How to Hack In-Stock Cupboards to Make a Custom Kitchen (on a Budget!)

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by Ed and Robin

Our island/wine fridge arrangement served us well for many years. It was always a make-do solution until we could build a proper set of cupboards to complete our kitchen. Yeah, that was 8 years ago.

Frugal folks like us can make-do for a really really long time.  (In fact, it's a great money saving strategy - more on that here)

That is until we can't stand it any longer - and then we need to do something about it NOW.  (And as you'll read later, this can be our downfall.)

What is even back there?  We need drawers before something buried starts to rot and smell funky.  Not that this ever happened - with an onion - that has never happened. ;)

We're convinced that drawers are better than cupboards.  You can find your stuff - even if it's at the back.  A pretty big deal, right?

But we're choosy - standard drawer depth in the off the shelf drawer units are not optimized for what we need.  We wanted custom cupboards on a budget.  That's what we did here.

So this is another story in the saga of our Budget Kitchen Update.  You can read more here.

Right here, you can find out: what we did right and what corners we shouldn't have cut as we made a custom built-in from Big Box, flat pack cupboards.

How to Hack In-Stock Cupboards to Make a Custom Kitchen (on a Budget!)

So, regrets come first.

We should have sucked it up and waited for IKEA to restock their cabinet line. We went shopping for the base units right as they were switching from their old kitchen system to the new one.  Inventory was almost non-existent. Plus, if we purchased the leftovers, it was final sale.  No exchanges if something wasn't working. If we had waited a couple more weeks, we could have had the pick of the base units and, we're quite sure, had fewer issues overall. 

But IKEA is nearly an hour away and Home Depot is only 10 minutes. So when the time came to work on this, we didn't think we could wait the two weeks or do the long drive.  In less time than the drive to Ikea, we brought home two stock base unit cabinets and 6 drawer assemblies from Home Depot.

Then we assembled it, took back 3 drawer sections and exchanged them for 3 more (parts missing or broken in box).

Then we took back two of those exchanged drawers and got two more - this time, we checked them in store and all the parts were there and intact.

It seems Eurostyle has about a 50% failure rate in quality control. So all the "time" we saved not driving to IKEA we spent driving back and forth to Home Depot and waiting in line at the exchange counter.  Not worth it.  We are not big Eurostyle fans.  

Not to mention the quality of the "good" drawer assemblies was still mediocre at best. Anyway, long story long, but lesson learned: buy decent stock base units, to begin with and your life will go easier.

Finally, the actual steps...

  • Decide on where you want to build your 'custom cabinets' - take measurements and look online at the stock piece combinations you can use to assemble it. For us, this meant two, standard 30" bases. We decided we made better use of drawers than we did cupboards, so we also added drawer packages. We didn't buy the drawer faces - more on that in a bit.

  • Our space is actually about 1-2 inches bigger than the two bases combined, which means a gap. Gaps are easier to deal with than having the cabinets too wide, so if you don't get things fitting perfectly, too small is way better than too big. 

  • The width matter aside, stock cabinets were also 1.5 inches too deep. This meant they would stick out into our already-narrow galley kitchen when we were trying to make every inch count. This had to be dealt with. In cutting down stock cabinets for depth - look at the instructions and mentally assemble the box in your head (or look at the pictures and draw lines where you need to remove material). 

  • With many styles of cabinets, you can make them an inch or two smaller without messing up the function.  These base cabinet kits came with a back panel.  Completely unnecessary for us, we could take out all the space in the back of the cupboard that was meant for the backboard and get the depth we were looking for.

  • Be cautious about what you're messing with.  Partially assemble some things, just to make sure that your changes aren't going to screw up the functionality.  In our case, the drawer sliders had pre-drilled holes that we didn't want to mess with, but we still had over an inch on the back of extra space.  If we had cut off any more, we would have made the base too small for the drawers to fit without some major reconstruction and minor migraines.

  • Cut the pieces down, before you permanently assemble.  I set our table saw to a set depth, and carefully trimmed the back of all the sections of the base units. They still assembled fine and we got custom cabinets that were the perfect depth.

  • As you can see in the pictures, you then assemble the cupboards as per their directions. This is usually as challenging as any DIY cabinet or cupboard system. It can involve Allen keys. You're building a box to hold the drawers, and most of it will never be seen, so don't get too worked up about the materials and appearance- focus on assembly; getting things level, plumb and straight when you screw it to the wall studs and you will make everything easier.

  • Drawer assembly can now happen. Did I tell you how many trips I made to get 6 functioning drawers? What? I did and you're sick of hearing about it? Well, if I can offer advice again - check that all the parts are in the box and not broken before leaving the store.

  • We made our own drawer faces too because we wanted lots of deep drawers for Robin's large glass flour containers. The biggest stock faces were all too short (IKEA probably had a good size...) so we bought MDF, cut it to size and routered the edges to reasonably match drawers on the other side. This will mean measuring carefully, having access to a router and drilling carefully aligned holes to connect to the drawer slider assembly. If any of those things sound outside your skill set, consider shopping around to find a retailer with stock drawer faces that suit your needs.

  • We made the top drawer faces out of white ash. We could have made all the drawers out of the same, but we couldn't find boards wide enough.  We were not up to the job of laminating boards together.  Way way way too much effort - and time.  So we made the bottom drawer faces out of MDF.  Our go to.  Hey, when you're painting stuff, why not save yourself some bucks and use MDF. (Here are some benefits of MDF.)

  • Lastly, after painting and hardware (Robin managed to find the same pulls we used on the rest of the kitchen 8 years ago!  Win!), we put in the final countertop. 

We topped it off with an Ikea butcher block top.  We love it!  We'll write more about it soon.

We tiled a section of backsplash to match the other side and added a few finishing touches, but the overall project was still very affordable but looks like a custom built-in. I guess it kinda is, but we did the customizing. It really wasn't that challenging, as long as you measure well and have decent tools. 

Any Questions?  Just ask below and we'll do our best to answer!

You can find all the posts for our DIY budget kitchen update right here.


  1. It looks lovely! Glad I can enjoy the after pictures without all the before work lol!

  2. Very nice cupboard! The product after all is always beautiful. Love your kitchen too.

  3. Thanks for the tutorial! Yeah, I will try this. Thank for your blog, my friend. Life is more easier for me. Love your blog and thank you.


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