If you think about it, buying kitchen cabinets
has a lot in common with shopping for a new car or truck. Once you
overcome the sticker shock, you soon realize there's a huge difference
in price and convenience between the stripped-down models and those
with all the options. And whether you're talking cabinets or cars,
the base model will do the job, even though it lacks the fancy trim
and the doors don't shut with that solid sounding thud.
While a banker actually set the budget for Workbench's contributing
editor Bob Settich's kitchen remodeling project, most home lenders
and remodelers suggest limiting a kitchen redo to 15% of the home's
value. Since I offered to help him with the installation work and
he wasn't replacing many appliances, Bob figured he could spend up
to 70% of his budget on the cabinets. Imposing a spending limit means
you have to do your homework and be willing to shop around for a dealer
who can put together the best package. Before buying new cabinets,
Bob and his wife pored over the glossy brochures to get acquainted
with product lines and various options. Next, they made a checklist
of both needs and wants, and I helped them make a detailed drawing
of the kitchen space (see Installing
Cabinetry). Then we all set out to buy the cabinets.
Stock or Custom
You can purchase stock cabinets off a home
center's showroom floor, or order custom cabinets with exactly the
features you want. With stock cabinets, we found a reasonable selection
of woods, styles, and finishes. Most manufacturers offer stock cabinet
lines in traditional (face frame) and frameless construction, but
carry only the most commonly used sizes and drawer and door configurations.
This standardization and limited selection means stock cabinets cost
less and are readily available. It also means that if you have an
odd-size space in your kitchen, you'll need to order filler strips
to close in the gaps.
Custom cabinets, as the name implies, are built to fit your particular
kitchen space. Because cabinet widths vary, you won't find filler
strips (and wasted space) in a custom installation. You also have
a wider selection of woods, styles, finishes, and options, but these
features boost the overall cost. Some manufacturers offer semi-custom
cabinets that give you the best of both worlds. These units are standardized,
but come in a wider range of sizes, materials, and styles than stock
cabinets. This gives a kitchen designer greater flexibility to work
within the given space and your budget.
Most home centers and cabinet distributors have dedicated designers
and computerized planning software that lets them create different
options with a few clicks of the mouse. We even saw one program that
gave us a three-dimensional color view of what the new kitchen would
look like. Programs like these help tally up the costs so you can
see how far you've strayed from budget reality.
While custom cabinet sizes may vary, cabinets
are generally built to standardized heights and depths. Upper cabinets
are 12"-deep and range in width from 9" to 48" (in
3" increments). Standard height is 30", but you can install
36"- or 42"-tall cabinets to gain extra storage if your
kitchen ceiling height permits the taller units.
Base cabinets are typically 24"-deep and 34-1/2"-high, so
a 1-1/2"-thick countertop brings the final counter height to
36" -- an industry standard for cabinets and appliances. Base
cabinet widths generally mirror the width of the upper cabinets above
them (9" to 48") and can include all drawers or a door and
drawer configuration. Visual proportions dictate that door width never
exceeds door height, so wider cabinet units will always have two or
If you want extra counter or storage space, you can get 30"-deep
base cabinets, but use 15"-deep upper cabinets to keep everything
proportionally appealing. Tall utility cabinets, often used as pantries
or broom closets, are available in 84", 90", and 96"
heights, and come in standard wall or base cabinet depths.
These standard dimensions apply to both framed and frameless-style
cabinets. Traditional framed cabinets have a face frame that provides
a great deal of structural support to the cabinet. Door hinges mount
to the frame and doors and drawer fronts typically overlay the frame.
Frameless (European-style) cabinets are basically open boxes usually
built from 5/8"-thick melamine-covered particleboard. Since this
style lacks a face frame, the door hinges mount directly to the cabinet
sides to give wide-open access to the interior space. Because they
lack the face frame, the boxes get their structural strength from
the thicker material used in the sides, back, and bottom, which typically
are joined with glued dowels.
Where Quality Counts
At a glance, it's sometimes hard to tell
quality cabinetry from economy versions, since many of the features
wind up hidden from view once the cabinets are installed. To get a
better idea of the differences, I compared a high-end base cabinet
with a similar economy model, and was surprised by what I found.
The economy version had 3/8"-thick vinyl-coated particleboard
for the cabinet sides and bottom, and 1/8"-thick fiberboard for
the back. The cases were held together with stapled butt joints.
The high-end model had 3/4"-thick veneered MDF sides and the
case was built with glued tongue-and-groove joints. It also had wood
corner bracing glued into place (Figure 1). (The economy model had
plastic braces that were stapled in). While both cabinet units had
solid wood face frames, I found the high-end model had two dowels
in each joint. The economy model came with stub tenon-and-mortise
joints that were glued and stapled.
The drawers on the high-end cabinet had 1/2"-thick solid wood
sides, fronts, and backs (although you could even upgrade to 3/4"),
that were assembled with dowel joinery (Figure 2), an inset plywood
bottom (Figure 3), and an adjustable drawer front. The unit's heavy-duty
drawer glides gave the drawers a smooth, solid feel when opening or
closing them. The manufacturer used these same glides on the cabinet's
The economy model's drawer was stapled together from 1/2"-thick
vinyl-coated particleboard and it wobbled in the glides when I pulled
it out. The drawer also rattled when I closed it, compared to the
solid thud of the other model.
When I compared the doors, I found similar differences in materials
and construction. The makers of the high-end model used solid wood
for frame-and-panel doors, while the economy model came with a veneered
panel. The more expensive unit also featured adjustable, concealed
hinges that let you precisely align the doors (Figure 4). While self-closing,
the economy model's hinges weren't adjustable.
1 - Higher-quality cabinets feature wooden corner bracing
glued into grooves cut into the front and sides panels. Side
panels are also 5/8" or 3/4" plywood or MDF.
2 - Better quality cabinets will often feature 3/4"-thick
solid wood drawer sides and front, joined together with glued
hardwood dowels or routed dovetails.
3 - Another construction plus on high-end units -- drawer
bottoms cut from plywood rather than particleboard. Some also
get plastic-laminated for easier cleaning.
4 - Most European-style hinges, like the one shown here
on a face frame cabinet, allow you to adjust the doors vertically
and horizontally for proper alignment.
also gave an indication of quality. The high-end model carried a
seven-year warranty on materials and workmanship and a lifetime
warranty on hinges and drawer glides. The other model had a one-year
As expected, the only place the economy model came out ahead was
price. The cost was one-third that of its high-end counterpart.
However, dealer incentives, seasonal discounts, and overstocks can
all affect the price of cabinetry, so it pays to shop around when
you're ready to buy.
While I enjoy figuring out how things are built, you may not share
my investigative enthusiasm. If not, you can find one indicator
of quality just by looking for the blue and white certification
seal of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA). To
display the seal, manufacturers must meet a series of minimum requirements
for materials, and the construction must pass a number of rigorous
structural and durability tests.
For example, drawers are loaded at 15 lbs. per sq. ft. and must
survive 25,000 open-and-close cycles with no failure of the drawer
box assembly or glides. Even a cabinet's finish has to pass muster,
or mustard as the case may be. To test stain resistance, finishes
are subjected to a number of household substances, including alcohol,
vinegar, coffee, fruit juice, ketchup, and mustard. After cleaning,
the finish must show no appreciable discoloration, stain, or whitening.
Loads of Options
You have dozens of options when it comes
to accessorizing your cabinets. The combination of accessories you
choose depends on your budget, needs, and the designer's creativity.
Regardless of which accessories you select, you'll need to make
choices in the following major categories:
Materials: While oak is still popular, we found that hickory, maple,
and cherry have gained favor for frames, doors and drawer fronts.
Birch was also available, but not as universally. Cabinet interior
surfaces are often covered with wood-grain vinyl, although maple
and birch veneer are also widely used.
Finishes: Manufacturers offer a range of natural finishes, as well
as frosted and brightly colored tints. Many frameless styles feature
Thermo-foil finish -- a thin, colored plastic film that is heat-molded
and glued to a medium-density fiberboard (MDF) core.
Door styles: Doors fall into three basic categories: flat panel,
raised panel, and slab. The first two have rail-and-stile frames,
and the upper rail may have an arch or crown shape. Slab doors are
single panels of glued-up solid or veneered stock. Doors may be
inset, partially overlay the frame or case, or conceal it (full
Door panels: While most doors come fitted with flat or raised wood
panels, glass inserts present another option. Styles include multiple
panes separated by mullions, stained glass, and leaded glass. You
can even have the glass etched with your monogram.
Add-on moldings: Many manufacturers offer optional trim moldings
to give your cabinetry a refined look. Most manufacturers offer
suggestions for using these moldings in various combinations to
achieve different looks.
Appliance panels: To make appliances blend into the kitchen landscape,
you can add wood door panels to match the cabinet doors.
By knowing what to look for in construction and materials, you can
get the most cabinet for the money, and maybe have enough left over
to work a few fancy extras into the plan.