When it comes to kitchen cabinet construction, it is not rocket science and knowing all the details are not necessary. Although, it will be helpful to understand the basics about the different parts and how they are constructed to get the best results.
This will provide you with a better concept of the various levels associated with cabinet quality, along with what you can and cannot get with the different level of cost you come across.
A Look of What’s On This Page:
- Basic Elements & Styles
- Methods and Materials of Construction
- Parts Too Pay Attention To
- Cabinet Finishes
- Cabinet Installer Sources
Basic Elements & Styles
Frameless and Framed Constructions
The method used for constructing cabinets varies between manufacturers, but there are two basic design styles that they conform too. The design types or styles are referred to as frameless or framed. In addition, framed cabinets are sometimes referred to as face-frame cabinets, they can be referenced either way. When it comes to construction, there is not a large difference between the two styles. The difference is in the overall appearance and accessibility of the cabinet.
A framed cabinet implements a wood ‘frame’ that goes around the cabinet’s outer edge. Whereas, the frameless cabinet style does not have this outlined feature.
When visualizing the basic wooden box, there are many wood pieces that create the face-frame, which are fastened to the cabinet’s forward-edge and creating a ‘frame’ around the cabinet. Meanwhile, the outer edges of this frame will be flush with the cabinet’s outer surface, while the inside area of the frame will extend slightly further than the inner edges. The cabinet’s appearance receives a level of rigidity from a face frame, which assists with it remaining sturdy and holding shape.
Basic Framed Cabinet Structure Example
Typically, framed cabinets tend to be thought of as a traditional look which provides some variety in style, depending on the amount of door overlay. The term door overlay simply refers to the amount the cabinet door covers (overlay) the face-frame.
- Full-inset: This refers to drawers or doors which are constructed to it in the opening of the face frame.
- Partial-overlay: This refers to drawers or doors which only cover a portion of the face frame.
- Full-overlay: This refers to drawers or doors which fully cover the face frame.
Varied styles are available from different manufacturers, ranging in the amount of door-to-frame overlay.
Frameless Cabinet Construction
A frameless cabinet will offer the user a little more accessibility compared to a framed cabinet.
Frameless Cabinet Construction Example
The reason accessibility is higher with frameless cabinets is due to the inside edge not having a face-frame blocking a portion of the perimeter and hindering it from opening. In addition, the storage space available is higher with frameless constructed drawers compared to that of framed cabinets. This is due to the drawer box being larger for the cabinet size. Therefore, with framed cabinets the drawer size must be smaller to compensate the additional space of a face-frame.
A frameless cabinet design is frequently referred to being a “European” cabinet style. The cabinet doors are generally designed as a full-overlay allowing the doors to fully cover the front edges of the cabinet. However, some are designed with full-inset styles. When a full-inset is used, the cabinet’s edges are typically finished using a laminate or wood veneer, or another type of material so the raw edges are hidden.
So, you may be wondering what the main significance between the differences are. The answer, not much. The main difference is a minor difference in accessibility and style. Both framed and frameless styles will work well, they simply evolved from different design traditions.
Base, Wall and Tall Cabinets
There are other primary elements besides frameless and framed cabinet construction styles that you should know. These are the basic building blocks of cabinet construction:
Base cabinets: These cabinets are mounted to the floor and generally offer support for countertops. A kitchen island is another type of base cabinet which is available with a combination of base cabinets that are connected together or it can be custom made.
Wall cabinets: These type of cabinets, as implied by the name, are mounted to the wall and do not connect with the floor. Generally, these are positioned above stoves, ovens, and countertops.
Tall or pantry cabinets: These type of cabinets are designed to be taller base cabinets. They typically connect with the floor and can be attached with other base cabinets or free-standing.
Methods and Materials of Construction
The majority of people think about kitchen cabinet as being made from wood materials, and while that is true in many situations it is not the only type of ‘solid wood’ used. For instance, like lumber used for framing houses there are various types of materials available for cabinet construction. While some are wood-based, others are non-wood based.
Below is a list of the major cabinet materials:
Solid wood: This material, as implied by the term, is a solid wood option. The variation includes panels or boards of solid word pieces which are joined together.
Particle board: This is another common material which is created from wood particles and chips that get combined with adhesive. This fuses the particles together to create a panel or board. This material option is used for a large portion of cabinet construction on today’s market.
Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF): This material is also a type of engineered wood which is created from wood fibers. Fibers and adhesive get combined, then pressure is used to form the panels and boards. There is a finer texture compared to particle board, and MDF is heavier and denser. It is often used for cabinet boxes, doors and shelves.
Plywood: This material is also engineered from wood, and very popular for different purposes. The construction is created using thin wooden ‘plies’, which are wooden layers which are glued together similar to a sandwich. Typically, plies are constructed with the wood grain in different directions to provide a more rigid panel or board with stability. Plywood is commonly used for cabinet boxes, door and shelving.
Cabinet Door Material Tips
It is common to find plywood as an upgradable feature over practical board or MDF, with a corresponding up-charge. There are some manufactures which only offer plywood cabinet boxes with their high-end product line.
In addition, terms to be cautious about include ‘all wood’ or ‘solid wood’ when reading manufacturer descriptions. The term ‘solid wood’ should be representing a whole, uniformed lumber and not a wood composite or fabrication, such as MDF, particle board or plywood.
Whereas, ‘All Wood’ has a different meaning, typically referring to an al-plywood construction or a solid wood/plywood combination.
Therefore, when encountering these terms, it is important to be clear on the construction materials used truly being ‘solid wood’ or a plywood base to avoid surprises.
Stainless steel/metal: That’s right, stainless steel is used in the construction of cabinets. Although, it is less common than wood cabinets. There are entire cabinet designs that use stainless stell, including the doors, drawers and box. Certain manufacturers also produce stainless steel doors to be used on wood cabinets for a unique look.
Plastic laminate:Basically the same type of material used on laminate countertops, but with a thinner application when used for cabinets. It is a plastic based product that is produced from fusing plastic resin and paper together, then applying pressure and heat. A laminate is typically used to cover cabinet doors and/or boxes to offer a surface that is easier to clean.
Melamine: Also a plastic based product, melamine is another option to cover the surface of a cabinet. It is more popular for covering particle board pieces used for cabinet construction. For instance, you may find melamine combined with wood veneer covering particle board of a cabinet box. The outer surface of the particle board has wood veneer applied, while the melamine is applied to the inside surface.
Thermofoil: This is a thin vinyl film used in covering cabinet boxes, drawers and door fronts. Typically the vinyl begins as rigid film which gets headed and molded over a substrate material, for example a cabinet drawer constructed from MDF. The term ‘thermofoil cabinets’ may be encountered, which simply implies that the cabinet is covered with thermofoil material while the base material used for constructing the cabinet is generally an engineered wood material.
The process and methods used for assembling and constructing cabinets vary depending on the manufacturer and the quality paid for. Being an informed cabinet buyer does not require being a master carpenter, just the knowledge of common construction methods and terms that you are likely to encounter along the way, even by simply browsing the website or brochure of a cabinet maker.
The main factor to learn from this is the existence of a relationship between the cabinet’s durability and quality level and the type of construction used.
Below are terms which describe commonly used methods for wood cabinets are jointed together, also known as the “joinery”.
Dovetail joints: This method offers a strong joining of two boards at ideal angels, like drawers. The end of both panels or boards are notched and have V-shapes cut which mesh with the notches on the adjoining piece. When tightly positioned, they are considered to be very solid joints.
Mortise and Tenon: This type of joinery makes use of a square “post” which is fitted in a square cutout or hole within the adjoining piece. This joinery method could be used in fastening pieces of the cabinet face-frame.
Dado: These are the grooves cut out of a panel or board which the edges of another panel or board fits into. For example, the back and sides of a cabinet drawer, the dado allows the drawer edges to slide in. It provides a stronger approach to ‘capturing’ the drawer bottom compared to nailing or gluing the side panels and bottom edges.
Rabbet: This is the step or notch cut in a boards’ edge to allow the edge of another piece to fit in and create a 90-degree angle. Similar to the cut of a Dado, but one side is open.
Doweled joint: This method of joinery makes use of round wooden dowels, also referred to as pegs. They are placed halfway into drilled holes and glued on the end of one piece, and the protruding part of the dowel is fitted into the hole of the adjoining board and glued. This technique is used for joining cabinet boxes and drawers together.
Butt joint: With a butt joint, two ends of the chosen material are ‘butted’ with edges together. The joints are held together with some type of mechanical retention, such as glue, screws or nails.
Glue, screws, nails and staples: The use of these are not classified as being techniques for wood ‘joinery’, but they are used in many cabinet constructions. They can be used for reinforcing the true wood joinery technique, or used on their own. However, used alone in the assembly results in reduced stability of the cabinet.
Therefore, when it comes to cabinet construction joinery the strongest methods are the ones where a piece is captured within another piece or where pieces lock into each other. Whereas, using supplemental fastening techniques in addition to these joinery methods will increase stability, such as using screws with the Mortise and Tenon joinery.
Parts Too Pay Attention To
Cabinet Boxes and Face Frames
The cabinet box is typically constructed of MDF, particle board or plywood. It is uncommon for solid wood panels to be used in the construction of cabinet boxes other than the face frame. The panels using wood product tend to be covered in a plastic laminate/melamine combination, wood veneer or thermofoil.
Although stainless steel is used in cabinet construction, it is less common than wood. Using stainless steel provides cabinets with a more professional and novel appearance. Unlike wood, stainless steel will not expand and contract in a kitchen setting. However, a downside to stainless steel is the difficulty with fingerprints showing up easily.
Basically, a cabinet box is exactly that, a box. The main factor to understand is the different ways of reinforcing the cabinet box, ensuring it remains rigid. There is one technique that uses triangular braces to reinforce stability. They are created using MDF, particle board, solid wood, plywood or plastic. Alternatively, a “beam” brace is an option which runs from the front to the back of the cabinet box. These are located on the inside of the cabinet, often on the inner side panels or side to side on the back. This beam brace generally fits in the side panel dado.
The majority of cabinet drawers are constructed with the same materials used for the cabinet box, including MDF, particle board, plywood or solid wood. It is more common for high-end cabinet drawers to be designed with solid wood option to withstand frequent use. Whereas, on stainless steel cabinets the drawers are also constructed of stainless steel. Although, there are manufacturers that offer the option of metal drawers on wood cabinet products. The drawers will have an epoxy coating.
The drawer front, which is the section that is visible when closed, tends to be constructed with solid wood or MDF which is covered in thermofoil or painted.
The longevity and durability of a drawer depends on the construction method used. A drawer box is created using a front and back panel, and two side panels attached to a bottom panel. It is common to find a separate front piece attached to the front panel of the drawer box, but there are designs where the front panel and drawer front are one piece.
There are many ways that the parts of a drawer box can be put together. A dovetail joint provides a tight grip, and has the strongest connection in the corners, making it an ideal method. Doweled joints are another common method that has dowels installed on one side of the drawer box, fitting into holes of the other side to complete the joinery.
For the drawer bottom, having a dado slot that the drawer slides in will provide more strength compared to drawer bottoms that are glued and/or nailed to the drawer box. In addition to joinery methods, nails, glue or staples may be used to provide additional stability.
Cabinet doors are generally made from an engineered wood (plywood, particle board, MDF), or solid wood unless they are stainless steel. If an engineered wood is used, the doors will have a cover of thermofoil, wood veneer or laminate.
An advantage that MDF provides is that it allows routing and cutting, similar to that of solid wood to provide higher quality results compared to particle board as it has less density and chips easier. Therefore, MDF can produce a smooth finish that resembles a raised-panel door. However, MDF is unable to be stained like solid wood because it does not have a grain, meaning it has to be covered in thermofoil or painted.
Cabinet doors have two basic construction types: framed or slab. A framed door is designed with an outer frame constructed around the center door panel. The panel edges are fitted in slots that were milled on the inner edges of the frame, allowing it to ‘float’ in the frame to enable the natural contraction and expansion process of wood. With framed door styles, the raised panel door is very common.
Whereas, slab door styles generally have a single piece construction or uses several solid wood pieces combined with wood glue to create a solid slab. A slab door is typically created with MDF or plywood and covered with thermofoil, wood veneer or laminate.
Engineered wood options are used for creating cabinet shelves. Particle board is popular, but higher end cabinets typically use MDF or plywood. No matter which material is used, all options are usually covered with laminate or wood veneer.
When it comes to the shelving of a cabinet, there is not much to it other than the thickness and if it is designed to reinforce the railing. Otherwise, shelves are simply straight boards constructed from one of the material options above.
The thickness of a shelf will vary depending on the manufacture and the product line and brand it was designed for, which generally relates to the quality level. The thickness can range between ½-inch to 5/8-inch to ¾-inch. Of course, when it comes to longer shelves the thicker boards will be more stable, and reduce sag.
The reinforcing rails are additional wood strips attached to a shelf’s front edge. This offers additional rigidity to the shelf and aids in reducing sag, especially on longer shelving. Although it is not standard for many cabinet manufacturers, if it is an available option it adds more durability and stability.
The finish on a wood cabinet is another important area to focus on. Although visually it enhances the appearance, it also acts as a key element for protecting the wood surface. The type of finish determines how much protection the wood material has against chemicals and moisture commonly found in the kitchen.
Note: This section is focusing on wood cabinets only. Cabinet designs that have a melamine or laminate covering do not get coated with these types of surface treatments and finishes.
Although the science behind applying lacquers, varnishes, and other types of cabinet finishes and surface treatments could take an entire book, it is not required for basic knowledge needed to purchase a cabinet. The areas this section will focus on includes common finishes that you are likely to encounter when researching cabinets, and explains their use.
Paint, Finishes, & Stains
Below is the most common type of finishes when searching for kitchen cabinets:
Paint: This provides the advantage of having an endless choice of colors to choose from. It does not limit you to a pallet range of brown shades or earth tones like that of wood stain.
Alternatively, “Milk Paint” is another option available than the standard enamel paints used with cabinets. This paint is organic-based, created from lime, milk proteins, and natural pigments. The ‘recipe’ is basic and has existed for hundreds of years. The benefit of this option is the strength and durability of resisting water. It will adhere to wood well, and has a unique decorative appearance. It resembles the paint texture on period and antique furniture.
Wood stain: This option provides a color treatment to the wood surface, altering its natural color and enables transparency so the natural wood grain is visible. For protection, wood stain also requires a sealer be applied.
Varnish: This finish combines resin and oil used as a protective layer on wood and other types of surfaces. Varnish is similar to wood stain as it alters the wood.
Another common term associated with finishes includes “catalyzed varnish”, which sounds technical (and it can be). It simply describes a form of finish which makes use of a ‘catalyst’ to increase the speed or cause a certain reaction based on the chemicals within the finish. It is typically used for obtaining a certain result and combines compounds to make the protection more durable.
Lacquer: This top-coat protecting sealer is used in multiple situations, from cabinets to furniture. It is formed by dissolving resin within a solvent, and like varnish it can be catalyzed as well. You may find reference to “catalyzed lacquer” within different cabinet descriptions.
Glaze: A glazed finish offers a pigmented appearance with a semi-transparent or transparent layer that is applied to the base coat of stain or paint. Basically, glaze provides an enhanced look for the cabinet as it highlights the base color and detail of the surface. In addition, when applied and wiped off by hand, glaze may be used in door corners to offer more highlights and enhance the look.
The Finishing Process
The process of finishing a cabinet varies based on the type of finish and the capabilities of the individual cabinet maker. A larger cabinet manufacturer for example, could have facilities capable of more sophisticated processes for applying a finish, where a small cabinet shop may use a simple approach or outsource the entire process to a business that specializes in finishes.
There are many steps involved with wood cabinet finishing, from preparing wood, applying the finish or treatment, and the baking process. For instance, look at The Door Stop finish process (a large cabinet manufacturer). You will find there are many steps throughout their entire finishing process.
A large cabinet manufacturer might have more advanced production and resource abilities for producing finishes with a consistent quality level. Whereas, smaller cabinet makers might not be able to have these abilities. The finishing process should be one of the areas you inspect when shopping at small cabinet shops. To achieve a quality finish, there are requirements, such as controlled environment conditions, no airborne particles such as dust or dirt. There are finishes which require a baking process for curing. Although, a high-tech facility is not the only place that is able to provide a quality finish. Just ensure the cabinet makers finishing process is understood to determine if the finish quality will withstand a kitchen environment.
Finally, the overall cost will be impacted by the finish option used on the cabinets. For instance, a finish which requires mltple steps and applications, or hand-rubbed treatments take longer to achieve and increase the cabinet cost. Glazing is able to prodce decent appearance, but there are extra steps involved with the process as well. You should consider if the kitchen style is a must have feature, or if a simple finish at a lower cost is sufficient.
Cabinet Installer Sources
There are a couple available options when you are wanting to purchase new cabinets and have them installed. You may choose to do it yourself, or have it professionally installed by a company or contractor that has specialized experience with cabinetry installation.
Installing the cabinets, yourself is a money saving options, with various how-to guides being available online. Although, you should consider the chance of encountering walls that are not square that require adjusting or other issues that could arise through the installation.
Getting Your Cabinets Installed
When remodeling my kitchen, I obtained the appreciation and knowledge of some of the complex issues associated with cabinet installation. We had cabinet installers in our home for a few days, which was actually interesting to watch as they worked. They used laser levels, among other tools for ensuring the installed cabinets were properly balanced and square. It was clearly a job for at least two people, if not more depending on the project size. Especially when it came to hanging cabinets. Once cabinet were installed, the task of installing all of the drawers and doors had to be completed while ensuring consistent gaps were achieved and door were straight.
Professional Cabinet Installation
My final thoughts and advice is, if you plan to purchase new cabinets you should leave installation to the professionals if you do not have in-depth cabinetry experience. The pros know exactly what they are doing, and do it on a regular basis. Not only will they be able to provide a higher quality installation, they will likely get it done much quicker than self-installing them.
Buying Cabinet Doors Online
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