Cabinet Construction with Half-Inch Plywood

Using half-inch plywood for all cabinet components (sides, back, shelves, and deck) lends itself to quick and simple cabinet assembly. March 5, 2007

I'm thinking about switching to 1/2" backs exclusively to streamline and standardize things a little better. I currently use 1/4" backs with a 3/4" hardwood nail rail... It's just getting too time consuming.

How do you construct your cabinets (face frame) with 1/2" backs and why do you think it is the best way? Dado them in, rabbet, or just attach directly to the cabinet sides and shelves? If you dado them in, say 3/8 to 1/2 from the back, do you then attach fillers behind where they are mounted to the wall?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor C:
1/2" back... Sounds to me as if that might raise your material costs. There is nothing wrong with 1/4 backs and it depends if you have a finished end or not on the cabinet. My shop only rabbets the sides if there are finished ends; otherwise, we simply staple them on. If the customer wants 1/2" backs, then they pay accordingly. Our typical cabinet (paint grade poplar) is all cut by one guy who uses the table saw to rip the sheet goods. Then another guy uses the panel saw to cross cut and number the parts according to the cut list generated by Cabinet Vision. (One day soon we will invest in a CNC.) Then he uses the line borer to line bore all the sides and partitions. We have a face frame guy who rips all the wood down to the appropriate widths and then uses a dedicated digital upcut saw (sure beats the old way with the chop saw) to cut to the correct lengths. Then he uses the pocket hole machine to pocket hole all the rails. Then they are all marked and placed in a bend.

Now the cabinet builders will get all their parts together and take them back to their work station and glue, screw and staple the cabinet together. The nailers and stretchers are screwed in with square drive screws. They are lined up flush with the sides and the partitions are notched accordingly, then the backs are simply stapled on (no glue). The face frames are nailed on and then puttied with Famowood wood filler. The face frames are then sanded and the cabinets are lined up like they would be installed and set up for delivery by our installers (subcontractors).

We have 10 workers in our shop and we all get along and have a good time. The entire job cut list is generated by Cabinetvision and each person responsible for their particular job gets their own cut list (face frames, drawers, case work, etc.). The whole thing flows smoothly and if any mistakes are made, we know exactly where they occurred and they are corrected.

That's the way most every shop I have worked at does business. Not once have we had complaints on the 1/4" backs. If the designers or architects that were hired by the customer want 1/2" backs, then they get it (and pay accordingly). Otherwise, it's 1/4 as our main method.

From contributor H:
We build only frameless and use 1/2 backs. We shoot and screw them onto the back of the cabinet. This automatically squares them up and we use Fastcap installation screws to install. Very strong and the fall-offs on the sheets are used for drawer sides and drawer bottoms. This is pre-finished maple ply. My scrap heap at the end of a kitchen is tiny.

From contributor T:
We use half inch plywood for the entire cabinet construction with one and a half inch dadoed face frames. The floors are dadoed into the sides and the back and the frame. The back has a quarter inch rabbet down the sides and is inserted into a dado in the side of the cabinet. A total interlocking cabinet construction that has never failed. One person can cut out, joint, and assemble an average kitchen in an 8 hour shift. There is no cost difference from quarter inch backs to half inch backs because you save it in time and labor costs, and it is more durable.

From contributor M:
I build face frame and have switched to 1/2" backs. Lowers are stapled on. Uppers have a 1/4" rabbet and inserted into a dado so it is flush with the cabinet back. I like the simplicity of no nailers, but mostly being able to attach rear drawer and slide out shelf brackets directly to the back.

I'm a one man shop, so any increase in material cost is quickly offset by time savings - and it really looks and feels like a solid cabinet when done (most of my work is remodels, so the homeowner sees the cabinet construction prior to countertop install).

From contributor I:
We use complete 1/2 construction. The only joint we have in the whole cabinet is in the face frame on a finished end. Everything else is pocket screws and I mean everything, decks to sides, backs to sides, toe kick to deck. We can frame a 12 cabinet kitchen up and have it ready to stain the next morning if it doesn't have a lot of specialty stuff. And we are a two man shop. My method is simple because the deck, back, shelf, and toe kick are all cut the same length, cut at the same time while the saw is set.

From contributor F:
Pocket screws are fast, but do you have to skin the upper cabinet bottoms to cover up the pocket holes, or just attach a light rail?

From contributor I:
I should have mentioned it, but that is a part that we don't pocket hole - we shoot that part with brad nails. On the higher end kitchens, though, we do cut skins 12 1/4 wide and then let it be 1/4" long on the finished ends and then cap that with a rail around the bottom of the cabinet that has a 1/4 groove cut in it. That way, looking up from the bottom, there are no raw edges showing the 1/4 skin because it is in the rail. It looks nice even though the average customer isn't going to make it a habit dobbing their head up under a wall cabinet every time they go into the kitchen.