Cabinet design techniques

A survey of cabinetmakers' design techniques, from pencil and rule to CAD. September 6, 2000

Iím curious about how regular Cabinetmaking Forum visitors are designing cabinets. My guess is that most of us use computer design software of some kind.

My transition from pencil and rule occurred seven years ago and prompted the purchase of my first computer and design software. I was finding myself talking clients out of revisions because they were so time consuming to do manually. The switch to the mouse and small screen streamlined the process more than I had expected. Revisions took a fraction of the time they had previously, cut lists were nearly effortless to produce, client interaction improved and customer satisfaction went way up. Ultimately, computerizing the design process proved to be an important part of profitability for my business.

Have you recently made the switch? If so, how is the transition going? Iím especially interested in whether you use a stand-alone, dedicated cabinet design program or have modified or adapted generic CAD software and possibly added spreadsheet capability to assist with cut-list creation.
Michael Poster, forum moderator

I have been in the cabinet industry 20 years plus, and remember when computers were coming into play. We all joked that computers could never replace much of what we were doing manually. How in the world could a machine ever take into consideration all of the variation that we deal with? And if it could, it may take years to train! Little did we know how rapidly technology would advance.

I am now using a simple home architect type program as a visual aid, but it does not help me from a production standpoint. I am a one-man shop and very busy and can fully fathom how cabinet design software could and would help even my little operation. From estimating, layout, shop drawings, ordering materials, cutlist, door sizing, and on to invoicing. And a lot of these programs are customizable to perform these tasks, based on your production methods.

My question is, and I am soliciting the experience of some of the users of these programs, how do I choose the right one? I know generally of about five players in the cabinet software arena with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. I know that a program like this could save me at least twenty hours of paperwork per job, and even save me an occasional mistake. But I don't have the countless hours to research these products to find the best value.

I don't need to go as far as CNC capability, but all of the above-mentioned tasks are what I would be looking for. I am using this forum as it is the closest I can come to getting the opinion of a group of knowlegable cabinetbuilders. Maybe some of you could let me know what you are using, let me know if you're happy with your program, and if you might do anything differently if you had it to do again. This is a decision I have been struggling with for several months.

The good news is that many of the software programs that are available for your purposes are typically demonstrated at the regional and national wood industry trade shows.

That said, I believe many of the cabinet design software companies have reps that will come to your shop and demonstrate their offerings.


As Michael said, reps will be only too happy to visit and demonstrate their products. But they will be painting the best picture possible for their product.

You need to first define exactly what you need. To do that you need to know what is, in general terms, do-able. It might be worth investing some money to hire a consultant for a short time to review your resources and building methods with the idea of targeting software to your needs.

I've worked with most of the programs available and each one does one or two things really well but everything else only minimally. There are even situations when no software is the best software. The bottom line has to be what will improve your own operation. To know that, you will need to spend some time and/or some capital.

I made my transition from T-square to computer about seven years ago. I bought AutoSketch for a hundred bucks. I find my customers have lessening ability to imagine a finished project and higher expectations for me to show it to them, or at least appreciate it when I can show them what their project will look like.

My AutoSketch drawings were of significant detail, but still would not do a rendered, 3-D picture. That was my foundational reason for purchasing the CabinetVision Solid program. I am a two-man shop doing high-end cabinets with lots of details, and one-off furniture. I can't get away from using AutoSketch because the amount of time to create the details in 3-D is too cumbersome. I usually begin all my jobs with AutoSketch and when I feel comfortable that most of the revisions are in place, I take the time to input it into CabinetVision.

I have been using it for two years and still have large sections of the program to set up; bidding, profile libraries, etc. The cutlists are quite helpful and time-saving for the larger jobs. I have a ways to go before I trust the program's output, because I don't yet trust my input. I still believe the transition is important to begin, and making my learning investment in a program that is going to advance with the industry is critical. Thus far, it seems like CabinetVision is a good candidate.

Believe it or not, most of us already have the makings of a respectable cabinet CAD application in our computers. All you need is some basic skills with a graphics app, and to know how to set up a spreadsheet, and you are on your way to a great way to design and bypass the cost of CAD applications. Whatís best is youíll have a CAD program that makes cabinets the way YOU build them.

With my Duo Graphics app and Excel up and running, all I have to do is enter the case size, then how many doors and their opening sizes, how many drawers and their opening sizes, and zip, I have a complete cutting list for the case parts and face frames. And I have it set up so that when I print, the right side of my paper has the cutting list, and the left is a working drawing with each dimension in its proper place for me to follow in the shop.

When it comes to making the doors and drawers I have the same set up made for each. For the drawers I tell the spreadsheet I want so many drawers to fit an opening so wide and so deep and it gives me the sizes of the front, sides, back and bottom. I cut all the pieces, rout the front, make the slots in all for the bottom, which slides in nicely, sand and assemble; it fits perfectly in the case, 1/8" clearance all around. I do the same for the doors; I tell it how many doors, their opening size, and it prints a list of the sizes for two stiles, two rails, the inset panel, and Iím on my way, no mistakes unless I cut wrong.

Hereís how I do it. Iíll begin with a simple cabinet base case, itís easy to understand, youíll get the idea. Yes, youíll need some familiarity with setting up a spreadsheet.

Using a graphics application, I draw a side and top view depicting the basic construction of a case the way I make one. It doesnít have to be to scale, just a generic case. My drawings are all made to print on an 8-1/2 X 11 paper, landscape view, which will become my cutting list and working shop drawings.

I build my base cabinets as boxes. I then build a smaller 4-inch high pedestal on the floor that they set on, forming the kick space. My example case here will have two sides, a top, bottom, and a back. The top and bottom will be set into 3/8-inch deep slots in the sides. Iím going to make the top a solid board just to simplify the concept.

Into my generic two-view drawing I put dimension lines with arrows showing height, width, and thickness of each board, but I leave spaces where the numbers of inches would normally appear. Then, I copy the plan into a spreadsheet; most spreadsheets will take a graphic imposed over the cells. I use Excel.

When I superimpose my plan on the spreadsheet, I leave room at the top where I tell cells to prompt me for my cabinet's overall width, height, and depth. On the right, I place text forming a list titled "cutting list," under which I have rows for top, sides, bottom, and back boards. For each row I form three columns: (1) the number of boards to cut, (2) its length, (3) its width.

Next, I adjust the cell sizes so there is a cell for each of the blank spaces I left in the drawing for the dimensions to go in. Since all of my base cabinets have the same countertop thickness and kickspace height, the whole design is a function of the countertop height (top surface to floor), the case depth (face frame surface to wall), and the width of the cabinet (seen from the front view).
Viola! I place a formula in each dimension-space of the drawing that will calculate and display the size of the board that will be there. In my cutting list I place the same formula, so it tells me the width and height of each board.

Example: for a cabinet with a depth of 24 inches from face frame to the wall, the width of the top, bottom, and side boards will be 24 inches, less the thickness of the face frame and the backboard (.75" and .5" respectively). In the appropriate places, I enter the formula "=C1-1.25" (if C1 is the cell where I have entered the cabinet depth, 24 inches). As soon as I enter the depth, my spreadsheet places 22.75 in my drawing, and in the top, bottom, and sides' width column of the cutting list.

If the cabinet is to be 36 inches high, my side boards will be 36 less the coutertop thickness and the kickspace height. In the appropriate spaces, I place the formula "=(C2-5.5)" (if C2 is the cell where I have entered the cabinet height, 36 inches). So, when I enter the cabinet height, my drawing and cutting list show my side boards' length to be 30.5".

If my cabinet width (front view), is 30 inches, the bottom and top boards, which are inset 3/8-inch into a slot in each side, will have a length of 29-1/4 inches. In the drawing and cutting list cells, where I want their dimensions to appear, I place the formula "=C3-.75" (if C3 is the cell where I have entered the cabinet width, 30 inches).

I lay the backboard grain horizontal, so its width will be the same as the side board height, and its length will be the cabinet width. I tell the cutting list to place each of those numbers in the right places.

The result is, when I enter the three dimensions of my cabinet and print my work out, I have a cutting list and plan for the case, and Iím in the shop working.

The face frame is done the same way, but setting it up is more tedious, as are the setups for making the drawers. The face frame is a function of the cabinet height and width, how many doors or drawers you want. Your stiles and rails can be set to your standards so the calculations wonít be difficult, just make them a function of the case size. Drawers are tedious too, but set them up to fit perfectly into whatever size opening you have made for them in the face frame.

Donít let all this scare you. All you are doing is setting up your drawing and spreadsheet to do what you would do if you were building the cabinets by sketches and a calculator and scratching your head. Whatís best is that once you get your setup made, you can save it and use it with foolproof results.