High quality kitchen cabinets should look stunning and provide functional, easy-to-use storage at least twenty or thirty years. But many people have cabinet problems much sooner than this. Problems such as, crooked doors, sagging, deteriorating drawers, scratched and dented faces, loose hinges, and warping boxes. These problems occur because of low-quality cabinet construction.
Not only do low-quality cabinets lead to functional and aesthetic issues for homeowners, they also create higher-than-expected costs in installation and maintenance. In order to shop smart and avoid problems down the road, look for the following characteristics of well-built, high-quality cabinets.
1. All-plywood Construction
Cabinet boxes are typically made of all-plywood construction or particleboard. The strongest cabinets have full plywood sides and backs to stay square during delivery and installation, handle the weight of heavy countertops, and resist damage from moisture. Particleboard is a less expensive alternative. It is vulnerable to damage from moisture and crushing, as well as difficult-to-repair blow-outs at screws and joints.
Illustrations of all plywood construction and particleboard construction
All-plywood construction (APC)
Plywood has more holding power with screws, fasteners and glue than particleboard does. Plywood is made with layers of wood running both lengthwise and crosswise in a way that makes plywood stronger. It has a much higher tolerance for moisture than particleboard does, which is a key feature to consider around areas with sinks, faucets and running water. Plywood will bear weight over long periods of time, and is also much more resilient to damage such as blow-outs, dings and dents.
There are many names for particleboard: medium density fiberboard (MDF), engineered wood, hardboard, substrate, furniture board, etc. However you call it, particleboard is made by pressing wood particles together at high temperature with glue. It doesn’t typically expand or contract as the climate becomes warmer or colder, but is more susceptible to damage caused by collision or moisture. The particles are heavy and do not have the same per-square-foot strength of plywood. Sagging cabinet shelves are often a sign of deteriorating particleboard construction.
2. Full-height Back Panels
Cabinet back construction affects strength and ease of installation. The strongest cabinet construction uses heavy (3/8-inch or more) plywood for full-height back panels. Less expensive methods use thin panels, metal hang rails and brackets, rails, and picture-frame construction. Weak back panels can result in falling cabinets. Choose plywood back construction to keep cabinets strong and true in your kitchen.
The strongest cabinet construction uses a heavy (3/8-inch or more), full-plywood, full-back panel. This panel allows the cabinet to be directly attached to the studs of the wall at any point on the cabinet back. Since the strength of the plywood extends from top to bottom and side to side, there is no need for hanging rails. If a cut need be made to accommodate wiring or plumbing, the back generally will retain its integrity without additional reinforcements.
3. Soft-close Hinges
Cabinet hinges are one of the most important components of a kitchen cabinet – you can’t open and close a door without them. Poor hinges can cause stiff, loose, or uneven doors, as well as doors that won’t close. Soft-close hinges are adjustable and eliminate the sound of slamming doors and drawers.
A quality cabinet hinge has a soft close mechanism built into the nickel plated, hardened steel hinge. The hinge should be adjustable six ways: in-out, up-down and left-right so that the hinges can be adjusted when cabinet doors expand and contract during seasonal changes.
There are thousands of hinges available to cabinet manufacturers. Be wary of cabinet manufacturers that use low end hinges that only provide four-way adjustability, or who don’t back their product with a warranty.
4. Undermount, Soft-close Drawer Glides
High-quality drawer glides (slides) are critical to supporting the smooth and silent movement of your cabinet drawers over years of hard use. The more weight your drawers carry, the more important undermount, soft-close drawer glides are. Weak glides could lead to sagging, loose, or stick cabinet drawers.
Undermount, steel, soft-close drawer glides should extend to provide full access to the entire drawer. Ball bearings and steel guides provide smooth operation and long wear. Mounted beneath the drawer box, the glides should be rated to support a heavy load: at least 90 pounds. Adjustable glides with a soft-close (anti-slam) dampening system will be almost silent when opening and closing the drawer.
There are hundreds of drawer-glide systems and mechanisms used by cabinet manufacturers. A common construction uses epoxy-coated metal with plastic rollers. These materials are subject to wear. Center-mount and side-mount glides rarely provide full access. Instead, about 25 percent of the drawer remains inside the cabinet, making it difficult to reach the back of the drawer. Side-mounted glides reduce the width of the drawer, thus reducing storage space.
Side-mount glides are never soft close. At the bottom of the quality scale is a single center-mounted wooden or metal glide sliding through a plastic brace on the cabinet.
5. Hardwood Dovetail Drawer Boxes
If your drawers are bending and bowing, or the front faces are falling off, then you should consider a higher quality drawer box. The drawer boxes and joints are among the first things to fall apart in low-end kitchen cabinetry. Lesser quality construction, usually secured with staples and notched butt joints, do not have the strength of hardwood dovetail drawer boxes. Dovetail drawers have sides that are milled to include interlocking teeth.
Solid hardwood drawer boxes with dovetail joints and heavy plywood bottoms set the standard for quality American cabinetry. Their long-lasting durability and the beauty of the joint are outstanding. A high-quality hardwood drawer box will have sides of 5/8-inch or thicker solid maple or birch. The sides meet at dovetail joints, where the strength of the joint comes from the wood itself. A strong plywood drawer bottom, fully captured on four sides in dado (grooved) joints, is glued and nailed in place.
A wide range of materials and construction methods are used for cabinet drawers. Particleboard, plywood, metal and plastic are common materials. Construction methods vary greatly. Lesser quality drawer boxes use butt or rabbet (notched) joints secured with staples to hold the sides together. These may have particleboard drawer bottoms.
6. I-beam Construction
I-beam construction secures into the upper sides of base cabinets provide long-term strength and keep cabinets square during shipping and installation. Less expensive alternatives to integrated I-beams include triangular corner gussets and braces. Since gussets and braces are stapled to the cabinet sides, they add no strength to the cabinet. Over time, especially if affected by moisture, these cabinets have a higher chance of warping and bending.
I-beams are ½-inch stretchers used in base cabinet construction. I-beams are locked and secured in a dado joint, capturing all four sides of the cabinet to secure and provide the cabinet with long-term strength, keeping the box square and true during shipping and installation.
Corner gussets and braces are usually made from plastic, but sometimes wood or metal. These corner pieces are usually stapled to each corner to keep the cabinet square, but sometimes glue, screws, or nails are used. Integrated larger gussets can be more effective because they support larger sections of the cabinet sides.
7. Melamine Interior
The inside of your kitchen cabinet, including shelves, should be non-porous, wipe-clean, and tough enough to last the life of the cabinets without staining, bubbling, or showing wear. Light-colored melamine interiors make it easier to see the contents of the cabinet. Interior surface materials include melamine, a smooth and tough laminate applied to plywood, particleboard, and wood veneers.
Melamine is durable, fire resistant, impervious to water, stain resistant, and can be safely cleaned with strong household solutions. As a shelf or cabinet lining, it wipes clean easily. Melamine is also used in whiteboards, floor tiles, countertops, and dishware. In cabinets, it is typically finished in a light birch color, providing a bright, neutral appearance and helping illuminate the cabinet interior.
Wood is naturally rough and porous. A stained wood veneer interior or shelf surface will absorb moisture and stains and trap soil in the grain of the wood. The finish will not tolerate strong cleaning solutions. Wood veneer will become damaged by residual moisture from dishwashers, excessive humidity, greasy cooking fumes, and dirt or food particles that collect in the porous surface of the wood.
8. Cabinet Face Frames
A framed cabinet has a solid hardwood frame attached to the front of the cabinet box. Door hinges and drawer glides are attached to the cabinet face frame. In a frameless cabinet, doors are attached directly to the cabinet box sides. The two methods of construction are significantly different in appearance and depending on the construction methods, can vary widely in strength and stability. Installation costs are typically higher for frameless cabinets.
The face frame provides a solid, hardwood base for hinges and draw glides. Furthermore, the face frame provides stability to help keep the cabinet box square during shipping and installation. There are three styles of framed cabinetry, referred to by the amount of frame revealed: partial overlay, full overlay and inset.
Frameless, also known as European-style, cabinets have no frame on the front of the cabinet box. Frameless cabinets are full overlay, revealing approximately 1/8-inch around drawer fronts and cabinet doors. The side panels are thicker than in a framed cabinet, allowing drawer glides and door hinges to be attached directly to the cabinet side walls. The installation of frameless cabinets must be very precise and the install area must be perfectly level and plumb since even tiny misplacements will be perceivable. Therefore, some installers will charge more to install frameless than framed cabinets.
9. Fully Assembled in the Factory
Quality cabinets are fully assembled in the factory. They are then boxed and shipped ready to install. Ready-to-assemble (RTA) cabinets are designed to be assembled by a homeowner or contractor. The differences to the consumer include price, convenience, and construction strength.
Cabinets designed to be fully assembled in the factory are stronger and more durable. Factory construction methods join wood parts using dovetail joints, hot and cold glue, power fasteners and other industrial techniques. In this wood-to-wood construction, the pieces bond on a microscopic level that increases the strength of the cabinet. A cabinet is built, packed and shipped as a unit, doors and drawers intact, ready to be installed.
RTA cabinets ship in parts (cabinet, face frame, drawers, drawer glides, inserts, doors, and hardware) and are designed to be assembled at the construction site. RTA cabinets are generally less expensive but their assembly can take significant time. Because of the limitations of home assembly methods, RTA cabinets generally are not as strong or durable as those assembled in a factory.
10. Custom Modifications
Cabinets with custom modifications provide many choices of sizes, styles, and specialty features, tailored to the unique needs and space of your kitchen. Many homeowners find that stock manufacturers offer too few styles and sizes, but fully custom cabinet manufactures cost too much. There is a middle ground: semi-custom cabinets with modifications.
Semi-custom cabinets with modifications provide a wide range of sizes, styles, and specialty cabinets at a reasonable price. The manufacturer builds each kitchen as a custom project, saving on production costs by starting with a basic cabinet line. Modifications allow a high degree of customization, but that cost is restricted to specific cabinet units.
Modifications include one-inch incremental adjustments in cabinet box sizes, finished interiors, beadboard ends or interiors, glass-ready open-front or mullion doors. In addition to storage units, angled end cabinets, and non-conventional uses of standard cabinet boxes. With those options, an experienced kitchen designer can provide you a high degree of personalization.
11. Lifetime Warranty and Industry Certification
While the warranty might not tell you about the quality of the cabinet, it gives you a clue about how far the manufacturer will stand behind their product. If they assure a lifetime warranty and have industry certifications, it implies that their cabinet quality is higher. If they provide no warranty… well, you can decide for yourself what that means.
Poor quality cabinetry will often begin to break down after 5 to 10 years of use. By that time, their warranties may have expired. Given that kitchen cabinets are one of the most expensive items you will ever purchase for your home, a lifetime warranty can be the assurance you need. Your cabinets will serve you for the entire period you reside in your home.
Lifetime limited warranty
A lifetime limited warranty is an assurance that the manufacturer will guarantee the operation of cabinetry for as long as the original purchaser owns the product. This warranty is typically limited to repair or replacement.
Short-term or no warranty
A large percentage of manufacturers only offer one-, five-, or ten-year limited warranties, while others offer no warranty at all. Be cautious if considering cabinets with no or very limited warranties. If the cabinets fail, there is no recourse for the consumer.