Sandra Brannock, Expert Kitchen Designs, Northern VirginiaKitchen cabinetry usually accounts for a significant portion of any kitchen remodeling project. As a professional kitchen designer, I often educate clients about kitchen cabinetry basics: what to look for, and what to avoid, when selecting new kitchen cabinetry.

Too often, homeowners assume that a cabinet box is “just a box”. This is erroneous thinking that can lead to costly mistakes and inevitable disappointment with the final outcome of your kitchen remodeling project.

There are major differences among cabinetry manufacturers that the uneducated consumer will not easily detect. In kitchen remodeling, as in other aspects of life, the fact is — to quote a very worn out cliché — you get what you pay for.

The jargon of kitchen cabinet manufacturing can be intimidating. Do not let manufacturer jargon deter you. By educating yourself about kitchen cabinetry fundamentals, you will soon be able to “speak the language” that will help you make a sound purchase decision.

The Four Main Elements You Must Understand About Kitchen Cabinetry

There are four main elements you must understand before selecting and investing in your new kitchen cabinetry. These elements are:

  1. Cabinet Construction — framed and frameless construction consist of box and drawer box construction, and hardware operational mechanisms.
  2. Door and Drawer Styles — includes the actual detailing and construction of the door and drawer front.
  3. Wood Species — from basic to exotic veneers — the latter being the most expensive.
  4. Finishes — for toughness and durability, especially in the kitchen, the quality of the finish cannot be overlooked.

Cabinet Construction

When cabinet manufacturers refer to cabinet construction, they refer to two categories—framed and frameless or full access. Framed cabinets are most common in the US. Within this category you can choose, in order of least to most expensive:

  1. Standard or traditional overlay
  2. Full overlay
  3. Inset

Frameless (or full access/European construction) cabinets have no face-frame to the opening; the 3/4″ sides of the box define the opening. We often see this type of cabinet construction in contemporary or modern settings.

Installing frameless cabinets is more involved than installing framed cabinets, which can result in higher installation times to get your frameless cabinet into its proper position. Therefore, it requires a skilled and experienced carpenter to install this type of cabinetry.

Box Construction

Whether framed or frameless in style, cabinets are “boxes”. However, the materials and joinery used in their construction vary greatly among manufacturers. You may be familiar with terms such as particle board, MDF (medium density fiberboard), and plywood construction. Plywood is considered the best form of construction for a cabinet box. However, some manufacturers offer high quality MDF at a lesser price than plywood. Particle board is considered one of the lowest quality materials.

Drawer Box Construction

Drawer boxes, not including the hardware attached, come in three basic forms.

  1. Laminate/stapled
  2. Solid Wood Sides/Plywood bottoms/Staple or Dovetail
  3. Metal

Laminate kitchen cabinet boxes are least expensive. Over time, with heavy use, they fall apart.

Dovetail constructed cabinet drawer boxes reign supreme over stapled cabinet construction. Some manufacturers build a better drawer box than others by using a ½” plywood bottom. The drawer box bottom is what supports the weight of items placed in the drawer box. One of my manufacturers often demonstrates the quality of his drawer box by turning it over and literally “jumping” on it with his 200 pounds of weight! Now that is a drawer box meant to last a very long time!

Metal drawer boxes are just that. They are more popular with European manufacturers who, as an example, may use Hafele as their drawer box supplier.

Obviously, if you want a long lived product you will prefer the higher end drawer box construction.

Hardware Mechanisms

These are purchased by the cabinet manufacturer for various uses including, but not limited to, door and drawer opening mechanisms and internal accoutrements. BLUM and GRASS are popular hardware systems. Hafele, Richelieu, and Rev-A-Shelf offer internal convenience items for storage. All cabinet manufacturers rely on these “third parties” to enhance their cabinetry’s functions

Door and Drawer Front Styles

Doors and drawer front style components and proprietary details are too numerous to illustrate in this short article. Within the specific category of framed or frameless construction, your kitchen cabinetry costs will vary widely depending on these factors:

  1. Flat or recessed panel door styles cost less than raised panel door styles.
  2. The more detail a door has, the more expensive it will be.
  3. Doors that are thicker than a standard 4/4″ door (i.e. a 5/4″door) will cost more.
  4. The quality of the door and drawer front depends on whether it is made “in house” or purchased from an outside supplier. Higher quality manufacturers make their own doors and drawer fronts, as a general rule.

Wood Species

Another element that affects price is the wood species used for the cabinet: Oak, Maple, Cherry, Lyptus, Mahogany, Hickory, Birch, Ash, Alder, Knotty Pine, Walnut, Chestnut — these are all “wood species” derived from trees. Supply, demand and quality govern the specie price. For basic wood species, it is safe to assume that:

  1. Oak, Hickory, White Birch, and Knotty Alder will be the least expensive.
  2. Maple is next in the hierarchy.
  3. Cherry cabinetry will cost about twice as much as Maple cabinetry.

Also, within each species, there are tolerances or grades assigned –ranking the quality of the wood. If you are particular about the way the wood specie will “look” in its finished form, be wary of cheaper manufacturers’ quality—the outcome is entirely different than that of a higher quality manufacturer.

Finishes

Finish is one of the most important aspects affecting your cabinetry’s appearance and quality. If you talk to any carpenter who makes cabinetry or furniture, he or she will tell you that finishing may be most time-consuming and challenging component of the cabinet production process. The sanding process, attention to detail, and finish elements must be top-notch if you want your cabinetry to be the kind of high-quality investment that will endure for generations to come.

What do you need to know before making your cabinetry selection?

First, use your eyes and hands. What you see is what you get: A first rate finishing process costs more because the cabinet manufacturer has invested a large amount of capital in human and equipment resources that will pay off in future years.

Comparing finishes across the board in terms of cost (from least to most expensive):

  1. Stain wood finishes.
  2. Add 5-15% to the base price if you want additional accent or glaze applied to your cabinetry.
  3. Add 10-15% to the base price for straight painted finishes (on paint grade material, maple or birch), depending upon the manufacturer. Also, be sure to understand the difference between a lacquer paint finish versus an “opaque” or “color tone”stain”. The latter is not a paint but often passes as one under the consumer’s radar. This type of finish will not endure and will “rub through” over time.
  4. Add an additional 15-20% to the base cost ff a glaze is added to the paint,.
    5) A multi-step process which includes distress, patinas, or anything with an artistic one-of-a-kind appearance will add anywhere from 30 to 40% more to the cabinet price.

Now that you have this information, you will be better able to make a well-informed kitchen cabinetry purchase decision with which you will be happy for years to come.

Of course, there is always more to learn, but now you have everything you need to know to steer yourself in the right direction.

If you would like more information or advice on your kitchen remodeling project, call or email Sandra Brannock, (703) 801-6402, sandra@expertkitchendesigns.com.