Sliding cabinet doors aren’t in much use in modern cabinetry, but they were a big part of mid-century modern furniture and cabinetry. With the resurgence of popularity in that style amongst the younger generation, knowing how to build cabinets with sliding doors is an advantage.
But the advantages don’t stop there. Sliding cabinet doors are easier and cheaper to build than swinging doors. The total lack of hardware, with the possible exception of a handle, saves on cost and assembly time, making sliding cabinet doors ideal for those who need to be budget conscious about their woodworking hobby.
Sliding cabinet doors can be made of almost any plywood product, depending on the look desired and the budget for the project. At the low end, we find ¼” thick masonite (which can be hard to find) and at the high end hardwood plywood.
Making cabinets with sliding doors requires more planning than hinged doors, because the tracks for the doors to slide in have to be cut into the cabinet’s parts, before it is assembled. The use of sliding doors may also affect the design of the cabinet, as it may be impossible to have a cabinet face and still install sliding cabinet doors.
Constructing Cabinets for Sliding doors
One of the big advantages of using sliding doors in cabinets is that they simplify the construction of the cabinet. Rather than having to build a face frame around the cabinet’s opening, the edges of the top, bottom and side boards become the face frame. In most cases, the cabinet is made of ¾” hardwood plywood, although sanded softwood plywood will work just as well, if the cabinet is to be painted.
When building cabinets with sliding doors and without a face frame, the top and bottom pieces of the cabinet will be unsupported and will not hold as much weight, without sagging, as they would with a face frame. If heavy items are to be stored in the cabinet or on top of the cabinet, some sort of additional bracing will be needed. Sagging is unacceptable on a cabinet where sliding doors are installed, as it will cause the doors to bind up and not open.
If a slot is needed for the track hardware or the cabinet is being made without track hardware, the slot needs to be cut before assembly. While it can be cut on a table saw, a neater slot can be cut with a router, either using the fence on a router table or using an edge guide attached to the shoe of the router.
Since plywood is slightly thinner than the nominal dimension, there should be adequate clearance in the slot for the door to slide, if no track hardware is being used. In other words, a ½” straight router bit will cut a slot that’s pretty much exactly ½” wide, while the ½” thick hardwood plywood will actually be 15/32”, 1/32” thinner than the slot being cut by the bit.
Unless a hardware kit is being used, which allows extra room for installing and removing the doors, they need to be installed into the track, while the cabinet is being assembled. The bottom and sides of the cabinet can be attached together, and then the doors placed in their tracks, before the top is attached. To keep the doors from falling over, it can be useful to block them with scrap wood or paint cans.
In order to ensure that no edge grain is visible on the outside of the cabinet, the top, bottom and side pieces need to be miter cut or router cut with the type of bit designed for making interlocking plywood corners. To ensure that the mitered corners match up cleanly, use masking tape to clamp them, laying the tape down and the panels on top, touching each other. Apply the glue to the mating surfaces and then “fold” the sides up, nailing the mitered corners together with a pneumatic brad nailer.
To hide the edge grain on the front edge of the plywood parts, what will essentially be the face frame, matching wood edge veneer can be applied. This is available either with heat-melt glue already applied to the back side or without any adhesive.
Laying Out the Tracks
In the case of working with a hardware track kit, the instructions in the track kit will provide specific information about the location of the track. But in the case of sliding doors where a routed slot in the wood is the track, locating the track is up to the woodworker.
It can be problematic to cut the track too close to the cabinet face, as that thin piece of wood remaining can be subject to breakage if quality hardwood plywood is not being used. The biggest concern here is the face veneer, which may chip. To help avoid this, the track should be set back by at least ½”, unless a hardwood edge has been attached to the plywood. Many pieces of mid-century modern furniture have the tracks inset 1-1/2” to 2” from the edge.
The same problem exists for the thin strip of uncut wood between the two sliding doors. Leaving ½” of space between the rails helps ensure that this strip is strong enough to avoid the risk of breakage. While it is possible to cut wood tracks that are only ¼” apart, it may be advisable to use a hardware track system instead.
With wood tracks, always ensure a clean, smooth cut, without tool marks. A final run through with the router, making a minimal cut, will help to eliminate tool marks and provide that smooth surface. The track can also be waxed, with beeswax, to help ensure smooth sliding of the doors.
Making the Doors
Most sliding cabinet doors are extremely easy to make, as they require no molding or shaping. All they are is a flat panel cut out of the chosen plywood material. In the case of hardwood cabinetry, this is usually matching hardwood plywood. Relatively thin plywood, 3/8” to ½” is preferred, as that’s thick enough that it won’t bend, while thin enough that it is still light. However, if the project involves using metal tracks, ¼” thick material may be required to match up with the track system purchased.
Sliding cabinet doors need to be made slightly larger than normal hinged doors. The door width should be calculated to allow for a slight overlap in the middle, when the doors are closed. However, too much overlap is not good, as it makes the door opening smaller when the door is open. The door height needs to be calculated so that it goes into the track, both at the top and bottom.
Sliding cabinet doors on commercially manufactured cabinetry (usually metal cabinetry) is usually sized so that the doors can be lifted out of the bottom track and into the upper track, to remove them from the cabinet. While this can be done on homemade cabinets with track hardware, it is normally not done with sliding doors where the track is cut directly into the wood, without hardware.
Sliding cabinet doors are not normally available through a building materials or home improvement center, although the material and hardware is. They can be purchased from a number of cabinet door manufacturers online, buying them as “slab doors” for cabinets. But it’s usually cheaper and easier to cut them in the workshop.
Plywood products aren’t the only thing used for making sliding cabinet doors though; glass can be used as well, and was used in a fair amount of mid-century modern cabinetry. Glass doors are usually assembled by a glass shop and will include top and bottom trim pieces, which fit the track system. A handle or pull may be installed or a ground indentation made in the glass to serve as a pull.
Glass panels can also be inserted into wood framed sliding doors. In this case the frames would be made out of wood strips, 1”x 2” or smaller, routed on the back side to provide an inset for the glass to be mounted into, as shown in the drawing below.
Another style which is becoming popular is to use sliding mini barn doors, especially for kitchen base cabinets, workshop cabinets and laundry room cabinets. The doors themselves are a bit of a falsehood, in that they are not built like traditional barn doors, which use cross-bracing to hold the boards together. Rather, they are flat panels, with thin strips (2 to 3 mm thick) of wood glued to their face, for the purpose of mimicking the cross-bracing used on normal barn doors.
To make doors of this type, buy ¼” thick 2” wide hardwood strips from the local home improvement center. Most will have them in poplar, which works well. Cut all the pieces to fit, then glue the rectangular exterior frame onto the panel first, holding it with spring clamp or F clamps until the glue dries. Then lay the panel on a workbench, fitting the cross-braces in place. Apply glue to the back of them and weigh them down to clamp them for drying.
Make sure that the edges of the decorative facing strips are flush with the edges of the sliding door panel all the way around. If they are not flush, a final trim, either on the table saw or with a plane might be necessary to clean up the edges of the doors.
These types of sliding cabinet doors are usually painted, although they can be antiqued, giving them a “distressed” look. As such, any gaps between the decorative face boards can be puttied or filled with painter’s caulk to hide them. They are used with special hardware kits.
Using Sliding Cabinet Door Hardware Kits
There are a wide variety of sliding cabinet door hardware kits on the market. While some are designed for use with special materials, like glass, most will work with any type of plywood product you choose to use. The hardware kit should be purchased before building the cabinet, to ensure the proper fit.
Tracks can either be surface mounted or inset into the wood. While some can only be used one way or the other, there are a few kits which can be used either way. Check for specific mounting details when purchasing the hardware kit.
For tracks that are to be inset into the cabinet, the slot should be routed, rather than cut on the table saw. Routing with an edge guide can provide a cleaner cut, without the risk of the saw blade widening the slot in one spot, if the board goes through the saw crooked. The hardware rail should fit snugly into the slot, without having to be pounded into place.
hardware Kits for Barn Style Doors
barn style sliding cabinet doors are treated differently than others, as the hardware kit is considerably different. Surface-mounted rails are provided, which mount to the cabinet face, above the doors. Hanging brackets, with wheels will be provided, which are bolted to the doors. Depending on the style of the kit, this can be either to the inside of outside of the doors.
Because of the style of these rails, cabinets using sliding barn style doors need to be built with a face frame, unlike other cabinets where sliding doors are used. This difference also allows barn style doors to be mounted to existing cabinets, as a retrofit, replacing the existing hinged doors.
Sliding Doors for Wardrobes and Closets
Sliding doors are also used for closets and free-standing wardrobes. As with other cabinet doors, some people prefer sliding doors, while others prefer hinged doors each has its advantage.
By and large, it is cheaper to install sliding doors in a closet or wardrobe, even with the cost of the top and bottom tracks. The driving factor in the cost is not the tracks or hardware, but how many door panels are needed, due to the cost of making the doors themselves. Hinged doors are limited to 24” Wide, while bi-fold doors are limited to 18”. On the other hand, sliding doors can be as much as 36”, if the closet is wide enough to accommodate it. Three or even four doors can be used together in a wide closet.
The drawback to sliding closet doors is that the entire width of the closet cannot be made visible at one time, without removing the doors. There will always be part of the closet that is covered by the door. To see what is in that part of the closet, the doors must be moved.
On the other hand, sliding closet doors are space saving, in that there is no need to leave space open in front of the closet or wardrobe for the doors to open into. While it would be inconvenient, a piece of furniture, such as a sofa, can be placed right in front of the closet, without it impeding the ability to open the closet doors and select from the clothing hanging inside.
Sliding closet doors provide a sleek modern look, which is popular in upscale homes. The tracks are unobtrusive and the doors require very little maintenance.