Kitchen cabinet quality is essentially a function of the materials, construction methods, finish and craftsmanship used in the cabinet-making process. There's variability in all of these ingredients which results in a corresponding range of cabinet quality.
What Exactly Is 'Quality'?
Before we get too far into the subject of cabinet quality, it will probably help to get a firmer understanding of just what that term means. "Quality" is something that's hard to pin down because at its root, it's subjective. One person's view of good quality may be another's interpretation of just "fair" or even "poor" quality. However, everyone of us still knows 'good quality', (whatever it means to us), when we see it.
You've no doubt looked at a product of some sort that you felt either demonstrated good quality or it didn't. Being specific about what it was that brought you to that conclusion is a harder task however. In the end it was probably because it either "looked" a certain way (sturdy, good attention to detail, no flaws) or if you actually bought and used the product, it met or exceeded your expectations in some way. Maybe it lasted longer than you expected or performed it's job with no hiccups.
Kitchen cabinet quality is no different. You'll encounter a range of materials and methods of assembly and in the end, you'll have to judge whether the product meets your quality standards.
What we hope to point out here are the important characteristics that define kitchen cabinet quality and the variation within the quality spectrum.
What To Look For In Kitchen Cabinet Quality
To start with you might be asking "Aren't there any standards that define good quality?" The answer is yes, there are some standards established within the industry but they're not "rules" that must be complied with like airlines that must conform to FAA regulations.
The KCMA, a cabinet industry trade organization, has established criteria that must be met in order to meet their certification requirements. However KCMA certification is elective and the lack of it doesn't imply poorer quality. At a minimum it gives you some baseline for the level of quality and durability a particular certified cabinet line has achieved or that other cabinet products can be compared to.
Beyond that there's also some basic common-sense standards associated with cabinet quality that will help you discern between better and poorer kitchen cabinet quality. This gets back to the point about 'knowing quality when you see it'. For example, thicker materials will be sturdier than thinner materials or construction techniques like dovetail joints are more durable than glued butt joints. But despite those characteristics that are plain and obvious, there are others that you might not be aware of like cabinet box reinforcement variations and drawer slide ratings.
So what should you be looking for to discern good cabinet quality? Focus on what the the basic components like the cabinet box, drawers and shelves are made from and how they're assembled. Also pay attention to the finish, how it's applied and the coatings that are used.
So read on! Hopefully in the end you'll have a good understanding of the range of kitchen cabinet quality and which attributes are better than others.
Cabinet Box Material And Construction
In their most basic form cabinets are nothing more than boxes that are made in varying sizes and of different materials. However that's where the similarities end. How these boxes are held together and the materials they're made from vary among manufacturers and even among product lines at any given manufacturer.
When it comes down to the materials that make up the box, there's debate over which is best because it depends what "best" means to the individual. Consider the options: solid wood (for face frames), plywood, particle board and medium density fiberboard (MDF).
Some cabinets also use a material called 'hardboard' for floors and cabinet back panels.
The material cabinets are made from is important because it plays a key role in the durability, longevity and quality of service the cabinets provide. Material properties such as rigidity, screw holding power and susceptibility to moisture and humidity will vary based on the material used in the cabinet's construction.
Less preferable are smaller, thinner reinforcing pieces made from particle board and stapled or just glued in place.
Some cabinet manufacturers make corner gussets from plastic. Thick, substantial plastic that is securely fastened to the side panels is preferable over flimsy plastic parts. Here again, your eye can usually spot the superior products over the inferior ones (keep asking yourself, "does it look/feel solid or flimsy?").
Larger corner gussets are more effective than smaller ones because they 'reach out' and support more of the cabinet walls that they're attached to. This does a more effective job in keeping the panels square and rigid, particularly as the size of the cabinet box gets bigger.
In a broad sense, better, more durable cabinet boxes possess:
Your cabinets end up holding a substantial amount of weight from stacked dishes to canned goods. The shelves that directly support that weight rely on the brackets attached to the sides of the cabinet box. Thinner panels might bow or twist, particularly if they're not reinforced in some way.
The thickness of typical cabinet box side panels varies by manufacturer and product line. Thicknesses you'll see are 3/8, 1/2, 5/8 or 3/4 inch thick. Back panels range from 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Thicker panels provide more rigidity.
For comparison purposes take a look at the relative thicknesses of these typical materials used in cabinet construction. As you can see there's a significant variation among them.
The 1/8" hardboard on the left is used in some cabinets for the back panel. Typical cabinet box side panels are made from 1/2" stock with available upgrades to thicker material.
Drawer And Drawer Slide Construction
Cabinet drawers work hard because they hold a lot of the everyday items we use such as cooking and eating utensils. Because they're opened and closed frequently they take more of a beating than some of the other cabinet components. Better drawer construction means more durable and longer lasting drawers.
Cabinet drawers aren't complicated and there's just a few points to focus on. Pay attention to how the drawer box is constructed and the kind of slides they're mounted on.
Drawer Box Construction
Joint Construction - methods of construction involve dovetailed joints, doweled or rabbet joints, glue and staples or a combination of these.
Dovetailed joints are the most durable (provided they're tight with no gaps or looseness). Doweled and rabbet joints are next down the line with the glued/stapled joints at the lowest end of the quality spectrum.
Box Material - drawer box materials (for wood-based cabinets) include solid wood, MDF, plywood or particle board or a combination of these materials. This is one location where solid wood is still fairly common in cabinet construction. Solid wood combined with good joinery results in the strongest drawer box. This is due to the inherent superior qualities of solid wood over particle board such as screw holding capability and resistance to moisture. (Despite your best efforts, someday you'll end up spilling some sort of liquid into an open drawer.)
Bottom Thickness, Material and Retention - thicker bottom panels are better than thinner ones because the bottom panel supports the weight of the drawer contents. You'll see thicknesses ranging from 1/8 inch to 1/2 inch (keep in mind that 1/2 inch is 4-times thicker than 1/8 inch).
Drawer bottoms that are dadoed into the 4 sides of the cabinet box represent good construction because it 'captures' the drawer bottom.
Much less durable methods involve just stapling and/or gluing the bottom panel to the drawer box.
Slide Material - slides and their various parts are made from metal, plastic, nylon or a combination of these materials. Look at the rolling elements (the rollers or parts that actually allow the slide to move back and forth) and how the slide is attached to the back of the cabinet.
Stronger more durable slides will use roller mechanisms that have steel ball bearings and have metal attachment fittings where they fasten to the cabinet box.
Plastic and nylon attachments and rollers will be less durable than metal.
Load Rating - the load rating defines the amount of weight the drawer slides can support, which includes the weight of the drawer itself. Typical cabinet drawer slides are rated at 75 to 100 lbs. capacity. The higher capacity slides will handle more weight. Wider drawers or large pull-outs like recycling centers may require slides with a higher load rating.
Mounting Location - drawer slides are mounted on the sides (sidemount) or under the drawer (undermount). Sidemount slides result in a narrower drawer and less interior space for a given cabinet width compared to undermount slides because of the room the slides occupy on the side of the drawer.
While this isn't necessarily a durability issue as it relates to quality, having more drawer space by using undermount slides is usually preferable over a smaller drawer. Higher-quality cabinet lines use undermount drawer slides over side-mount slides.
Extension and Adjustability and Special Features - slides are classified by how far they allow the drawer to extend. They can be 3/4 extension, full extension and over-travel.
Full extension and over-travel slides allow the drawer to be pulled all the way out (or past all the way for over-travel drawers) which affords access to the entire drawer all the way to the back.
With 3/4 or "normal" extension a portion of the drawer remains inside the cabinet. You'll have to bend over to see or fish out the contents in the back. The lower the drawer is on the cabinet, the more inconvenient this gets.
Adjustable drawer slides are another good feature to have. They allow the drawers to be realigned in height and side-to-side as needed should they go out of alignment over time due to wear or shifting.
Better quality drawer slides also include added features such as soft-close action which causes the drawer to close itself once it's pushed past a certain point.
Shelf Thickness, Retention And Adjustability
Thickness And Material
Despite their simplicity the shelves are another key component in your cabinets because they carry the major part of the load within the cabinet. Thickness and material choice are the important factors since they govern both the rigidity and strength of shelf.
Plywood and solid wood are the best choices for shelf material as they provide better rigidity than MDF or particle board for a given thickness and shelf span.
Obviously the thicker the shelf, the more rigid and less prone to sagging it will be. Also, shelves that have a reinforcing strip made from solid wood or plywood attached to the front edge or underneath are more rigid than shelves without this feature.
How a load is place on a shelf will determine it's strength and resistance to sagging. In the case of kitchen cabinets the load is the 'stuff' you store on the shelves like dishes and food items.
Don't underestimate the weight of some of these items - lift your entire stack of dinner plates sometime to get a feel for what your cabinet shelves experience. The weight of a stack of plates, bowls or canned goods can add up pretty quickly and the closer to the center of the shelf you store them the more strength that shelf will need.
In general, shelf thicknesses range from 1/2 to 5/8 to 3/4 inch. The thicker 3/4 inch shelves are the preferable option based on their increased rigidity over thinner shelves.
If you work with a custom manufacturer you should be able to specify whatever thickness you want. They should also be able to guide you on the best thickness for a given span length. Although most cabinet shelves top out at 3/4 inch thick, don't hesitate to go thicker on a custom cabinet if you need the extra support.
Retention And Adjustability
Adjustable shelves are obviously more versatile than fixed shelves. Good quality cabinets will have adjustable shelves or at least more of them than fixed shelves. For adjustable shelves make sure you're satisfied with the clips that hold up the shelf. Metal clips are sturdier than plastic clips.
Shelves need to be strong but so does the hardware that holds them up. Look for metal supports rather than plastic. Also, look for supports that appear "right-sized" for the shelf span. There's no hard and fast rule here but brackets with a longer "reach" under the shelf are better than small ones, provided they're made from a solid material appropriate for their size.
Note the small size of these shelf-holding pins in the picture on the right. Wider shelves and heavier loads might tax brackets of this size. The way the brackets are held into the cabinet sides is also important. Long shelves that support more weight put a heavier load on the brackets.
Brackets that are just pins inserted into a hole in the cabinet sides aren't as durable as shelf standards.
Shelf standards are metal channels that are attached to the inside walls of the cabinet box that accept metal clips to support the shelves. In some designs they're recessed inside a dado cut into the cabinet wall.
They may be a bit more obtrusive looking but they offer a sturdier alternative than small pins pressed into a hole in the side panels of the cabinet.
A good quality finish not only makes your wood cabinets look nice but it also goes a long way in protecting your investment. Why is that? Well, consider the environment your cabinets operate in.
Have you ever had boiling pasta or lobster on the stove? Or maybe you have a stove-top grill. There's lots of moisture, greases, and temperature changes that occur in a hard-working kitchen. That's not to mention the many times the drawers and cabinet doors are opened and closed or leaned on with dirty or greasy hands. Then there's the occasional spill of vinegar or ketchup down the front of the cabinet door. A good quality cabinet finish will go a long way in making sure your cabinets aren't phased by this onslaught.
Elements Of A Quality Finish
Look for the following components in a quality cabinet finish:
Catalyzed varnish or lacquer - a catalyzed varnish or lacquer has properties that enhance the durability of the coating beyond non-catalyzed varnish/lacquer. These qualities allow it to weather the harsher environment that kitchen cabinets are subjected to. Non-catalyzed coatings aren't as durable and will be more susceptible to damage.
Note: you may see references to 'conversion' varnish or catalyzed conversion varnish. This is also a durable coating material.
High-solids content - a finish, usually a varnish, with a high solids content provides more protection for the underlying wood and stain. "High solids" means that there's actually more solid 'particles' within the coating system. Those solids help to build up the coating thickness which ultimately provides a durable shield over the material underneath.
UV protection - finishes and coatings that include constituents that resist fading from ultraviolet light are desirable over those that don't. Cabinets in a sunny kitchen will be exposed to fading from the UV light present in the sunlight.
Regardless of who you buy your cabinets from make sure you understand what they're finishing process entails. Good wood finishing, particularly when using coatings like a catalyzed varnish, requires knowledge, tools and the right conditions to achieve a quality result.
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