Cabinet Basics, Part 2 Door and Drawer Construction

Cabinet doors and drawers are the elements that define the appearance of most kitchens. No other kitchen feature has a much impact on the look and function of a modern kitchen.

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, whether flat or raised, are available in square or many different cathedral (or arch) styles. Adding to this mix the overlay variations: full, half and inset, and there are many hundred different door styles even before we consider the hundreds of different woods and thousands of finishes.

Cabinet Doors

The most expensive doors are usually those made of solid wood, either one piece or paneled. The more exotic the wood — mahogany, ash, and rosewood to name a few examples — the higher the cost. Cherry, hickory, oak, maple, birch ("CHOMB"), and sometimes pine ("CHOMB-P") are the "standard" cabinet woods offered by most cabinet manufacturers. Expect to pay more for any other species. (See Guide to Nebraska Hardwoods for Cabinetmakers and Woodworkers to view the many fine hardwoods suitable for cabinets available from Nebraska lumber sources).


Many manufacturers now use quality hardwood veneers in the place of solid wood, often to remarkable effect. The veneer is often heat-molded to a pine or fir strip to make the frames in framed doors. In the best examples, you have to look closely to see the difference. The savings are often substantial, and with tough, commercial finishes, these doors hold up well under all but the worst abuse. Exotic woods often not available at all, or available only at a very high cost, are frequently not only obtainable but affordable as veneers.

Solving Corner Cabinet Woes

Corner base cabinets are notorious as dark, difficult-to-reach storage space. Useful corner storage requires some pretty fancy hardware to make the space work. There are a variety of solutions, some better than others. But it is possible to make a corner cabinet effective storage with just a little thought and prior planning.

Omit the Corner Cabinet

Perhaps the very best way of dealing with corner storage is to not have any. Corner storage can simply be eliminated when the other storage in the kitchen is sufficient. Two cabinets are butted up to each other ("dead-ended" is the technical term) leaving the corner empty. The resulting "hole" in the cabinets is concealed by the countertop.

That "hole" does not have to be wasted space. We use it as a place to put utility items such as in-line water heaters and low voltage transformers — things that are usually stashed under the sink. We have even used it as a kennel for the family pooch. The only limitation is that there has to be access from the back in case something has to be repaired. An access panel in the wall is usually all that is needed.

But, if you need the additional storage in your kitchen, then omitting corner storage may not be an option, so read on.

The simplest option is just a cabinet with adjustable shelves. Frequently marketed as "Easy Reach" cabinets, they are anything but. Access is through a narrow L-shaped door set into the corner of the cabinet. Only the front 10" or so of each shelf is actually useful. In most cases, the only way to retrieve anything in the back is to crawl in with a flashlight. Typically found on lower-end cabinet lines, the sole advantage of this corner treatment is its simplicity and low cost.

Installing a lazy susan turntable in a corner cabinet greatly enhances its usefulness. Anything stored in the back of the cabinet can be brought 'round to the front with a little twist of the wrist. But there are some disadvantages. Fitting round lazy susans into square cabinets means that there are dark corners where things that fall off the turntable can get lost. Fortunately, there are a couple of simple solutions to this problem. One is to make the cabinets round to fit the turntable. Another is to fit individual turntables on adjustable shelves — often called "super susan" cabinets. We like this solution better than round cabinets that tend to be flimsy (thick wood does not bend, so thin plies are used — these are usually not very strong.)

There are a lot of different kinds of lazy susan. Some attach to L-shaped cabinet doors so the doors rotate with the turntable. They tend to get jammed up more often than other styles and work best with inset doors. For overlay doors, free-standing units are the better choice. Free-standing turntables can be notched or beveled. The notched style fits L-shaped doors, and the beveled variety fits a 45-degree corner door (the preferred style — it provides more storage).

Turntables are also made in a variety of materials. The least expensive is the common white PVC plastic product. Metal and wood units are considerably more expensive — especially stainless or hardwood finished to match your cabinets (a total waste of money). Actually, PVC is, in this instance, the better product. It is lightweight, tough, easy to clean, simple to adjust, and cheap. It is unquestionably ugly, but it's hidden most of the time behind your nice hardwood doors, so what does it matter?

Another solution for the corner is a blind corner cabinet in which one cabinet is simply tucked behind another at a corner.

There are a variety of mechanisms used to make these work as storage. The simplest involves a semi-circular tray — commonly attached to the door — that swings out into the room. Others are true Rube Goldberg-ish devices. When the cabinet door is pulled straight out, two large wire trays attached to it appear. Then swinging the door to the side pulls out two more shelves that were hidden in the corner. This makes use of virtually all of the space in the cabinet as storage, compared to the trays (that use about 50% of the space), but at a cost of some convenience and about $800.00 US before installation — and installation is no walk in the clover.

Another way to use a corner is to fill it with drawers.

Some complain that drawers waste space. We disagree. A bank of four corner drawers provides nearly as much usable space as a typical lazy susan — and the space is much, much easier to get to.

We dislike doors on lower cabinets for a variety of reasons — and this dislike extends to doors hiding lazy susans rather than shelves.

(For more information, see Mise en Place: What We Can Learn from Commercial Kitchens.)

Door Styles

There are dozens of variations, but doors are essentially made in one of two ways. Either it is a framed door or a slab door. A slab ("flush" or "solid") door is flat on both sides and looks like a single piece of wood. A frame ("frame door", "frame and panel", "floating panel" or "panel") door is, as its name implies a frame that contains a center panel of some type, usually wood to or veneered plywood to match the framing lumber; but also glass, metal panels, plastic panels, louvers, beadboard of slats.

In addition to its basic style, the other factor that affects how a cabinet door looks is its overlay. Overlay refers to how a door fits on its cabinet. If it is set wholly inside the cabinet door opening it is an inset door. If it sits on top of the door opening, overlapping the opening on all sides, it is an overlay door. There is only one variety of inset door, but many types of overlay doors.

Slab (or Plain) Doors

Slab doors are considered the "contemporary" door style and are featured on most European cabinets imported into this country. Slab doors are made these days of some sort of panel stock: plywood, MDF, or particleboard. As you might imagine, plywood is considered by most to be the best material, followed by MDF and particleboard, in that order.

Panels today are made of panels with factory-veneered faces so it is no longer necessary to buy raw plywood and veneer it in the shop — unless the wood required is some exotic species that is not available in commercial panel stock. So, once the door is cut to size, only the edges have to be veneered, or better, concealed with a thin strip of solid wood. The solid wood is more durable and less likely to chip or split.

Before good quality panel stock was widely available, slab doors were made by joining individual pieces of lumber together. These doors experience a lot of seasonal movement and tend to warp and twist. All sorts of devices were used to keep solid wood straight and true, including steel or aluminum reinforcing strips buried in the tops and bottoms of the doors to help keep them from warping. They were usually more difficult to make than framed doors, did not last as long, and were more expensive. Today, thanks to good quality panel stock, they are very simple to make and are usually the least expensive door style.

Framed Doors

The other basic style is a framed door. This is by far the most common door in the U.S. and Canada. Not only is it a very strong type of construction, but it is the traditional door style with which most people are familiar and which they prefer. This door is a panel set in a frame. The frame is four pieces of lumber to make the top and bottom ("rails") and sides ("stiles") of a frame. The panel (or "pane") is then placed inside the frame, inserted into slots ("dados") or recesses ("rabbits") in the edge of the frame.

In the traditional framed door, the panel is tacked loosely inside the frame without glue so it can more freely. Many panels are glued up from strips of solid wood and have a lot of seasonal movement. Unless the panel is allowed to "float" inside the frame, its expansion and contraction would deform the frame over time. If the panels are made from panel stock, as is the case with most flat panel doors, the panels are usually glued in the frame. Since panel stock is engineered to avoid all but the most minimal expansion, this does no harm to the door, and, in fact, strengthens it considerably.

A framed door offers a lot of style variation possibilities. The panel can be of any material that will fit inside a groove in the door frame. The most common substitute for the traditional wood panel is glass, including etched glass, milk glass, frosted glass, colored glass, patterned glass, and, of course, art glass. Increasingly we are being asked for metal and plastic panels in contemporary kitchens. These are durable and very easy to keep clean.

In traditional kitchens, we often install louvers or slats to ventilate the cabinet. Pierced decorative metal panels also permit ventilation. Before pierced metal sheets were commercially available, cabinetmakers pierced sheets with an awl or similar tool to make their own decorative patterns for doors that needed to be ventilated, such as pie safes.

The overlay of a cabinet door is determined by how the door fits in or on the front of its case. There are four basic types of door mounting options: Inset, Lipped, Partial Overlay, and Full Overlay. All of the last three are some form of overlay that fits on the front of the cabinet rather than inside the door opening. Inset fits inside the opening. Most early cabinet doors were inset, and when heritage cabinet styles are being reproduced, an inset door is most commonly used.

At the other end of the spectrum, the full overlay door is used most often on contemporary, especially frameless European-style cabinets. It conceals and protects most of the cabinet, and where the edge of a frameless cabinet is veneered, the edge is fragile and prone to damage. By covering most of the edge with the door, the opportunity for damage is minimized.

Lipped doors are another heritage style, common on Post-War cabinets in the 1950s. It is the door overlay that gives mid-century modern kitchens their distinctive look.

The partial overlay is the factory cabinet standard. It is the easiest to manufacture, install and adjust, and looks good even if not perfectly aligned.

Inset Doors

An Inset door is mounted inside the face frame, flush with the front edge of the cabinet frame, so the entire face frame is visible. Virtually all cabinet doors built before 1930 were of the inset type. The space between the edge of the door and the cabinet is typically 3/16" -1/8" to allow for wood expansion and enough clearance for opening and closing the door without it dragging on the cabinet edge.

One of the problems with inset doors is keeping them from expanding in the frame and binding. The solution is to use minimally expanding materials. Instead of solid wood for the door frame, cabinetmakers sometimes use veneered plywood or MDF, which are low expansion materials, and are unlikely to bind once adjusted properly.

Craftsman, Mission, Arts and Crafts, Colonial, Shaker, and Farmhouse kitchen styles virtually demand inset doors for authenticity. Standard or surface-mounted hinges are typical on these doors. Hidden hinges are rare. If concealed hinges are wanted, the usual hinge is a pivot hinge. There are, however, European-style hidden hinges based on the 32mm system available for inset doors.

Inset doors are usually more expensive than any other overlay style since they have to be manufactured with precision and carefully installed and adjusted. Other overlay styles are much less fussy, and therefore, less costly.

Lipped, Half Inset or Partial Inset

Any cabinet built in the 1940s and '50s before the large factories took over the market probably had a lipped door. The lipped door has a grove (what cabinetmakers call a "rabbit") cut all the way around the door on the back edge.

This cut allows part of the door to sit back into the cabinet and leaves the remaining part resting on the cabinet or face frame.

Most lipped doors are flush or plain doors, but framed doors can also be lipped (see example at right). Before good quality cabinet plywood, they were hard to make because solid wood doors tend to cup and flex and require special reinforcement. It's no accident that lipped doors became really common only after World War II when high-quality birch plywood became abundant.

There are, as far as we can determine, no hidden or Euro-style hinges available for lipped doors because lipped doors are very rare in Europe. It is essentially an American/Canadian style. The usual hinge is an offset or semi-concealed hinge developed just for these types of doors. Most of the hinge is concealed behind the door. Only the knuckle of the hinge is visible.

Full Overlay or Euro-Door

A full overlay door almost completely covers and conceals the cabinet case. It is the standard door type for European or frameless cabinets. Most better manufacturers of frameless cabinets use a full overlay, which is what gives contemporary European cabinets their characteristic appearance. Full overlay doors typically have less than 1/8" of space (cabinetmakers call this the "reveal") between them. These doors always use concealed hinges, if for no other reason than there is no room between the doors for a standard exposed hinge.

The advantage of this door overlay is that the door covers and protects the front edge of the cabinet, which in European-style cabinets is often just a thin veneer strip. The veneer is fairly fragile and the overlay door helps shield it from harm.

Because the reveal between doors is very small, these doors have to be carefully made and tediously adjusted during installation, which makes the full door overlay the second most expensive type of door, after inset.

Partial Overlay

Any overlay less than a full overlay is a partial overlay. Most common are half and three-quarter overlays which, as you might expect, conceal half and three-fourths respectively of the cabinet frame.

The partial overlay door is the easiest door to make (tolerances do not need to be close) and install (hidden hinges make the door easy to adjust in its opening) and is accordingly the standard door type used in factory cabinets. Unless another overlay is specified, a partial overlay will be used.

A partial overlay door is, in fact, a "tell" indicating to an experienced observer that a cabinet was made in a factory rather than being custom-made.

Factory hinging is usually with hidden hinges. The advantage of European hidden hinges is that they are six-way adjustable and can be tweaked to exactly align the door after installation. The disadvantage of hidden or European-style hinges is that they allow the door to open just 95°, which means it sticks out into the room when open — a perfect head knocker. By contrast, standard exposed hinges allow the door to lay flat against the cabinet, and out of the way. European-style hinges with a 175-100° opening arc are available, but large, clumsy and expensive.

Cabinet Drawers

Good quality drawers are a must. Anyone who has caught his 4-year-old using a drawer bank as a ladder to reach the cookies hidden in an upper cabinet knows why.

Drawers suffer a lifetime of relentless use and not infrequent abuse and should be as sturdy as nature and the art of joinery allow. Some factory cabinetmakers use 5/8" plywood in their high-end cabinets. Custom cabinet makers have been known to use 3/4" plywood for even greater strength and rigidity. The absolute minimum should be 1/2" plywood. In low-end and middle-range cabinets, the drawer boxes are often made of laminated particleboard or MDF. While suitable for cabinet cases, particleboard or MDF for drawer boxes is not going to hold up like wood over time. Most manufacturers will upgrade drawer boxes to wood for an extra charge.

Drawer Construction

How the drawer is framed is also important. In better cabinets, the drawer is a four-sided box. The front you can see (the false front) is a separate piece screwed to a front panel of the drawer box to make it pretty. In lesser cabinets, the front you can see does double duty as the actual front of the framed box — it is attached to the sides with screws or even staples. This is not a strong design and should be avoided.

Because the most stress on a drawer occurs when it is pulled open, the front of the drawer box should be solidly attached to its sides — otherwise, a good, hearty tug on a jammed drawer may literally pull it apart. The sides of low-end boxes are stapled and screwed to the front. In better boxes, the sides are joined to the front with a machine-cut dovetailed joint or a special machine-made locking rabbet drawer joint.

The English dovetail joint is the traditional joint for drawer fonts because it survives the constant pull and yank of opening the drawer repeatedly for hundreds of years. The machined drawer joint is the industrial-age equivalent of the hand-cut dovetail joint. These joints were created only after the powered stationary table saw make them easy to make. Drawers on some of the very best cabinetry ever made featured locking rabbit joints, including most of the very high-end cabinetry made by the Hall brothers for the Greene and Greene "ultimate bungalows". Both types of joint are equally effective.

Mechanical Drawer Slides

Almost all cabinet drawers now incorporate mechanical slides. Drawer slides range in capacity from 50 to 250-pound loading and with an extension from 3/4 to full. The relatively simple two-piece 3/4 extension slide is found on low-end cabinets. It extends the first 75% or so of the drawer, but the last 25% remains inside the cabinet box, hidden from view. Better 8-piece devices that run on bearings extend the drawer fully.

"Full-access" glides extend the drawer up to about the last 2" or so. "Full extension" slides extend the drawer all the way. For most purposes, full-access slides are more than adequate. But, where the cost is similar, full-extension slides are preferred.

Unfortunately, some of the nicer features of modern drawer glides are usually available only on full-extension versions. One we like is "sure-close, soft-close" technology that automatically, but softly, closes the drawer when it gets to within 1" of closing. These drawers cannot be slammed. The glide catches the drawer, then closes it slowly and carefully. If you are want to store fragile dishware or glass in a drawer, this is must-have technology.

Glides are mounted in two ways: side and bottom. Generally, side mount slides are less costly, but the trade-off is that they are visible. Avoid, when you can, side-mounting slides with little base support. At a minimum, look for slides that wrap under both sides of the drawer at least 1/2 in.

Bottom-mount glides are invisible, but normally require some modification to the drawer box. Although more expensive than side-mount slides, they are available from most manufacturers as an upgrade.

If you are not sure what kind of drawer-slide you are getting, ask. It's important.

Living Without Wall Cabinets

Wall cabinets are unquestionably useful storage, but with drawbacks. A major disadvantage is that wall cabinets make a kitchen seem smaller by closing in the space at eye level — which is where we subconsciously judge the size of the space around us. The typical rank of identical cabinets marching along the wall of a kitchen with the precise alignment of a Marine Corps drill team creates what are in effect walls within the walls of the kitchen, really closing the space in… (Continues>

Rev. 05/07/18