Stock kitchen cabinets are the most economical and are essentially an off-the-shelf product with the fewest options in finish and materials.
Semi-custom cabinets allow buyers to specify more features. Custom cabinets are just that – whatever the customer is willing to pay for – but have the longest lead times and highest prices. While cabinets that are stock, semicustom or custom varies little, when choosing kitchen cabinets there are essential elements to consider – and help your clients understand – box construction, drawers, doors, hardware and finish.
The box is typically hidden from view, but it’s the foundation of any cabinet. Everything depends on its structural integrity. The major difference is in the materials that go into the sides and back of the box.
Economy kitchen cabinets are usually made of particleboard covered with a thin layer of vinyl printed with a wood-grain pattern. It’s an inexpensive material and keeps costs down, but it doesn’t hold screws well and highly susceptible to water damage, and the vinyl surface cannot be repaired, if damaged.
Melamine is also used in economy cabinets for the sides and backs of the box. It’s a pressed wood-fiber material with a more rugged and easy-to-clean plastic layer on the surface. It’s a bit heartier than particleboard, but the surface can be easily chipped. Plywood and solid wood cost more and they’re inherently more robust. Screws that attach hardware are less likely to pull out over time, and the surfaces can be repaired, repainted or refinished.
Comparing kitchen cabinets
Cabinet sides vary from ½ to ¾ inches thick. Thin walls provide less for shelf pins and hardware screws to grab. Plywood a full ¾-inches thick makes a solid and durable box that can support heavy counters.
When choosing kitchen cabinets, cabinet backs aren’t as important. They keep the box from racking, but unless the countertop is very heavy or hardware will be attached to the back, ¼-inch material isn’t a problem. But plywood is preferable over hardboard.
Face frames help the box remain sturdy. They’re usually made of the same hardwood as the drawer faces and doors. Smoothly sanded inside edges and tight joints are an indication that the frame was carefully constructed and should be good quality.
Frameless kitchen cabinets – often called European cabinets – feature doors and drawers that hide the front of the box completely. With these cabinets, it’s more important to make sure the sides are made of a high-quality ¾-inch material.
When choosing kitchen cabinets, look for drawer sides that are 5/8 to ¾-inches thick on all but the smallest and lightest drawers. Quarter-inch material is not advisable – especially if it’s particleboard. Drawer bottoms are often only ¼-inch thick, which is fine as long as the material is plywood.
Large drawers and cabinet pullouts that carry a lot of weight often feature ⅜-inch thick bottoms. Dovetail joints make the most durable drawers; just make sure they’re well made. Particleboard drawers are often glued and stapled and don’t stand up to heavy use.
Slab and frame-and-panel are the two basic types of doors used on kitchen cabinets. Frame-and-panel is the traditional choice with face-frame cabinets and they are typically made of solid wood, although the panels can sometimes be made of medium-density fiberboard (MDF). Solid wood panels are less likely to shrink and expand with changes in humidity, won’t show color differences and won’t delaminate.
Veneered panels are flat, stable, and have proven to be structurally equal to solid wood door panels. However, they can age differently than a solid-wood frame, resulting in a contrast between the two.
Slab doors are either glued solid wood or veneered MDF and are typically used with frameless kitchen cabinets. MDF should stay warp-free, while a solid wood door that is 18 or 20 inches wide might cup or twist over time.
Joints should be tight and gap-free on frame-and-panel doors, and if the panels are glued solid wood, look for a good match in grain and color between boards. If the doors have glass panels, look for a neat fit with no globs of glue or caulk oozing from the seam.
Most cabinet companies buy hardware from the same manufacturers, so every brand has a good menu to choose from. Most drawers and pullouts ride on side-mounted ball-bearing metal slides that are either full or ¾ extension (about a quarter of the drawer’s depth remains in the cabinet). Full-extension slides are worth the extra cost.
Rated by the weight they carry, 75-pound slides are usually adequate for all but the largest and heaviest drawers, which require 100-pound slides. Roll-out pantries and appliance drawers require even beefier slides. Under-mount slides are also becoming more common and are hidden from view when drawers are open.
Traditional butt-style door hinges are giving way to European cup hinges. Available for both face-frame and frameless cabinets, they allow for a variety of adjustments and make it easy to hang even the trickiest inset doors. Hinges and drawer slides are now available with a soft-close mechanism that grabs the door or drawer at the end of its travel, slows it down and gently brings it to a stop.
Manufacturers devote a lot of resources to the finishes on kitchen cabinets in an effort to appeal to any customer’s taste. In general, the least expensive finishes are simple clear coats, and the most expensive are multilayered glazes and paints, crackle finishes and other “distressed” finishes.
Painted surfaces on kitchen cabinets can be somewhat less durable than clear finishes and can make slight gaps in joinery more visible. Glazed-paint finishes are good at hiding those minor flaws.
Where you’re likely to find differences when choosing kitchen cabinets is in the quality of the application. No sanding marks should be visible on the surface and the finish should be smooth and blemish-free. Pay attention to edges and inside doors and feel with your fingers, in addition to looking with your eyes. Finishes are largely a matter of personal taste and even basic economy finishes provide a long lasting, attractive appearance.
—By Rob Fanjoy