Arthur strives to balance aesthetics, functionality, and quality with costs when planning DIY projects in the home and garden.
My wife asked me to make her a cabinet to keep her sewing machine safe from our cats playing with the thread when it’s not in use. She asked for it to have shallow drawers to keep all her cotton reels and sewing accessories organised, and for it to be on wheels so that she can move the sewing cabinet around the conservatory when she’s using it.
Objectives for Making the Sewing Cabinet
I appraised her request and consulted with a close friend, who’s good at DIY, for additional ideas and suggestion. I then added my own objectives to my wife’s mission statement, which I ran passed her (as the customer) for approval, before setting the definitive list of objectives.
- Within the space available, to make the sewing cabinet as big as is reasonable, to maximize storage space.
- Sewing cabinet to be the same height as the sewing table that it will butt against.
- Top to be hinged to enable it to be lifted, for easy access to the sewing machine.
- Drawers to be as shallow as possible, so as to incorporate as many drawers as will fit within the given space.
- Lots of removable dividers in the drawers, to allow for adjustments to suit different storage requirements.
- Wheels on the base of the cabinet.
- Shelving behind the sewing machine for additional storage space, adjustable and removable for maximum flexibility of use.
- Make the cabinet to a high standard, using quality wood, with a good wood finish, rather than making something rustic from scrap or recycled wood.
- Add a little style to the design and make it aseptically pleasing.
Using the objectives set, I measured the available space, for where we wanted to put the sewing machine cabinet and drew up detailed sketch plans with measurements.
The width between the sewing table and the full-length conservatory window was just over 600mm (2 feet), and the height of the sewing table was 750mm (just under 30 inches). The cabinet only needed to be 450mm (18 inches) to house the sewing machine, but my wife wanted it to be 600mm (2 feet) deep, for additional storage space.
Having made the sketch plans, I was then able to calculate the materials needed, and to set the target parameters for time, cost and quality.
Setting Time, Cost and Quality for the Project
The three cornerstones of project management are time, cost and quality. Setting these from the outset, and getting them right, is a good way of helping to ensure a successful outcome of the project.
When setting these parameters they need to be realistic and achievable, and contingency needs to be built-in because projects always take longer than planned and usually cost more.
The parameters I set for this project were:
To make the cabinet as a Christmas present, giving me several months to source the material, make the cabinet and finish it to a high standard. The contingency I built in was to optionally make it for my wife’s birthday present; which would give me an extra month, if I needed the time, to ensure I didn’t compromise on quality by rushing to finish it on time.
Knowing from experience how costly wood can be, including delivery charges, I set myself a budget of £200 ($260); with the intention to source the wood within budget.
The intention is to make the cabinet to a high standard, taking particular care on quality at each stage of the build. Although the overall quality would also be partly dependent on the type of wood I bought within budget, not rushing to finishing on time, and getting the design right.
Sourcing the Wood
The main material for this project is the wood.
- Quality wood for the body, top and main shelf of the cabinet, and for the drawers’ sides, front and back.
- Plywood for the back and base of the cabinet and the drawer bases.
- Scrap wood for drawer supports and dividers, etc.
My preferred choice for quality wood is oak, but that is extremely expensive and would have taken me well over my budget. My other options, keeping me within my budget, included plywood, planks of wood, floorboards and salvaged wood.
My choice of local suppliers are:
- DIY chain stores
- Timber merchants
- Salvage yards
Plywood and delivery costs from the local DIY stores these days isn’t cheap. So this option would have taken me to my budget limit. Also their planks of softwood (pine or spruce) tend to be quite narrow, and with delivery costs, not much different in price to using plywood.
Their prices and delivery costs are competitive, so it’s one source to consider.
The local sawmills are also timber merchants, but additionally offer the service of cutting wood to bespoke sizes, on demand, for a minimal fee.
These are always worth a visit. There’s no guarantee you’ll find what you want, but there is always a chance they’ll have something suitable, such as a pile of old floorboards salvaged from a demolition job; and their delivery costs tend to be very modest.
Making an Informed Decision
Having sourced wood locally in Bristol, I was wavering between buying plywood from a DIY store or engineered oak floorboards from the local sawmill. Engineered oak floorboards being plywood with oak as the top layer.
Then a close friend from Portsmouth (120 miles from where I live) informed me that one of the local sawmills in his area sold timber significantly cheaper than market prices. He could buy oak planks in Portsmouth for about the same price that I could get plywood delivered in Bristol. As I was planning to make him a visit soon (to help him with one of his DIY projects), and as his car is big enough to transport quite long lengths of planks, this option was very appealing.
Therefore, I decided to buy the wood from Portsmouth, which delayed the project by over a month and made it a tight schedule for completing the cabinet before Christmas. However, it was worth the wait for the benefit of getting good quality hardwood for a very reasonable price.
Making the Purchase
When I visited my Portsmouth friend we made a visit to his local sawmill to buy the wood, but when we got there we were disappointed to find their stock of oak planks low, and what was left was all badly warped. However, they had plenty of other hardwood in stock, and in looking at what was available I eventually opted for Meranti.
Having chosen a cheaper hardwood, from a supplier selling the wood quite cheaply, the actual cost of the wood was well below budget; only £120 ($160). So I was well chuffed.
We got the planks back to his place in his car, and then cut them to convenient lengths to fit into our car for the return journey back to Bristol.
Other Woods for the Project
Having bought the planks of meranti wood for the cabinet and drawers, I now needed suitable plywood for the cabinet back and base, and the drawers bases; and scrap wood for the drawer supports and dividers, etc.
My friend had a spare 4ft x 8ft sheet of 9mm plywood, that he gave me as ‘payment in kind’ for helping him with his DIY project. So we cut the plywood into suitable sizes to fit into our car; and with me having plenty of scrap wood in my workshop for all the other bits, I had all the wood needed for the project; including slats from an old louvre door that I kept, that would be ideal to upcycle for the drawer dividers.
Sourcing Other Materials
The other materials I needed for the project were:
- Set of four wheels
- Stay bar for the lid
- Handles and hinges for the doors
- Glass for the doors
I bought the wheels from a local DIY shop, two with brakes for the front; and I had a spare stay bar in my workshop.
For the handles; while on holiday in Cornwall we happen to nip into a bric-a-brac-shop and saw some antique style scallop shell cast iron cup handles. My wife instantly fell in love with them and wanted them for the doors of her new cabinet, so I bought those for her.
As regards the doors, my initial design was for either plain doors with decorative beading or panelled doors. However, after some deliberation I decided that decorative glass doors would enhance the style of the cabinet.
On discussing the design change to the door with my wife we decided to splash out for coloured decorative glass from a local glass crafts shop, rather than buying the cheaper ordinary patterned glass. Although, when she nipped down to the shop with the measurements, she was only charged half price for the glass because she was able to get the two panes of her choice colour from offcuts; which made the glass the same price as it would have been if we had bought just ordinary decorative glass.
When ordering glass I always allow 3mm (1/8th inch) gap all around for fitting.
Making Routing Jig for Drawer Divider Slots
The biggest challenge to the project was how to make all the individual slots in the drawer sides for the dividers. The slots needed to be uniformly spaced, of consistent width, and there need to be lots of them, e.g., one every 50mm (2 inches).
My friend in Portsmouth offered to design, make and test the jig from scrap wood as follows.
- Cut a piece of 18mm (3/4 inch) plywood to length as the base.
- Mark-up and cut four battens from a small piece of decking.
- Glue and screw two of the battens onto the plywood base spaced just slightly wider than the planks of Meranti wood.
- Cut a small piece of 6mm (1/4 inch) plywood to size to fit across the battens, and glue and screw in place to create a housing for routing the Meranti.
- Glue wooden platforms for securing toggle clamps to the base on both sides of the housing.
- Fix the toggle clamps in place and test.
- Temporarily screw two battens across the housing, parallel to each other and at right-angle to the front of the housing, so the router base plate slides snuggly between the two.
- Placing the router between the two battens; use them as a guide for the router to cut a slot in the top of housing.
- Unscrew and relocate the two battens to one side, equal to the distance you want to set your slots for the drawer dividers, which in this case was 50mm (2 inches).
- Use the router again to cut a second slot in the top of the housing; and if required, screw and glue the plywood back into place between the two slots.
- Finally do a test-run on a piece of sacrificial wood.
The purpose of the first slot in the housing is that once you’ve routed your first slot in the plank of wood you then line that slot up in the wood with the first slot in the housing and drop a piece of scrap plywood into these slot to lock the plank in position at the correct distance for routing the second slot. Then keep repeating the process, moving the plank by the same distance each time, until all the required slots are cut.
Choosing the Correct Router Bit
The slats I’d chosen for the drawer dividers are 6mm (1/4 inch) thick. The slots in the drawer sides needed to be slightly wider for wiggle-room; so they can easily be removed and put in place when desired. Therefore I opted to use a 7mm straight router cutter, which is a non-standard size and had to be specially ordered. Fortunately, the local DIY shop was able to get router bit ordered in for us within 48 hours, so there was no undue delay in making the jig.
Making the Boards From Planks
All the planks of Meranti wood we bought were just over 200mm (8 inches) wide. The boards I needed for the two sides panels, the main shelf and the cabinet top all needed to be about 600mm (2 foot) wide. Therefore, I fixed three planks together to make each board, as detailed below.
- Butt the three planks together to see how well they fit. If required place the edge of one on top of the other and mark with a pencil; then sand or plane the edges straight to snuggly marry-up with each other.
- Route slots or drill holes in the edges for joining the planks together with biscuits or dowel. I prefer to use a Wolfcraft doweling jig, as described here.
- Position the jig over the edge of the plank at one end, and clamp into place.
- Using a drill bit to correspond with the thickness of the dowels, drill a hole deeper than required in each hole of the jig. For this project I used 8mm (1/3 inch) thick dowels, that are 30mm (about 1 ¼ inches) long. Therefore I used an 8mm drill bit with the stop collar ring set to 20mm depth, thus reducing the risk of the dowels stopping the two planks from butt joining when clamped, due to the dowels not being deep enough.
- If the plank is longer than the jig, then once one set of holes are drilled move the jig along and line up the drilled holes with the holes in the jig, and re-clamp in position.
- Apply plenty of wood glue along the edges, and in the holes, and use a mallet to gently tap the dowels in place along one of the edges to be joined.
- Place the other edge over the top and gently push down to marry the two edges together.
- Repeat the process for marrying the third and middle planks together.
- Sandwich the board between clamps and slowly tighten each clamp in turn, ensuring the board stays flat and flush with both top and bottom clamps; keep tightening until the clamps will tighten no more.
- Leave overnight for the glue to set.
- Sand both sides of the board flat and smooth with a belt sander.
- Repeat the process for the other boards needed.
Making the Cabinet Sides From the Panels
Here is how you can go about making the sides.
Cutting to Size and Squaring
- Use a large square to square off one corner, and mark a cut line with a pencil.
- Using a straight edge guide with clamp for the circular saw, and cut along the marked line.
- Square up, measure, mark and cut the other end so the board is the correct width.
- Measure and mark the line for the correct depth, but before trimming the edge, double check for squareness by measuring diagonally across the board. If the diagonal measurements from the opposing set of corners are the same, then the board is square. If the measurements are not identical then two or more of the corners are not right angles; in which case you need to work out which ones and not correct and adjust as appropriate.
Routing the Dado and Groove Joints
I decided to use dado and grove joints to join the main shelf, base and back to the sides for a stronger construction and neater finish. A dado joint is a groove that runs across the grain, and a groove joint is a slot that runs with the wood grain.
For both types of joints I used a straight edge guide with clamp, and a router with a suitably sized straight edge cutter bit. Then tested fitted each component before routing the next.
Therefore, as the shelf would be 21mm thick, I used a 12mm straight edge cutter bit, and moved the straight edge guide down just 10mm before making a second pass along the groove, thus making it 22mm wide. Whereas, as the cabinet base and back panel would be 9mm plywood I used a 10mm routing bit for routing these grooves.
Fitting the Drawer Support Guides
Having done the routing the next step was to fit the drawer supports for the top two drawers; four battens (two each side). The third drawer down would sit on the base while the bottom drawer would be suspended underneath the cabinet’s base.
For the battens I used 1 inch square planed pine wood off-cuts from my wood store at the back of my workshop and fitted them to the side panels as follows.
- Used my mitre saw to cut them to the correct lengths.
- Used a bench drill to drill 5 pilot holes at equal distances in each batten.
- I clamped my straight edge guide to the first side panel at the appropriate height to push the first batten snuggly against it and glued and screwed the batten into place.
- I then repeated the process for the second batten down, which coincidentally happened to be the exact width of the straight edge guide.
- Then repeated steps 3. and 4. above for the second panel.
Brake Wheel Access and Decorative Finish
Part of the design was to bring the side panels down to just 10mm (1/2 inch) above the floor, but as I would need access to the front brake wheels I incorporated a simple stylish curved rise in the bottom front corner of each side panel, which I marked up and cut-out by hand using a jig saw.
Adjustable Shelves Supports
To finish the side panels ready for assembly, I marked up and drilled suitably sized holes for the shelf support pins; spacing them at regular intervals in each side panel.
Completion of Main Shelf
Having previously made the board for the main shelf, all that needed to be done was to square it off, mark and cut it to size; and then round off the front edge with sandpaper.
Making the Cabinet Base
The base would support the bottom main drawer, and have wheels fixed to it. As it would be invisible and I wanted to maximise on space, I opted to use 9mm plywood rather than the 21mm thick Meranti wood that I used for the main shelf.
However, to add rigidity to the base, strength to the wheel fittings, and provide a secure anchorage for the suspended drawer housing under the base, I decided to fit scrap wood on the sides (and back), on the underside of the base.
I found a suitable offcut of a 1 inch thick pine panel amongst my scrap wood in my workshop; and using the bench saw, I cut two strips from it wide enough to allow the wheels to spin freely, then cut a narrow piece for the back.
Once I’d glued and screwed them to the underside of the base I drilled the holes and screw head recesses for fitting the wheels.
Having fitted and tested the wheels it became obvious that I needed an extra 5mm width to the underside support to give adequate clearance for the brake lever, so that it wold stay clear of the housing for the under base drawer. Therefore, after rummaging through my scrap wood I found some 8mm thick beading that was just ideal.
Making the Plinth Drawer Housing
Using scrap wood I found amongst my stockpile of salvaged wood in my workshop, I cut it to the desired height with the bench saw, and length using the mitre saw.
Once it was glued and screwed in place on the underside of the base (between the wheels) I then cut a piece of 9mm plywood to fit to the bottom of the housing, to give 10mm clearance from the floor.
Having prepared all the main components I then fixed the two side panels to the main shelve and base (using just glue) and then clamped it together, while checking for squareness. I then glued and screwed the back panel in place and left it overnight for the glue to set.
Making the Drawers
In making the drawers I allowed a couple of millimetres all round to give a snug but not tight fit.
The step-by-step process for making the three main drawers was:-
- Use the router jig my friend made for me to route all the slots in the drawer sides, and in the main centre dividers.
- Route a recessed lip on the bottom inside of the drawer fronts to conceal the plywood bases.
- Cut all the drawer pieces to the correct height with the bench saw.
- Cut all the drawer pieces to the correct length with the mitre saw.
- Cut and fix thin bits of plywood to the centre of the front and rear drawer pieces, just slightly wider than the centre dividers; so they are not permanently fixed but can optionally be removed if desired e.g. for storing material rather than cottons reels.
- After test fitting the drawer fronts, mark out the first drawer pull with a pencil and cut to shape with the jig saw.
- Use the first drawer front as a template to mark out and cut the drawer pulls in the remaining two drawers.
- Measure and cut the three bases to size using 9mm plywood.
- Assemble and glue each drawer in turn, and secure with screws in places where they will not be visible. To avoid using screws on the drawer fronts, I made wooden corner joints from the rounded ends of the waste wood from the drawer pulls cut outs. Optionally, I could have used dowel joints to fit the drawer fronts.
- After assembly, test fit each drawer in turn for fit, and if a bit tight trim the wood as appropriate with a belt sander or plane; frequently checking for fit until the drawer runs smoothly.
As the drawer front would be part of the plinth I recycled a piece of surplus oak flooring from my wood store in my workshop. The sides and back of the drawer were made at the same time as making these pieces for the main drawers.
To make and fit the plinth drawer, and decorative ends:-
- Cut the oak floorboard to the appropriate height so that it overlaps the cabinet’s plywood base above, and the plinth drawer housing plywood base below.
- Cut the oak floorboard to the full width of the cabinet.
- Route a groove joint in the oak to fit the drawer base.
- Cut the 9mm plywood base to size.
- Use a hole saw to cut a round pull hole in the drawer front.
- Mark out the decorative plinth shapes at each end of the oak floorboard; shaped so as to hide the wood under the base, but to give access to the brake wheels.
- Cut the decorative plinth to shape with a jig saw
- Cut the decorative plinth end pieces off of each end of the oak floorboard, to leave the drawer front in the middle.
- Assemble the drawer and test for fit.
- Glue the decorative plinth end pieces in position, then clamp and leave overnight for the glue to set.
Making the Cabinet Doors
In making the frame, make it a few millimetres smaller than the space it’s fitting into, to allow for the hinges and a good fit. If it is a tight fit when test fitting you can always plane a little wood off until the doors fit snuggly without sticking; but if you take too much wood off, or make the doors too small to start with, you can’t make it bigger afterwards. I always start off with about 2mm gap all round, and trim back as necessary during the test fit.
As these are small doors I made the styles and rails the same width. The styles are the vertical pieces, and the rails the horizontal pieces.
To make these doors from a plank of Meranti wood:-
- Measure the width and height of the opening to calculate how much wood is required.
- Route a rebate along one edge of the plank for fitting the glass.
- Use a bench saw to cut the styles and rails to width.
- Use a mitre saw to cut the styles and rails to the correct lengths.
- Lay the pieces out to see how they fit, and to double check the measurements.
- Mark up and drill holes for dowel joints to join the styles and rails together.
- Apply wood glue and gently tap the dowels in place.
- Join the pieces together and clamp in place; checking for squareness and ensuring the doors stay flat as you gradually tighten the clamps; and leave overnight for the glue to dry.
- Then on the outside of the doors, use a router to route decorative mouldings for the glass panels.
- Use a belt and orbital sanders to smooth the surfaces.
- Test fit, using just one screw in each hinge initially, and make adjustments as appropriate before screwing the hinges permanently in place.
Making the Hinged Lid
The design is for the back 150mm (6 inches) of the top to be fixed to the cabinet and the front to be hinged, so that it will lift up for easy access to the sewing machine.
The steps to make and fit the lid were:
- Square off the back edge and sides of the cabinet top, and cut to the desired width; leaving slight overhangs around the edges.
- Cut 150mm (6 inches) off one end of the board for the back piece.
- Measure, mark up and drill the holes on the underside of the back piece for making dowel joints.
- Drill corresponding holes in the top of the side panels.
- Apply wood glue generously, and gently tap the dowels into the drilled holes on the underside of the back piece.
- Tap the back piece firmly in place with a wooden mallet. If you need to use excessive force, then use a piece of scrap wood to hit to prevent damage the cabinet top.
- Cut any surplus off the front end of the top panel, allowing for an overlap (not only can an overlap look aesthetically pleasing, but also it acts as a useful finger grip when lifting the lid).
- Rest the lid in its open position, and hold in place with clamps while you fit the piano hinge.
- Drill pilot holes for each screw, and use suitably sized screws for a good fit. If you need to use clamps to hold the piano hinge in place while you are fitting it, don’t tighten the clamps too much; otherwise you’ll damage the hinge.
- Fit a stay hinge to keep the lid in place when open, and to prevent it from going back too far and damaging the wall or window behind.
For the drawer dividers for the top two shallow drawers, and the plinth drawer, I salvaged and upcycled slats from an old louvre door that was in our house when we moved in. Once the louvre door was dismantled, and the slats cut to size and cleaned, they were perfect for purpose; and it seemed rather fitting that they’ve been given a new lease of life back in the home they came from.
For the deeper drawer, which required dividers twice the height, I made my own dividers from a piece of 6mm plywood that I found amongst the scrap wood in back of my workshop.
Adjustable Back Shelves
The adjustable shelves, behind where the sewing machine will be housed, was simply made from spare pieces of oak flooring joined together to make them a little wider, and then cut to size to fit into the back of the cabinet.
To help reduce the risk of objects slipping off the shelves, when the cabinet is rolled about on its wheels, I fitted a piece of beading (from scarp wood) to the front edge of each shelf, as a lip.
Finishing and Commissioning
With the build of the sewing machine cabinet completed, all that remained was the finishing, as follows:-
- Check for any imperfections and fill with either wood filler or wax sticks.
- Final sanding all over, rounding off any square edges or sharp corners.
- Wipe down with white spirit to clean the wood and get rid of the sawdust; and wait to dry.
- Rubbing teak oil into the wood with a cloth, and wait to dry.
- Two coats of light oak coloured floor varnish, waiting to dry between coats.
- Quick rub down with sandpaper, by hand.
- Wipe over with white spirit again to get rid of the sawdust.
- Third and final coat of light oak coloured floor varnish, and wait to dry.
- Generously apply coloured bees wax (which contains no silicon), and wait for about 15 minutes before buffing to a shine.
- Once the cabinet was varnished and waxed the final two jobs to finish it off was fitting the glass in place with silicone, and screwing the handles on.
As this was intended for a Christmas present, and it was complete on time (with just a week to spare before Christmas), with the help of my son we sneaked it into the house and wrapped it up for Christmas day.
Although my wife had agreed the design, and was involved in all the main decision making on design at each stage, I deliberately kept her from seeing work in progress in my workshop; so that on Christmas day, it would be the first time that she’d actually seen it.