Make a Medicine Cabinet with a Hidden Compartment
Style and quality at a bargain price. We built this medicine cabinet with solid wood and quality hardware. So can you.
IntroductionWith medicine cabinets, your choices are mostly high cost or low quality. And sometimes both! The medicine cabinet we designed is built from solid wood and good-quality hardware, so it will hold up to the rigors of everyday use. The materials aren’t expensive. And it’s relatively easy to build, making it a good project for an intermediate woodworker or an experienced DIYer.
- 3/8-in. Forstner bit
- 3/8-in. rabbeting bit
- 35-mm Forstner bit
- Biscuit joiner
- Miter saw (optional)
- Standard woodworking tools
- Table saw
This medicine cabinet features open shelves on the sides for display or storage. The mirrored door is mounted on self-closing cup hinges for maximum adjustability. There are adjustable shelves inside, and even a hidden compartment disguised as a light valance. You can paint the cabinet, apply a clear finish to let the grain show through, or stain and varnish it.
We’ve kept the construction simple to allow even intermediate woodworkers to build this medicine cabinet. The carcass is assembled with butt joints screwed together. We covered the screw heads with wood plugs, but you could substitute trim-head screws and just fill the screw holes with wood filler.
Secret Hiding Place
The small compartment is a handy place to hide prescription medicine or jewelry. Magnets hold on the front panel. The battery-powered, motion-sensor lights make the compartment look like a lighting valance.
Skills, Tools and Materials
Even though the joinery is simple, assembling the door and cabinet requires careful measuring, accurate cutting and attention to detail. We used a table saw fitted with a sled to cut the parts, but a miter saw would also work for making the end cuts.
Wood biscuits hold the door together, but you could use dowels or pocket screws instead. You’ll need a router and a 3/8-in. rabbeting bit to make the recesses for the cabinet back and door mirror.
It’s critical that you choose flat, straight boards, especially for the door. Sight down the boards and reject any that are twisted or crooked. The boards should lie flat when you stack them.
We built this cabinet from inexpensive aspen, which looks great painted. Pine or poplar would also be good choices for a painted finish.
You’ll find full-overlay cup hinges at home centers or woodworking stores, or you can order them online. We purchased the mirror and glass shelves from a glass shop, but some full-service hardware stores also supply them. To save money, you could also substitute wood shelves.
Project step-by-step (16)
Mark the Boards for Shelves and Screws
Cut the cabinet box parts and arrange them as shown. Square the assembled boards by placing a framing square against the ends. Then use a scrap of the same wood to check the length of the dividers (C in cutting list, see attachment at the bottom of the project).
If the dividers are the right length, the scrap will line up with the ends of the sides. Next, mark for the shelves using Figure A as a guide. Then flip the boards over and draw a single line to indicate the middle of the shelves. This is where you’ll place the screws. Also mark screw locations for the dividers on the top and bottom boards.
Prepare the Boards for Wood Plugs
Mark screw locations one inch from each edge of the boards along the center lines you drew in the previous step. Then drill 3/8-in. holes about 3/8-in. deep at each mark. You’ll glue wood plugs into these plug holes to cover the screws. For clean-edged plug holes, use a Forstner or brad point bit.
Assemble and Clamp the Parts
Arrange the parts with the shelf marks facing the inside. Next, line up the shelves with the marks and lightly clamp everything together. Tap the parts with a hammer to align the edges perfectly before tightening the clamps.
Drill 3/32-in. pilot holes for each screw, using the divot left by the tip of the Forstner bit as a centering guide. Then drive 1-1/2-in. screws to hold the cabinet parts together.
Cover the Screws With Plugs
Apply a little glue to the edges of the plugs and tap them into the holes. Leave the plugs slightly proud of the surface so you can sand them flush later.
For our painted medicine cabinet, we purchased flattop wood plugs at a home center. If you plan to apply a clear finish or a stain and clear finish and want the plugs to be less conspicuous, shop for face grain plugs, or cut your own plugs from the same wood you use to build the cabinet.
Cut a Recess for the Cabinet Back
Mount a 3/8-in. rabbeting bit in your router and set the depth to 1/4-inch. If you don’t already own one, consider purchasing a rabbeting bit with a set of interchangeable bearings ($25 to $40) that allow the bit to to cut several rabbet sizes.
Place scraps of 2×6 alongside the medicine cabinet to create a more stable base for the router. Cut slowly in a clockwise direction.
Square the Corners
The rounded corners left by the rabbeting bit need to be squared off so the plywood back will fit. You’ll need a sharp chisel for this task.
Start by marking the corner. Align a short straightedge with the edge of the rabbets and make pencil marks for the corner. Then carefully chisel out the wood to create the square corner.
Nail on the Back
Measure the height and width of the rabbet and cut a piece of 1/4-in. thick plywood to fit. Make sure the plywood is perfectly square by measuring diagonally from opposite corners. The two diagonal measurements should be equal.
Run a bead of wood glue in the rabbet and insert the plywood back. Check to make sure the medicine cabinet is square using the same diagonal measuring technique. If opposite diagonal measurements aren’t equal, nudge the cabinet until they are. When you’re sure the cabinet is square, attach the back with 1-in. nails placed about six inches apart.
Slot the Door Parts for Biscuits
Cut slots to connect the door rails (top and bottom) to the stiles (sides). The No. 20 biscuits are a little too long, so rather than center the slots, offset them so the biscuits will protrude from the top and bottom of the door. This way they won’t be noticeable after you cut them flush to the door edge.
Make marks one inch from the top and bottom of the stiles and rails and center the biscuit slots on the marks. Then glue biscuits into the slots and clamp the door, making sure it’s square.
Cut a Rabbet for the Mirror and Mirror Back
Cut a 3/8-in.-deep rabbet to accommodate the 1/4-in. back and 1/8-in.-thick mirror. Next, cut the rabbet with the same 3/8-in. rabbeting bit you used for the medicine cabinet back.
Make a first pass with the router set to about 3/16-in. deep. Then set the router to cut 3/8-in. deep and make the final pass. Square off the corners like you did for the medicine cabinet back.
Next, measure for the mirror. Subtract 1/8-in. from the width and height and take these measurements to your local hardware store or glass shop.
Drill for the Cup Hinges
Mark the hinge side and the top of the door to keep the orientation straight. Center the top hinge eight inches from the top of the door, and the bottom hinge 3-1/2-in. from the bottom of the door.
Check your hinge specifications to see how far from the edge of the door to center the 35-mm hole. Drill a 1/2-in.-deep hole with a 35-mm Forstner bit for the hinge cup.
Mount the cup hinges
Press the cup hinges into the hinge holes. Measure to make sure the center of the hinge mounting holes are equal distance from the edge of the door. This will ensure the hinge is properly aligned. Drive the included screws into the mounting holes.
Mount the Hinge Plates
Attach the plates to the hinges. Then set the door into place on the cabinet and align the top and bottom edges. Shim up the door with two thicknesses of thin cardboard and mark the screw locations for the hinge plates with a pencil.
Remove the door and unclip the plates. Drill pilot holes at the marked screw locations. Then mount the plates to the cabinet with the included screws.
Install the Mirror
Cut a piece of 1/4-in. plywood to fit the rabbeted opening. Set the mirror into the frame and place the plywood on top. Next, secure the back with plastic screen fastener clips, available at home centers and hardware stores.
For an easier and neater painting job, remove the mirror and all other hardware. Then reinstall them after the paint dries.
Build the Hidden Compartment
Build the compartment using Figure A as a guide. Attach magnets to the cabinet and metal plates to the removable cover to hold the cover in place. We mounted Mr Beams MB723 motion sensor lights ($30 for three) to the bottom of the compartment.
Drill Shelf-pin Holes
Cut a scrap of 1/4-in. pegboard to 4-5/8-in. x 29-3/4-in., making sure the distance from the holes to the edges of the template is the same on the sides and the top and bottom. This will avoid confusion by letting you position the template without regard to its orientation.
For two-inch hole spacing, draw lines across alternate sets of holes. Use a 1/4-in. brad point bit with a wood stop to limit the depth of the holes to 3/8-inch. Press the pegboard against the back of the cabinet to drill the back holes. Clamp it flush to the front for the front holes.
Install the Medicine Cabinet
Start by making two marks, level with each other and about 30 inches apart, to indicate the top of the cabinet. Next, apply a strip of masking tape to the wall so its bottom edge marks align with these marks. Mark the cabinet center on the tape. Then measure out 15-1/2-in. in both directions and make marks to indicate the sides.
Finally, use a stud finder or other means to locate any studs in the area where the cabinet will be mounted and mark them on the tape. Transfer the stud locations to the medicine cabinet back to mark the mounting screw positions. If you hit only one stud, use toggle bolts or snap-toggle bolts to provide an additional hanging point.
Prop or hold the medicine cabinet in position and drive one screw at the top. Then use a level to plumb the cabinet sides before driving another screw at the bottom. Lastly, add the second set of screws or toggle bolts to complete the job.
Project PDF Files
Click the link below to download the materials and cutting lists for this medicine cabinet project.