Make proper wood joints

October 23, 2009|By PAT LOGAN / Creators Syndicate

Dear Pat: I think I have gotten pretty good at fixing and making things around my house. I want to build unique kitchen cabinets. What are the best types of wood joints for this and other projects? - Joann V.

Dear Joann: You can save a considerable amount of money by making your own kitchen cabinets. This also allows you to individualize them so yours will be truly unique. Keep in mind, even though a kitchen cabinet seems like a simple object, building one properly can be quite a detailed project.

Kitchen cabinets, particularly the upper ones, have to be built strong enough to support the weight of dishes while being supported from only the back. This makes the type, quality and strength of the joints between pieces even more important than on many other projects.

The typical inexperienced do-it-yourselfer generally uses a simple butt joint because it is easy to make. Butt joints are the least strong of all joint designs. This is particularly true when they are assembled with just nails or screws and the pieces were not cut properly to start with. A stronger butt joint should be assembled with dowel rods and adhesives.


Always start with high-quality wood when building any cabinet. Better-quality wood not only looks better when it is completed, but it is stronger and more uniform. A lesser-quality piece of wood may have flaws, cracks and knots, which interfere with the construction of a strong joint.

Building most cabinets requires several different types of joints for the best results. Review the project plans to determine which types of joint you have to create. Make sure you have the proper tools for the tasks. Power tools certainly make the job easier, but most joints can also be formed with hand tools as our forefathers used to do.

Most projects require miter joints on the exposed surfaces for a professional appearance. This joint hides the end grains on the two pieces. This produces a relatively weak joint, so it is generally used for face and trim pieces, which do not have to carry much weight.

A 90-degree miter angle is produced by sawing two pieces at 45 degrees each. An inexpensive miter box and saw should be adequate. If some corners will be different than 90 degrees, it would be wise to use a power miter saw, which allows cuts on any angle. Whatever final angle you desire, make each miter cut at half that angle.

A good strong joint for inexperienced woodworkers is a lap joint. One piece rests in a notch in the mating piece. When joining two pieces of wood of the same thickness, use a half-lap joint. Each piece is notched halfway through so the finished joint thickness is the original thickness. When using pieces of wood of different thicknesses, notch one the full thickness of the thinner piece.

A dovetail lap joint is used where the joint is in tension. The notch cut in one piece has a taper on it. The mating piece is notched with a reverse taper so they interlock.

Rabbet joints are the best choice for the floors and shelving in the cabinets. A recess (rabbet), sized the width of the mating piece, is cut into the larger piece. The depth of the rabbet should be half the thickness of the piece.

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