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Cabinet sizes and why they are what they are

Posted on May 3, 2015 at 10:33 AM Comments comments (3)
I often ask myself questions about strange things. You know things like "why is the sky blue?" and so forth (drives my wife and kids crazy). One question I had years ago is why are kitchen wall cabinets typically 12" deep? After all is this the most practical size for wall storage? Those of you who have large dinner plates are replying "Heck, no!"

The answer lies in how the whole idea of built in kitchen cabinets evolved and the short answer is that back in the day when carpenters and trim carpenters built cabinets on site rather than in a shop or factory they used 1 x 12 pine boards for the ends and shelves. And if you have ever bought dimensional lumber at the lumber yard you know that the "nominal" (technical term for "actual") size is 11-1/4" (3/4" lost in planing the lumber smooth and straight). These were attached to the wall with cleats and then a 1 x 2 (3/4" X 1-1/2" nominal) frame was nailed to the faces and voila! you got 12". Now 12" works fine but it wasn't because the carpenter actually engineered it that way, it was just easier to use the board in the size it was already cut to than to add to it or have to rip it down with a hand saw. Chalk it up to efficiency and practicality for the carpenter (that's the PC way of saying "lazy"). 

Base cabinets ended up about 24" deep for the same reason. They would use two 1 x 12 boards cleated together and add the 3/4" face frame  and ended up with 23-1/4" deep. When plywood became readily available they then started cutting them to 23-1/4", added the 3/4" face frame and got 24". 

Factory cabinets today are a standard 12" deep and the interior useable depth varies from 10-1/2" to 11-1/4" depending on the construction. I have done many jobs where, at the owner's request, we built the wall cabinets 13" deep to accommodate large plates and I recently did a kitchen where we made them all at 15" deep at the owner's request. Many factory cabinets offer the option of increasing the depth for an additional charge. 

As an aside, if you have old job built cabinets like this, they may be made of clear old growth sugar pine or 'D' select pine or Douglas fir and are valuable pieces of wood. I have salvaged many beautiful boards through the years from old kitchens. Usually the boards were painted and had to be planed to get to the raw wood but it was worth it. Many of our early furniture in our home when I was a poor cabinetmaking apprentice were built from these boards. 

This leads to other dimensional questions. Here's a few for those of you who just have to know:

Why are wall cabinets typically 18" above the counter? Because that's the way it has always been done, dingo! In truth I have no good answer other than "because it works." The only people I have seen complain about it are short people. But there is no hard-and-fast rule here. If you want them lower that can be accommodated either by lowering them or ordering longer wall cabinets. In some cases I have done jobs where we made the space taller in order to accommodate larger appliances like the old Kitchenaid mixers which wouldn't fit in the 18" space.

Why are base cabinets typically 36" high including the countertop? See the answer above. It's always been done that way and overall, except for short people, it works fine. 
I can see the carpenters standing in the kitchen and the carpenter's helper says, "So, boss, how high should we make these cabinets?" 
Pointing to his belt the lead carpenter Joe replies, "I don't know, Bill. About this high I suppose." 
"How about we ask Mrs. Smith, the owner?" 
"Don't complicate things, Bill. Asking the home owner questions like that just makes our lives difficult. About 3 foot works fine, my wife is perfectly happy with that and I'm sure Mrs. Smith will be happy, too." And so here we are today... :)

Note that the appliance industry makes ranges and dishwashers based on 36" thanks to Joe's expertise. If you want your cabinets shorter consider doing one main work section rather than the whole kitchen to avoid problems with the appliances. If you want them taller again I recommend making one work area taller, not the whole kitchen because, while it will work for taller people, it can be a problem if you want to sell your home. 

Is there an advantage to base cabinets deeper than 24"? This can be very nice when you want a bigger work area but in most cases 24" works fine for most people. As to storage I have found 24" deep is plenty deep and making the interior deeper is impractical for storage access. 

Why are bathroom vanities 30" high? The only reason I can come up with is this goes back to the day when homes had only one bathroom and it had to accommodate the children (either that or plumbers were all short and installed the sinks lower to suit themselves!). Of course, there is only about a two year period when 30" high is the right height for kids, the rest of the time they either use a stool or bend over like the rest of us. For years we have made our vanities to the same height as the kitchen at no additional charge and most factory lines offer 34-1/2" high vanities as a standard option. 

Why are bathroom vanities 21" deep instead of 24" like the kitchen cabinets? Again, because that's the way it has always been done! There is also the issue of many bathroom doors are 2'0" and you can't get the cabinet in the room. However, if you can use a 24" deep cabinet it will give you a decent amount of space behind the faucet so you don't need a toothbrush to clean back there. So, consider using kitchen cabinets in your bathroom if they will fit. Your back and your housekeeper will love you for it!

Why are factory cabinets built in 3" wide increments? This is a matter of efficiency and best use of materials and inventory. By maintaining this standard, which works in most cases (except for those dang big fillers that waste space!), they can produce the cabinets quickly and keep their costs down. Many "semi-custom" cabinet lines today, though, offer "odd" dimensions less than the 3" for additional cost (although some are now not charging extra -Showplace Cabinets for one - you just order the next largest size and specify the desired width). With our own custom cabinets we build them to any size needed since we are not working from stock parts. 

I probably have missed a dimensional question here so please feel free to comment or email me and I will add it to the blog. 

Tricks On Touching Up Moldings for Cabinet Installers and the Do-It-Yourselfer

Posted on December 13, 2012 at 7:03 AM Comments comments (9)
Installing moldings is challenging to say the least and there is nothing worse than marring the finish on moldings. The problem is once you have shot a nail into the molding you have a dent that often looks bad even when you try to touch it up. Here's some tricks I have developed through the years that have given much better results.
 
First, the best way to touch up moldings is to install them in such a way that they don't need to be touched up
which means using as few face nails as possible and the smallest size to fit the job. Here's the system we use at The Cabinet Guy, LLC:
 
1) We use 23 gauge pin nailers instead of 18 or 16 gauge. For $100 you can get ones that shoot 1/2" to 1-1/4" pins or for $300 there is one that shoots up to 2" (Grex brand). The pins are thinner than a needle and leave very tiny holes that  are almost invisible.
 
2) We use quick set adhesives on the back of the molding (Loctite Power Grab works great) which set up almost immediately and dry clear. You can wipe off any excess with a damp rag. This eliminates 70% of the fasteners and makes up for the weakness of the shorter pin nails on large moldings
 
3) We always wipe on the stain or paint on the unfinished edges of our mitre cuts and joints. This way when you put them together if a little of the unfinished profile is sticking out it is almost impossible to see. On dark finishes with black or brown in them a Sharpie marker also works great for this.
 
4) We use the industrial grades of "super glue" or "krazy glue" to assemble miters. Buy either Titebond or Loctite professional brands. These come in bottles in various viscosities (we use medium most often). Do NOT buy the little squeeze tubes - they barely work on paper!. Used with an accelerator the joint takes 10 seconds to set up and in many cases does not require any nailing on the corners. Be sure and buy a bottle of the debonder - this stuff was originally made for skin grafting and you can glue your fingers together (or to your nose!) in an instant! And, be sure to read the warnings on the bottle before you use it. The fumes can be real nasty on your eyes and nose!
 
5) We try to design it so that our moldings can be blind nailed (obviously this is not available in all situations).
 
By doing the above we have very little touch up to do but when we do have nail holes to fill with colored putty we use the following tricks:
 
1) Use putty sticks - the ones like crayons - not the soft putty in the jars (it never dries out and always looks dull).
 
2) Heat the putty with a cigarette lighter or alcohol lamp before applying. It goes on much faster and you only rub on half as much.
 
3) To get the right color you can melt 2 or more colors together. If after doing this you still need a little different shade raid a kid's crayon box. Chances are the have the perfect color you need!
 
4) Wipe mineral spirits (paint thinner) over the hole before you rub the putty on. This keeps it from adhering around the hole and out of the pores (on porous grained woods) and the putty rubs off in 1/3 the time.
 
5) Use Tibet Almond Sticks on small holes and minor scratches and discoloration. They are amazing at making these disappear (ancient technology that still works today!).
 
If you have any questions feel free to post. Thanks!

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