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 countertops 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
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.
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… (Continues)
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 "casework". 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 that is structural but also acts as a dust shield. Most base cabinets do not. Their top is the separate countertop.
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.
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 carefully. For tips on getting along without base cabinets, see Off the Wall Kitchens: Living Without Upper Cabinets.
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… (Continues)
Full Height Cabinet
A utility, full-height, or tall cabinet is, as expected, a cabinet that sits on the floor and extends to about 7 feet. Originally 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 expressly 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.
Today's Cabinetmaking Revolution
As a result of the personal computer revolution, local and regional cabinet makers can compete 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… (Continues)
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 handcrafts 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.
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 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.
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 for a few years have a standard catalog 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: Proven Ideas for Creating Your Dream Kitchen on a Budget.
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.
Ⓐ Back Panel: 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).
Ⓑ Bottom Panel: 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.
Ⓒ Corner Gusset: 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.
Ⓓ Drawer Guide: The guides are roller assemblies that attach the drawer to the case and permit the drawer to open and close easily.
Ⓔ End Panel: 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.
Ⓕ Shelf: If a cabinet is not fitted with a bank of drawers, it will have at least one shelf. Most are adjustable.
Ⓖ Face Frame: Applies only to framed cabinets. European style cabinets are built without a separate face frame (See"Cabinet Case Basics" below).
Ⓗ Drawer Box: 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.
Ⓘ Drawer Front: 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.
Ⓙ Cabinet Door: 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.
Ⓛ 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 require more skill to install but on heritage cabinets these are often the best choice.
Ⓜ 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 cabinets that sit on them are also precisely level.
For more information on how cabinets are made, see Comparative Cabinet Construction.
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.
While many large cabinet factories offer what they term "semi-custom" cabinets, their product is actually a semi-stock cabinet — 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 of its work to a 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.
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 a polyurethane topcoat.
$450-540 per linear foot
Tier 3: Factory 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
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 are 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 lumberyards 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 aspiration 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.
- Installation: Cabinets need to be installed. A custom or semi-custom set of cabinets is installed by the cabinetmaker — it's part of the price. Factory cabinets are not installed by the factory. Some sellers provide installation for an additional charge — sometimes a very large additional charge. So, unless you have the skills and tools to install the cabinets yourself, price all factory cabinets with installation.
- Can you install the cabinets yourself? Umm! Well, maybe. It's not nearly as easy as the pros make it look, and even the nicest cabinets if poorly installed look absolutely horrid. Take a look at Can I Do It Myself? and judge for yourself whether you need a professional installer.
- Keep It Simple: Many factories virtually give away their basic boxes and make their money on the accessories. If you are going to order a lot of pullouts, crown moldings, valences, an appliance garage, and other add-ons, be aware that the markup on these items is often astronomical. You will frequently save money by switching to custom or semi-custom cabinets. Upgrades, too, can be very costly. Replacing standard particleboard drawers with the plywood drawer upgrade may easily double the price of a "standard" cabinet.
- Easy on the Finish: Be wary of the fancy finish. Hand finishing with multiple coats of sealer, finish and glaze cost money no matter who applies the finish but factories seem to charge quite a bit more than local and regional custom and semi-custom shops for the same finish.
- Some finishes, however, can only be applied by a specially-equipped factory, so if this is the finish you just have to have, be prepared to pay handsomely for it.
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.
Ready to AssembleAn RTA cabinet ready to assemble. Typical assembly takes an hour but some cabinets take much longer.
To find out exactly how much assembly is involved, as the supplier for assembly instructions for the most complicated cabinet you intend to buy.
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 out 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.
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?
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 soon entered the vernacular as 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.
Young post-war parents loved it. It was virtually kid-proof. It could be dropped, thrown, stabbed, and molested in just about any manner a kid could dream up without serious damage.
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?
Two reasons. First, inexpensive and very beautiful ceramic dishes from China began flooding into the market in the mid-1960s, much of it nearly unbreakable "stoneware". Priced to compete with melamine, many homeowners switched back to porcelain and china.
Melamine manufacturers 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 "plasticky".
Second, Amana invented the microwave. Melamine is not at all microwave safe. Microwaving melamine results in a stinking, smoking blob of plastic. The rise of microwave cooking was the end of melamine dishware in the American home. But it is still going strong elsewhere, particularly in the Orient where 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 a form of melamine as its surface or "wear layer", first became widely available in the 1950s and was featured in post-war kitchens as the "miracle" countertop material — which is truly is.
Formica 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 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'a guessed?
The trade-off is that they must be assembled, which takes an hour or more 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 mechanical joints and modern glues.
The additional labor involved in assembling these cabinets usually offsets any savings resulting from the lower cost of RTA 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.
If you intend to assemble the units yourself, there are a few considerations to take into account.
- Some RTA cabinets require more assembly than others. To find out exactly how much assembly is involved by asking the supplier for assembly instructions for the most complicated cabinet you intend to buy.
- We have often found many assembly instructions to be nearly incomprehensible. Often they are in "universal" format, merely diagrams and drawings without text, intended to be language-independent.
- Universal format instructions are hard to do well, and we have never seen a set from any cabinet company that was crystal clear. The instructions from one company were blurry third or fourth generation photocopies with diagrams so small we needed a magnifying glass to view them.
- If you can understand from the instructions how the cabinet goes together, you are a large step ahead. If not, consider an option other than self-assembled RTA for your cabinets.
- In better cabinets, the drawers are pre-assembled at the factory. Drawers take a lot of abuse and it is important that they be square and strong. Factory assembly is best. Drawers that are assembled on-site are not nearly as durable as pre-assembled drawers.
- Most RTA cabinets do not have door and drawer hardware installed. Door hinges are easy but drawer slides are another story. Any misalignment can interfere with the operation of the drawers and make squaring the drawers in the cabinet nearly impossible. So, if possible, buy from an RTA supplier that installs the drawer hardware at the factory.
Cabinet cases are constructed on one or two basic formats: framed (American) and frameless (European).
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. (Go to Cabinet Basics, Part 2: Door and Door Construction for an explanation of door overlay, then click your browser's [back] button to return here.)
About 75% of the cabinets installed in the U.S. are framed.
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 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 insides in melamine laminate. It provides a very sanitary, washable surface. On the outside, where the ends are exposed, we use actual wood veneer, applied at a factory under great pressure. It will not delaminate and will stand up to abuse much better than paper.
We finish the vulnerable front edges with a 1/4" hardwood cap, not a thin veneer strip. The hardwood protects the front edge from damage just as well as a hardwood frame, while still giving the cabinet a more contemporary, 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 factory-made 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 filler material and a binder — typically a resin to form a sheet or panel. Both are usually considered "green" materials since they are made out of what would otherwise be trash.
The filler 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 landfill. Anything containing cellulose fibers will do.
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).
Both materials are then 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 sub-grades recognized by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI):
- H: High Density, more than 50 lbs. per cubic foot of material (abbreviated 50 lb/ft).
- M: Medium Density, between 40-50 lb/ft.
- L: Low Density, less than 40 lb/ft.
- D: Decking, flooring material.
- PBU: Floor underlayment.
Each of the primary grades can be divided into sub-grades. M grade, for example, comes in M1, M2, and M3, representing variations in density. Cabinets are typically made of material between 35 and 45 lb/ft. This is a strong, heavy (a 3/4" sheet weighs about 100 lbs.), 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 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 countertop. The front is covered by a hardwood frame and the door. So, a case does not need to be especially ding- and bash-resistant, it only needs to be moisture resistant and strong enough to hold the weight of 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 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.
If a particleboard cabinet is constructed using the proper fasteners, with top-quality glides and hinges, there is no reason it could not give excellent service for years and years. For the moment, however, suspect that any cabinet containing particleboard is probably poorly constructed. For much more on the difference between the construction of good and not so good cabinets, see Cabinets Part 5: Elements of a Lifetime Cabinet.
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 made-up names. There are no such 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 to 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.
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 a 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 are just as good.
Many MDF 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.
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)
HPL is an engineered laminate composed of layers of compressed resin and paper available in a dazzling range of colors, finishes, and textures. It is very similar and often identical to the material used in surfacing countertops. Manufacturers include Formica and Wilsonart.
HPL is durable, soil resistant, and easy to clean. It cannot, however, be easily repaired and a damaged door will probably have to be replaced.
HDL is commonly used as a finish on commercial cabinets where its durability and easy cleaning outweigh its design limitations. Hospitals, restaurants, and retail display cabinets are typical hosts for the material. It cannot be formed and is difficult to bend, so it is usually used only on flat, slab doors and drawer fronts. If a framed door look is required, some other material must be used, usually thermofoil (see below).
Low-Pressure Laminate (LPL)
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, beige, and ivory.
Thermofoil is a vinyl plastic film that is vacuumed molded under heat onto MDF or particleboard doors. It is sometimes referred to as RTF (meaning, simply Rigid Thermofoil).
The door is normally shaped on a CNC machine to give the appearance of a panel door, and may be 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 metallics. 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. Be careful of white, though. White vinyl tends to turn yellow over time, and this is true of Thermofoil.
The material is not without its problems, however.
- The very thin vinyl coating may delaminate if not applied properly, and this defect usually occurs after many years — long after the warranty has run out.
- Damage from cuts and dings cannot be easily repaired, and almost never locally. The door or drawer will have to be sent to a special repair service.
- Heat damages thermofoil. Kraftmaid, a major supplier of thermofoil cabinets, warns owners against using high-heat appliances near thermofoil cabinets. For activities that involve extremely high heat such as oven self-cleaning, Kraftmaid advises removing cabinet doors and drawers from the adjacent cabinets during the process.
- Lighter colors, especially whites, tend to yellow over time.
We recommend that before you settle on thermofoil as your cabinet finish, you understand its limitations. It is a low-maintenance material but not "no-maintenance", and there are trade-offs to be considered.
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 cabinet manufacturers as extensions to their cabinet lines. Many more, however, are available from independent suppliers. Look for distributors of "Cabinet Organizers".
Some of these 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, … (Continues)