Let’s Build a Medicine Cabinet Part 1

Posted by John on January 28th, 2015

In this post you’ll learn:

– The first steps to build a medicine cabinet

For a few years now I’ve been itching to build a medicine cabinet.  I’m not really sure why.  I guess I never liked the idea of paying a couple hundred bucks for a small painted box.  They’re pretty simple after all.  I had thought about building one for my first house, but I never got around to it.  So when I noticed my sister and her husband were making some upgrades around their house I offered to build them one, especially since they had already ripped their old one out.  They have a 1950’s bathroom with most of the original features and it’s in pretty good condition.  When I was over for the holidays they were using the space where the old medicine cabinet had been.

medicine cabinet hole

For this project, I pitched a few different designs to them.  They settled on a variation of a Restoration Hardware cabinet, more specifically, the Cartwright model.  We’re going to keep the overall scale and hardware, but skip the crown molding.  It’ll be a little more plain, but should blend in better with the existing decor.

cartwright medicine cabinet

(via Restoration Hardware)

This is how this project is going to work.  In this post we’re going to discuss the design, dimensioning, material and some of the other critical elements.  Then in our next medicine cabinet post, we’ll show a video on how to actually build the cabinet.  I would like to keep this series down to two or three posts at most.  If you’d like to read a more in-depth cabinet building series, you can check out our work on the TV stand we did a while ago.

Allright?  Ready to get started?  Let’s build a medicine cabinet!

Let’s start with the existing space.  There’s obviously a hole in the wall.  The medicine cabinet we’re going to build will recess into that hole.  A recessed cabinet will be a big space saver and they won’t need to patch the walls.  All I need to get started dimensioning the cabinet now are the dimensions of the hole in the wall.  I marked up the photo of the room and emailed it to my sister for her to take some measurements.

Here’s what I emailed her:


I asked her to provide me a dimension for each one of those letters.  For the opening width and height, which are letters A and B, I asked her to take measurements at three locations: the left, right and middle (or top, middle and bottom).  I want the smallest of those three dimensions.  If I asked her for just the width and it turns out that the hole is slightly wider at the top than the bottom, then I could end up building the cabinet too large.  I want to make sure it will fit so we’ll build to the smallest width and the smallest height.

Since the wall is plaster and has some left over markings from the previous cabinet, I’d like the new cabinet to hide those markings.  So by asking for dimensions E and F, I can figure out how big the frame needs to be to cover that stuff.  The measurement at point D is the distance to the top of the wall tile.  I want to make sure the cabinet doesn’t touch it.

My sister took all those measurements and emailed them back to me.

At this point, I can start figuring out what the design will look like, how it will be built and how big each piece should be.  If you’re comfortable drawing this out on paper, you could use that approach.  Personally, I’m a big fan of SketchUp, so I prefer to draw my cabinets in that program.  While it’s fairly easy to use, it also has the added advantage of allowing me to show you nice rendered images of the design.

I started the drawing by sketching out a plain wall with a hole in it.  Then I gave the wall some thickness.  With that part out of the way, I drew a basic four sided box, which will be the insides of the medicine cabinet.


You can see I left some space around all four sides of the box; about a 1/4″.  The depth of the box is also 1/4″ shorter than the depth of the hole.  Too small is probably OK.  Too big is going to be a problem.  You can see from the illustration that the box bottom and top will be assembled together using grooves in the box sides.  I didn’t draw a back piece, but you can just figure out its dimensions from these four pieces.  SketchUp has a tape measure tool, so after I had all four pieces drawn I could measure the dimensions of each one and write them down.

After the box parts were drawn and dimensioned, I turned my attention to the face frame.  The face frame will be attached to the box and will cover the open area around the box and also part of the wall.  Here’s what that frame looks like attached to the box.


The frame consists of a top and bottom rail board and two stile (aka side) boards.  The face frame will be assembled using pocket screws and it’ll be probably be attached to the box using pocket screws as well.  Pretty straight forward construction.

Now onto the door.  The door will be inset into the frame of the door, just like in the Restoration Hardware design.  Inset screams custom and it’s pretty much the only doors I like to build!!  They’re also pretty easy to make.  I’m going to draw the doors with a 1/8″ gap all the way around, just for the sake of the image, but in reality, I’ll make them the same size as the opening and then gently trim them down to their final size.

For the sake of clarity, I’ve dressed up the SketchUp drawing with a tile lip and some pink walls to match the photo.  I didn’t draw any hardware or a beveled mirror, although I’m sure you could do that if you wanted to.


With the door drawn, I’ll write down the dimensions.  I’ll need to order a mirror and glass shelves as well, but I’ll get more into that in the next video post.  It’s also important to think about what sort of hinges or latch hardware will be required and to order it all in advance.  The box material will be birch plywood and the frame and door will be made from poplar.  While there are a lot of material options to choose from, I happen to have a lot of poplar and birch plywood laying around my shop.  Should be able to build most of it with scrap wood!

That’s it for this post. Hopefully you have a solid understanding of how I sized the cabinet and where we’re going from here.

Thanks and stay tuned.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments and please share this post if you enjoyed it.

Posted in Carpentry,Design,DIY Projects. Tagged in ,, , , ,

Home Office Detail Design

Posted by John on February 18th, 2014

In this post you’ll learn:

-What Detailed Design is all about

-How to use existing products to dimension your own projects

It’s been nearly two weeks since our last home office post, so it’s time for an update. We just completed the detailed design work and we’re going to be getting started later this week with the actual building. I’m pretty pumped about starting. Really looking forward to building some coffered ceilings and cabinets!

Let’s do a quick recap of where we are in the build process. Nearly a month ago we kicked off the room re-design with a discussion on the Home Remodeling Process. We started with the Concept Design stage where we listed all of our requirements for the space and made some rough designs of built-in and cabinet options using SketchUp. We finished the Concept Design stage with a couple major accomplishments: 1.) We picked a furniture layout and 2.) We picked a coffered ceiling design. That’s it. That’s all we really needed to do there.

Here’s a quick picture of where we left off last time…


So now it’s time for some Detailed Design work. What’s involved with the detailed design work? Good question. We’re going to take those rough ideas we came up with during the Concept Design stage and we’re going to add all the detail. Were you expecting something else?

What sort of detail? That’s a better question. Here’s a list of everything I need to have answered before I’m done with the detailed design work and can start buying material.

1. Large built-in cabinet dimensions: How wide to make the stiles and rails. Length of all the cabinet pieces. Door or face frame designs. How high to make the cabinet. How high to tie it into the coffered ceiling. What sort of cabinet construction method. Cut sheets. Material list. If drawers, which drawer slides, etc.

2. Coffered ceiling: How will I actually build this thing. How much lumber. Where will the lights go. How many lights. What size/design crown molding.

3. Work desk: How much space will we need. What sort of leg room. What color to make the desks.

4. Filing Cabinet: How big should the drawers be. What kind of drawer hardware. How big are filing cabinet folders.

Get the idea? I need to nail down the specifics of nearly everything that gets assembled. That means I need to think about all that stuff and in my head or on paper I need to know the process or the steps I’m going to take to get the room finished. Admittedly, that’s not something I can explain in great detail in a couple posts. It takes a LOT of experience to design a functional cabinet from start to finish and then tie it into a desk and ceiling work. Is it hard to figure all that out? Not really and it’s fairly easy stuff to learn, just time consuming.

The key point I’d like to stress here is that if you aren’t prepared for even one build detail, it can bite you. If I just winged the coffered ceiling or the cabinets, I may get lucky and end up with a quality piece of work, but chances are I’d make mistakes or end up re-doing something. Putting all these details down on paper is really the goal here.

So let’s dive in a little deeper here so I can illustrate how I wound up with the details for each of these main four areas.

Dimensioning the Cabinets

Let’s start with the built-in design. First thing I did once I nailed down the overall dimensions, which includes the height, width and depth of the cabinets, I went to work on figuring out how big to make each individual piece. I used the SketchUp model I started with and drew some lines and rectangles on the face of the cabinet until I had something that looked like a cabinet. I stuck with common dimensions for all the parts. So, the rails and stiles are all 2″ or 2.5″. I didn’t intentionally make something 2-17/32″ or something. Keep it simple. Here’s what the front of the bottom built-in cabinet looks like with the drawer front drawn on and the doors.


You don’t need to be a SketchUp expert to come up with something like this. If you want more info on how to dimension a cabinet, I suggest you read our series on our Custom TV stand.

Now let’s talk about the coffered ceiling. The original design included three drywall boxes across the width of the room and four across the length. I assumed the drywall should be 8″ wide, just because I thought it looked good. Then I got to thinking about how I was going to actually construct these coffered ceiling beams and I realized that my initial layout was flawed and that maybe getting 8″ wasn’t quite as plug and play as I’d like it. So, I made some changes. I came up with a layout that worked for the room, but more importantly, it’s something I can make from regular 2x’s and some drywall. I ended up with 3 boxes across by 3 the other way. It’s slightly more rectangular than I’d like, but it’s going to be much faster to build.

Here’s the original ceiling layout:


Here’s the current one:


It’s not a huge change, but the top one would take me much longer to build. I’ll get more into the details of the finished coffered ceiling design when I actually show you what the framing looks like. It’ll be much easier to explain a photo than to try to describe my idea.

Onto the work desk. When you design something simple like a desk, it’s easier to start with existing models. So, instead of reinventing the wheel, I just looked inside a Pottery Barn catalog and wrote down the dimensions of one of their desks. Their desks have a depth of 23″. Okay. So does mine… now. Better to use a reference than to guess at something like that.

As for the filing cabinet, I measured the dimensions of a folder we use in our current filing cabinet. Now when I design the drawer size for the new unit, I know it needs to accommodate a drawer that can hold one of those folders. That’s how I came up with my drawer sizes for the third cabinet.

So after all that detailed design work, my finished product is a list of materials I need to take to my local building supplier. I’m having them deliver all the long pieces, since it’s easier. I’ll pick out the poplar boards for the cabinets myself.

In our next Home Office post, we’re going to start framing out the coffered ceiling.

If you liked this post, please share it.


Posted in Design,DIY Projects. Tagged in ,,

Coffered Ceiling Concept Design

Posted by John on February 6th, 2014

In this post you’ll learn about:

– Two different types of coffered ceiling options and the pros and cons of each

– How to design the layout of the coffered ceiling boxes using Excel and SketchUp

In between shoveling out from snow storms and salting our sidewalk, we’ve been winding down the concept development portion of our home office renovation.  So far we’ve installed hardwood flooring and picked our furniture layout.  The only thing left before we move into the detailed design work is the coffered ceiling.

Let’s start with the coffered ceiling concept design options.

Option 1: Wood

01-old-house-charm (via This Old House)

This is the most common approach I’ve encountered.  It’s done with three pieces of wood and some crown molding.  The advantage is it’s not very labor intensive and there are a ton of tutorials out there to illustrate the build process.  The big disadvantage I see to this look is the cost.  You’re looking at several hundred dollars worth of pine or poplar on the ceiling.

Option 2: Drywall

(via Houzz.comTraditional Home Office by San Juan Capistrano Design-Build Firms Prestige Mouldings & Construction, Inc.)

This is the approach we’re opting for in our home office.  It’s a little less common and we love the high end look.   The pros: It should end up being less expensive than using an all-wood design since drywall is fairly cheap.  We’ll still need 2x lumber underneath the drywall, but we would probably need that in both options.  The cons for this approach is the joint compound.  It’s going to take some time and effort to spackle or mud and sand all those seams.  Plus it’s overhead work, which means it’s going to be uncomfortable.

The Layout

Let’s take a quick look at how to layout something like this in a room.  We’ll use our office as an example.  To make this process easier I drew an outline of the room’s ceiling in SketchUp, just like in our furniture layout post.   Instead of 3D, I just drew a 2D perimeter drawing of the room.

With the room outline drawn, the next thing I did was try to deconstruct what was going on in that last picture.  It appears as though the coffered ceiling boxes are wide pieces of drywall and around the room there is a half-wide piece. Again, just guessing at that by looking at the Houzz.com photo.

Next, I assumed that the wide drywall is 8″ and the more narrow drywall around the room is 4″.  Now I’m going to use MS Excel to calculate how big the boxes should be and how many I should make.  You can just do this part with a pencil, paper and calculator, but I prefer Excel since I can make changes on the fly with little effort.  (If you want to see a video on using Excel for this type of work, check out our video here).

In Sketchup, I drew a 4″ wide box out from all the walls to mimic the photo.  Then I measured how wide and long the room was with the 4″ box added.  I entered the room width in inches into the first Excel cell.  Then I entered what I think the drywall width is, which I’m assuming is 8″.  The picture of the office has three ceiling boxes, so let’s start with that too.  Next I calculate how much ceiling the width of the drywall takes up, which is 2*8″ = 16″ since you can see in the photo that there are two full 8″ wide pieces in the middle of the room.  I subtract 16″ from the room width, 123″ – 16″ = 107″.  I then divide the 107″ by how many boxes I have, which again, in this case is 3.  That leaves me with about 35 5/8″ or so of ceiling space for each box.  I repeat this process for the length of the room with the goal to try and keep the boxes close to looking like squares and not rectangles.  I do that by adjusting the number of boxes so the box widths are within a few inches of each other.


Ok.  So now I know my dimensions of the boxes and the drywall.  I can go back to SketchUp and draw out those boxes. I’ve extruded them to give them a 3D look and here’s what I end up with.


I then imported this ceiling model into my office layout drawing.


Here’s a closer view of how the ceiling meets the built-ins.  I still have to make some adjustments to the built-in design to make sure it all plays nice together.


Each one of those boxes will have a full size crown molding installed in it.  The perimeter of the room will also have some crown molding wrapped around it.  Either most or all of those boxes will also have small can lights, for which I’ll need to pull a permit.  I still need to figure out HOW to install all these boxes too.  All I did here was dimension them to get the look we want.

So that’s pretty much the end of the concept design portion of our home office.  Next I need to shift gears and dimension the cabinets.

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Home Office Layout Options

Posted by John on January 23rd, 2014

In this post you’ll learn:

– How room layout options can be tweaked to get desirable results

– How SketchUp can be used to design and build room layouts

With all the snow we’ve had this week, I had enough down time to work on our home office layout options.  To make things easier on us, I used SketchUp to draw the room and try out different furniture arrangements.  If you’ve never used SketchUp before I would encourage you to give it a shot.  It’s  an incredibly powerful tool for professional designers and your everyday DIYer can really take advantage of it’s easy to use interface.  At the end of this post, I’m sharing a quick video I made that will show you how to use SketchUp for your own simple room layouts.

So, let’s dive right into our room layouts.  We made four different versions with slightly different changes made to each.  It was a bit of a goldilocks process.  We started with something we liked, but didn’t love and then just made some tweaks until we got to where we wanted to be.

Option 1:  Second Desk

The first layout option is the separate desk design.

office layout option 1

I like the back to back desk option.  It was similar to a couple pins we liked.    The built-ins on the back wall look a bit large and I think the angled wall in this room sort of takes away from the benefit of this option.  Very cool idea, but maybe not ideal for this space.

Option 2: Side by Side Desks

office layout option 2

This layout is hit with both Lisa and I.  The built-ins look like a good size for the room and the side by side desks open up the rest of the office for other options.

So what to do with the rest of the room?  We’d still like some more storage..  Here’s what we came up with to gain more cabinet space.

Option 3: Second Large Built-in

office layout option 3

We took a look at adding a second built-in along an adjacent wall and didn’t like the result.  Sure, we gain a ton more cabinet storage, but the back wall cabinets now look unsymmetrical.  That’s a deal breaker.

Option 4: Smaller Separate Cabinet

office layout option 4

This is the layout option we’re favoring at the moment.  We get to keep the symmetrical built-ins along the back wall, get some additional storage and still have extra space leftover for a kids corner.

We also decided to make the built-in countertop site higher than the desktop.  You can see the height difference in this next photo.

office layout option 4 front

So that’s our layout options as seen in SketchUp.  You don’t need to be an architect or a graphic designer to make your own room layouts.  Here’s a video we whipped up to show you some of the basics of using SketchUp for room designing.

I hope this post and the video have been helpful in showing you how to better plan your next room project.

Next time we’ll discuss coffered ceiling design options.


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