Storage Space from Nothing – the Medicine Cabinet (Part 1)

Older homes like ours (built in 1886) often present challenges around storage space as they often do not have the type or volume of storage space that are common in modern builds. Sometimes, even when space seems available, it can be an illusion. Take, for instance, one of the closets on our second floor in between the master bedroom and the girls room.

Looks great – access to storage just outside the door to two of the bedrooms! Unfortunately, when you open it up, you realize things aren’t quite what they seem.

It turns out that the space behind this door is only, at best, minimally useful. A previous owner had built a closet into the girls room by utilizing this space so it is not a complete loss from a storage point of view. The raw cedar that you can see in the pictures is the outside of the closet box from their room that cannibalizes the space from the original closet.

So, what to do? With only about 5 inches to play with from the surface of the cedar box to the front of the closet door stop, there weren’t a lot of options. Still, rather than write it off, I decided to utilize the space to make a large medicine cabinet. The shallow depth becomes a benefit as it makes it easy to see what is what when there are a lot of small bottles and boxes being stored there.

Prepping Stock

The first step was to prep some lumber for the job. I have a lot of pine boards laying around as the result of some significant work that I had to do in replacing balcony decking that the previous owner had installed inappropriately. I’m a huge fan of using reclaimed lumber so, rather than throw stuff out during demolition, I hang onto anything that may be useful.

While their condition certainly made it challenging to re-use them for anything stain grade, they were a fine option for the medicine cabinet, which would be painted. After a couple of hours of jointing, planing, and cutting to size, I had the stock ready to go.

If you wondering about the clamps, when I know that I won’t be assembling things right away, I like to clamp the stock to limit any warping. I’m not sure that it actually makes a difference but, in my mind at least, I feel better about it. To round things out, I did need to pick up a sheet of 1/4″ plywood at the box store. Again, no need for anything fancy as it would ultimately be painted.

Cutting Rabbets

The structure of the case is pretty simple. The top sits on rabbets with midpoint and bottom shelves sitting in dadoes in the side panels. The back would then fit into a 1/4″ rabbet cut into the back of the sides and top.

I start with cutting the sides to length.

A Tale of Two Rabbet Planes

The next step was to clamp the sides down and run the rabbet into their back edge. To do this, I pulled out my handy dandy Stanley 78. This is a straight blade rabbeting plane that just works. Worker examples like mine can be had for not much money from antique dealers or ebay. You can read more about them on Patrick Leach’s excellent website.

So it would seem that I have my game together – using reclaimed wood and reconditioned Stanley planes to keep costs down. However, I’ve not always been this conscientious and, in my past, have fallen prey to the siren song of the new, shinier offerings in this space. As a result, I also have a left and right pair of the excellent, though not cheap, Veritas skewed rabbet planes. With the 78 around, they have actually seen almost no use since I got them. However, running long rabbets in pine seemed like a perfect time to pull them out and get them into service.

As I said earlier, the Stanley 78 just works – full stop. The Veritas planes also just work, but even better than the 78, which is very high praise coming from me. Part of it is the better two post fence mechanism that keeps the plane square to the cut and part of it is the skew blade that pulls the plane into the fence as you cut. Of course, because we are talking about skew blades, this temporary infatuation will evaporate come sharpening time. The straight blade on the 78 is dead easy to put an edge on and not too fussy about being exactly square – I doubt it will be as painless with the Veritas.

Cutting Rabbets With the Grain

With the positive feeling still firmly in place, I started cutting my rabbets. The skew angle of the blade results in the most lovely spiral shavings that run the length of the board.

For those of you who are reading all this and thinking “why didn’t I just run the rabbet on my router table?”, you have clearly not used a good rabbet plane before. Setup takes only moments and with only a subtle noise, similar to the tearing of paper (no earplugs needed), the job is done. In the end, you have a perfect rabbet and only a pile of springy shavings to collect. No dust, no fuss, all good. The sense of satisfaction is palatable.

Cutting Rabbets Across the Grain

Cutting rabbets with the grain was so much fun, I thought I’d keep it up with the cross grain rabbet for the top. Turns out that while this works, it is not nearly as neat and clean. You need to use the nicker to sever the fibers as you are forming the rabbet. On hardwood, this works pretty well. Unfortunately, likely due to my particular technique, there seems to be just enough spring in softwood to make this not work nearly as well in pine.

With pine I find myself constantly re-cutting the cross grain edge by hand and so alternate between plane and knife (or chisel), which just slows things down. Hind site is 20/20. I should have done the cross grain rabbet with a saw and router plane as I did with the dadoes below.

Cutting the Dadoes

I like cutting dadoes. Not sure why but there is something satisfying in the outcome. Not sure my technique is the best but it work for me so here goes. First step is to cut the edges of the dado with my marking knife. I do this directly from the piece that will be fitted to the dado, the shelf in this case.

Next is to cut just inside the knife lines to depth with my giant back saw.

For those of you wondering why the back saw is so long, it is from a vintage Stanley miter box. Initially I found it hard to keep the saw square. I’ve got that in hand now and find the length of stroke I can take really speeds things up. It also makes judging the registration of the blade to the intended cut easier.

The next step is to hog the waste out with a sharp paring chisel.

Finally, I clean the dado up to finished depth using a router plane.

I use the Veritas version of the router plane. The vintage Stanley 71s work without question, but the depth adjustment is somewhat more of a pain than what is offered with the Veritas. Given that a new Veritas is not significantly different than what a good worker Stanley is going for, I erred on the side of ease. My opinion only, of course.

If everything is done correctly, the shelf should slip right in. Luckily that was the case here.

Next step, assembling the case and dealing with the shelves.

Part 2 of this build can be found here.

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