How to Scribe Cabinets to Walls

vanity leg at wall In a perfect world, walls would flat and plumb. In the real world they rarely are.

To get a good fit between a cabinet and the wall, without gaps, you need to scribe it to the contour of the wall. This sounds harder than it really is.

With a bit of planning when you’re building the cabinets, you can scribe the cabinet to the wall with just a bit of sanding.

The key is to cut a 3/8″ x 3/8″ rabbet in the back side of the stile that will meet the wall. This means less material to remove with the sander. The approach is slightly different for face frame and frameless cabinets.

Face Frame Cabinets

Since face frame cabinets already have a stile that projects past the case, it’s easy to add a rabbet to the stile.

  • Set up the table saw with the outside edge of the blade 3/8″ from the fence
  • Set the blade to 3/8″h
  • Run the stock face up with the outside (wall) edge against the fence
  • Flip the stile so the face is against the fence and run it again

Assemble the frame, attach it to the cabinet and finish it as you normally would.

frame stile with rabbetScribing it to the Wall

Set the cabinet on the kick (or other support if it’s an upper cabinet) at the final height and slide it gently against the wall. Any gaps will be easy to spot. One way to mark it is to use a pencil compass (remember the old geometry set from school?). Pull the cabinet about a 1/2″ from the wall and set the compass to match the widest part of the gap.

Start at the top. Hold the compass level and against the wall while you mark a pencil line to the bottom of the stile. The line should feather to nothing where the gap was the widest. Sand the edge of the stile carefully down to the the pencil line.

If you use a belt sander be careful not to over sand or round off the edge. Since you’re only sanding a 3/8″ thick edge, it will go quickly. It’s better to angle the edge slightly towards the back, since the back won’t be visible.

Test the fit occasionally to gauge your progress. Once you have a good fit you can fasten it in place.

Frameless Cabinets

scribe drawing Frameless cabinets have a flat end so you need to build a scribe to fit the between the cabinet and the wall. The width of the scribe can vary depending on the installation.

It’s a good idea to plan for scribes early in the design process to get the overall length of the cabinet run right. Make sure the scribes are wide enough to allow drawers to open without hitting door and window casings  or other obstructions on adjacent walls.

Building a Scribe

The drawing (top view) shows how to add a scribe to a frameless cabinet.

Cut a 3 or 4″wide strip of 1/2″ plywood the same height as the cabinet box (excluding the kick space). Rip a stile to the width you need, and cut a rabbet in the back as described earlier. Attach the stile to the edge of the plywood with a few evenly-spaced pocket screws.

screw mounted behind hinge plateNote: if you mount the scribe flush to the door face, the front 1/8” or so of the plywood will be visible when the door is open, so it should be the same species as the cabinet exteriors and finished to match. You could also mount the scribe flush to the cabinet face, set back from the doors.

Mount the scribe to the cabinet with two or three screws. If you’re using European-style hinges, you can hide the screws behind the hinge mounting plates on the gable.

Use the same technique as with a face frame cabinet to mark the scribe and trim it to the contour of the wall.

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