Intarsia Spice Cabinet

Written & Illustrated by: Erich Lage

Project Design: Dillon Baker

Intarsia Spice Cabinet
Intarsia Spice Cabinet
Intarsia Spice Cabinet

It’s an age old problem — bottles of spices in varying sizes and shapes that often occupy a shoe box lid, (maybe two) on a low shelf in your kitchen cabinets. This is complemented by the body of the shoe box stuffed away on a higher shelf with larger bottles that are all too willing to tumble down on you when you pull the box down. Read our Intarsia Spice Cabinet.

This captivating little cabinet is an attractive addition to any kitchen that will put an end to that nonsense. An oak case and door frame warms you to the geometric treat of the Baltic birch end grain plywood pattern of the door panel. A decorative pattern known as intarsia.

INTARSIA PATTERN. This version of intarsia reminds you of its close cousin, parquet — the patterns you see in floors that are made out of segments of wood. It might seem like a lot of work, but we’ve wrestled the process down to a system that makes the task more like a puzzle.

The panel stands out from the door frame by the shadow line that’s created by the gap between the two. Some over-wide splines and red paint are what pull this smooth look off.

Staying with the subtle theme, offset knife hinges maintain a low visual profile while making for a smooth-operating door. There’s lots to do on this little project so you might as well get cracking.

Start with the CASE FRAME & BACK

Intarsia Spice Cabinet

As you see in the drawings above there is nothing flimsy about the case of this cabinet. The top and bottom are trapped between the sides with sound joinery. The bottom is nestled in a dado, while the top is joined to the sides with a little more visual sass — a dovetail rabbet. Then to add a little more to the looks, each joint has three dowels spaced across the joint and glued in place (that’s done after the case is assembled).

All four case parts have a groove on the rear edge for the thick case back that houses the spice tins (more on that in a little bit). Lets get working on these parts, starting with the sides.

CASE SIDES. Detail ‘a’ shows the dado you need to cut towards the bottom end of the sides — that’s table saw work in my book. Then you can sashay to the router table to finish the rest of the joinery work.

The box at the bottom of the previous page shows the task of making the dovetail rabbets. Backerboards are your best friends here. You could do the bevels on the ends of the top (Figure 1a) at the table saw. But I chose to do the job at the router table to guarantee a uniform fit. Figure 2 shows how to cut the dovetail rabbet in the side.

Making the groove for the back in these parts is a simpler affair. The top and bottom have through grooves (detail ‘d’ on previous page). The grooves in the sides stop in the dado you made earlier. So I listened for the audible clue of the bit entering the dado on the right side, and as a drop point for the groove in the left side.

HINGE MORTISES. Detail ‘c’ on the previous page shows the location of the mortises in the top and bottom for the offset hinges. There’s an article on page 60 that walks you through making these mortises for offset knife hinges. Next up is the back.


As you can see in the drawings above, the back is a lot more than a piece of plywood that encloses the rear of the case. It organizes and displays all the spices you have available for the culinary task at hand. We chose 15 two ounce tins for this project. It all starts with a piece of 3/4″ Baltic birch plywood.

RABBETS FIRST. Detail ‘a’ above shows the rabbet that’s cut around the edge of the back at the table saw. The tongue formed by the rabbet resides in the grooves you made earlier in the case frame parts. The next step is to lay out the centers for all the tins (detail ‘c’), using an awl to dimple the center of each hole. Now you’re ready to do some work at the drill press.

Two Forstner bits come into play when making the holes for the tins. (If you have a 2 5/8″ Forstner bit you can shorten this work path. The biggest I have is 2″ so the following was my plan of attack.) First, drill the large hole to clear away most of the waste.

Intarsia Spice Cabinet

To clean up the opening, I made a template of the final hole size and used a dado clean-out bit in my plunge router. To finish the surface of the back, I softened the edges of all the holes and the rabbeted edge of the back with a chamfer bit. Then, back at the drill press you can drill out the center hole to accommodate the rare-earth magnet. These two steps are shown in detail ‘b.’After a good sanding and a coat of red paint, the back is ready to be glued up with the case frame parts.

When you’ve packed away all the glue paraphernalia, you can drill the holes in the sides for the dowels (detail ‘d’) then cut them flush and sand them smooth to the surface. The main drawing and detail ‘e’ shows the French cleat that’s glued to the back. Finishing that, it’s time to make an intarsia panel for the door.

Intarsia Spice Cabinet

Adding one fine DOOR

Intarsia Spice Cabinet

The beautiful intarsia panel you see in the drawings to the right is made from cross sections of Baltic birch plywood. If the thought of keeping track of all those pieces makes you pucker up a little — not to worry. We’ve got a method to this madness that will make the process fun. It all starts with three basic shapes.

THREE PIECE PUZZLE. Detail ‘a’ shows the three cross section profiles that you’ll use to make the panel. You might be tempted to use up scraps of plywood leftover from past projects — don’t. Your attempt at frugality could very easily be rewarded with frustration and pattern sections that don’t line up. All due to fact that even quality plywood can vary in thickness from sheet to sheet. So it’s one sheet that you’ll use to cut the profile strips you see in the drawing to the left. Then you glue up those strips and harvest the segments for making the columns of the panel. (Cut each segment a little wider than 3/4″.) There are detailed instructions online at

Intarsia Spice Cabinet to shed light on this step.

FIVE COLUMNS. The main drawing shows that the panel consists of five columns of these segments. Each of the sections come together to form the columns like you see in Figure 1 below. When the columns are complete, you can glue the five of them together to make the panel (Figure 2). After the glue dries, sand the front of the panel smooth with a drum sander.

SLOTS & SPLINES. This leaves you with cutting a slot in the edges of the panel to hold the splines that join the panel to the door frame (detail ‘b’ previous page). A slot cutting bit at the router table is on the menu here.

The splines are made from hardboard and mitered at the corners. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a gap between the door frame and panel that makes a nice shadow accent that sets apart the two. The splines are the bridge that pull this look off. So before gluing them in place, I painted them with the red that was used for the cabinet back. While the splines dry, turn your attention to the stiles and rails.


Making the door frame will be a soft landing to finish this project. As you see in the main drawing, there’s a centered groove that runs through both parts to hold the panel you just finished. After sizing the parts, that’s where I started — making the grooves (detail ‘a’).

Next in line was the mortises in the stiles (detail ‘b’) at the drill press. Then the tenons on the rails (detail ‘c’) at the table saw.

Now you can gather all the door parts and glue them up. Then you’ll want to test fit the door in the opening before you work on the hinge mortises. There’s a good chance you’ll have to plane the edges of the door to create the correct reveal.

FINISHING TOUCHES. All that’s left to do is drill the hole for the knob and install the magnetic catch. Then this little cabinet will be ready to add flavor to your favorite recipes.

Intarsia Spice Cabinet
Intarsia Spice Cabinet
Intarsia Spice Cabinet


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