Speeding Up Euro Box Construction

      A homebuilder who shop-builds his own cabinets for 15 houses a year asks for advice on speeding up carcase construction. March 3, 2009

Cab Parts

I'm part owner of a residential construction business and we do our own custom kitchens. We have been in business for about 30 years here in Alberta, Canada and have been doing the cabinets for about 12 years.

The cabinets you see from most any maker around is the European style with melamine carcasses with veneer or white banding. We currently build a very sturdy box with 5/8 melamine components with a full 5/8 back that is rabbeted in, the butt joints are aligned with biscuits that are glued during assembly and then clamped and stapled and screwed all manually.

We don't have any type of boring machine, just a few simple jigs to bore the biscuits and then a counterbore for the screws to prevent splitting etc. I'm almost certain we spend way more time than most building our boxes and they do pass the " falling out of the truck and surviving" test, but I'd like to ask if there are some other time saving methods out there that produce a good sturdy carcass?

We currently only use a Delta Unisaw for our cutting and a Minimax me15 bander, all prep work is done prior to assembly. I'd like to build on to the shop and add a 9' panel saw and perhaps some sort of boring machinery to use dowels or large diameter coarse screws for assembly, that way I would get the drawer/shelf support holes etc. all in a few simple steps.

Any advice on what machines would be get me going in a new direction? We do about 15 sets a year and install ourselves, only for the houses we build. We currently buy our doors from a door shop and do the rest of the millwork ourselves but unfortunately our cabinet shop cannot keep up to our 3 building crews, considering our shop only has two dedicated cabinet guys.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor C:
You say you do 15 houses worth of cabinetry per year, and two shop guys devote all their time (4000 man hours total) to making those 15 sets? Do I have that right? Because if I do, and your per-man hour costs, fully burdened, run you $22 per, you have almost $5,900 in labor cost, per set. Your mileage may vary.

I just measured a job with a kitchen, laundry, LR with cabs and shelves flanking the fireplace, one half bath, and three full baths. All frameless, it is a 33-box job, with about 170 sf of fronts, 24 d'boxes, a couple of large plywood ends for a fridge cab, plus an assortment of flats and moldings. Given the measurements, it will take me the better part of a day to plug everything into an eCabinets batch, print reports, buy lists, do the orders, and email the jobfile to the CNC shop. That means one and one quarter man days measure to process, then wait for the stuff all to come in. Fifteen of those will take me fifteen times that, for a total of about 150 man hours.

I know that I am paying a premium to job out the box parts cutting and edgebanding, versus you doing your cutting and banding in-house, but let's do the numbers. If I average 24 sheets of mel per set, my cost for the cutting and banding amounts to about $875 each, and if I extend that by 15 sets, my cost is $13,125- the total for a year. But offset that by the fact that I don't own a saw, or a bander, or boring gear, or anything, for that matter and I have no employee costs.

From the original questioner:
I'd rather not sub out the work. I just need some tips to get a little more efficient. I'm expecting to see a slowdown in building next year, so I figure we will catch up with the cabinetry. I will continue to study the WOODWEB archives as well. I looked at the ecabinetry site briefly. Is it just a software program to design kitchens and cutlists?

From the original questioner:
Our cabinet guys do about 15 sets of cabinets a year and usually look after all the millwork finishing (staining and lacquering) on all finish components (doors, trim, railings). Usually large custom jobs include bars, all laundry and bath cabinets, built in cabinetry, and etc. Most of our customers are looking for something special and it's really nice to have the quality control from beginning to end on each project.

In response to your comment about 15 sets a year not being a lot for a couple of guys, your right, I should have mentioned that our shop is not a production shop but involves a good percentage of work not related to box building. The box building takes up a lot of room and is tedious work, but it would be nice to streamline that part a bit and maybe make some improvements.

From contributor R:
A simple boring setup can be had for pretty short money, especially used. There are also other methods. I have a client that I helped set up to make their retail counter drawers using a drawer lock setup. It is very fast to mill and assemble. They use a simple, dedicated router table setup, so anytime drawers are needed, the stock can be cut to length and run through the machine.

A dedicated dovetail machine can also be useful for higher end drawer boxes. You can set your box dimensions to work with the dovetail spacing, so one setup always works.

From the original questioner:
I was reading a bit about these confirmat screws, maybe that is one way to go. What boring machines would I need to pre-drill all components prior to assembly? I guess this would eliminate the clamping and gluing. If we continue to rabbet in the backs it should be a sturdy case still, no?

From the original questioner:
Currently most kitchen suppliers around here do a melamine drawer with standard glides or a poplar dovetail style with a 1/4" bottom (that's considered high end). We use the Blum metal drawer sides that require a melamine bottom and back. I realize some of you guys that do strictly wood drawers are cringing but the Blum drawers are a nice sturdy drawer and are fast to put together.

From contributor A:
It may seem cheap, but much less time consuming than biscuits. A lot of Euro guys use the staple/screw method. It was made popular by the True32 guys. Other people have been using it for decades as well. Simply use a cabinet stapler that shoots a 1/4" x 1 1/4" staple 1 1/2" is better but most staplers can't handle the length. Shoot a staple in each end of the butt joint to hold it in alignment. Use #8 x 2" type 17 assembly screws to hold the box together.

Don't even rabbet the back. Simply flush mount the back and staple it on 3" OC. Our standard construction is 1/4" rabbets and dados, glued and stapled, flush back/applied ends. That would work as well. The point is the biscuits are overkill. These methods work well for simple casework like kitchen cabinets, where 95% of the joints are unseen after install.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for those ideas contributor A. The thought of going to a simple staple and screw assembly would get the job done. Shooting in staples without clamping the case makes for not a great fit due to the melamine blowout between the pieces, with no aligning dowels or biscuits it would be tricky assembly, do you make up some jigs for clamping for this type of assembly? I'm starting to think that maybe some dedicated boring machines set up for confirmat screws may be what I start pursuing. Considering we don't even have a line boring machine for shelf supports yet, currently we are just using a strip of melamine clamped to the case with holes drilled for a guide. Going with flush back would be a big timesaver though. On the upper cabinets we could just tape the bottom edge so no particle board is exposed.

From contributor D:
I know this is off your topic, but you brought up the line boring topic. I put it off for years and did it just as you are. This year I found a good deal on the Delta line bore machine. It is not what I would call heavy duty, that is I don't think it would hold up to constant duty but it drills 17 holes and has indexing pins to move and drill more. I can drill an entire set of upper cabinets faster than I can make a pattern and it will do a much cleaner job.

From contributor C:
Butt joints done with no glue, staples for alignment, then screwed, make for a quite sturdy carcase, but I am not sure how it goes with 5/8 panel stock. All we do is 3/4.

From the original questioner:
I was eyeing up the delta line borer as a potential unit to start on too. It would likely be fine for our shop considering it would only be boring one day every couple of weeks. Minimax has a nice foot operated machine, but for lots more money. I'm going to keep my eyes open for a good used machine.

Contributor C - are you using 3/4" plywood or melamine? Do you clamp your parts together prior to shooting your staples?

From contributor C:
No clamps. You need to "flow manufacture" your layout in the shop, and your operation. Software is critical, CNC or saw shop. Raise yourself up from thinking about joints and think of the bigger picture.

From contributor A:
There really is no blowout. The two pieces are butted together. The staples are 18 gauge so not a big exit hole. Just try one box in the shop. You will see for yourself. If you don't own a staple gun, buy one.

From contributor J:
I use 5/8 material and staple and screw. I use a #6x1.75" screw. Screw about every 6” to 8”. Try one in the shop and see. Then put it in the truck and try the fall off the moving truck test. They still hold up for me.

From contributor T:
So what are you guys doing for finished ends? I would assume that on a full end it would be a door or panel but what about height changes or box depth changes? Are you "facing" the melamine with a wood veneer prior to edgebanding?

From contributor J:
Plant on end panels, or false doors, or most sheet goods suppliers have melamine one side, veneer other side. In the last case you would then use dowels or biscuits to join.

From the original questioner:
We have gone to door panels on all cabinet ends. We were contact cementing veneer on melamine for a few years and they are real troublesome with bubbling and etc. The melamine with the veneer one side is a good product too if the budget is real tight, but if you figure it all out in the end, the door route is pretty much the same and looks better too.

I talked to my cabinet guy about cabinet backs being just stapled and screwed flush. He really didn't like that at all, he's figures the backs are what do all the work once installed and the rabbet holds it all together. It's tried and true I suppose, so why change a good thing? We’re going to 1/2" backs in the near future to lighten things up a bit, but maybe not much else. It was just more convenient to use 5/8 for everything and save the space.

From contributor A:
It’s time to do a little destructive testing in the shop. The nice thing is you probably have a pile of melamine scrap kicking around. Staple your back on with 1 1/2" staples 3" OC. Melamine will certainly fail before any of the staples pull out or shear. Your cabinet guy might like my construction method if he wants to stick with the rabbeted back. Rabbet the sides of all of your cabinets. Then glue and use staples to fasten it all together. If you believe in glue you don't need the screws. This is very fast and the rabbet helps to align for assembly. You can also tell your customers that you use rabbet/dado construction.

From contributor R:
Confirmats would be a good way to go. We have a used Ayen OSB23 construction boring machine and an Ayen LSB-23 line boring machine for sale. These are German made and will last for a very long time.

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