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Car cabinet

I have a Honda Element, which is a pretty good ride for camera trips. I’ve always wanted to build a cabinet in the cargo area to hold gear. What motivated me to do something about it though was the thought of making an extension platform that will allow for taking quick photos right from the tail gate, without a lot of setup/breakdown.

The rear seats in the Element fold up to the side and are also removable, so I thought about making a cabinet to fit the whole passenger and cargo space, but would rather not deal with a really big heavy cabinet- I just don’t have that much stuff. Also the spare tire is in a well under the cargo area, so the cabinet needed to be reasonably easy to remove. Subtracting the taper of the seat, hatch, and cabin walls I had about 42″x24″x16″ to work with and still have 24″ of  headroom for the mounted 5×7. My backpack alone takes up about 20″x24″x15″. The bag barely fits behind the seat in the cargo area the long dimension, and the seat and hatch angles quickly reduce clearances.


The cabinet back is sloped to wedge against the seats to help counterbalance the drawers and extension slide. The back also extends over the top to provide a backstop for cargo. The right side is for the bag and has no stretchers or apron across the front or top so there’s full access to the cabinet. There’s not a lot of lateral stress on the cabinet walls, but the other compartment has an apron and a rigid top to reinforce the drawers and the camera extension.

3/4″ plywood carcass and top with 1/2″ plywood drawers. The cabinet was lined with black Formica, and the plywood was finished with teak oil. The tailgate doesn’t open a full 180° to the cargo bed, and after I installed it atop a big rubber welcome mat I noticed that the bottom drawer still dragged slightly on the gate, so I shimmed the cabinet slightly in front. I can’t raise it any more than that though, the taper of the car quickly reduces available space as you go upward. But I wanted a tight fit so it wouldn’t slide around.

The extension is a simple concept dummy made from basic hardware and materials I had on hand. Essentially it’s an open face nesting drawer using 130 lb. drawer slides.  The extension gives enough room to stand between the camera and bumper to actually use the camera- the extension platform itself also has slots to provide some extra extension, secured to to the cabinet top with 3/8-16 knobs threaded into tee nuts. Overall height of the mounted camera is about right, still have a few inches of head room with the 5×7, and it works with the gate up or down.

The medium duty slides are strong enough horizontally, but lateral movement is an issue. Not sure if heavier duty slides would address this, but doubt it. I made a clamping block and solid bridge to  reduce side to side sway by reinforcing both stages of the extension with a solid connection. The clamping block slides along the slots in each side and clamps in place behind the first set of extended drawer slides. (The clamp is made from a bicycle seat post quick release- I only had to re-tap the cam lever clamp to accept 1/4-20  all-thread.) This clamping block not only reinforces the top of the drawer box, but also locks the slides in the extended position  to reduce lateral movement. The block flips vertically for storage in the space behind the slides when retracted. The bridge is a deck for the head that’s full-length and connects to the VG fir block with a 3/8-16 knob to lock everything together when it’s extended.

For the top I used blind corner hinges that allow flush mounting on adjacent panels, and also allow the lid to be quickly detached in case it gets in the way. I wish they opened more than 95°, but they aren’t really designed to be used for lids.  I used pulls that mount flush with the drawer faces.  More than I wanted to spend on such basic hardware, but the requirements were pretty specific.

I used 12mm Baltic birch plywood for the drawers. The fonts and backs follow the cabinet slope to maximize space, but I outsmarted myself a bit here.  A drawer with a top that’s smaller than the bottom is not very  practical for storage layout. I got a few camera pack inserts from A-MoDe for each drawer, which makes it easier unloading and loading the car. While they come with configurable inserts, I had to make some custom inserts to make the Arca Swiss and bench rail fit better. But they both work well for SLR gear and extra LF lenses, and are decently made considering the price.I really wish I would have gotten slides that have detents in the extended position, the drawers won’t stay open when parked on an incline. The bags are a tight enough fit to keep the drawers open, but I might replace the slides soon. For now I slotted the drawer slides and am using a plywood partition that can be raised the keep the drawer from retracting.

Due to the room the extension takes up, I needed to elevate the tripod storage for clearance. It adjusts for  tripods of different lengths. I was going to bungee the tripod down, but just drape a fleece blanket over it. The blanket covers the gear when parked, and can also be draped over the gate, not only to project the paint but to give me something clean and dry to lean on when working with the extension.

Test shot. The headroom on the extension is tight for vertical shots, there’s not quite enough room under the hatch to remove the darkslide without flexing the slide a little.

After trying out the rig for a few months it’s working pretty well.

While I like the cabinet itself, the extension is a little too specialized. I haven’t been that tempted to use it again since testing it. It takes about 45 seconds to set it up completely, so  it’s not that much quicker than setting up a camera on a tripod. Once it’s setup though it only takes 10 seconds to extend and lock down. Driving around on back roads during testing I left the camera mounted to the extension, turning the tripod head sideways and tilting the head slightly so the head casting rests on the extension box.

In use, the extension should be stouter when fully extended, but the movement does dampen down quickly. While testing it I used a longish lens to exaggerate any camera movement during exposure. All six negatives were sharp except where I simply missed the depth of field I was after. Wouldn’t want to use this in the wind.

At around $275 for materials (including what I already had on hand) alone this project was more expensive than I was expecting, but I think I’m going to enjoy it- at least the cabinet part of it. Even if I don’t use the extension drawer much, just having a cabinet is nice. The cargo area of the car was getting pretty scuffed up from all the gear sliding around, and having everything organized it pretty nice.


Lid support


The lid tended to slam shut unexpectedly. I couldn’t find a support I liked without throwing a lot more money at this, so made one out of aluminum scraps. There’s a double pivot where the brace folds to allow enough offset for a channel that slides over the pivots to lock the lid open. A thumbscrew keeps it in position. Rivets were used as all the pivots, 1/8″ stainless steel. I attached it to the more structural center partition,  but I can flip the brackets and move it to the right side if it gets in the way of using the camera extension drawer.