Kitchen Cabinet Quality

 A kitchen cabinet is just a kitchen cabinet, right? Well, not exactly. Next to buying a house or sending your kids to college, designing and installing a new kitchen will be one of the most expensive endeavors a homeowner will ever undertake. In many cases it will cost more than a new car and how many of you buy a new car without taking some time to research the quality vehicle you really want and need? Granted, you will not be taking the kids to school in your new cabinets but based on how we live today you will be spending a lot of quality time with them. So, let's kick some tires.


Cabinet Boxes

The main thing to look for is solid plywood construction. Many lower grade cabinets use particleboard with plastic wood grain coatings. Also, be sure all of the joints connecting the sides, backs, bottoms and tops are not butted and nailed together. Quality cabinets have interlocking joints, glue and screws where these parts meet. The best cabinet boxes use 5/8" or ¾" plywood made up of three to five layers of veneers.

Face Frames (the exposed front of the cabinet)

Quality cabinets use solid wood face frames that are secured with mortise and tenon joints. Mid-grade cabinets may use pocket screws or biscuit joints to assemble the face frames. Avoid particleboard facings with plastic wood grain coatings as well as facings that just butt together.


Drawers should always be made of hardwoods with interlocking joints at the corners like dovetails. The drawer bottoms should be made with plywood and slotted into a groove in the drawer box. Drawer boxes that are butted together or made of particleboard will not hold up over time. Full extension drawer glides allow the drawer to be pulled out all the way and are the best design. The highest quality glides have ball bearings and a weight load minimum of 100 pounds per pair.


There are basically two types of door installations, overlay and full inset flush. Full inset flush doors and drawers are essentially like a piece of quality furniture the face of the door is flush with the face frames on the cabinet. Less expensive doors overlay the cabinet facings.

Today, many lesser quality doors are made of fiberboard and coated with vinyl. If you want quality doors they should be made of solid wood. Many solid wood panel doors (a wood frame around a panel) have raised or flat panels made-up by gluing several boards together. This is not a bad thing if the grains between the boards are selected for beauty or so they look like one board. All doorframes should have mortise and tenon construction and the panels should be free floating within the doorframe to avoid contraction and expansion cracks.


The best finishes for natural wood allow you to see the depth of the wood grain instead of masking it. You should feel the finish for smoothness inside and out. The inside of cabinets and drawer boxes should have the same quality finish as the outside. The two most durable finishes on the market today are variations of catalyzed varnish and urethane. You can also get laminate cabinets, which have a plastic film over high-density particleboard or fiberboard. Laminates comes in a huge array of colors and patterns. Solid color, painted cabinets and opaque finishes are also available.

Custom or Not?

When shopping for cabinetry you really have four main choices:  

  • Stock Factory Cabinets will be the least expensive and lowest in quality. They can be delivered off the shelf but will have a lot of filler strips to make up for gaps between cabinets and walls. They are sold in standard dimensions with a range of 9" wide to 48" wide in 3" increments with few accessories. These are generally sold at the big box home stores, are usually in stock and run from $100 a linear foot, (linear feet = running length of the cabinets), to $300 a linear foot without installation or counter tops.
  • Semi-Custom Factory Cabinets are not really custom but have more flexibility and are made to order in 3" increments. The quality can be better than stock but not always. Semi-custom cabinets offer more accessories and finishes to choose from. You can look at 4 to 6 weeks delivery time at a cost between $250 and $600 per lineal foot without installation or counter tops.
  • Custom Factory Cabinets are as close to truly custom that the manufacturing industry can get. These are the highest quality factory cabinets you can buy and are made to order. By industry standards, these cabinets must fit the room to within ¼". Delivery time can range from 6 to 16 weeks and cost from $400 to $1,000 a lineal foot without installation or counter tops.
  • Real Custom Cabinetry is made by a local cabinet shop and can give you the maximum versatility in wood, finish, fit and accessories. Many people think this is the most expensive way to go, when in fact these cabinets can actually cost about the same as than semi-custom factory cabinets. Check the reputation and quality of the work before you hire your local cabinetmaker. Delivery time can range from 6 to 20 weeks and the range of pricing varies considerably from community to community. 

My choice is always real custom made cabinetry. Unless you live in a major metropolitan area like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, local cabinet makers are very affordable and can help you design a cabinet system that looks like it belongs in your house instead of some cobbled together mish mash. Using your local cabinetmaker also keeps the money and jobs in your community. 

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