Buy vs Build: Shop Cabinets Cost Analysis

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Forum topic by JohnMcClure posted 12-11-2020 05:20 PM 3754 views 2 times favorited 24 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1501 posts in 2131 days

12-11-2020 05:20 PM

Good, Fast, and Cheap: Pick Any Two
I’ve been much less active here over the past year than previous years, but most of my posts have centered around the construction of my new shop. I’m happy to report that it is built and ready for move-in (pending a bit of driveway work).
After a couple of simple Christmas projects I’ve been ordered to make, my priority is to put up oodles of cabinets to keep things organized.
There’s an entire 30-foot wall that I’d like to see lined with wall cabinets and floor cabinets; and in a perfect world, some floor cabinets would be open, some would have doors, and some would have drawers; with a countertop almost continuous for the entire 30 feet, save a recess for the miter saw near the middle.

I’m dreading the thought of building 30 feet of cabinets; that’s 12 cabinet boxes for the floor, and 12 for the wall, if they are all 30 inches wide. Do any of you have a sense of the relative costs of buying, vs building, shop cabinets?

On top of labor, which will be tremendous (and my limited time is pretty valuable to me), there’s the cost of wood, screws, hinges, pulls, slides, and finish.

On the other hand, Lowe’s has 36” wide cabinets that look like this for $150:

Which puts 30ft of floor cabinets at $1500.

There’s the quality difference too – mine would be “better” (stronger, longer-lasting?), and customized to my preferences, with drawers, cabinets, and open cavities.

If you’ve made it this far, please chime in with advice from a cost-vs-quality-vs-time perspective!

-- I'd rather be a hammer than a nail

24 replies so far

View Madmark2's profile


3484 posts in 2078 days

#1 posted 12-11-2020 05:37 PM

Why put cab in at all? You’ll get tired of opening 10 sets of cabs when looking for something since all will be the same.

Build different stuff as you need instead of knocking out 30’ of cabs you’ll not quickly fill or will have too much junk to inventory.

What are you trying to do? Why do you need full 30’ of cabs? You obviously don’t need any long item storage if the widest cab is 30”.

Myself I would build specific cabs for specific items instead of doing a production run. This spreads the cost & labor out and will result in storage exactly tailored to your needs. Open shelving (or glass fronted cabs) makes it lots easier to find things – esp when telling a helper where to find something.

-- The hump with the stump and the pump!

View Fred Hargis's profile (online now)

Fred Hargis

7499 posts in 3983 days

#2 posted 12-11-2020 05:40 PM

The boxes are the easier part. After all, the sides and bottoms will all be the same. I find it easier to build the lower ones with out the toe kicks, instead build a square box and then fashion a frame that they sit on, makes installation is a little easier as well, you level the base and then sit your cabinets on it. The boxes could also be built with biscuits and then screwed from the sides, no dadoes etc. More time would be spent building the drawer boxes, drawer fronts (if that’s needed) and the doors. Even then, you will have multiple pieces that are identical meaning just one set up. But it seems like the better quality cabinets would be worth it. Whatever you choose, good luck and post back with pics of the progress.

-- Our village hasn't lost it's idiot, he was elected to congress.

View Loren's profile (online now)


11549 posts in 5138 days

#3 posted 12-11-2020 05:49 PM

You could buy 32mm open cabinets from a commercial supplier, without the doors. Make drawers and whatnot as you need them. A lot of these kitchen cabinets are only partial 32mm drilled so maybe those wouldn’t be so great. You can get those tall book shelving units from IKEA, cut them down and add a new top and bottom to the second one. THose are “shotgun” drilled for 32mm.

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Craftsman on the lake

3896 posts in 4928 days

#4 posted 12-11-2020 06:06 PM

If 12 feet of them are gong side by side on the floor or on the wall in a row then It’s a lot easier to make them. Cabinets are sold separately because people need to mix and match to get them to fit in a certain space. If you don’t need to do that you can frame up a skeleton starting with the base as one piece and some framing screwed to the wall, then build on that. After that’s done it’s a matter of cutting some strips to face the fronts then make the doors. And if you’re into a pretty shop, and some people are and that’s okay, then you’ll need some more expensive stuff but it you’re into looking good but functional, then multiple sheets of sanded plywood works for all parts that show. Rail and stile kitchen cabinets aren’t necessary for a shop in my viewpoint. Routing an decorative edge on doors made from a 3/4” sheet of plywood looks just fine and you can get a lot of doors out of a sheet.

-- The smell of wood, coffee in the cup, the wife let's me do my thing, the lake is peaceful.

View clin's profile


1128 posts in 2486 days

#5 posted 12-11-2020 06:29 PM

I think there is value in cabinets with doors because it will help keep the stuff inside much cleaner from dust. Some organization and labels or even color coding can solve the issue with opening multiple doors before you find what you want. But of course it depends on how you like to work. Some people want to grab and go and not be bothered with opening a door. I’m not a production shop, so I don’t care about saving a few moments of my time.

As for buy or build. That is always the question in a wood shop. No question it is a lot of work. Even if it is fundamentally easy. I chose to build mine, though I built about half as much as what you are looking at. Only you can decide how valuable your time is. For me, I looked forward to and enjoyed building my cabinets. And I could spend significant time working on it. But everyone is different. If all you have is a few hours on a weekend to work in the shop, you could spend months building cabinets.

Another thing to keep in mind is you don’t have to build all of them at once. And as mentioned, there my be ways to buy carcasses and build them out with drawers, shelves, and doors to your liking. The one thing about drawers is, I’m not sure any of-the-shelf drawers are sturdy enough for long term shop use. That’s one advantage to building your own drawers, you can make them as sturdy as you want. Also, there are plenty of ways to build strong drawers easily. No need to use things like dovetails. Shop cabinets are meant to be functional.

If you decide to build, there are simpler and more complex ways to do it. As mentioned, don’t build in the toe box in the lower cabinets. In my case, I was on a sloping side of my garage. So even using a frame on the floor to set them on would have been awkward. So, I used heavy duty adjustable legs designed for cabinet use. These worked out great. They also came with brackets that I attached to boards to create the toe or kick plate. These just snap on. So I can remove these and actually store some things under them.

I also know I bought a book on easy shop cabinets (hard-copy or digital, I don’t remember). I just can’t remember anything about it or where it is to be able to tell you the name of it. I know I didn’t build mine like he did, but got some useful ideas. And that guy had it down to a science.

In my case, I built the carcasses out of prefinished birch plywood. This saved a huge amount of work not having to put a finish on the cabinet boxes, inside or out. I used white melamine for all the doors and drawer fronts. Having simple slab doors and drawer fronts makes that easy. I used iron on edge banding to finish off the edges. And of course being melamine, no finishing work needed there either.

I made the drawer boxes from unfinished Baltic birch. I used unfinished because there were more critical glue joints and the prefinished surfaces don’t take glue. So, I had to spend some time on finishing those boxes. I used wipe on poly. Obviously a spray gun would make this trivial.

I found it very satisfying to build my own, but everyone is different.

-- Clin

View pottz's profile (online now)


26527 posts in 2475 days

#6 posted 12-11-2020 06:32 PM

i think you answered your own question when you said “mine would be better,stronger,longer lasting and made to my preferences” but if time is that tight maybe you should go with the lowes pre made ones.for me it’s shop made all the way.

-- working with my hands is a joy,it gives me a sense of fulfillment,somthing so many seek and so few find.-SAM MALOOF.

View LesB's profile


3500 posts in 4933 days

#7 posted 12-11-2020 06:36 PM

The alternative to building new cabinets is to search for used ones. You can look locally for re-sellers that handle used commercial furniture and cabinets (and possibly domestic, like kitchen cabinets) to see what they have. Also search Craigs list for cabinets….there are lots of them.

Years ago I got an 8’ cabinet with laboratory type drawers that would have been a real pain to build. The drawers are relatively shallow and wide, 3 to 4” deep by 18” wide. Great for holding a variety of items.

-- Les B, Oregon

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Dave Polaschek

10477 posts in 2072 days

#8 posted 12-11-2020 06:45 PM

I’m retired, so for me it was trivially easy to decide to build my own. But as you say, your time is valuable, so I would probably buy at least a minimum of cabinets pre-constructed.

The big benefit to having built my own is that all my tills for storing tools hang on cleats, and just got stuffed with shop rags to keep things in place, screwed shut, and moved to NM. When I got here and the shop was built, I put up cleats, hung the tills on the walls, unscrewed the doors and went to work.

Or you could go the MaFe route and pack everything in systainers for easy transport.

-- Dave - Santa Fe

View Kelly's profile


3899 posts in 4434 days

#9 posted 12-11-2020 08:33 PM

I’m with Potz. Too, there is that I like looking up and seeing all my categorized tools, both for finding them and for placing them back in their spot

Router and related
Hand saws
Drill press, bits, hand drills and a ton of related

My fifty years of experience organizing my shop taught me I will have to rebuild nearly every cabinet I make, because of additions. For example, the router. I started with one, and have eleven now. In addition to bits, there are edge guides, oval and circle jigs, extra bases and so on.

The original cabinet grew from about 2’x2’ to a couple shelves and a large section of wall and floor (carver, router table, over-arm pin router, Craftsman whatcamacallit).

Then there are the layout tools that include, but are not limited to:

Squares (try, 12” and 24” L, engineers)
Triangles , ovals, circles, compasses, digital and analog angle gauges. . . . .
Set up blocks, 1-2-3 blocks
Box joint gauge, . . . .
Rulers, yard sticks, tape measures
Marking gauges
Templates and patterns (lettering, floral, etc.)
Carving, chisel work
Polishing and sanding (sheets, pads, replacement pads, polish compounds and pads,. . . .)
. . . .

Then there are:

Screws, nails, . . . .
Plugs, buttons,
Glues, resins
Finishes (on that one, heated is nice)
Soldering equipment
Electrical equipment
Spare parts
. . .

View jonah's profile


2283 posts in 4789 days

#10 posted 12-11-2020 08:41 PM

You can also look at local ReStore type places. They often have whole bunches of mismatched cabinets for cheap. I got three for my garage shop for I think $120. Who cares if they don’t match or aren’t top quality construction? It’s shop furniture.

I’d start with a maybe 3-4 ~36” used cabinets and then built your own from there. If you find you want to replace those original ones after some time, go for it – you’re only out a hundred bucks or so.

View HokieKen's profile


21987 posts in 2629 days

#11 posted 12-11-2020 08:56 PM

From a cost vs time perspective, I think you can save a good bit by building. Especially if you go to a commercial supplier and buy sheet goods in bulk. Same with drawer pulls, hinges, door handles etc. That only accounts for materials vs pre-made cabinets though. Your time is still valuable and it’s a loosing proposition any way you factor it if you charge your time at a reasonable rate.

For me it would come down to answering two questions:
  1. Do I enjoy cabinet work?
  2. Is it important to me to have these cabinets custom built just the way I want them?

If the answer to both is “yes” order a buttload of plywood ;-p If the answer to #1 is no and the answer to #2 is yes, consider hiring someone to build cabinets to your specs. If you answer “no” to both, then hit habitat/lowes/hd and start picking up the cheapest stuff you can find.

-- I collect hobbies. There is no sense in limiting yourself (Don W) - - - - - - - - Kenny in SW VA

View Robert's profile


5005 posts in 2971 days

#12 posted 12-11-2020 10:49 PM

First, you can built them in 8’ sections to cut down on materials and work.

Second, do you really want low end cabs in your shop? Often they go with cheap, low end drawer slides and door hardware.

That said, if you’ve never ventured in to cabinet making & you’ve got a learning curve, and you want to get to work on projects, it may not pay off for you, time wise.

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View JohnMcClure's profile


1501 posts in 2131 days

#13 posted 12-11-2020 11:03 PM

Thank you all so much for your input. I have been given a lot of good advice here, from many different perspectives.
I’ll post something when I get it all figured out!

-- I'd rather be a hammer than a nail

View AndyJ1s's profile


485 posts in 1245 days

#14 posted 12-12-2020 01:02 AM

Much more work and expense, but I vastly prefer drawers (with full-extension slides) on lower cabinets, to doors with shelves behind them.

No more bending over to see what’s there at the back of a 2’ deep cabinet.

-- Andy - Arlington TX

View northwoodsman's profile


1148 posts in 5237 days

#15 posted 12-12-2020 01:04 AM

Cost-wise I would guess it would be about the same. I think that you would be happier if you could customize them to your needs by building them yourself. A 30’ Wall of cabinets is a LOT of cabinets. With many of the pre-made ones like the ones at Lowe’s you may have a fixed full or partial shelf where you really don’ want it. My latest find was pre-finished plywood. Woohoo! That’s a real time saver and game changer for me. Taking a look at my shop and toll assortment, I lean towards large drawers. My favorite shop cabinets are old commercial file cabinets, the ones 3-4 feet wide and 5’ – 6’ tall. I have one that I’m not sure what you call it but is has 8 shelves on drawer slides and 4 doors that open up and can slide into the cabinet. If you only slide the doors in a few inches they make perfect shelves for a temporary solution when working on a project. Getting down on your knees looking in a cabinet for something isn’t fun and only get s worse as you get older.

-- NorthWoodsMan

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