A Buyer's Guide to Quality Kitchen Cabinets

Cabinets are the key purchase in any kitchen remodeling project. They not only determine the look and efficiency of your kitchen, they normally account for the biggest part of the bill. The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) calculates that 52 percent of the cost of kitchens designed by its members goes to cabinets. At the very least, you'll spend one-quarter of your budget on them.

The base and wall cabinets for a 10 × 10-ft., L-shaped kitchen can range from less than $1,000 for ready-to-assemble (RTA) units to $20,000 or more for high-end custom cabinets.

JUDGING QUALITY
Like price, quality also varies widely. Although there is generally a link between the two, if you have a critical eye you can find excellent values in moderately priced cabinets. In addition to knowing what to look for, you'll need to figure out your budget and the style and features you want most.

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Differences in corner gusset reinforcement thickness and reach

This is where things get tough, because quality isn't just a matter of how well something will function. It also involves aesthetic issues — appearance standards and craftsmanship — which are subjective.

The key to untangling these issues is to look closely at lots of cabinets. Although it's tempting to concentrate on the style differences of doors and drawers, it's in the casework, hardware and the finishes where quality differences show up. Refer to the table on page 40 if you aren't sure where something fits in the range of quality.

Start your appraisal of a cabinet line by asking the salesperson to photocopy the manufacturer's construction specifications in his dealer's book. It will tell you about materials and methods you can't see.

CASE CONSTRUCTION
There are two basic kinds of cabinet construction: framed and frameless . Choosing between the two is really a matter of personal taste, but each is judged by slightly different criteria.
Three-quarter-in. hardwood face frames can be joined with pocket screws, dowels or mortise-and-tenon joints. The mortise-and-tenon is the strongest and best known for quality, but all are durable if well crafted.

The cases of framed cabinets are typically made of particleboard or plywood (or both) ranging from 3/8 to ¾ in. thick. Back panels will run as thin as 1/8-in. hardboard.

Most have cross rails (stretchers) or corner braces to keep them square and rigid. Cabinets with thin backs will also have hanger rails at the top and bottom of wall cabinets and the top of base units.
Shelf thickness is another indication of quality: ½ in. is minimum, 5/8 and ¾ in. are better.

The specifications you get from the dealer should cover how the case is constructed. If they don't, ask. Dado joints (grooves) where panels (sides, bottoms, tops and hanger rails) intersect make a much stronger case than butt joints that are glued and stapled. Face frames should be machined to accept the side panels; better cabinets use a stepped or interlocking joint that will take a lot of stress and still look seamless.

Frameless cabinets should be doweled together. They rely more heavily on the structural components of the case, particularly the back, for rigidity. Look for at least 5/8-in.-particleboard sides, tops, bottoms and shelves. Back panels should be 3/8 in. or thicker.

Materials
PLYWOOD VS. PARTICLEBOARD
Most low- and mid-priced cabinets use particleboard because it's less expensive. Semicustom and custom manufacturers sensitive to the poor reputation of particleboard, allow you to specify plywood end panels. Some use plywood exclusively, marketing themselves as “all wood cabinets.”

Critics of particleboard argue that it isn't as strong as plywood, doesn't hold staples and screws as well and swells when it gets wet. Plywood does have the edge in these areas, although it's susceptible to warping. However, the particleboard used in most cabinets — 45 lbs. commercial grade — is far superior to what you see in a home center. It's the best substrate for laminated materials, and is even used on very high-end, frameless cabinets. The decision comes down to a wrestling match between cost and performance.


INTERIORS
Vinyl, often with a woodgrain pattern, is frequently used to finish the inner surfaces of lower-end cabinets. The surface should be absolutely smooth and regular. Edges should be banded with more durable PVC in matching colors.

Melamine, made from a single layer of colored paper impregnated with Melamine resin, is more durable. Typically white or almond, it's a common interior finish in mid-and upper-range cabinets. Melamine is also sometimes used as an exterior finish on lower- and mid-priced units. Frameless cabinet edges should be banded with matching PVC trim to keep the Melamine from chipping.

Higher priced cabinets use hardwood plywood that creates a wood veneer interior. Make sure the veneer is in good shape and well-sealed against staining and moisture.

EXTERIOR FINISHES
Cabinets can be finished with paint or stain, or laminated with vinyl foil, Melamine or high-pressure plastic laminate (in order of durability).

Painted finishes can vary a lot in quality, and are vulnerable in two ways: Paint chips easily, and it is often too brittle to survive the seasonal movement of wood that occurs with wide swings in humidity. This produces the cracks you often see on older cabinet doors between stiles and rails, and frames and their panels.

In the thermofoil process, a very thin vinyl (PVC) film is laminated to medium density fiberboard (MDF). It produces a crisp, seamless, low-maintenance surface. Since the foil will conform to a profile routed in the door face, it creates an inexpensive door with a traditional panel look.

Melamine is thicker, but requires a flat door made of particleboard or MDF. The Melamine resin produces a hard surface, but it's vulnerable to chipping because it's thin. Edges should be banded with PVC.
High-quality plastic laminate cabinets use a slightly thinner version of the same material that's on your countertop: high-pressure laminate. It's composed of 20 or more layers of resin and paper, and is very durable. Check door and drawer edges for any irregularities or delamination, and inspect faces for scratches.
Wood cabinets are by far the most popular. Even modest cabinet lines use face frames, drawer fronts and door frames of solid wood. The door panels themselves may be solid wood or wood veneer, depending on price.

Drawer jointDRAWER OPTIONS
Drawers are great for assessing overall cabinet quality. The basic requirements for a durable drawer are a four-sided box (not including the finished drawer face) with a bottom that fits into dadoes in the drawer sides. Upgrades include solid hardwood sides, plywood bottoms, and stronger (and more visible) joinery.
Drawer slides are also very important. With the exception of older-style center-mounted hardware, most are up to the task. A typical stock cabinet slide is made of epoxy-coated steel with nylon rollers and is side mounted. Most are three-quarter extension, and many are self-closing.

Operation should be silent without much play from side-to-side when the drawer is fully extended. Also press down firmly on the drawer bottom. There shouldn't be much give. Drawers are rated for load: 50 lbs. is the bare minimum; most are 75 to 150 lbs.

DOORS AND HARDWARE
True frame-and-panel doors use a separate panel surrounded by a hardwood frame. This panel can be flat, or relieved around the edges to form a raised panel. On low- and mid-range cabinets the panel is veneered MDF or particle-board. Better doors are fitted with wood panels made of edge-glued pieces of solid wood. This panel isn't glued or fastened; it floats in the frame to allow for seasonal movement. There shouldn't be gaps or color changes where they meet.

How well the doors are installed on the cabinet is an excellent indicator of overall quality. First check alignment. Full-overlay doors should be consistently spaced from other doors, and together form a single, flat plane.

Doors should open and close smoothly without squeaking, and they should never feel loose. Take a close look at the hinges — there are vast differences in quality. The best hinges are all steel with a decorative finish. They will be one of three types: cup, knife or barrel.

Cup or concealed hinges were developed for frameless cabinets in Europe and aren't visible with the door closed. They've been adapted for framed cabinets and come in a variety of qualities. Check to see how far they open; the range is from 93 to 175 degrees. Also check to see if they're adjustable. The best adjust six ways — important for full-overlay doors.

Knife hinges are used on some semicustom and custom doors. A small pivot point shows when the door is closed. Barrel hinges are the traditional exposed hinges with meshing cylinders. Inexpensive barrel hinges screw to the exposed area of the face frame. Look for the better quality version that wraps around the edge of the face frame and allows for vertical adjustment.

If you're looking at stock cabinets, you'll have a choice of several dozen decorative pulls. Make sure they allow enough clearance from the cabinet front to allow easy grasp. If not, you'll end up with excessive wear on the cabinet where fingernails make contact.

JUDGING FINISHES
Both stock and custom manufacturers machine-sand doors, drawers and frames. Better cabinets are hand-sanded afterward to rid them of cross-sanding marks. The absence of these scratches is a sign of good overall quality.

Fine finishes have a rich luster and depth like furniture. They feel satiny to the touch. Even modest cabinets will boast a three-step finish, but premium finishes require many coats with a lot of hand sanding in between.

The clear finishes of choice for most manufactured cabinets are catalytic varnishes and lacquers. Aided by heat, they cure quickly and produce a dust-free finish that is durable and relatively stain- and moisture-resistant.

The quality of painted cabinets depends largely on the care taken, the number of coats, and the durability of the top sealer. The most durable solid color finishes are found on expensive European imports. They are built up from many thin coats of pigmented lacquer or polyester. Polyester is the harder finish of the two. Both are typically applied to MDF doors in plain styles. Look carefully at any finish to make sure it is glass-smooth with no ripples or contamination.

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