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Everything You Wanted To Know About Kitchen Cabinets

If you are in the planning stages of a kitchen project, you already know that the kitchen is the most expensive room of the house and that the cabinets are the most expensive part of the kitchen. Given the high cost of cabinetry and the starring role it will play in your finished room, you no doubt feel under pressure to make the right choice.

However, when confronted with the seemingly infinite number of selections in cabinet brands, lines, styles, materials and finish options, it’s not uncommon for the first time kitchen buyer to feel overwhelmed and panicked. Here, as with most things, a little information will go a long way toward helping you make the right choice.

QUALITY.   This must be the most overused and least meaningful word in the English language. Everyone will tell you that their cabinets have "quality," but few will offer an objective, concrete description of what that really means. Quality, as relates to cabinets, should be defined in terms of both the materials and the workmanship.


Cabinet boxes, that is, the body of the cabinet excluding the doors and drawers, are commonly made from either plywood or composition board (particle board or fiberboard). The selected veneer (cherry, oak, maple, etc.) or laminate (such as Formica® or Wilsonart®) is then applied over this material to produce a finished look.

Although composition board has some advantages, the most notable of which is its resistance to warping, it is generally considered to be inferior to plywood when it comes to building cabinets.

In general, cabinets made of particle board or fiberboard will not hold up as well over time as those made from plywood. The hinges are more likely to pull out and the effects of water on this material are disastrous. Cabinets made with plywood boxes are slightly more expensive but a much better investment.

The right material for the cabinet doors depends upon the type of door. Doors with raised or recessed panels should be made from solid wood, while one-piece doors may be solid wood or plywood. Laminated doors may be made from plywood or composition board, and thermofoil doors must be from composition board.

Where a choice of two materials is available, the size of the doors and the conditions under which they will be used may play a role in determining which material is most suitable. Drawer fronts (also called drawer heads) generally are made from the same material as the doors.

Shelves should be plywood or solid wood. Drawer boxes can be made from plywood, solid wood or metal. Composition board is a poor choice for these applications.

The thickness of the material should also be considered. As a general rule of thumb, the sides, top, bottom and face frame of the cabinet should be a minimum of 1 1/2" thick, preferably 3/4". The back should be a minimum of 1/4". Shelves should be a minimum of 1/2" thick, again 3/4" is better. Drawer boxes should have minimum 1/2" sides and a 1/4" bottom.

Cabinet hinges and drawer glides should be from a reputable manufacturer, such as Grass or Blum. There are different types of hinges and drawer glides available. The right selection here will depend upon the cabinet construction (framed or frameless), the type of doors (full overlay, inset, etc.) and the application, as well as your needs and preferences.

WORKMANSHIP. Well made cabinets use accepted, time honored methods of construction. The joints should be mortised and tenoned, dadoed or dovetailed, never just nailed, stapled and/or glued.

Drawer boxes should be glued and doweled or dovetailed, not stapled or nailed. Aside from producing a strong mechanical joint, dovetailing is also a furniture-type detail and, therefore, preferable for certain applications.

Raised panel or recessed panel doors should be made of five separate pieces, with a floating center panel that is not nailed or glued to the other parts, called rails and stiles.

It is difficult to tell much about the quality of a cabinet’s material and workmanship from viewing a showroom display. The best advice here is to ask the designer or salesperson for a written copy of the manufacturer’s specifications. Avoid purchasing from any dealer who refuses to supply you with this information.


The two basic types of cabinet construction are framed and frameless.

A framed, or face frame, cabinet has six sides. The front face of the cabinet box looks like a frame, hence the name. This type of construction is the most common in the United States. Face frame cabinets may be used with full overlay, semi overlay or inset doors.

A frameless cabinet has only five sides since, unlike the framed cabinet, there is no front to the cabinet box. This type of construction is much more common in European cabinets. These cabinets must be used with full overlay doors.


The door overlay refers to the relationship of the doors and drawer fronts to the cabinet box. Full overlay doors cover the entire front face of the cabinet, so that when you look at the fronts of these cabinets you do not see the boxes, only the doors and drawer fronts. Semi overlay doors only partially cover the front of the cabinet. Inset doors are set into the opening in the face frame of the cabinet.

You now have a basic understanding of cabinets. Armed with this knowledge, you are ready to begin shopping and comparing kitchen cabinets as an educated consumer.

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