of tools and time eats into this significantly for someone who is not an experienced woodworker.

Lets break this down a bit further so you can see exactly what I mean.

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Cost Comparison Between Building and Buying Kitchen Cabinets

So, lets start by pricing out what it would cost to build a cabinet. Just an FYI – these calculations came from my actual cabinet build. You can grab the drawer plans for the small, medium, and large drawers here.

While you might choose to build a slightly different build with different plans, the material cost is probably going to be similar. There are only so many different ways to build a drawer.

Cabinet Boxes

For the cabinet box itself, you’ll require 3/4″ sides and a 3/4″ bottom, as well as a 1/4″ back. Given you’re building 24″ square cabinets, that comes down to 3/8 of a sheet of 3/4″ plywood, and 1/8 of a sheet of 1/4″ plywood.

You’ll also need some wood across the top to stabilize the cabinet. Lets just say you used 1/4 of a cheapo 1×3 furring strip for that.

MaterialUnit CostAmount NeededCost
3/4″ Plywood$503/8 of a sheet$18.75
1/4″ Plywood$251/8 of a sheet$3.13
1×3 Furring Strip$21/4 of an 8′ length$0.50

Using the above calculations, you’re looking at about $22.38 to build a cabinet box.

Drawers and Shelves

Each cabinet can contain 6 small drawers (5″ tall,) 3 medium drawers (10″ tall,) or 2 large drawers (15″ tall,) or a combination of those.

Should you build or buy your kitchen cabinets? I've gone both ways, so let me tell you exactly what you need to know if you're thinking of building your own cabinets. #woodworking

Each small drawer requires the following: 1/8 of a 1/4″ sheet of plywood for the bottom, (4) 4″ wide pieces of 1/2″ plywood for the sides, and a 2″ long piece of 1×6 for the drawer front.

MaterialUnit CostAmount NeededCost
1/4″ Plywood$251/8 of a sheet$3.13
1/2″ Plywood$361/12 of a sheet$3.00
1×6 Common Board$6.501/4 of an 8′ length$1.63

So each small drawer prices out at $7.75.

Each medium drawer requires 1/8 of a 1/4″ sheet of plywood for the bottom, (4) 9″ wide pieces of 1/2″ plywood for the sides, and a 2″ long piece of 1×12 for the drawer front.

MaterialUnit CostAmount NeededCost
1/4″ Plywood$251/8 of a sheet$3.13
1/2″ Plywood$363/16 of a sheet$6.75
1×12 Common Board$121/4 of an 8′ length$3

So each medium drawer prices out at $12.88.

Each large drawer requires 1/8 of a 1/4″ sheet of plywood for the bottom, (4) 14″ wide pieces of 1/2″ plywood for the sides, and a 2″ long piece of 1×16 for the drawer front.

MaterialUnit CostAmount NeededCost
1/4″ Plywood$251/8 of a sheet$3.13
1/2″ Plywood$367/12 of a sheet$21
1×16 Panel Board$161/2 of an 4′ length$8

So each large drawer prices out at $32.13.

Each shelf is 1/8 of a sheet of 3/4″ plywood, meaning each shelf costs $6.25. However, shelves also require a door, which requires another 12′ of 1×2 for the frame, and some 1/4″ plywood for the panels.

You can expect to pay another $9.13 to build a pair of cabinet doors.

Comparison to Store-Bought Cabinets.

The plans I used were inspired by Ikea’s design. They have a modular system, so you can mix and match drawers to create whatever custom drawer arrangement you want.

I’ll talk more about what I did later in the article, but since these plans were inspired by Ikea, I’m using their cabinet system as the price comparison.

I’m pulling numbers from their cheapest drawer slide option, since my drawers don’t require metal drawer slides at all.

CabinetIkeaDIY Build
6 Small Drawers$220$68.88
3 Medium Drawers$190$61.02
2 Large Drawers$185$87.64
3 Small, 1 Large$172$77.76
2 Shelves$106$44.01

I did a cabinet by cabinet comparison above so that you can price out the cost of your own kitchen remodel.

However, if you’re just looking for a big overview right now, here’s how my basement woodshop priced out. Obviously, this is a woodshop not a kitchen, but I used kitchen cabinet plans for the build.

I had 8 base cabinets, and 0 wall cabinets.

CabinetQuantityIkea CostDIY Build
6 Small Drawers2$440$137.76
3 Medium Drawers1$190$61.02
4 Small, 1 Medium*4$800$265.04
2 Medium, 2 Small*1$172$63.64

*Technically, Ikea doesn’t sell a cabinet with 4 small drawers and 1 medium drawer, so I estimated based on their other prices.

Doing a DIY build for my basement cabinets costs a total of $466.44, compared to purchasing from Ikea for $1602.

That’s a savings of over $1100, and that that savings will only increase for a bigger project!

Skill and Tool Requirements For Building Kitchen Cabinets

Yes, you can save a significant amount of cash by building your own cabinets instead of buying new.

But if you don’t already have the skills and tools needed to complete the job, that savings decreases rapidly.

In building my cabinets, I used the following tools:

Miter saw – For cutting sides and drawer fronts to length.

Table Saw – For cutting bottom panels and sides to width. Also for any dados that needed to be added in my drawers.

Stack Dado Set – For cutting a groove in the sides of the drawers to act as a drawer slide. Also for cutting a groove in the sides for the bottom panel to sit.

Pocket Hole Jig – All the joints in my drawers were made with pocket holes. I upgraded to a nicer pocket hole jig before I started the project, and I’m so glad I did. It save me so much time!

Orbital Sander – For sanding the drawer fronts before painting

If you don’t have a single one of these tools, you’re probably looking at spending an extra $500 just to buy the main power tools necessary to build the drawers.

And I don’t know if I’d recommend a cabinet build to be anybody’s first project.

I’ve done hundreds of other woodworking builds before, and I was still super nervous before making my first drawer.

I’d never used a stack dado set before, and that was a bit scary at first. And I’d heard horror stories about drawers and cabinets that weren’t square and didn’t work right – I was terrified that would happen to me!

If you’re already comfortable working with both a miter saw and a table saw, you’re probably in good shape to try to build your own cabinet system.

Otherwise, you have a few options. You could take the time to practice building, spending a few months getting used to using the saws by building other projects before tackling the kitchen remodel. Or you could just opt to buy the cabinets.

Time Commitment

As with any project where you’re building instead of buying, essentially, you’re exchanging time for money. Instead of spending a few extra thousand dollars, you’re putting in an extra 30-ish hours of work.

If you’re wondering exactly how much work… well, let me tell you how it worked out for me.

First off, I didn’t build the cabinet boxes, just the drawers. I’ll talk more about that choice in the next section, but know that I significantly cut down my time commitment because of that.

For building the drawers, it basically took me a weekend to finish two cabinets worth of drawers. I did this assembly-line style – on Saturday, I’d make all the cuts for all the drawer pieces.

I’d cut everything to size, and any necessary dados/pocket holes/ etc. After I got good at it, this probably wasn’t a full day of work – by the end to prep 48 pieces (12 small drawers) it took about 6 hours.

Then the next day I’d assemble the drawers and install them in the cabinet. This often took a bit longer. Assembly usually went quickly, but hanging the slide pieces in the cabinet took some time, even with this fancy Kreg Drawer Slide Jig.

Assembly and install was usually an 8-9 hour day.

In total, it took me 4 weekends to build the drawers, plus another weekend to make and attach the drawer fronts. Since some of those days were short days, you could probably cut this down significantly, especially if you have two people working instead of just one.

You could also build fewer drawers, although that requires building doors, which might be just as much work. I also think that drawers are way more practical in base cabinets than shelves, but that’s just my take.

It’s also worth remembering that for as long as it takes you to build everything, you don’t have a kitchen. I was actually building these cabinets in my woodshop, so that wasn’t an issue for me (although building cabinets without a functioning shop was also kind if impractical.)

Either way, I remember from my actual kitchen remodel a few years back (I bought cabinets that time,) that being without a kitchen is pretty awful.

Just keep in mind that building your own cabinets extends that time, and if you’re eating out instead of cooking, that can up the price of building your own cabinets too.

Money-Saving Alternatives to Buying New Cabinets

So, as I’ve been alluding to throughout the article, I did a hybrid build. That’s one option to save a ton of money without quite as much work.

There are a few other thifty options as well, so lets dive in!

Hybrid Build: Building Part of Your Kitchen Cabinets

Cabinet boxes are theoretically not that hard to build. They’re just boxes, right? Big boxes, but still just boxes.

But, if you’re planning to put drawers in your cabinets, the boxes need to be square. It can also be difficult to work with bigger pieces of plywood.

And if you look up “cabinet box plans” (like these ones from Ana White,) they’re actually a little complicated. There’s the bottom support area, the main box part, and some extra supports at the top.

Maybe this isn’t a big deal, but the more complicated the build, the longer it’s going to take to make. Considering the fact you probably have 10+ cabinets to build, even a little extra work can be a huge time suck.

So, because of all of this, I skipped the box build. Instead, I bought my cabinet boxes for $45 each at Ikea.

As I listed above, it cost about $22 to build a cabinet box. Since I had 8 cabinets, I probably spent an extra $200 buying the boxes instead of building them.

Frankly, I think the tradeoff was well worth it, primarily because I didn’t have to worry that the cabinets were square.

Yes, since I bought the boxes from Ikea, I did have to do some assembly, but each cabinet took between 30-45 minutes to assemble. That’s way faster than actually having to build them. And they were square. Have I mentioned that?

Then, I wrote my drawer plans to fit inside my cabinet build. Each cabinet was 24″ wide, so I sized my drawers accordingly. I liked Ikea’s modular drawer system, so I based the heights of my drawers on their drawer system.

If you’re interested in doing something similar, you can grab my drawer plans here. Obviously, they’re meant to fit Ikea’s 24″ wide base cabinets, but you could probably edit them fairly easily to fit another width of cabinet.

Thrift Store Cabinets

Before I went the Ikea route, I browed some of my local thrift stores to see if I could find a set of gently-used cabinets. Habitat for Humanity Restore is a great place to look for used cabinets.

Over the month or two that I browsed, I probably saw 5-6 different sets come and go through the stores. Full sets were priced between $800 and $1500 depending on the quality, although this greatly depends on the Habitat.

These were prices in Minneapolis, but the Habitat I used to live by in St. Louis and much more competitive prices on cabinets.

I didn’t go this route, since many of the sets came with upper cabinets, which I didn’t need, and were way more expensive than the Ikea route I ultimately went with.

But if you’re looking for a full set, this could be a valid option if you’re really just looking to upgrade.

I also considered purchasing single cabinets for the cabinet box, and doing what I did with the Ikea cabinets, except with Habitat used cabinets instead.

This would have been a viable option with the prices in St. Louis, but here in Minneapolis it was actually cheaper to purchase a new cabinet box from Ikea than it was to purchase a used cabinet from Habitat.

Painting Cabinets

One more thought: If you’re really just interested in changing the look of your cabinets (they’re in good shape otherwise, and you like the layout,) consider painting them instead.

Painting isn’t as scary as it seems, especially if you were considering replacing them anyway. The key is using a good primer. I delve into painting laminate cabinets here, but if you have plywood or wood cabinets, it’s a very similar process.

While painting is a lot of work, it’s less work than actually replacing the cabinets altogether, and significantly less work that building new cabinets. It’ll save you a lot of money, but still result in a fresh, new look for your kitchen!

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