Cabinet Basics, Part 1:
An Introduction to Cabinets

Cabinets, more than any o­ther item, de­ter­mine the style of a kitchen. Floor­ing, fix­tures, lights, ap­plian­ces and even coun­ter tops are im­por­tant, but the cab­inets de­fine the kit­chen's look and function.

Because they play such a large role in your kitchen's design, it pays to learn as much as possible about the range of cabinet options. This means looking beyond style - although the style is important - to structure, finishes, hardware and accessories.

Basic Cabinet Terminology

Elements of Quality Cabinet Construction

Some cabinets are simply made better than others, and while a higher price may mean a better cabinet, it's not always true.

Materials and construction details make the difference between good quality cabinets and the rest of the pack… more »

Carpentry and woodworking in general and cabinet making in particular have a rich and colorful terminology, much of it is extremely old — tracing back to the Middle Ages and even beyond to the Roman and Greek eras at the dawn of the last millennium. Some of the terms are pretty descriptive — so descriptive, in fact, that we rarely use them in polite company. But since we are going to refer to various cabinet terms throughout this article, we probably should start with some of the basic terminology we are going to use later in this article. This is just the basic terminology, there's a lot more where this came from. See the rest at "Let's Talk Cabinet" below.


A cabinet is nothing more than an open-front box outfitted with some combination of doors, drawers or shelves. The box is usually called a "case" and the process of building the box is called "case work". Typically it is made of wood or engineered wood products such as plywood, but plastic and metal cabinets are also common. It has a back, sides or "(ends") and a bottom (or "floor"). Most wall and utility cabinets have a top which is structural but also acts as a dust shield. Most base cabinets do not. Their top is the separate countertop.

Base Cabinet

A base, floor or lower cabinet sits on the floor and supports a countertop. In a bathroom this is usually called a "vanity" or "vanity base". In a kitchen it is typically 24" deep, and for a bathroom 21". But, base cabinets can be made in any depth from about 16" (the practical minimum) to 36" (the practical maximum). We commonly make shallow sink cabinets to fit small baths, and 30"-deep base cabinets for kitchens to provide more storage and make better use of the room's shape and configuration.

Wall Cabinet

A wall or upper cabinet hangs on the wall. Usually 12" or 14" deep in a kitchen, and as little as 8" deep for use in a bath. Many designers don't like wall cabinets and won't use them, but they do provide useful storage when planned

Cabinet Door Styles

We make wood cabinet doors in any style, finish, or color and out of any locally avail­able or com­mercial wood species.

Here are some of the doors we can make… more »

carefully. For tips on getting along without base cabinets, see Off the Wall Kitchens: Living Without Upper Cabinets.

Full Height Cabinet

A utility, full-height or tall cabinet is, as expected, a tall cabinet that sits on the floor and extends to about 7 feet. Originallty built as broom closets, utility cabinets are now multi-purpose cabinets holding everything from ovens to pantries, and have a place in most kitchens.

How Are They Made? Custom vs. Stock Cabinets

Prior to the 1950s, almost all cabinets were custom-built by local cabinetmakers especially for a particular kitchen. These were quickly termed "fitted", "built-in" or "bespoke" cabinets in contrast to the older kitchens with random tables and chests arranged around a stove and sink to provide working surfaces. Today, most cabinets are mass-produced in large factories. But the local cabinetmaker is still a major force in the industry — and as local makers become more high-tech, the boundaries between custom and factory-made cabinets are becoming very murky. True custom-built cabinets by an artisan that hand crafts each piece are still available; but even the smallest shops are now using computerized equipment that has made a lot of hand-crafting operations obsolete while still producing a "hand-crafted" look.

Custom Cabinets

What custom cabinets can offer is good craftsmanship with customized sizes, accessories and details to exactly fit your kitchen. Most factory components are manufactured in stock sizes that cannot be easily or inexpensively varied. When

Today's Cabinetmaking Revolution

As a result of the personal com­puter revo­lution, local and regional cabinet makers are able to complete with large cabinet manufacturers for price and features.

As a result, it is often possible to get better cabinets from your local cabinetmaker for below Home Depot prices. Read how it's done… more »
a kitchen sink needs to be exactly centered under a window, for example, a 2" or 3" offset can make a very big difference. Custom cabinets easily accommodate such differences and offer more flexibility in cabinet placement. They also allow you to add compatible new cabinets to an existing set.


Let's Talk "Cabinet"

Here are the names of the parts of a typical kitchen or bath cabinet. These are the common names here in the Midwest. Almost every one of these has at least one other common name, and there are lots of regional and local variations. A "panel" to one cabinetmaker may be a "pane" to another. But these, we think, are the most widely-used terms, understood by most cabinet folk even if they usually use another term.

  Part & Description   Part & Description
A Back
Only the inside of the back panel is ever seen, but it is structurally important because it gives the cabinet rigidity and resistance to racking (twisting out of square).
G Face
Applies only to framed cabinets. European style cabinets are built without a separate face frame (See"Cabinet Case Basics" below).
B Bottom
This is the floor of the cabinet. In cabinets with bottom drawers or slide-outs it is never seen, but it is very important to the structural integrity of the cabinet. A weak bottom panel allows the cabinet to twist out of square during handling and installation.
H Drawer
This is the drawer proper. Because it is constantly being opened and closed, it needs to be tough with strong joints. The strong drawer joints are dovetail, dowel-pegged and slip joints. All of these will stand up to year after year of use.
C Corner
Corner gussets add rigidity to the cabinet, preventing it from racking out of square, and are used to anchor the countertop to base cabinets. You will find them in base cabinets, more rarely in wall and full-height cabinets that have a solid top and bottom panel.
I Drawer
The drawer “front” you see on a well-made cabinet is actually a false front that is attached to the drawer with screws. This permits the part you see to be adjusted independently of the drawer itself so it aligns correctly with the other elements of the cabinet. In less expensive drawers, the front of the drawer box (see above) is also the front you see. There is no separate false front.
D Drawer
The guides are roller assemblies that attach the drawer to the case and permit the drawer to open and close easily.
J Cabinet
This is the primary decorative element of the cabinets. Most of what you can actually see of a cabinet is its doors. They determine the style of the cabinet.
E End
The end panels form the sides of the cabinet and support the face frame and top of the cabinet. They are primary structural elements and need to be very strong. On most cabinets they are 3/4" thick, and even on the least expensive cabinets are seldom less than 5/8" thick. This is one area where cabinetmakers rarely skimp.
L Hinge Most of today's hinges are the hidden European type. These have a number of advantages, the most useful is that they can be adjusted to precisely align the door. Older visible hinges requiremore skill to install, but on heritage cabinets these are often the best choice.
F Shelf If a cabinet is not fitted with a bank of drawers, it will have at least one shelf. Most are adjustable. M Toe Kick Factory made cabinets include integrated toe kick panels which are extensions of the sides, as shown. Better cabinets include separate toe kick platforms that span several cabinets. These are easier to level so the cabiets that sit on them are also precisely level.

For more information on how cabinets are made, see Comparative Cabinet Construction.
The trick to buying custom cabinets at an affordable price is not to go overboard with the customization. Most cabinet shops that have been in business a few years have a standard catalogue of hundreds, if not thousands of cabinet door styles. Sticking with these standard doors usually reduces the cost of cabinets. If you truly have your heart set on an exclusive custom design, your local shop can make it, but expect to pay a premium. For other tricks to reduce the cost of quality cabinets, see Kitchen Remodeling on the Cheap: Simple, Practical Ideas for Creating Your Dream Kitchen on a Budget.

Costs for custom cabinets range from low mid-range to "holy cow — you must be kidding", depending on the material, detail, accessories and degree of hand-work involved. But the myth that custom cabinets are always high cost items is just that — a myth. Many local cabinet shops are very price-competitive with large factory manufacturers because of their lower overhead and much reduced shipping expense.

Semi-Custom Cabinets

While many large cabinet factories offer what they term "semi-custom" cabinets, their product is actually a semi-stock cabinet — that is, their usual product made in a custom size. The true semi-custom cabinet is typically crafted by a local or regional cabinet shop that farms out some its work to a larger factory that specializes in components. For example, the local maker may sub-contract the cabinet boxes to a specialist in "cases" (the technical cabinetmaking term for the cabinet box), the doors to another specialist in cabinet doors, drawers to yet a third specialist, and so on. What the local shop then does is assemble these components into a cabinet and apply the finish specified by the customer. (See: Distributed Manufacturing: Today's Cabinetmaking Revolution.)

It is often possible to get components from a large-scale component maker for less than the local shop pays for raw wood. The advantage to the customer is "custom" cabinets at a substantially reduced cost. The disadvantage is that the materials, designs and details, while often extensive, are still somewhat limited by what the component makers can provide as opposed to a true custom cabinet that has no such limitations.

Most custom cabinetmakers use out-sourced components to some extent, but almost all still retain the ability to make the components in-house if necessary to achieve that special look. In many instances true custom cabinets are combined with semi-custom cabinets in the same kitchen to keep the cost down while still getting the look and feel of custom work.

Semi-Stock Cabinets

If a cabinet is merely a custom size of a factory's stock cabinets, it is semi-stock, not, as the factories usually advertise "semi-custom". These can be an economical way to round out a factory stock kitchen. The components are factory-made, but manufactured to fit a specific kitchen. More economical stock cabinet sizes are used to fill most of the space, while a few cabinets are custom sized to fill in the rest of the space without filler strips. In most cases, all components are factory-built, though some are customized. In some instances, the installer builds some details or components to finish out the cabinetry.

How Much Should Cabinets Cost?

Fine Homebuilding magazine is the almost universally recognized "bible" of quality building and remodeling in the U.S. and Canada. The editors have come up with typical cabinet costs in the U.S. for cabinets of various grades of quality. The cost is stated as a linear foot average, and includes both upper and base cabinets, installed (unless otherwise noted), but does not include countertops.

Tier 1: Custom

Custom cabine­try with 1/2-3/4" ply­wood box, 3/4" hard­wood face frame, dove­tailed 5/8-3/4" hard­wood drawer sides, hard­wood frame and panel doors, full-exten­sion under­mount drawer slides, custom finish.
$1,200-1,400 per linear foot
Tier 2: Semi-Stock

Semi-Stock cabine­try with 1/2" ply­wood box, 3/4" hard­wood face frame, dove­tailed 1/2" hard­wood drawer sides, hard­wood frame and panel doors, adjust­able cup hinges, epoxy-coated side-mounted 3/4 extension slides, stain with poly­ure­thane top coats.
$450-540 per linear foot
Tier 3: Stock

Stock factory cabi­nets with 1/2" particle­board sides, 3/4" hard­wood face frame; stapled 3/4" particle­board drawer box, hard­wood frame and panel doors, euro cup hinges, epoxy-coated side-mounted 3/4 exten­sion slides, stain with clear coat.
$360-432 per linear foot.
Tier 4: RTA

Ready to assemble (RTA) cabine­try with 3/4" mela­mine veneered par­ticle­board sides, no face frame, metal drawer sides, mela­mine front and bottom; particle­board doors with mela­mine veneer, adjust­able cup hinges, inte­gral 3/4 exten­sion drawer slides, plastic finish.
$70 per linear foot not including assembly or installation.
Where do StarCraft Custom Cabinets fit into this scheme? Well, you decide.
StarCraft Custom Cabinets:

Custom and Semi-Custom cabi­netry with 1/2"-3/4" ply­wood box, 3/4"-7/8" hard­wood face frame, dove­tailed 5/8" or 3/4" maple or oak drawer sides, hard­wood frame and panel doors in more than 1,000 styles, full-ex­ten­sion under­mount soft-close/ sure-close drawer slides, stain with cata­lysed clear top coat.
$320-560 per linear foot

Factory Stock Cabinets

Factory stock cabinets consist of mix-and-match components starting at 9" in width and graduating in 3" increments to about 60". Because the sizes and details are standardized, and the cabinets built on an assembly-line, stock cabinets are often very affordable. And, because they are made in fixed sizes, a minimally trained employee with a computer program can place the cabinets to form a kitchen. This means they can be sold in great quantities by lumber yards, and home stores without the expense of a trained and experienced kitchen designer.

Factory stock cabinets are sold everywhere, from the finest cabinet design studios to lumber yards and home centers. Prices vary with the type of material and construction methods used, and the number, type and quality of storage features. Drawer boxes, for example, cost more than the same cabinet fitted with doors and shelves. Drawers are more costly to build.

Assuming a standard L-shape kitchen two 10-foot runs of upper and base cabinets, including the usual gaps left for appliances - prices usually range from $1800 to $6000, with the most popular selections falling in the $4500 category. Keep in mind that these are typical prices for typical homes. You could easily spend $8000 to $12,000 in the same space, using premium-grade factory prestige lines with all the bells and whistles.

The good news for homeowners is that competition at this level is truly fierce. It's not uncommon to find 20 to 30% price reductions on the most popular models most months of the year. Up to 50% and more at home centers (although the claimed discounts from the manufacturer's suggested retail prices are often more fiction than fact). What's more, dealers and home centers make shopping easier by providing display kitchens in a variety of styles and prices. These side-by-side comparisons help focus the selection process.

There are a few rules to keep in mind when purchasing factory cabinets.

Ready to Assemble (RTA) Cabinets

It was not very long ago that RTA cabinets were considered, and in fact were, the very bottom of the heap. Particleboard with very low quality hardware, the low price for these cabinets was usually the result of very low quality.

Things may be changing. While there are still dozens if not hundreds of manufacturers of low-quality RTA cabinets, we have started seeing some cabinets coming of of Asia that are the quality equal of a typical factory stock cabinet, and for quite a bit less cost. The lower cost is certainly due to the much lower labor costs in Asia, but also because they are shipped broken-down in flat-packs, which greatly reduces shipping costs.

The trade off is that they must be assembled, which takes as much as an hour per cabinet, and they are not as strong as factory-built cabinets. The mechanical fasteners used to hold RTA cabinets together cannot equal the durability of well-joined cabinets put together with strong methanical joints and modern glues.

The additional labor involved in assembling these cabinets usually wipes out any savings resulting from the lower cost of the cabinets. But, if you intend to assemble and install them yourself, and you know how to install cabinets, then these may be a viable, low cost, option for your new kitchen.

Cabinet Case Basics

As we indicated above, a cabinet is a box usually filled with drawers or shelves, or some combination of the two. The box in cabinet-maker parlance is a "case", and the process of building them "casework". There are two basic case types in use today, framed (American style) and frameless (Euro-style).

Case Formats

Cabinet cases are constructed on one or two basic formats. In American-format cabinets the front edge of the cabinet box is joined to a face frame usually made from hardwood. When fitting to an irregular wall, the frame around the perimeter can be shaved to fit and the frame makes it possible to use affordable, low-quality materials for cabinet sides. It slightly narrows opening sizes for doors and drawers — but except in very narrow cabinets, this is not usually a hindrance. Generally, framed cases are considered stronger and more resistant to deformation. The normal factory door type is half-overlay, although all styles are available, some at an extra cost.

About 75% of the cabinets installed in the U.S. are framed.

What is Melamine Anyway?

Adapted from "Melamine" by Amy Babb

Cabinets, shelving, furniture all claiming to have a melamine finish. What is this stuff and where did it come from?

Melamine Dinnerware Chemically, it's a resin produced from urea and formaldehyde that results in a low temperature plastic that is very durable and stain resistant.

Today it is used to manufacture scads of products from white erasable boards to countertops; flooring to paint to chemical cleansers such as Magic Eraser. But its first widespread use was to make unbreakable dishware.

Melamine dishware was first produced for use in hospitals, mess halls and restaurants during World War II. The dishware was very “institutional” — possibly the ugliest brown ever seen — but designed to be easily stacked and not easily broken. The dishware was a resounding success. It remained in use by the military at least until the 1980s.

Melamine was a new plastic in the 1940s. Unlike other plastics of the era, it could be given virtually almost any color under the sun, and these colors could be mottled and mixed. Lightweight and strong, this new plastic was often used in automotive parts of the time. However, melamine really made its mark in the dinnerware world.

As soon as World War II was over, manufacturers took a new look at the institutional plastic. One such company, The American Cyanamid Corporation, produced melamine dishes with their own special material blend called “Melmac.” which became the common household name for melamine dishware.

The Branchell Manufacturing Company of St. Louis, also produced several household lines including Royale and Color-Flyte.

Nor was melamine a stranger to high fashion. Housewares designer Russel Wright produced his very own high-end lines. His melamine finishes were unique: featuring layered colors to create a mottled effect. Some of the recognized names he produced were black velvet, sea mist, lemon ice, and copper penny — all prized collectibles today.

So, just how popular was melamine dishware? The numbers say it all... by the late 1950s, over 50% of all dinnerware sold in the U.S. was made out of melamine. You can almost guarantee that your mother and grandmother both had at least one set of Melmac.

So, if melamine was so very ultra-popular, why did it not survive until the present day?

In the mid-1960s inexpensive and very beautiful ceramic dishes from China began flooding into the market. Priced to complete with melamine, many homeowners switched back to porcelain and china. Melamine producers tried to keep up with the new imports by making their dishware less costly. But the only way to do that was to reduce quality. Melamine dishes became thinner, less durable, lightweight, cheaper, and more “plastic” (pun intended.)

Then came the microwave. melamine is not at all microwave safe. Microwaving melamine results in a stinking, smoking blob of plastic. The eventual rise of microwave cooking completely doomed melamine dishware in the American home. But it is still going strong elsewhere, particularly in the Orient where Modern melamine side plate from China manufacturers are reaching new heights in color and decoration.

So, where does melamine stand today? It's rarely used in dishware in America but commonly found as the coating for the cabinets that dishware is stored in and the countertops they sit on. Formica® laminate, which uses Melamine as it surface coat, first became widely available in the 1950s and was featured in post-war kitchens as the "miracle" countertop material — which is truly is. It is mar-resistant, heat-tolerant (although it will scorch at high heat), easy to clean and durable. Best of all, compared to other laminate finishes, it's cheap. And ubiquitous — even very-high-end cabinets boast interiors finished in melamine. Quite a journey from ugly brown Army dishware.

As for vintage melamine dishware — if you have some in good shape, hold on to it. It is becoming a collectible. Complete sets of rare patterns and colors are selling at astounding prices, and even everyday pieces from name manufacturers are attracting collector attention.

Who would have guessed?

European-format cabinets have no face frame. The design is particularly well suited to mass production, and was, in fact, developed after WWII with the express aim of quickly manufacturing a lot of quality casework from panel stock to rebuild war-torn European cities.

Cases are made up of panels finished on both sides and edged with a simple laminate banding or narrow strip of veneer. Doors on frameless cabinets usually conceal most if not all of the cabinet box with only a slight reveal between them, offering an unbroken appearance, and making it unnecessary to be real fussy about the finish of the front edge of the cabinet.

Frameless cabinets are found at all price ranges, but seem to cluster at both ends of the price spectrum. Inexpensive "ready-to-assemble" cabinets composed of particleboard and veneer are usually frameless. But so are many top of the top-line designer studio cabinets — especially from European studios.

Because they tend to be more common in inexpensive cabinets, the frameless format has gotten a bad rap for durability. The problem is not with the format, however, but with the construction of the cabinets. Often the cabinet sides are veneered in nothing more than paper, printed to look (sort of) like wood grain. Commonly, front edges are also banded in paper, which does not withstand much abuse. But, frameless cabinets made correctly are very durable. We veneer the sides in melamine laminate. On the inside it provides a very sanitary, washable surface. On the outside, it will stand up to lots of abuse. If the side of a cabinet will show, then it is covered in wood or a wood veneer. We finish the front edges with a 3/4" hardwood cap. The hardwood protect the front edge from damage just as well as a hardwood frame, while still giving the cabinet a more modern, frameless appearance.

The 32mm Mounting System

Whether framed or frameless, most manufactured cabinets (and, indeed, most custom work these days) use the European standard "32mm mounting system." The system uses a series of 5mm holes drilled 32mm apart 37mm from the front and rear edges of both side panels. European hinges, drawer slides, shelf supports and other cabinet hardware are designed (or "indexed") to exactly fit these holes.

The system has had a pronounced effect on how cabinets are made, the most significant of which is drawer and accessory sizing. Drawers must be made in increments of 32mm to fit correctly. So, typically drawers are now designed in multiples of 32mm rather than in inches (with adjustments for the small gap between drawers, so they don't rub on each other). The 32mm system has also affected the availability of accessories. Most baskets, pull-outs, slides and so on available today are sized to fit the 32mm system, which means that if these accessories are used, the basic cabinet must conform to the 33mm system or they won't fit correctly without a great deal of extra work.

Particleboard vs. Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)

A lot of the hype surrounding kitchen and bath cabinets centers around particleboard and medium density fiberboard. Both are engineered composite wood panels. These are made by combining cellulose material and a binder — typically a resin to form a sheet or panel. Both are usually considered "green" materials since they are made essentially out of what would otherwise be trash.

The material in both is the leftovers from wood milling: sawdust, chips, bark; agricultural waste such as bagasse (sugar cane stalks) and corn stalks and post-consumer waste that otherwise would end up in the land fill. Anything containing cellulose fibers will do.

Panel boards
Edge views of common panel laminates for cabinetmaking: (A) Particleboard, (B) Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), (C) Cabinet-grade Baltic Plywood.

To make particleboard, these are all ground into small particles (the "particle" in particleboard). To make MDF, they are steam heated until they literally fall apart into their constituent cellulose fibers (the "fiber" in fiberboard). Then both materials are mixed with a resin and bonded into sheets under pressure and heat. MDF is made under much higher pressure than particleboard, is denser, heavier and less likely to contain voids.

Particleboard is manufactured in 15 grades and subgrades recognized by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI):

    • H: High Density, above 50 lbs. per cubic foot of material (abbreviated 50 lb/ft3).
    • M: Medium Density, between 40-50 lb/ft3.
    • L or LD: Low Density, below 40 lb/ft3.
    • D: Decking (Flooring) material.
    • PBU: Floor underlayment.

Each of the major grades contains subgrades. M grade, for example comes in M1, M2 and M3 subgrades. Cabinets are typically made of material between 35 and 45 lb/ft3. This is a strong, heavy, stable material, quite suitable with proper manufacturing techniques for most cabinet cases.

Particleboard got a bad rap when it became the preferred material for inexpensive ready-to-assemble furniture, and it has never lived it down. It is indeed not a good choice for furniture because furniture gets moved around and is exposed to bashing and dinging in the process. Kitchen and bath cabinets are not. Once a cabinet is installed, you cannot get to the case except from the inside. The back and sides are usually against the wall or another cabinet. The bottom of a base cabinet is on the floor, its top is covered by a counter top. The front is covered by a hardwood frame and the door. A case does not need to be ding-resistant, it only needs to be moisture resistant and strong enough to hold the stuff you put in the cabinet. Laminated particleboard meets these criteria easily.

So, it's generally is not the particleboard itself that is the issue with lower-end cabinets, it's the fact that a manufacturer that selects particleboard because of its lower cost is also most likely going to use the least expensive hardware and construction techniques, including bottom-of-the-line drawer glides and hinges and lots of staples and hot glue rather than stronger pocket screws, biscuits or mortises. It's a good basic rule of quality cabinet selection to avoid all staples, period. Particleboard requires special fasteners — regular screws don't work well, and many makers of economy cabinets do not use the necessary special hardware.

Bottom line, it's not particleboard per se that makes poor cabinets, it's the way particleboard cabinets are put together that's usually the problem. If it's constructed using the necessary special fasteners, with top quality glides and hinges, there is no reason particleboard cabinet could not give excellent service for year and years. For the moment, however, suspect that any cabinet containing particleboard is probably poorly constructed, and walk away from it. For much more on the difference between the construction of good and not so good cabinets, see Comparative Cabinet Construction.

By the way, if the salesman says it's "furniture board" or "high density panelboard" or "structural hardboard", it's really just particleboard. These others are nonsense names, there are no such materials.

Case Materials

Whether a case is frame or frameless makes little difference to its cost. The differences that affect the price are in the thickness and quality of the materials used. Real wood lumber costs more than plywood, which costs more than medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which costs more than particleboard.

Homeowners usually view solid lumber as the best choice. But most seasoned cabinetmakers disagree. Lumber is not dimensionally stable - it expands and contracts with changes in temperature and humidity. This makes it difficult to build a case that will not buckle or separate at the joints over time. When good quality cabinet-grade plywood became available in the 1930s, most cabinetmakers immediately switched to plywood for sheets and flat panels. It's just a better material for that particular application.

Plywood, MDF and particleboard are engineered to be dimensionally stable. They do not react much to change in the environment. But they do not like to get wet. MDF and particleboard swell and fall apart, plywood (except exterior and marine plywood - seldom used in kitchen cabinets) delaminates over time. To solve that problem, many case panels are covered with some sort of water-resistant laminate such as melamine. The melamine panels we use seem to be impervious to almost anything. Even polyurethane varnish won't stick to it — something we found out quite by accident.

There is a lot of confusion about the differences between particleboard and MDF. The sidebar at left, "Particleboard v Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)" should help clarify the differences for you.

Particleboard is less expensive and durable than MDF. MDF is quite strong and made of resin-bonded wood fibers. In fact, it's dense enough to hold a sharp edge when cut (as many a cabinetmaker has found out to his chagrin) and is often used to make house doors, usually under some form of synthetic finish. Particleboard is not as dense and not nearly as strong. MDF is the preferred material over particleboard if price is not a consideration.

Between plywood and MDF, most custom cabinetmakers would pick plywood because it is easier to work with using regular woodworking techniques. MDF requires special techniques and dulls cutting tools quickly. As far as structural integrity goes, however, one is about as good as the other for casework. Many good quality cabinet lines use plywood and MDF interchangeably.

Where the material is used is what makes the big difference. Materials quite suitable for cases may not be at all good for drawers. Cabinet cases are just immobile boxes, fastened to any or all of the floor, wall or adjacent cabinets. They are not going to move once properly installed — and don't have be particularly strong. (That's not what the guy at the lumber store told you, but he's dead wrong).

Most manufacturers use laminated particleboard (which they usually call something else for marketing purposes —furniture board— for example) for cabinet cases. As long as the inside surface is melamine or some other tough, durable, cleanable surface, this works well. MDF or plywood would be better, but also more expensive.

The strongest argument for using plywood is that screws hold better in plywood than in either MDF or particleboard, so hinges and drawer glides attached with screws hold better. Special plastic inserts are often used in MDF and particleboard to give screws a better grip.

Case Construction

Most factory cases have l/8" or 1/4" plywood or hardboard backs and 3/8" or 1/2" plywood floors. Thicker backs are better. They prevent racking. Custom shops usually use 1/2" plywood for backs and 3/4" plywood for floors. Shelves are usually made out of the same material as the cabinet case, but vary in thickness from 1/2" to 1-1/4". Thicker shelving is more sag-resistant than thinner material and is the standard for most local shops. Wood and plywood are stiffer than MDF or particleboard in the same thickness. But, if necessary, your local cabinet installer can easily sag-proof a thinner shelf with a stiffener.

The most basic cabinets will have one fixed half-depth shelf in the base units and two in the upper cabinets. Better cabinets will have deeper base shelves and two or three adjustable shelves in the uppers. High-end cabinets often feature pullout storage trays on metal drawer slides.

Most large manufacturers will substitute better materials at your request — with an added charge, of course. You should specify plywood for the sink base, where water damage is likely. In similar fashion, you might order heavier drawer slides and plywood construction for the one or two drawers you know will get the most frequent use — the knives, forks and spoons drawer, for sure. Drawer cabinets can also benefit from plywood sides which provide a stronger attachment for drawer glides, especially for drawers that will be heavily used. For more on cabinet construction, see Comparative Cabinet Construction.


Lower-grade stained-wood cabinets are usually sealed with a sprayed lacquer, which produces an attractive finish, but one that is less colorfast and not very durable. For this reason, most of the better cabinets today are sealed with a catalyzed conversion varnish. It is heat cured in an oven like an automobile finish. The application and curing process takes longer, so the finish is more expensive. Local custom cabinetmakers cannot match this factory-applied finish, but several coats of polyurethane is just as good.

Many MDF-surfaced cabinets are now sealed with a pigmented polyester finish, applied in many layers in a tightly controlled environment. It's labor intensive and therefore expensive. The resulting finish is tougher than lacquer and usually has a high-luster sheen, which is easy to wipe clean.

Laminate Coatings

Not all cabinets these days are sealed with liquid coatings. Those made of MDF or particleboard are often covered with synthetic solid coatings. Here are some of the most common:

High-Pressure Laminate (HPL) is composed of layers of compressed resin and paper available in a dazzling range of colors, finishes and textures. It is very similar to the material used in surfacing countertops. Manufacturers include Formica and Wilsonart. HPL is durable, soil resistant and easy to clean. Laminates, however, cannot be easily repaired and a badly scratched door will probably have to be replaced. Cabinets covered in high-density laminates are sturdy and easy to keep clean. For that reason they are usually the first choice in hospital and industrial applications.

Low-Pressure Laminate (LPL), commonly sold under the trade name Melamine®, is less durable and less expensive than HPL. It is most often used on the interior of cabinets and to surface shelves — locations where it is not likely to suffer great abuse. For these applications, it is perfectly adequate. It is not as suitable as other choices for surfacing doors and cabinet frames. Like high-pressure laminate, it comes in a wide range of colors, but is most commonly seen in white.


Thermofoil is actually a form of laminate — vinyl plastic film that is vacuumed molded onto MDF doors. It is sometimes referred to as RTF (meaning, simply Rigid Thermofoil, which is redundant since all Thermofoil is more or less rigid). The MDF door is normally shaped to give the appearance of a panel door, and is made in just about every possible style of panel: raised, flat, cathedral, arched, shaker/craftsman and so on. Thermofoil is available in a large variety of solid colors and many patterns including woodgrains and metalics. The Thermofoil process is increasingly popular on medium-price cabinets, because it offers a smooth, durable, cleanable, seamless surface that is still very affordable. If you prefer painted cabinets, seriously consider Thermofoil instead. If you like woodgrain, but need more durability, also consider Thermofoil.

Special Storage Features

Cabinets these days offer some impressive storage features, which can really improve efficiency and convenience, especially in cramped kitchens. Accessories include revolving can racks in pantry cabinets, pull-out wire pantries, lazy susans with recycling bins, spice racks, pull out base trays, wicker baskets, shelves and more; even special pull outs for baking sheets.

Many are offered by the manufacturers who build cabinets as extensions to their cabinet lines. Many more, however, are available from independent suppliers. Look for distributors of "Cabinet Organizers".

Some of there are pretty ingenious. Several companies make a coated wire pull-out pantry that fits in a base cabinet. What would otherwise be the cabinet door is attached to the pantry. When the "door" is pulled, the entire interior of the cabinet rolls out into the room for easy access from both sides to anything stored in the cabinet. Another of our favorites are pull-down shelves that make it easier for individuals confined to a wheelchair to access items in upper cabinets. for more information on kitchen pantries, see Pantry Perfect: The “Can't Go Wrong” Pantry Design Rules.

Even the space under the cabinets is now being used as storage. Check out Using Toe-Kick Space. Filler strips used to conceal voids in manufactured cabinets can become pullout storage for spice jars and other small items. A number of manufacturers now make pull-outs designed to be hidden behind 3" and 6" fillers.

Any kitchen designer will tell you that good lighting is one of the key features of a well-planned kitchen. Poorly placed or inadequate lighting makes a kitchen an uncomfortable place to work. Lighting has even extended into cabinets and drawers. We all know about the switch that turns on a light when a door is opened, but now drawers can have the same feature. A well lit drawer sounds like an unnecessary gimmick until you have one, then you will wonder how you ever did without it.

For serious storage, however, if you have the room, nothing beats a full walk-in pantry or butler's closet. Finding the space may be a problem, but a good candidate is an adjacent closet, part of a neighboring porch, or even a slice of the mud-room. A pantry closet is also an excellent candidate for a bump-out. See: Finding Some More Kitchen Space for more information.

Cabinet Doors & Drawers

Doors and drawers really make the cabinet when it comes to appearance and function. While variations abound in detail, most doors fall into three style categories: raised-panel, flat-panel (or recessed-panel) and flat (slab or plank — the terminology differs among manufacturers) doors. Panel doors, … more »

Did you like this article? Was it clear and easy to understand? Were any technical terms adequately explained? Rate this article and give us your feedback, below, then continue to the next section Cabinet Doors and Drawers.

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