Terry Love (425) 649-LOVE
Credible Cabinets

How to tell the good ones from the not-so-good ones. By Merle Henkenius,
reprinted from Popular Mechanics, August 96

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Of all the features that comprise a kitchen, cabinets are the most permanent. Flooring, fixtures, lights, appliances and even countertops can all be changed fairly easily, but cabinets usually stay put. The difference is part cost and part perception. While cabinets can be quite affordable, and not that difficult to install, new cabinets usually signal a new kitchen, top to bottom, and that requires a major investment of cash and commitment.

With this information in mind, it pays to learn as much as possible about the range of cabinet options. This means looking beyond the facade --although the facade is also important-to structure, hardware, finishes and accessories.

Custom, semi-custom and factory stock

Prior to the mid-1950s, all cabinets were built-in, or custom-built, in that each set was locally made for a specific kitchen. Today, the boundaries are less clear. Truly custom cabinets are still locally built to maximize specific and unique spaces, but it happens far less often. With all the options in factory-made components, and the economy of scale they offer, local cabinetmakers find it hard to compete.

What custom cabinets still offer is good craftsmanship, full-dimension plywood in the box construction, and customized sizes, details and accessories. While factory components are sized in 3-in. increments, custom cabinets can be made to fill each space, without filler strips. When a kitchen sink needs to be centered under a window, for example, a 2- or 3-in. shortfall can make a big difference. Custom cabinets accommodate such differences and offer greater flexibility. They also allow you to add compatible new cabinets to an existing set. The costs, however, will usually meet or exceed those of high-end factory components.

Semicustom cabinets offer the best of both worlds, in that the components are factory-made, but are done so according to each kitchen's specifications. More economical stock sizes are used to fill most of the space, while a few components are customized to meet site-specific needs. In most cases, all components are factory-built, though some are customized. In a few cases, the installer builds certain details or components to round out the construction job.

And finally, you will find many factory lines of stock cabinets. These lines consist of mix-and-match components starting at 9 in, in width and graduating in 3-in. increments to about 60 in. Because the manufacturer picks the sizes and the details, and builds in assembly-line fashion, these cabinets are generally the most affordable.

Factory lines are offered everywhere, from kitchen specialty shops to lumberyards and home centers. Prices vary with the type of face lumber, accessories, door and drawer construction, type and thickness of the box lumber and the number and quality of shelves and storage features. Assuming a standard L-shape kitchen two 10-ft. runs of cabinets, including the usual gaps left for appliances-prices usually range from $1400 to $5000, with the most popular selections falling in the $3500 category. Keep in mind that these are typical prices for typical homes. You could easily spend $8000 to $10,000 in the same space, using premium-grade prestige lines with all the extras.

The good news for consumers is that competition is fierce at this level. It's not uncommon to find 20 to 30% price reductions on the most popular models, most months of the year. What's more, dealers and home centers make shopping easier by providing display kitchens in a variety of styles and prices. These side-by-side comparisons help focus the selection process.

Box basics

There are two basic cabinet types in use today, faced and unfaced. American-style cabinets have a band of facing lumber--rails and stiles--on the cabinet fronts, usually made of solid wood. The drawers and doors close against this face frame. With European-style unfaced cabinets, the doors are hinged from the cabinet sides and overlap the cabinet edges in all directions. The difference is largely a matter of style, though without center and perimeter supports, faceless cabinets are slightly more accessible.

In box construction, the differences are in the thickness and quality of the materials. Within certain limits, it's safe to say that real wood is better than scrap-wood products, and the thicker the better. But not every situation requires the most costly materials and methods. Consider, for example, the daily-use contrasts between cabinet boxes and drawer boxes. If a cabinet box survives the shipping, the installation and the plumber, chances are it will stand up to a generation of utensils and groceries, whether it's made of varnished plywood or vinylwrapped particleboard.

Drawers, on the other hand, suffer a lifetime of relentless use, and as long as the kids are around, a few years of abuse too. Drawers should be as sturdy as nature and joinery allow, and as good as you can afford. With this in mind, here are the options.

A few high-end factory cabinets use 5/8-in. plywood that is veneered on both sides. Some custom-cabinet makers use 3/4-in. plywood for even greater strength and rigidity. When plywood is not used, low- to medium-density particleboard or medium-density fiberboard (MDF) takes its place. Particleboard is generally less expensive and durable than MDF, which is quite strong and made of resin-bonded wood fibers. In fact, it's dense enough to hold a sharp edge and is often used in doors, usually under some form of synthetic finish. When wrapped in vinyl or low-density laminate, however, it's not easy to tell these composites apart, so make it a point to ask. Most cabinets have l/8-in, plywood or hardboard backs and 1/4- or 1/2-in. plywood floors. Shelving lumber is usually the same as the box lumber, but varies in thickness between 1/2 and 3/4 in. One-half-inch shelves can sag in a 36-in. cabinet if you really load them, so if you have limited storage space, you'll want a thicker shelf.

The most basic models will have one fixed half-depth shelf in the base units and two in the upper cabinets. Better cabinets may have deeper base shelves and two or three adjustable shelves in the uppers. Premium cabinets often feature pullout storage trays on heavy-duty drawer slides. In these cases, the doors may be hinged conventionally, or fastened directly to the trays, like drawer fronts.

Keep in mind that some cabinetmakers will substitute better materials at your request. You might specify plywood construction for the sink base, where water damage is most likely, while opting for fiberboard elsewhere. In similar fashion, you might order better drawer slides and drawer construction for the one or two drawers you know will get the roughest use.

Doors and drawers

Doors and drawers really make the cabinet when it comes to appearance. While variations abound in detail, most doors fall into a few structural categories. Recessed-panel doors and the more expensive raised-panel and mullioned, glass-pane doors are used on faced cabinets, while plywood, MDF and particleboard doors are used on faced and unfaced cabinets.

The most expensive doors are always those made of solid wood, either one piece or paneled. The more dear the wood--cherry, hickory and walnut to name a few examples-the higher the cost. A reasonable compromise in price and quality is a flat-panel door, in which 1/4-in. veneered plywood is used in place of solid wood, with the frame of the panel still made of solid wood.

Many manufacturers now use quality hardwood veneers in the place of solid wood, to remarkable effect. In the best examples, you have to look closely to see the difference. The savings are often substantial, and with tough, factory-applied finishes, these doors hold up well under most conditions.

As for drawers, plywood and solid-wood construction is best. Where weaker materials are used, good-quality mechanical slides can even the score somewhat. Drawer slides range in capacity from 50 to 150 pounds. Avoid, when you can, slides with minimal base support and nylon parts. The best slides are 8-piece affairs that run on bearings and allow the drawer to extend almost completely out. If you can't afford the best, look for slides that wrap under both sides of the drawer at least 1/2 in.

How the drawer is constructed is also important. You'll find several basic designs. In better cabinets, the drawer front is screwed to a framed box, while in lesser cabinets, the drawer box is 3-sided, with the open end stapled directly into mortised slots in the drawer front. The boxes, in these cases, are usually made of vinyl-wrapped particleboard or fiberboard. High-end cabinets typically have solid-wood boxes with dovetailed corners, though glued and stapled corners are also used on some quality cabinets.


Lower-grade stained-wood cabinets are usually sealed with a sprayed lacguer, which produces an attractive finish, but one that is less colorfast. For this reason, most of the better cabinets today are sealed with a catalyzed conversion varnish, which is baked on. The application and curing process takes longer, so the finish is more expensive. But the better finish on factory cabinets give them an edge over locally built custom cabinets.

And finally, many MDF-surfaced cabinets are now sealed with a pigmented polyester finish, applied in many layers in a tightly controlled environment. It's labor intensive and therefore expensive. The resulting finish is tougher than lacquer and usually has a high-luster sheen, which is easy to wipe clean.

Not all cabinets these days are sealed with liquid coatings. Those made of particleboard or fiberboard are often covered vrith synthetic laminates, either plastic, vinyl or PVC. At the low end of the scale are vinyl coverings that are heat-sealed over particleboard or fiberboard. Although both are susceptible to nicks and dings, 4-mil vinyl is tougher than 2-mil.

Next on the list is thermofoil plastic, which heat-bonds a film of PVC over fiberboard doors and drawer faces. The thermofoil process is popular on medium-price white cabinets, because it offers a durable, seamless surface that is still affordable.

And finally, some very good cabinets are covered with plastic laminates-the same stuff used on countertops--in either colors or simulated wood grains. Some of the u·ood-grain copies are impressively realistic, though not entirely convincing. Nevertheless, cabinets covered in high-density laminates are sturdy and easy to keep clean.

Special storage features

Cabinets these days offer some impressive storage features, which can really improve efficiency and convenience, especially in cramped kitchens. They include revolving can racks in pantry cabinets, Lazy Susans with recycling bins, spice racks, pullout base trays and more. To find these little wonders, open every door in every display kitchen. Expect an assortment of these features to run $300 to $500. PM

In the Seattle area, I sell:
Canyon Creek Cabinet Co.
Cadell Cabinetry
Merillat Cabinets

I work with Maggie Calkins of Home Innovations, 206-574-6954, referred by Terry Love

Terry Love 425-649-5683

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