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Build a Sterilite Storage Cabinet

May 05, 2015

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Airfield Models ( to Build a Sterilite Storage Cabinet

I have a problem.

OK, I have a lot of problems but some of them aren't relevant to anything I'm going to talk about in this article and if you're lucky then I won't talk about them anywhere else on this site either.

Anywhere I go in my home and shop every counter is completely covered with stuff.  I don't have any work space at all.  This is actually a very real problem and it is the reason I have not completed a model airplane for a very long time.

In my quest for even more consolidation I discovered Sterilite storage bins at my local Walmart a while ago and bought a few.  I decided I really like them so I bought a few more.

In the shop I use them to store all kinds of items such as wrenches and zero-clearance inserts for my table saw, sandpaper, extra glue and tape, small pieces of hardwood with each species having its own container, et cetera.  As a side note I just Googled whether to end a sentence that ends with "etc." with a second period.  The answer is no.  Also, this is the first time ever in my entire life that I have actually spelled out "et cetera".  Just thought you should know.

I pack fixture orders in my office and have some pre-bagged items such as Vertical Presses, clamp pads, hardware as well as instructions, shipping labels and packing tape.  Then there are all the miscellaneous office supplies staples, notepads, any drafting stuff that will fit... you get the picture.

If you decide to build something similar to this cabinet or even if you just buy bins like these then you should stick with one brand because they're made to stack.  Stacking doesn't matter if you build a cabinet but the reason they stack matters.  Different brands differ in width so when you do build this cabinet it will probably only hold one brand and not any others.  At least I wouldn't depend on it.

One thing I found is that the Sterilite brand is wide enough for standard 9" x 11" sandpaper sheets to lay flat.  The other brand I have isn't wide enough.  If sandpaper is stored in those bins the edges curl up the inside of the bin.

What I like best is that they have lids that lock on.  I am really tired of continually dusting things that I need to keep but don't use all the time.  Whenever I turn on my table saw everything in the shop gets covered with sawdust.  The enclosed units keep things clean and are a lot easier to clean up.  They aren't sealed so they won't offer rust protection in a humid environment but they will keep out sawdust.

While I really like these bins what I don't like is that I had them in stacks which meant un-stacking them to get at the bin I needed.  Where this first became annoying was when I used my router table.  I had several bins stacked on a shelf under the table.  To do even the simplest thing I had to open multiple bins multiple times.

I routed a few boards to use as walls with built in rails for my router table to hold router table stuff such as collet wrenches, bits that don't have a better home, instructions, push blocks, finger boards and whatever else.  It's not beautiful but what I wanted to know is if the bins could support themselves when hanging on rails.  As long as the weight isn't excessive the idea works very well.

These bins can actually hold a lot of weight but that causes bottoms sag a lot which will probably cause them to crack over time and it means they have to be spaced farther apart vertically in a cabinet so they have space between them.  And let's be honest nobody thinks saggy bottoms look good.  Don't fill these bins to the brim with nuts and bolts if you're going to hang them from rails.

In the interest of maximum consolidation I made a rule to never put unreasonable weight into a bin so I could get more of them into less space.

Because the idea worked with my router table I got the bright idea to make an entire cabinet (two actually).  The first one I built is shown here.  It is approximately the same height as other furniture in my office and it has a real counter top.  It actually came out 1" too high because I had to adapt things while I was building such as put in additional support for the castors and I forgot to take that away someplace else.  So I screwed up but I still love this thing.  It's one of the most useful things I've ever built.  The cost of the cabinet itself is one or two steps up from dirt cheap.  Compared to solid hardwood furniture the cost is dirt cheap.

Whenever I'm trying to solve a problem I tend to come up with the most complex solution first.  Then I start the project and at exactly the time that I'm far enough along that it would be very wasteful to start over I realize I could have achieved the same thing much more simply.  You might be thinking that I'm mentioning that because it applies here.  And you might be right.  Actually, you are right.  I'd give you one of the delicious cookies I'm eating right now if you were here.

Before I tell you how I complicated things I'll tell you my original intent.  I was not pretending that I was building a piece of classically beautiful furniture.  Plastic and classic don't belong in the same room, much less the same sentence.  I was looking for functionality and competent craftsmanship.  Solid cherry cabinets are beautiful but not what I needed.  The requirement was to get it built and put into service as quickly as possible to get reclaim some counter-space and then get back to my real work.


So what I could have done and would have done if I'd thought of it soon enough is just cut out sticks that the bins sit on top of instead of making grooved rails for the bins to slide into.  I don't know why I was thinking that's what needed to be done but I spent a lot of time cutting boards into strips, routing them and then sanding each one by hand.  Sticks would have been much simpler.  While making adjustments I had to route each of the rails two more times.  Lots of hours are in those rails.  Either way the rails would begin life as pine boards.  You can buy pre-cut sticks but that would increase the price of the wood several-fold.


Building the Cabinet

One thing I didn't like about the original implementation of the idea with my router cabinet is that I used 3/4" medium density fiberboard.  The MDF wasn't thick enough to put the bins side-by-side.  I had to stagger them vertically so that there was material left to keep the board in one piece.

To have the bins line up horizontally would require the boards to be doubled to 1-1/2" thick which would have made a very heavy cabinet.  That approach would have been simpler and faster but when I said I wasn't looking for beauty I wasn't looking for butt-ugly either.

The project took longer because I was working things out as I went along and then had to go back and do some things more than once.  For example, I routed the rails three times each and there are a lot of them two per bin times thirty-six bin locations for a total of seventy-two rails.  The fact is I made almost one hundred fifty rails because I knew I was making more than one cabinet and some of the wood was pretty badly bent (worse than warped).

Then I decided to only pre-finish areas I wouldn't be able to get to after the cabinet was assembled.  So I glued it all up and used thinned polyurethane as a wipe on finish.  Each coat took 2-3 hours to apply.  I didn't even bother trying to smooth the finish by sanding and rubbing afterward.  If you actually touch the cabinet it still has every bit of dust in it that went on with the finish.

Again, stick-rails instead of routed rails would be a lot easier.

The skirts are cut from 1/2" cabinet plywood.  Both the top and bottom skirts have half-lap joints at the corners.  The lower skirt has a dado to receive a 1/2" MDF floor.  Both skirts were glued up using yellow carpenter's glue.  The uprights are also 1/2" cabinet plywood and are epoxied to the floor and lower skirt.

I drilled the uprights near the top and bottom to glue in dowels to receive wood screw reinforcements.  The dowels hold a wood screw with far more security than screwing into the edge of plywood.

The pair of uprights at both ends of the cabinet (four in total) were accurately measured and marked to mount the bin rails before the uprights were glued to the floor.

After all the uprights were glued to the floor assembly the completed upper skirt was glued to the uprights.

Triangular gussets from 3/4" MDF reinforce the top skirt and provide a mount for the counter top.  Triangular gussets from 1/2" MDF are glued under the floor for reinforced castor mounts.  The actual reason I added them was because the castor mounting screws were too long and would have gone all the way through the floor.

Each rail is 3/4" x 1-1/2" x 16".  They are routed 3/8" deep using a 3/4" straight bit.  Vertical spacing is exactly 3-1/4" between rails which provides approximately 1/8" between the bottom of one bin and the top of the bin below it.  The cabinet is 35" tall and holds eight bins per column times four columns for a total of thirty-two maximum bins.

As I mentioned, the cabinet is an inch too tall but there is room left at the bottom to allow some height adjustment simply by cutting the verticals shorter as well as shortening the lower skirt.

After everything was finish sanded and the pre-finished areas were dry the rails were glued and screwed to the uprights.

Each rail has a hole at each end with one hole being spaced closer to the end than the other hole.

Screws go though a rail and upright and into the opposite rail.

Initially I glued the uprights in place after they were complete.  The rails were screwed in place to make sure everything was OK before finish sanding them.

I began by carefully laying out the rail locations at both ends of the cabinet and screwing them in place.

Then I clamped on pipe clamps so the pipes contacted the underside of the rails at both ends.  The pipes made it easy to align the rest of the rails so that the bins lined up well.  I was having visions of each bin tilting slightly in different directions and the whole things looking really unprofessional.

All of the rails are mounted.  As shown the cabinet isn't very rigid.  You could add a rear panel that glues, nails or screws to all the uprights or add some diagonal bracing.  During final assembly I epoxied a pair of diagonals that formed a V.  The front of the cabinet can still sway but there's not a lot that can be done about that if you actually want to be able to take the bins in and out.
The beauty of these bins is they are made as multiples in height.  A "double" height bin can stand next to two of the shortest bins with the tops being level.

What that means is that you can replace two regular height bins with one taller bin and it won't be so tall that it extends partway in the space for a third bin.

My cabinet can hold a maximum of thirty-two of the shortest bins or sixteen of the tallest bins.  As shown here I use whatever size bin is needed so the cabinet holds a number of bins falling between the extremes.

Also note that these bins come in two widths.  I made two columns of narrow bins in the middle of the cabinet and a column on each side of cabinet of wider bins.

Other manufacturers make bins very similar to these that will work just as well.

I have a couple bins from a different manufacturer.  Those bins are just enough narrower than the wider bins here and do not allow standard sandpaper sheets to lay flat which is a problem. That's why I decided on Sterilite.  9" x 11" sandpaper fits the bin.

The three pairs of vertical uprights in the center of the cabinet have a rail on each side.  Finishing these rails after permanent assembly would be extremely difficult so I pre-finished the inside faces of those rails as well as the tops of the upper rails.

I used satin oil-base polyurethane for all finishing.

Instead of wasting a lot of time and tape masking off the areas where the rails glue to the uprights I just marked the areas on a scrap and went by eye.
Two coats were applied.

After the cabinet was permanently glued together I used the same polyurethane thinned about 50% and wiped it on using T-shirt material.  Two coats were applied.  There is dust and crud in the finish and I don't plan to do anything about it because I do care but I don't care enough to deal with the pain this will be to sand and rub out the finish on something with this many nooks and crannies.

When this cabinet ends up in a museum next to President Jefferson's bedroom furniture the curator has my permission to have the finish sanded, rubbed out with pumice and rottenstone and then have several coats of high quality beeswax applied.

Look!  Available counter-space!

Before I finished the project I had to make more fixtures before I ran out.  The top shown here is just a board I threw on top of the cabinet until I can finish the real top which is made from 3/4" cabinet plywood and edged with basswood I had on hand.

Four castors make the whole thing very easy to move around.

  No, I'm not going to sell these either as kits or assembled.  There is no way I could sell them for a price that would be worth it.  


How To Make a Split Fence for a Dremel Router/Shaper Table
How to Make Board-Edge Clamps

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Copyright 2011 Paul K. Johnson