Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Custom Cabinetry; the Process for a Buyer

When I brought a fine cabinet maker into my team on a contract basis to create the custom cabinets for the tiny house, I had no idea what I was in for. Fortunately I was able to hire someone I knew (my brother in law) Keith Pankow, whom I trusted and felt perfectly comfortable with. I let him know what a newb I was without concern or hesitation, and he explained the process to me and gave me the info I needed to make informed decisions. Here’s how the whole splendid adventure unfolded.

First I gave him with a crude scale conceptual drawing. I was acquainted with the tools and conventions of the trade from drafting classes I took in high school and college, which made things a lot easier. Still, it was hard to visualize the true physical size of the spaces I was drawing on paper in a meaningful way.

The spaces were small and I needed to make the most of every inch, so I brainstormed and talked through the design several times with Rand, the builder, before I ever went to paper. I thought about the way I use my kitchen and measured some of my go to items to help me size the cabinets and drawers. The most innovative idea, for drawers in the toe kick area, came from Rand.


Here’s the first scale drawing I made of the face of the kitchen. In the drafting trade these are known as elevation drawings. To the left is the outline of the kitchen sink, projecting down into the cabinet below it. In the middle is the counterhigh refrigerator, followed by a narrow cabinet (perfect for cookie sheets) separating it from the stove and oven. Under the oven are two cabinet doors. I specified (verbally) that this space needed to be spanned without a support member inside so it would be possible to put wider items in it. To the right of the stove is a little more counter space, with two upper drawers and a cabinet below. Across the bottom, toe kick drawers make use of the space below the cabinetry.

Notice this drawing doesn’t include hardware or any suggestions of what the faces, doors, joints, or supports will look like. The idea at this stage is to decide how the space is best divided, then let the professional determine support, engineering, and joinery. In my notes I called out that I drew the dividing walls ½ inch thick, only to help make sense of my measurements so things add up. I didn't need to choose or draw external hardware for him to start the build, because the  client chooses that later. There are a mind boggling array of options for every personal aesthetic and sense of functionality.

After I shared these drawings with Keith, the next stage was marrying my ideas to the realities of materials measurements and methods. The standard height for toe kicks is four inches, and when I walk up to a counter with hiking boots on I realize why - so my toe kick height was raised to four inches. The two upper drawers I had specified as four and five inches deep would be more functional and look more unified if they both became six inches deep instead. This minimizes the height of the cabinet below it a bit, but I admit after I see it all put together I’m so glad I trusted Keith on this one. It’s far more practical and better this way visually. The final structural change was that Keith specified ¾ inch thick material for all dividing walls for its greater rigidity and durability.

Then we talked about cabinet faces. Looking to the simplicity of the rest of the interior for inspiration, we selected a spartan shaker style. At first I thought I’d go with wood finished in a natural tone, but when I decided on the butcher block countertop I began to feel that painting the cabinets would provide a wonderful counterpoint to the natural wood that covered every other surface in the house. We settled on what Keith called “paint grade” and made plans to set up a temporary spray booth and spray paint the cabinet faces - a process the construction guys in my circle call "shooting". Note we're talking about a spraygun and compressor here, not canned spray paint. If cans are involved the guys refer to it as "rattlecanning" (as in, "If the rust on the truck is bothering you that much, I'll just rattlecan it tomorrow after work, and you won't even know it was there.") After final measurements inside the house were taken (several times) the building began.

Keith completed about ninety percent of the job in his shop over a couple days, then brought the almost finished pieces to me at our build site. He fitted the last details right inside the tiny house. One toe-kick drawer had to be adjusted to allow a little more room for the plumbing under the kitchen sink, but he was able to cut and refit it quickly. The following week he returned with my custom vertical grain douglas fir front door, with four thick panes of glass in a mullioned window at the top.

After I got several good long looks at the cabinets with their doors hung and drawers inserted, I felt the wood frames were too lovely to cover up with paint. Not everyone agrees, but I just love natural wood. In the end I decided Keith's idea of paint grade was accurate when it came to the interior panels, but that I would leave the outer frames bare with just a durable protective clear coat over the top. That's left my husband with the job of meticulously hand priming and painting the flat inner panels and finishing all the exposed wood. He had to devise an elaborate clamping scheme to get the cabinets to rest on edge so he could finish the edges without having them stick to the table and get messed up. I chose a color similar to that of green tea ice cream for the cabinetry panels.

Here's a photo of the faces in progress. The fellows at Plaza Paints recommended oil based primer because water based primers make the grains and particles that make up the wood surface swell unevenly, bringing up unwanted surface texture. At this point the wood has been finished and the panels have been primed and panted with three thin coats of latex paint. Each coat of paint has to dry for several hours. The final stage is to let the latex layers cure for several weeks, then coat with a protective clear coat of polyurethane for the best possible durability and washability.

Ultimately the cabinetry expert, Keith Pankow, got everything done beautifully, made it function perfectly, and I was delighted. I paid him well, and he was worth every penny.