With all the options available, choosing
for your kitchen or bath can be an overwhelming experience. Aesthetics
aside, there are lots of factors that might not be readily apparent that will
impact the cabinet's performance and price. Understanding those factors will
give you an advantage in making your selection.
There are three basic structural components to a cabinet: the box, the shelves
and the drawers. Each can be constructed in a number of ways. Cabinets
generally come four ways: boxed and ready to install in standard dimensions,
boxed and ready to assemble, semi-custom and custom.
Boxed and ready to install look just like they sound: rectangular and ready to be filled up with
shelving and drawers. Boxes are typically built in one of three ways: with
plywood, particleboard or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) and a base that is
later covered with a finish piece called a toe kick. There are pros and cons to
each of these materials.
When plywood is used, it's typically 3/8 inch thick and has a maple or birch
veneer. Plywood is made from layers of wood laminated together, and has the
benefit of being a fairly stable material that performs well over time and in
areas with higher humidity and the chance of contact with water. The panels can
be glued, nailed or screwed together, and are usually installed (as is the case
with most cabinets) by screwing them into the wall. Plywood's main downside is
that it is relatively expensive because it is a better quality than other materials.
Particleboard's draw is its low price. Made
from pressed bits of wood bound together with adhesives, particleboard can be
covered with a veneer of wood or melamine, or a paper veneer printed to look
like wood. The interior can be white or a wood tone.
The downside to particleboard is that it can be sensitive to moisture and is
more prone to coming apart at stress points where hardware is screwed in, for instance.
Ask about how the veneer will hold up with small amounts of water (glasses not
completely dried, for instance) or something more serious, like a spill that
sits for a while.
MDF is also less expensive than plywood; it has a more uniform surface than
particleboard. MDF is often used for paint-grade panels, rather than thinly
milled solid wood, because it's such an easily paintable material.
Manufacturers of semi-custom and mass-market cabinets tend to have better/best
or good/better/best options for their cabinet boxes, which may consist of one
or a combination of all three materials. Custom shops tend to stick with plywood
and MDF, or just plywood, for construction, because of its strength and
On boxes that will have European-style doors and drawers (where the doors and
drawers completely cover the box also known as full overlay), making sure the
box is completely square is essential. That can be accomplished with a clamping
system, or in a custom shop by using individual clamps. This ensures that when
the fasteners are installed, the box will be perfectly square.Drawers and Shelves
Drawers and shelves are also made from
particleboard, MDF or plywood, and can be assembled in a number of ways. The
most common and least expensive method of drawer construction is gluing and
pinning (stapling) the ends together.
A step up in cost and longevity is dovetail construction: Small pieces on the
ends are routed out to key into one another, making a connection that is very
difficult to dislodge.
The sides of the drawers are usually made from inch of material with a bottom
panel that's inch thick. This is another place construction can vary, with
thinner or thicker materials all the way around.
You can make a decision about drawers based on performance or aesthetics. Ask
to see different drawer construction options so you know what you will see when
you open them on the tops and inside and how they will look when they are
Shelves can be installed fixed, or they can be adjustable, with pegs that fit
into rows of holes on each side of the cabinet. While shelves are typically
made from the same material or wood species as the rest of the cabinet box, an
exception would be if the cabinet has a glass front or the shelves themselves
are glass. When the interior of the cabinet is visible, making the shelves and
box interior the same wood species as the face, or painting it the same color,
is a common practice.
One more note on the drawers and boxes: Larger-production cabinetmakers tend to
build their drawers and boxes at the same facility where all of the cabinets
are assembled. Some smaller shops, including many custom cabinetmakers, send
out their boxes and drawers to be built by a company that specializes in this.
The box and drawer companies can build them relatively inexpensively, leaving
the custom shop to focus on the parts of the cabinets that make them truly
custom the doors and drawer faces, and the millwork that finishes out the
Bottom line: Cabinet prices
ranging and directly correlate to materials and construction methods. Expect a
basic unit to include particleboard, melamine and stapled drawers, and
everything else to be an upcharge.
by: Anne Higuera CGR, CAPS