Plans and Instructions for building a Rack Cabinet

Building a rack to hold plastic tubs is an easy and economical way to house a number of chondros from hatchling size up to about 18 months of age.  To successfully complete the construction of one of these cabinets, you will need to have access to a good quality table saw and an air-powered brad nail gun.  There are several ways to design and construct a tub rack, the instructions and photos below illustrate how I build them.


Materials and Tools Needed

The plans below show how to make a rack that will hold fifteen 3-gallon Rubbermaid brand tubs.  The principles of construction can be applied to make racks for any plastic tubs.

(2) 48" X 96" X 3/4" good quality melamine

(1) 48" X 96" X 1/4 pegboard

(24') white T-Molding, or iron-on edge banding  (These are often sold in 250' rolls.)

(1) roll of white Con-tac brand contact paper (optional)

1 1/4" brads

5/8" brads

(6) 1 1/4" drywall screws

(4) glides (optional)

(4) plastic 1/2" cable clamps (electrical dept. of hardware store)

(1) 18' EZ Heat heat tape  (try E-Herp or Bush Herpetological)

Good quality, tuned, table saw

Rabbeting blade, carbide

Triple-chip blade, carbide

Router with slot cutter (if installing T-Molding)

Air hammer or standard hammer (if installing T-Molding)

Brad nailer and compressor

Drill with phillips screwdriver tip and 1/2" brad-point bit

spring clamp

straight edge

tape measure


Cut List

(2) 16 5/16" X 36" X 3/4"  (sides)

(6)  16" X 33" X 3/4"  (shelves)

(1)  34" X 33 1/2" X 1/4"  (back, pegboard)

(1)  2 1/2" X 33" X 3/4"  (kick plate)

Important:  The assembly method I use, and final quality of the rack, depends on flat melamine stock, and accurate, square cuts from your saw.  It is important to use sharp quality carbide blades and a correctly tuned saw to get square, accurate, straight cuts to ensure the rack assembles easily.


Milling Instructions

It is recommended that you read all instructions and make sure you understand them before cutting and milling your stock.


Step 1.  Using a sharp carbide Triple-chip blade on an accurate saw, cut the sheet stock to the sizes specified in the cut list.  Note:  You will have extra stock left over after cutting the melamine sheets to size, but it will take two sheets to make the parts for the rack described.


Step 2.  Using a carbide dado blade, make a 1/4" deep X 3/4" wide groove down one long side of five shelves, and about 4" in from the edge.  Note:  Save one shelf for the cabinet top, this shelf does not get grooved.   Cut these grooves with the "good" (non-chipped) side of the melamine parts facing down.  When ever you cut melamine on a table saw, there will be a good side and a "bad" side, due to chipping as the blade leaves the underside of the board as you cut.  I will tell you how to mill your parts so the good side faces the inside of the cabinet when it is assembled, which is the surface you will see most clearly when using it. 

cutting the heat tape groove in the shelves



Step 3.  Using the dado blade, make a 5/16" deep X 1/2" high rabbet down one long side of each cabinet side.  Cut these rabbets with the "good" (non-chipped) side of the melamine parts facing down. 

cutting the rabbet in each cabinet side

The fence and guard have been removed in this photo for clarity.  Always use them, and think safety.


Step 4.  Using the dado blade, mill a groove  1 1/4" wide X 1/2" deep in each side.  Mill this groove in the same half of each side, and on the same face, where you just cut the rabbet, and space the groove so that it will span the shelf grooves cut in step two, when the shelves are installed.  Use a shelf held in place to mark where the side groove needs to be cut, and set the saw fence accordingly (see photo below).  If you are using a 3/4" dado blade you will need to make two passes to complete the 1 1/4" wide groove.  Make sure these grooves are at least 1/2" deep.

cutting the side grooves

use a shelf to mark the side grooves before cutting

Notice how the shelf fits between the rabbet, and flush with the side front, and that the deep side groove spans the shallow shelf groove.


Step 5.  This step will be determined by your decision as to whether to use T-Molding, iron-on edge banding, or paint, for the front edges of your cabinet where the particle board core shows.  I recommend T-Molding for ease of use and durability.  The instructions below are for those using T-Molding.  If you choose iron-on edge banding, install it on the front edge of all parts now and omit this step.  If you simply wish to paint the edges white, use a non-toxic latex paint, and seal the edges with several coats after the rack is completed.

For T-Molding, mill a slot in the front edge of all shelves and the two sides.  Mill the slots with the parts "good side" up.  Make sure your router slot cutting bit is matched to the size of the barb on the back of the molding.  T-Molding can be purchased from most suppliers of melamine, and the supplier can furnish you with the correct bit size.  Use carbide.

routing the slot for T-Molding



Step 6.  This step is optional.   For superior water resistance from tub humidity, install contact paper on the "bad" side of the five shelves with grooves as well as the top shelf.  See the instructions for installing contact paper in the display cage instructions.






Step 1.  Place the left cabinet side on the bench with the top and front edges overhanging by several inches.  Hold the shelf saved for the top (with no groove in it) flush with the top edge of the side, and with both front edges flush as well.  The shelf should fit in between the rabbet in the rear of the side piece and the front of the side (see second photo, step 4) and should be installed good side up.  If you installed contact paper in step 6 above, that side should face the inside of the cabinet.  Using an air brad nailer and 1 1/4" brads, fasten the top in place with four brads spaced equally.  Be careful not to place a brad in the grooved area of the side.  The top will stand up by itself when nailed.

nailing the top in place



Step 2.  Make a set of two spacers for the exact tubs you will use in the rack.  Cut them a bit too tall, and then using an accurate straight edge laid across them, check the gap using a sample tub.  Shave off tiny passes on the spacers using the table saw until the gap is approximately 1/8 of an inch.  This gap is critical for the rack to function properly...don't make it too small or the tubs will bind.  There are tricks for adjusting for too large a gap later, but tight fitting, binding tubs are permanent.  After they are correctly sized, write the tub size and brand on them with a permanent marker for future reference.

using a straight edge and tub to test spacers



Step 3.  Using a spacer made in step 2, place a shelf, grooved side up and groove in the rear, against the spacer and place one brad in the front of the shelf.  Be sure the front of the side is flush with the front of the shelf, and center the brad in the shelf.  Don't jamb the shelf against the spacer...just hold it smoothly against it.  You will find that if you have milled your shelf ends square and flat, that they will stand up by themselves after you shoot in one brad.

nailing in the first shelf using a spacer

Using your spacers, nail in all the shelves using one brad in each shelf.  Carefully slide out your spacer after nailing a shelf, and place it against that shelf for the next one.  Be very careful to not bump the unit as you work, or the shelves will all fall like dominos, and ruin your day.   Shown below are all the shelves held up by one brad each.  Notice the spacers between the bottom two shelves.  Contact paper should be on the underside of shelves if it was installed.

shelves with one brad each holding them



Step 5.  Very carefully, slide the assembly to the other side of the bench, overhanging the back of the side by a few inches.   If you do this in one slow smooth operation, it will work fine.  Don't jerk or bump the assembly.  Beginning at the top and using the spacers, place one brad in each shelf from the underside, just as in step 4.  Don't jamb the shelves against the spacers, just fit the shelves easily against them.

nailing the back sides of the shelves



Step 5.  Carefully slide the assembly to the center of the bench.  Carefully place the right side of the cabinet on top of the assembly, lining up the top and front edges.  Nail the top of the side to the top shelf with four brads, making sure not to nail into the groove on the inside of the side.  Then, place a spacer against the inside surface of the top, and hold it in place with a spring clamp.  Make sure it is against the top.  Hold the first shelf against the spacer (don't jamb it tight) and nail the shelf with four brads.   Repeat down the line with each shelf in turn.

installing the right side of the cabinet



Step 6.  Being very careful not to tilt the cabinet diagonally, lay it front down on the bench.  Nail two more brads in each of the shelf ends that were face down on the bench in steps 1-5, making sure not to nail into the inner groove.  Mark the center of each shelf edge with a pencil, on the sides above the rabbet groove.  Then, square up the cabinet by measuring diagonally from corner to corner and adjusting until both diagonals measure the same.  Nail the back in place inside the rabbets and flush with the top and bottom shelves.  The photo shows a solid back, but pegboard can be used for greater ventilation.  Nail the outside lengths of the back first, then mark lines using the straight edge and your pencil marks made earlier in this step.  Use the lines as a reference for nailing the back to each shelf.  The cabinet can now be moved around without danger of it collapsing.

marking the shelf centers prior to installing the back




Step 7.  Flip the cabinet over on it's back.  Install the kick plate under the bottom shelf.  You might have to adjust the dimension of this piece, as it "floats" inside the left over space under the shelves, and this will vary slightly from cabinet to cabinet due to shelf thickness and spacer use.  A backer block can be nailed in place behind the kick to reinforce it.  You can also install glides or feet in the bottom of the rack if desired.  Using the drill and phillips driver, install three 1 1/4" drywall screws in each side, a couple inches in from the front edges, and in the top, bottom, and one of the middle shelves.

cabinet bottom detail

Nearly finished cabinet showing kick, backer block, glides, and side screws.


Step 8.  If you chose to finish the cabinet front with T-Molding, install it now.  If you chose iron-on edging, it should have been installed prior to assembly.  (See step 5 under milling instructions above.)  You can install T-Molding with an ordinary hammer and sharp utility knife, but it is easier to use special tools designed for the purpose.  These include cutters, and an air hammer, which I'm using in the photo below.  Which ever method you use, make sure your cuts are clean and square to ensure nice joints where the shelf fronts meet the sides.  Use a soft pine wood block if using a regular hammer to install the molding.

installing T-Molding with an air hammer

detail of T-Mold

Close-up of the T-Molding installed...the barb holds it securely in place.  The exact sized cutter must be used to mill the groove.

ready for heat tape

Four racks completed, and ready for heat tape.



Installing heat Tape


Step 1.  Using the drill and a 1/2" bradpoint bit, drill a hole for the cord to exit the cabinet.  Drill this hole near the top of the side, and centered in the deep side groove.  Uncoil the tape, and thread it through the cabinet beginning at the top.  S-curve it across each shelf and down the corresponding side, inside the deep groove of the side.  Thread the end of the cord out the hole you drilled.  I use EZ heat, available from E-herp or Bush Herpetological.  This rack uses an 18' the size closest to this, but not shorter.

heat tape threaded through the cabinet



Step 2.  Using good quality 1" masking tape, hold the thick plastic end of the tape into the deep groove.   At each place the heat tape tends to hump up above the shelf groove, place a strip of tape across it.  make sure that all tapes are placed neatly down and flat, with no wrinkles.

masking tape holding the heat tape in place in the side and shelf



Step 3.  Continue to tape down the heat tape across each shelf and inside the sides.  Make sure the heat tape is held down any place it sticks up.  Be sure there are no twists or kinks in the heat tape.   S-curve it all the way to the bottom shelf, and allow any excess to go down the side and under the bottom shelf.

heat tape held in place with tape



Step 4.  Using cable clamps from the hardware store, hold the heat tape in place under the bottom shelf.  Be sure that you don't screw the clamps into the groove on the other side of the shelf!  Also, never allow the heat tape to contact itself or it will burn through and short out, possibly causing a fire.

The excess heat tape will provide extra warmth for the bottom shelf, which tends to be cooler than those above it.

excess tape secured under bottom shelf



Step 5.  Install a male plug on the end of the heat tape cord that exits the cabinet side.  This is a standard three prong grounded male plug, available from any hardware store.

completed rack, ready to use

The completed rack, ready to use except for thermostat.  Tubs slide in over top of heat tape.he edges white, use a non-toxic latex paint, and sea



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