Here are some snapshots of a dresser we are doing for a full house project. Every cabinet box, door, and drawer is made of solid oak lumber that has been reclaimed.
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Cabinet Styles and Construction
The look and function of even high quality cabinets can be ruined if they are not installed properly.Cabinets that are out of square, not level, or with improperly aligned doors or drawers can cause binding, rubbing and breakage.Frameless and inset styles have more precise margins and require more time and a higher level of skill to install properly. A good installation is tightly scribed to the walls and floor with no gaps and fillers. Doors should have even reveals and swing freely. Drawers should function smoothly. There should be no dings or mars in the finish. Installers should clean up the job site and seal off other areas of the house from dust.
Are the cabinets being installed by an employee or a subcontractor? Subcontractors work on fixed bids and may be more inclined to cut corners or be less experienced on the type of cabinetry they are asked to install. This is not always the case, but something to be aware of.
Ask about service policies in case something needs work a few years down the road. Check references to make sure the company stands behind its products.
It is good to be aware that the terms “custom” or “semi-custom” denote the availability of options, not the level of quality. There are high quality semi-custom lines and poor quality custom shops. Here are some ideas on what to look for in determining cost and quality level. Faceframes:
Material: Are they ¾” solid wood frames? Does the wood grain and color match across the fronts?
Fastening: Are there pin nails showing or is the fastening invisible?
Inset door frames: Are the frames square with consistent margins around the doors? Any gaps or binding? What do the doors close against? A more elegant solution to bulky blocks or pins to stop the doors is to raise the cabinet box bottom slightly to provide an even door stop.
Box material: From low cost to higher would be hardboard, particle board, melamine, then plywood. Each of these materials come in grade levels as well. Melamine is graded from 100 to 180 depending on the thickness of the coating. A thicker grade will wear better.
Thickness: Thicker is generally more durable than thinner. Check if the box has a full back and top. Some only have hang strips in the back. Sides can range from 3/8” to ¾”.
Shelves: Thicker is better to avoid sagging. Longer shelves should have center support or a solid wood edge for rigidity. Are the base cabinet box shelves full depth or held short giving you less storage? Are the shelves easily adjustable to accommodate the items you need to store? Are the brackets holding the shelves unobtrusive or large metal standards that detract from the appearance and protrude into the space?
Joint Construction: Drawer boxes work hard and take more of a beating than some other cabinet components. Dovetails joints are the most durable provided they are tight. Other common methods are screwed or doweled.
Material: Solid wood combined with good joinery provides the strongest drawer box. Ask, if you can’t tell if it is solid wood or plywood. Also check the type of wood as hard maple is more durable than soft maple or birch. Melamine is a lower cost alternative, but has the feature of easy cleaning and if built well can also be a very durable drawer.
Bottom: Thicker bottoms are better than thinner as it holds the weight of the contents. Check if the bottom of the drawer is butt jointed or has a dado to make it more secure. Stapling or gluing drawer bottoms without a dado is much less durable.
Depth: Are the drawers full depth? Some manufacturers make drawers only ¾ the depth of the box. This causes you to lose a lot of valuable storage space.
Slides: Steel ball bearings and metal attachment fittings are more durable than plastic or nylon. Slides are rated for load. Ask the load rating and make sure larger drawers, pullout trash units and rollouts for heavy pots and pans are heavy duty. They can range from 75 to 150 lbs.
Mounting: Undermount slides allow for a cleaner look than ones mounted on the side. Check how easy it is to remove and replace the drawer for cleaning.
Extension: Does the drawer pull all the way out allowing maximum access? Slides can be ¾ , full extension or over travel.
Soft close: This is s convenient feature which causes the drawer to close itself once it is pushed past a certain point. This avoids slamming or hanging open.
Door construction: Look for tight joints in paneled doors as well as no sign of warping or twisting. Check the thickness of the center panel. Mitered versus butt joints are a visual choice rather than a quality one.
Materials: There is an enormous variety of woods available for cabinetry. This is another topic in itself. The wood species generally affects price more than quality. Just beware of thinking that “solid wood” is always better as it is not. Wood can warp, expand and contract making it unsuitable for some applications.
Wood Color and Grain: Wood is a natural product which comes in a variety of colors and grain patterns within each species. Lumber that is hand selected for consistent color and grain raises the cost of cabinetry, but provides a look that randomly selected ”factory” doors just can’t match. Veneers can also be laid out so that the grain pattern flows from one door and drawer to another as opposed to having mismatched graining on each piece. Hand selection will not eliminate all variation, as wood is not like plastic, but done properly it can create a much more elegant look.
Finish: Aside from visual considerations, finishes vary considerably in durability. Look for industrial coating grade finishes with catalyzed hardeners and UV protectors for the best durability and color protection. This is true for both clear and “painted” finishes. Conversion varnishes are a step up from a catalyzed lacquer. The surface should be smooth without bubbles, runs, or other visual defects. Special processes like glazing and distressing can vary widely depending on the skill of the finishers.
Hinges: The most popular are hidden “soft close” hinges. This mechanism stops the door from slamming, but also keeps the door closed all the way so it doesn’t hang open. Exposed hinges are seldom used in quality cabinetry except when an authentic vintage look is desired.
Part 3 : Cabinet Box Construction Methods
The important thing about cabinet construction methods 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.
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.
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.
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, dowels or glue holds this joint together.
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 makes an even stronger connection. Stronger joints equate to more durable cabinets.
Part 2: Cabinetry Materials
Here's a list of the primary cabinet materials:
Solid wood - just as the term implies, it's solid wood, all the way through. The only variation might be boards or panels that are several pieces of solid wood joined together. Solid wood is used in doors and parts. It is not suitable for box construction because of expansion, contraction and warping caused by temperature and humidity changes.
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. This is an inexpensive box material.
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. MDF provides a very stable base for painted finishes in doors and paneled parts.
Veneered MDF- MDF that is covered with a wood veneer like maple or cherry for finished exterior parts.
Melamine - It's a plastic based material for covering particle board panels that are used in making cabinet boxes.It is popular because of its durability and ease of cleaning. Melamines come in different grades. Thermo-fused provides better durability.
Plywood - 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 considered the premium option for cabinet boxes.
Cabinetry is a moving, functioning product that needs to be well built to maintain its beauty and functionality. It lives in tough environments like the bath, laundry and kitchen with spills, grease, hot, cold, kids and pets. It carries a lot of weight, opens and closes, slides and swings. How do you know you are getting a product that will add value to your home for years to come? This is a five part series on Cabinetry Styles, Materials, Construction Methods, Quality and Installation. We will cover basic terminology you will encounter when shopping for cabinets and well as what to look for to determine if you are getting a quality product. We are sticking to wood cabinets for the purpose of comparison here.
Part 1 : CABINET CONSTRUCTION STYLES
There are two types of cabinetry styles: face framed and frameless. In the past, most cabinets were constructed with a face-framed approach but both applications now offer endless styles and design. Stock, semi-custom and custom cabinet designs are available in both framed and frameless construction. The main difference is how they look and the accessibility you have to the inside of the cabinet.
Framed cabinets incorporate a wood 'frame' around the front outer edge of the cabinet box. The face frame is made up of a 1.5-inch to 2-inch frame of wood that is fastened to the forward edge of the cabinet, framing the box. The outside edges of the frame are flush with the outside surfaces of the cabinet box and the inside portion of the frame extends past the inside edges of the box. The cabinet door is attached to the frame's side.
Framed cabinet construction is generally considered more traditional looking and offers some style variety based on the amount of door overlay. Door overlay means the extent to which the door covers or "lays-over" the face frame.
- Partial-overlay : the doors and drawers cover only part of the frame.
- Flush-inset : the doors and drawers are made to fit within the face frame opening.
- Beaded inset: the frame has “beaded” molding detail inside the frame openings.
- Full-overlay: the doors and drawers completely cover the frame
In frameless construction (also known as euro), there's no face frame and the cabinet doors attach directly to the sides of the cabinet box. Doors typically cover the entire box, which is called a full-overlay. Because they don't require a frame, frameless cabinets feature better access, allowing maximum use of space. This is because there's no inside edge of a frame that's partially blocking the perimeter of the cabinet opening. This also allows cabinets and drawers to be slightly larger than those constructed with face frames.
Frameless construction gives a more contemporary “clean” look. Modified frameless uses vertical fillers to give an inset look. Having no horizontal rails between drawers and doors provides greater capacity than true inset particularly in drawer banks. A frameless drawer box can provide up to 50% additional usable space.