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Publication Date: 2018-10-10

Design Insights

How to Choose the Right Kitchen Cabinetry

Custom cabinetry is the foundation of any kitchen renovation—and also the single most expensive element. It will set the style and look of the space—whether industrial, glamorous, country, or Shaker style. But as kitchen master Matthew Quinn knows, often it's what doesn't show that really counts.

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Custom cabinetry being manufactured and assembled.

Custom cabinetry is typically the foundation and the most expensive element of a new kitchen, so getting the right kind, and spending your money well, is crucial. This subject can get technical and dry, so let me try and make it fun, simple, and as brief as possible.

Cabinetry in place for a new kitchen.

First of all, we are basically talking about a wood box, a carcass as they call it in Europe. Of course, there are any number of ways this box can be built, adorned, and finished. The box and the drawers can be constructed from varying thicknesses and qualities of particle board, plastic, plywood, or even metal. The most popular is what is called a “solid wood” box, which means it is constructed from plywood that typically has a real wood veneer on the inside of the box, so it is smooth, attractive, and can be finished. Maple or beech veneers are most common, though walnut and oak are increasing in popularity. The same holds true for drawers, though those are sometimes made from a solid plank of wood rather than veneered plywood.

The same cabinets installed, finished, and with hardware in place. Photo: Mali Azima

The higher the quality of the plywood, the more layers of wood used, the better the adhesives, and the less formaldehyde used, the better the cabinet will be. High-quality materials insure a consistent thickness, which will lead to a more accurate installation. An installation goes far more smoothly if your 18-inch-wide cabinet is precisely 18 inches wide.

Just as a drawer can be held together with dowels, finger joints, or dovetails (though hopefully not staples), a cabinet box can be held together with any of a number of multiple fastening techniques, too, including dowels, biscuits, mortises, dados, screws and staples, in combination with adhesives. There are pros and cons to each and every component. As a consumer, comparing the quality of cabinet box construction from one manufacturer to another is extremely difficult, because it is not simply about the thickness of the materials and the fastening techniques used. The dimensional accuracy, rigidity, and squareness of the components when they are assembled is also crucial.

Cabinetry for a kitchen Quinn designed for a Kips Bay showhouse.

Without a degree in mechanical engineering and a foray into a forensic qualitative analysis, my advice is to touch and feel and even knock on that box—and then trust your gut. I always recommend seeking advice about which appliances are best from an appliance repairman, and the same is true for a cabinet installer. They have had literal hands-on experience. I know that I constantly make recommendations for improvements to the cabinet manufacturers we work with based on our installers’ feedback.  

As for cabinet doors, which set the style for your kitchen, their performance, durability, and lifespan rely as much on the manufacturing process as the climate where they are installed. Most doors are created from 5 pieces, the four sides, or frames, and the center panel.  If these pieces are made from wood, dramatic changes in humidity or temperature will expand or contract the wood. This creates stress on their joints, which can lead to small cracks, warping, or even complete failure of the joinery. Solutions to this perennial problem now vary from the use of mortise and tenons, biscuited joinery, adhesives cured with heat, microwaves, or UV light, or manufacturing all or some of the door parts in MDF (medium-density fibreboard) which undergoes minimal expansion and contraction. Doors that are an inch thick or thicker will also minimize this movement and wear and tear, but doors that thick require a better cabinet box and hinges to support the additional weight.
 

The completed kitchen at the Kips Bay showhouse. Photo: Josh McHugh

In conclusion, my advice is that you should always buy the highest quality cabinetry that your budget allows. Like the walls of your home, cabinetry is literally the foundation of the kitchen. When you really stop to think about everything that rests on its shoulders—countertops, appliances, sinks, backsplashes and even your bowl of bananas—the quality of the cabinetry is critical to the durability and, more importantly, your enjoyment of your kitchen.  
 

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