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Cabinetry Construction & Quality

By: Brian Albrecht
Posted: Jan 14th, 2021

When it comes to selecting cabinetry, most home owners focus on aesthetic while relying on the professionals to tell them the difference in various cabinet lines and their quality of construction. However, if you’re a homeowner who likes to know what they’re looking at and where their money is going when paying more for one cabinet versus another, there are a few things to look at and note. Keep in mind there may be parts of your home that demand a different level of quality when compared to others due to exposure to moisture/water, frequency of use, or the dreaded durability nemesis -exposure to children.

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Cabinet Box Construction

The cabinet box is the box that houses the shelves or drawers. It makes up the sides of the cabinet, the bottom of the cabinet, and the back. It is an important piece of the overall cabinet because the construction of this box is, for the most part, what holds the entire thing together.

As a general rule of thumb, the cheaper the cabinet, the thinner the sides and bottom of the cabinet box are going to be. A thin bottom can mean bowing or warping if heavy items are stored in the cabinet, while thin sides can cause problems with heavy drawers because there isn’t enough thickness for screws to properly hold the weight. Commonly found thicknesses include 3/8”, 1/2”, 5/8” and 3/4”side and bottom thicknesses. For areas where very little, or low weight items are going to be stored,1/2” sides will almost always suffice, while in areas such as the kitchen, a 3/4" side is usually preferable.

Figure 1 - Cabinet box construction using 3/4" plywood sides, solid wood face frame, and 1/4" plywood back with horizontal stiffeners

Additionally, and more importantly than the thickness of these elements, is the material they are made out of. Many cheaper cabinets have the box constructed from a variety of cheaper sheet goods,including particle board. A true, quality cabinet, will have the cabinet box constructed from plywood which offers superior dimensional stability, strength, and durability. Alternatives to plywood are often susceptible to moisture damage from even the smallest amount of water. The only conditions under which particle board, or plywood alternatives, should be considered for cabinet box construction is when budget is of utmost importance, or the cabinetry is going to be placed in a dry, rarely used area. Plywood alternatives often lack the holding strength for hinges and drawer guides over years of use, and while they may function well at the onset, will deteriorate far quicker than their plywood counterparts.

Drawer Box Construction

When it comes to the drawers themselves, most people have heard of the dovetail joint and the merits of it, however, there are a variety of different ways to construct a drawer box that are durable and long lasting. The main questions that need to be asked when considering a drawer box are: what is doing most of the work when it comes to supporting the weight? And are those pieces reliable overtime? In cheap drawer construction, many times the reliance is on a few small nails or staples at the corners to hold the drawer together and a thin bottom. As might be expected, this will not hold up over extended use. The staples can wiggle free, and with enough weight, the nails can bend or snap, and depending on the width of the drawer, can distort the bottom of the drawer. Most quality drawer construction techniques rely on interlocking pieces at the corners which allow the wood to do a lot of the heavy lifting, as well as helps to create a larger surface to apply glue, further strengthening the construction.

These types of drawers almost always contain a channel cut into the wood sides which the bottom of the drawer sits inside (rather than the bottom being attached directly to the underside of the sides), thus helping to transfer the weight inside the drawer to the sides, and then to the drawer guides and cabinet box. The bottom of the drawer itself is also something that, in quality drawer construction, can vary in thickness depending on the width of the drawer. The wider the drawer, the further the bottom of the drawer must span, and as such, is more prone to distortion. A quality- built drawer will have a thicker bottom if the drawer is going to be used for heavy items or is a substantially wide drawer.

Figure 2- Drawer box construction showing 5/8" solid wood sides, 1/4"plywood recessed bottom, and interlocking joints at corners.

As with the cabinet box, the drawer box material and thickness are also an important part of the drawer’s durability. While solid wood drawers are the standard, some companies may save money by going to a composite, and as discussed previously, sacrificing long term viability. In a similar vein, the thickness of the drawer box is also an important piece of the overall cabinet, with thinner sides yielding a lower strength. However, it is important to note that while thicker sides do increase the strength of the drawer, they also encroach on the storage space of the drawer, so finding the balance between strength and storage space is a crucial component.

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Cabinet Frame

Depending on your aesthetic, your cabinets may have a “face frame,” or be “frameless.” Atypical contemporary cabinet will be frameless, while more traditional styles will include a face frame. An inset door style (which we discussed in our Insight on inset vs. overlay doors) will always have a face frame, while a full-overlay cabinet door style will typically not. The cabinet frame, or face frame, is the front facing edge of the cabinet and the portion that you see when the cabinet is closed (not including the door). The material that makes up the face frame often determines the look of the cabinet (cherry, maple, oak, etc.) and whether it will be painted or stained. For inset doors, it is always the same thickness as the door itself, while in overlay applications it may be slightly different. Just as the back of the cabinet box
helps to keep the rear of the cabinet square and prevent distortion, the face frame does the same for the front of the cabinet.

Figure 3 - Solid wood, 1-3/4" cabinet face frame (3/4" thick) with cabinet bead detail.

Unlike the cabinet box however, the face frame is often times a solid wood rather than plywood. With the outward facing face frame, it is much more likely to be damaged,as well as suffer from long term wear and tear. With a solid wood face frame, it is far easier to repair than a composite material with a thin veneer. This is similar to choosing hardwood floors when it comes to a solid hardwood vs. a composite with veneer finish. The veneered finish is often times very thin and liable to be scratched through, at which point fixing it is much more difficult.

Hinges & Drawer Guides

These days, nearly every cabinet manufacturer touts their soft-close hinges and drawer guides which prevent the slamming of drawers and doors, thereby decreasing wear and tear on the cabinets. However, there are a few characteristics that often go overlooked when addressing the hardware that comes with the cabinetry.

First, when it comes to drawers, every one is different. One drawer might contain hand towels while the other is home to cast iron skillets. The drastic difference in weight and distribution of that weight can put large amounts of strain on not just the drawer box itself, but the guides that slide the drawer in and out. The further out you pull a heavy drawer, the more stress the drawer guide is under, similar to your shoulder when holding something heavy- the further you extend your arm away from your body, the more stress your shoulder feels (this is also why thicker sides are beneficial so there is more for a screw to grab hold of when feeling this type of stress). While most drawers will not feel quite as substantial the strain, the ones that do are apt to fall apart quicker if the correct hardware is not used. All drawer guides come with a weight capacity that, as the consumer and user of the cabinetry,you should know about so as to not overload the hardware. As would be expected, the lower the capacity, the cheaper the drawer guide, and by extension, the cheaper the cabinet.

For cabinet door hinges it may seem like an easy place to save money since, unlike drawers, they aren’t supporting any of the weight inside the cabinet and even many of the cheaper options still come with the soft-close option. The difference lies in the long-term durability. The soft-close feature is a small hydraulic mechanism built into the hinge which is utilized each and every time the cabinet door is opened and closed. In cheaper hinges, that hydraulic mechanism is comprised of cheaper materials and parts but is also more apt to break over time. That being said, if it is a cabinet that is not being used frequently, a cheaper soft-close hinge may serve you just fine, while those in a kitchen may require a nicer, more durable option.

Albrecht Wood Interiors Cabinetry Standards

-   3/4" plywood cabinet box
          o Pre-finished maple interiors
-   5/8” solid poplar drawer boxes w/ 1/4" plywood bottom
          o 1/2" plywood bottom for drawers over 42” wide or heavy contents
-   3/4" Solid wood face-frames when applicable
-   100 lb. rated soft-close drawer guides
-   High quality Blum Soft-Close Hinges

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