How to Design Built-In Cabinets

A built-in cabinet is a cabinet that is designed to remain as a part of the home. These cabinets are constructed to be attached to walls, floors and ceilings and trimmed out with baseboard and ceiling trims. The most common design for built-in cabinets are entertainment centers and bookcases. Often cabinetry is built around fireplaces or to fill unusual niches. Typical cabinets may be lit, have a few glass shelves, cabinet doors to hide storage, or open shelving to display artwork and books. Well-designed cabinets look fitted. This simply means that the cabinets fit the architectural style of the home and look like they have always been there.

Custom built-in cabinets
  1. Measure the wall area where the built-in cabinet will be built. Draw on the graph paper the dimensions of the wall at a scale of ¼-inch equals one foot. Note the location of any windows, doors, doorways, vents, returns, angled ceilings, electrical outlets or potential plumbing pipes. Lightly sketch the entire room's dimensions to assist in preplanning furniture placement so that the cabinetry can be designed to accommodate furniture (such as television viewing). Note the dimensions on the graph.

  2. Use a second sheet of graph paper to draw an elevation of the wall and cabinet. An elevation is simply a frontal view of the cabinet. Measure the width and height of the wall and then draw the wall on the paper (most often it will look like a rectangle). Mark the locations of electrical outlets and the possible location plumbing in the wall. This is particularly helpful if lighting and a wet bar (or an icemaker) are to be included in the cabinetry.

  3. Note any utility work that may need to be done (such as the addition of phone, cable or internet wires), as well as electrical wiring for cabinetry lighting.

  4. Determine the function of the cabinetry. List the top five uses that the cabinetry will serve. This list might include: wet bar, location of large television, display for art sculptures, bookcases, storage for children's toys and more. By identifying what needs the cabinetry will serve, it becomes easier to determine how to draft the cabinetry design.

  5. Design the cabinetry to have a focal point. Uniform cabinetry often looks dull. If the cabinetry is a large piece and the center will house a fireplace or television, then position the largest object first. Most often a design will look best if it is symmetrical, so find the center location of the cabinet on the graph paper and draw a thin pencil line. Center the largest object on this line. For a television the best viewing is two to three feet off the ground. The television should be about one foot above the seat of the couch so that viewing is at a slight angle when lying on the couch.

  6. Draw cabinets below the large object so that they have covered doors for hidden storage. Consider recessing upper cabinets two or three inches in depth to create visual impact. Decide on glass upper shelves if art will be displayed and lights will be installed. Face wooden shelves with one-inch plus trim to give the shelves a more substantial appearance. Finish the drawing with moldings, baseboards or other trims to integrate the cabinets into the appearance of the room.


  • Simple shelf arrangements are often better than busy designs. Symmetry and repetition of pattern are soothing and create a sense of comfort.

About the Author

F.R.R. Mallory has been published since 1996, writing books, short stories, articles and essays. She has worked as an architect, restored cars, designed clothing, renovated homes and makes crafts. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley with bachelor's degrees in psychology and English. Her fiction short story "Black Ice" recently won a National Space Society contest.