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Issue #246 - April 1998
Selecting Kitchen Cabinets

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.

Cabinet Anatomy

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 more doors.

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 pull-out shelves.

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.

Figure 1
FIGURE 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.
Figure 2
FIGURE 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.
Figure 3
FIGURE 3 - Another construction plus on high-end units -- drawer bottoms cut from plywood rather than particleboard. Some also get plastic-laminated for easier cleaning.
Figure 4
FIGURE 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.

Warranties 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 limited warranty.

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.

Certified Seal

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 overlay).

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.

Kitchen Projects
  Installing Cabinetry
  Selecting Kitchen Cabinets
  Installing Countertops
  Dream Kitchen Island
  Custom Kitchen Cabinets
  Installing Butcher Block Tops
  12 Kitchen Storage Solutions
  Swing-Out Kitchen Pantry
  Kitchen Island Cart
  Kitchen Storage Trays
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