Kitchen cabinet construction isn't rocket science nor do you need to know every last detail about it. But even if you're not the type of person who's inclined to ponder "how things are put together", it's still helpul to understand the basic parts and how they're constructed.
That way you'll have a better feel for the different levels of cabinet quality and what you do or don't get for the various levels of cost you'll encounter.
If you haven't already, it may help to take a look at our cabinet glossary page to get familiar with some of the terms you'll encounter along the way. Otherwise it'll always be there if and when you need it.
If you visualize a basic wood box, the face frame is made up of several pieces of wood that are fastened to the forward edge of the cabinet, framing the cabinet box. The outside edges of the frame are flush with the outside surfaces of the cabinet box whereas the inside portion of the frame extends past the inside edges of the box slightly. The face frame provides some rigidity to the cabinet box, helping it to remain square and sturdy.
Example Of The Basic Structure Of A Framed Cabinet
Framed cabinets are generally considered more traditional looking and offers some style variety based on the amount of door overlay. Door overlay just means the extent to which the door covers or "lays-over" the face frame.
Different manufacturers offer varying styles in the extent of door-to-frame overlay.
Example Of Frameless Cabinet ConstructionThis is because there's no inside edge of a frame that's partially blocking the perimeter of the cabinet opening. The amount of storage space in frameless-construction drawers is greater than with framed cabinets because the drawer box is bigger for a given cabinet size (in other words, the drawer box has to be smaller on framed cabinets to fit through the face frame opening).
Frameless cabinets are often described as a "European" style of cabinet. Cabinet doors are typically full-overlay (covering the entire front edges of the cabinet box) though some can be made as full-inset. With full-inset designs the edges of the cabinet box are usually finished with a wood or laminate veneer or some other material to mask the raw edges of the cabinet box.
So what's the significance of these differences? Not too much, other than some style differences and a little less accessibility to the inside of framed cabinets. They both work well and just evolved from different design traditions.
Most kitchens are a combination of all of these basic units.
Here's a list of the primary cabinet materials you'll encounter:
|Solid wood - just as the term implies, it's solid homogeneous wood, all the way through. The only variation might be boards or panels that are several pieces of solid wood joined together.|
|Particle board - an engineered wood product that's made from wood chips and particles that are combined with an adhesive and fused together into boards and panels. Particle board makes up a large percentage of the materials used in today's cabinetry, from the panels that make up the boxes to shelving.|
|Medium density fiberboard (MDF) - another engineered wood product that's made up of wood fibers. The fibers are combined with an adhesive under pressure and formed into boards and panels. MDF has a finer texture than particle board and is denser and heavier than particle board. It's used in cabinet doors, shelves and cabinet boxes.|
|Plywood - yet another engineered wood product but one that's probably most familiar to people. It's made up of thin wood "plies" or layers of wood that are glued together in a sandwich form. Usually the plies are oriented with their grain direction at varying angles with respect to each other to give the board or panel more rigidity and stability. Plywood is used for shelving, doors and cabinet boxes.|
You'll typically see plywood as an upgrade (and corresponding up-charge) from particle board or MDF from many cabinet makers. Or sometimes the plywood cabinet boxes are only in the manufacturer's higher-end product lines.
Also, be watchful for the terms "solid wood" or "all wood" in a manufacturer's description or literature. "Solid wood" should represent whole, uniform lumber, not a fabrication or wood composite, like particle board, MDF or even plywood.
"All wood" is slightly different in that it usually means all-plywood construction or a combination of plywood and solid wood.
The point is, just be sure when you encounter these terms that you're clear on whether it's truly "solid wood" or plywood so you don't run into any surprises.
The important thing to take home on this subject is that there is a relationship between the type of construction and the cabinet's level of quality and durability.
The following terms describe some common methods of wood cabinet "joinery" ('joinery' just being the trade term for how the various wood parts are joined together):
|Dovetail joints - this is a strong method of joining two boards together at right angles, such as with drawer boxes. The ends of two boards or panels are notched with v-shaped cutouts that mesh with corresponding notches on the adjoining panel. If they're tight, these types of joints are considered very solid.|
|Mortise and tenon - another form of joinery, this method uses a square "post" protruding from one end of a piece of wood that fits into a square hole or cutout in the mating piece. This type of joinery might be used to fasten the pieces of a cabinet's face frame together.|
|Dado - this is a groove that's cut into a board or panel that the edge of another board/panel can fit into. A good example is the sides and back of a cabinet drawer that are dadoed to accept the edges of the drawer bottom. It's a stronger way to 'capture' the drawer bottom than just gluing or nailing the drawer bottom edges to the side panels.|
|Rabbet - this is not the kind that Elmer Fudd chases but rather, a notch or step that's cut into the edge of a board to accept the edge of another board to form a 90-degree angle. It's similar to a dada cut except one side is left "open".|
|Doweled joint - this joinery technique uses round wood dowels (pegs) that are pressed and/or glued half way into holes drilled into one piece of wood. The protruding part of the dowel is then fit into holes drilled into the mating piece of wood. This method is another way to join the sides of drawers or cabinet boxes together.|
|Butt joint - on a butt joint, the ends of two pieces of material are brought or "butted" together, edge to edge. Some form of mechanical retention like nails, screws or glue is needed to hold this joint together.|
The bottom line on cabinet construction methods is that good joinery techniques where the parts 'lock' together or where one piece is captured in the other makes for the strongest joints. Supplemental fastening methods on these joints (such as a mortise and tenon joint plus screws) makes an even stronger connection. Stronger joints equate to more durable cabinets.
Stainless steel is another material used to make cabinets though it's much less prevalent than wood. Stainless steel cabinetry provides a novel look and depending on the setting, resembles professional kitchens. On the plus side steel won't expand and contract like wood will in a kitchen environment. One of the down sides is the challenge in keeping the cabinets free from fingerprints which can be tough to clean.
Drawer fronts, the part of the drawer that you see, tend to be made from solid wood or MDF that's either painted or covered with thermofoil.
The parts that make up the drawer box can be assembled in several ways. Dovetail joints that are tight form the strongest connection at the corners of the drawer. Doweled joints where one side of the drawer box has dowels installed on one end that fit in holes in the mating panel end is another form of joinery. Drawer bottoms that fit into dado slots in the drawer slides are stronger than bottoms that are just nailed and/or glued to the bottom of the drawer box. Glue, small nails and staples are also used to fasten drawer parts together.
One of the benefits of MDF is that it can be routed and cut, similar to solid wood, with better results than particle board which is less dense and tends to chip. This feature allows MDF to be formed with a smooth finish to resemble raised-panel doors. The only drawback however is that unlike solid wood, MDF can't be stained (it has no grain) so it has to be painted or covered in thermofoil.
Slab doors don't have the separate parts like a framed door and are usually one-piece construction or the combination of several solid pieces of wood glued and joined together to form a solid slab. Slab doors made from plywood or MDF are covered in a veneer, laminate or thermofoil covering.
Shelf thickness varies based on cabinet manufacturer and the particular product line (often equating to the level of quality) within a certain brand. Shelf thickness ranges from 1/2" to 5/8" to 3/4" thick. Obviously thicker is better when it comes to longer shelves on wide cabinets in order to avoid sag.
The reinforcing rail is an additional strip of wood that's attached to the front edge of a shelf. It provides added rigidity which is especially helpful in avoiding sag, particularly on long shelves. It's a worthwhile feature if you can find it but it's not a prevalent feature on many manufactured cabinets.
I personally like the reinforcing strip feature for a couple of reasons. A) the engineer in me can relate because there's physical reasons why it makes the shelf more ridid...and B) I have them on my own kitchen cabinet shelves and they work well.
They work because (if they're made correctly) they're wider in one direction than the other. The widest surface is attached to the front of the shelf, giving it more stiffness. It's the same principle as trying to bend a ruler; it can easily be flexed in the 'flat' direction but very difficult if not impossible to bend in the same direction when the wide side is facing you.
The only problem I've found is that this feature is hard to find on mass-manufactured cabinets. You might be able to get a custom cabinet shop to do this for you however.
One variation of this stiffening feature is where the rail is attached to the underside of the shelf at about 1/2 depth.
One additional aspect about cabinet shelf construction lies not so much with the shelf itself but how it's held in the cabinet box and whether or not it's adjustable. Shelves are held in place with a variety of hardware that come in different sizes and materials (metal or plastic).
On wood cabinets the finish is just as important as how well the cabinets are constructed. The finish not only provides aesthetic appeal but is a key component in the protection of the underlying wood surface. It needs that protection from the moisture and chemicals that are typical in a kitchen.
(Keep in mind we're talking about wood cabinets here. Cabinets covered in laminate or melamine aren't coated with these types of finishes and surface treatments.)
The amount of material to explain the science behind the varnishes, lacquers and other cabinet surface treatments could fill a book but it's not necessary for a basic understanding of how a cabinet is put together. What we'll focus on here are some of the common finishes that you're apt to encounter in your cabinet research and their important features.
Wood cabinet finishing involves a number of steps that involve preparing the wood, applying the surface treatments and baking the finish. For an example of one large cabinet manufacturer's method, check out the KraftMaid Cabinetry finishing process. It's an example of the multiple steps that are taken in the cabinet finishing process.
Larger cabinet makers may have the resources and advanced production capabilities to produce consistent quality finishes. Smaller shops may not have the same capabilities. One of the things on your checklist when researching smaller cabinet shops should be their finishing process. Achieving a quality finish requires controlled conditions free from airborne dirt and dust. Some finishes require baking to cure. That's not to say that high-tech production facilities are the only way to achieve a quality finish. Just be sure you understand your cabinet maker's finishing capabilities and whether they'll produce a product that will hold up to the rigors of the kitchen environment.
One final point to remember is that the finish options you choose have a bearing on the final cost of your cabinets. Finishes that include hand-rubbed treatments or multi-step coating applications take time and ultimately raise the cost of the cabinets. Glazing can produce some nice effects but it's an additional step in the process. Ask yourself whether it's absolutely essential in your kitchen style. Otherwise you may be able to save some money on simpler finish treatments.
To learn more about choosing kitchen cabinets check out our Kitchen Cabinets page.
When you're ready to get new cabinets you have a couple of choices for getting them installed. You can do it yourself or have it done by a contractor or company that specializes in the installation of cabinetry.
Doing it yourself is certainly an option and you can find plenty of how-to books and guides on how to do it. Just keep in mind that you'll probably encounter walls that aren't square and you'll need to adjust for that as well as other issues that might come up during the installation process.
I got a renewed appreciation for some of the complexities of cabinet installation when we remodeled our kitchen. The installers were in our home for a couple of days. It was rather fascinating to watch them use laser levels and other tools to ensure the cabinets were installed properly and square. It was also clear to me that it's a two-person or more job, particularly when hanging wall cabinets. After that comes the task of installing the doors and drawers and making sure they're straight with consistent gaps.
My advice is this: if you're going to get new cabinets, leave the installation to the pros. They know what they're doing and they've done it many times. They'll be able to do a better job and do it faster than you probably can.
If you need to find a local cabinet professional there's an easy way to find sources in your area using the form below. It'll help you locate one or several potential candidates in your local area.