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Cabinet Basics 101

Thinking of doing the design work and/or the remodel work yourself? Or just looking for more info on this whole kitchen design thing? Here's some pointers to help you get what you are aiming for:

Designing Your Kitchen

You can design it yourself but most cabinet retailers will do the design work for free so it is worth your while to have them do that. Having them design it is not an obligation to buy.

  • Many cabinet designers are very good at what they do. Ask for people who have been in the business for a while and request some examples of their work. Feel free to ask for a list of referrals.
  • Avoid novice designers. There is no reason for you to be one of the clients they "cut their teeth" on.

  • Don't assume that the expensive looking showroom is out of your budget. Many of them are competitive with the big box stores (Lowes, Home Depot, Direct Buy, etc.)
  • Getting a design from the big box stores can be hit-or-miss. Some of their designers are seasoned veterans, others are brand new having only sat through a 1-day class (avoid these folks!).
  • Consider getting a design by a third, disinterested party. You will have to pay for this (typically $200-$800) but the advantage is they will design a kitchen that you can then take to several cabinet dealers and get competitive "apples for apples" quotes on. It will also save you the time having to meet with several designers and go through the same routine each time. CKD's (Certified Kitchen Designers certified by the National Kitchen & Bath Association - NKBA)

Cabinets Manufacturers

There are hundreds of cabinet manufacturers in the USA vying for your business.

  • From large national companies (some can produce up to 15,000+ cabinets a day!)
  • Mid-size regional companies
  • Local cabinet shops
  • Imported Chinese cabinets

The one thing most of them have in common is that they build the cabinets to order (few companies stock cabinets for immediate delivery).

  • Delivery times depend on the complexity of the product - anywhere from 3 weeks to 12 weeks. A full set of kitchen cabinets that we produce at The Cabinet Guy LLC take about 3-4 weeks to make but it depends on the volume we are doing at the particular time and sometimes we can get booked out to 12 weeks. In rush cases we have built simple sets of cabinets in less than a week and can do a small run (1-3 cabinets for a bathroom for example) in 5 days or less.
  • National cabinet lines run anywhere from 2-1/2 weeks to 12 weeks depending on the type (stock, semi-custom or custom)
  • All cabinet companies build very similar products. There are few very innovative companies and those that are innovative are on the high end of the price scale. The rest are pretty much "me-too" manufacturers, racing to copy each other as fast as they can. This is good in that you can shop around and find most companies will have the things you are looking for.
  • If you want oak, cherry, maple, birch, alder or hickory (and recently bamboo) then the big and mid-size manufactuerers will be your best value in most cases. However, if you want an exotic wood or very customized product then a local shop is your best choice. At The Cabinet Guy, besides doing the most popular (cherry, maple, hickory, knotty alder) we have used wormy maple, ribbon-grain mahogany, birdseye maple, zebrawood, walnut and many more.
  • Quality of construction varies from company to company but remember, there are basically only 2 ways to build a cabinet box (see below) and they all do it the same basic way although the details may vary.

Types of Manufacturers

  • A few companies stock their cabinets in regional warehouses for rapid delivery. Limited to a few top selling styles and stain combinations and the most common sizes, these are a good value if you need a few cabinets "yesterday" and your design is simple. Quality on these types is fair to good.
  • New to the cabinet arena are Asian manufacturers. I have heard various reviews of these products and they range from horrible to outstanding. Our experience with a company out of Denver was not good and we opted to not offer their line. These Asian companies produce the cabinet parts, doors and drawers in Asia and then ship them to assembly plants located around the USA. They are then assembled and sold either directly to you or through dealers.Three concerns I have: 1) They are very inexpensive because they are being built by people at what we would consider below poverty level wages and I question the ethics of that (I gain at another's expense?), 2) Environmental/health issues - no one knows how well they are stewarding the environment at their factories or whether their materials and finishes meet the rigid health and safety standards we have to deal with in the USA, and 3) shipping finished wood product in containers over the ocean (sometimes they are in transit for 3-4 months) cannot be good for the wood and finishes and it makes me question how long they will hold up in your home.
  • Fair to good quality American made cabinets are available in an expanded variety of styles, woods and sizes built and ship in 2-3 weeks. For remodelers with tight budgets who want more variety than stock lines offer.
  • Cabinets that are built to order, which offer custom size cabinets limited only by the standard door sizes available offers them on a 5-6 week delivery schedule.
  • Fully custom cabinet companies offer sizes and shapes without door size limitations - in other words they will build whatever you want, almost.The only limitations are the woods available. However, local cabinet shops like mine at The Cabinet Guy, LLC will build from almost any wood to any size. 

Types of Cabinetry

 Face Frame cabinets (on left) - these have a wood frame attached to the cabinet box. The door "overlay" (how much the door overlays or conceals the face frame) varies and is available in full overlay, standard overlay, and inset). Hinges can be concealed or exposed (concealed are the standard mostly today).

(on right) - Also called "European" or "Full Access." There is no face frame, hinges are concealed and all the door styles are full overlay (meaning they cover the entire face).

Cabinet Box Construction

  • Most cabinets boxes today are built out of industrial grade partical board (40 lb. density or higher) with a paper, melamine or vinyl laminate on the exposed surfaces. We use a 50# density high grade partical board with a very durable natural maple melamine laminate surface at The Cabinet Guy, LLC. Partical board is the most "green" of any box material and meets or exceeds the VOC standards of LEED.
  • Some lines use plywood as an option or standard material. In most cases the plywood is covered with the same melamine laminate. Some finish the wood veneer with a clear coat of lacquer or varnish. We also offer this at The Cabinet Guy, LLC if it is important to you.
  • Contrary to popular belief, there is NO great benefit to buying plywood boxes other than they are lighter when installing them. Particle board boxes hold up just as well as plywood unless the assembly system is faulty (which no major companies that I know of would put up with - too much warranty work). Particle board is also more stable and less prone to warpage. Clear finished plywood veneers also wear much faster than melamine or vinyl.
  • Melamine and vinyl finishes are easy to clean and wear very well, although I do recommend the spongy shelf paper for shelves where you keep dishes and glassware that may be wet from the dishwasher. I also recommend this for drawers where utensils will be kept without a plastic drawer insert.

Drawer Construction

  • This is one of the areas where manufacturers constantly innovate to compete in the market place. I have seen a lot of drawer systems come and go through the last 40 years. The bottom line for you is which system will perform best and last the longest.
  • No matter what the box is built of, the glide system determines the strength and longevity.
  • Particle board boxeswith center track glides. This is the most unstable system and its only advantage is it is cheap. I am not aware of any major or regional companies still doing this. Avoid it like the plague.
  • 4 sided boxes (melamine wrapped particle board, plywood or solid wood) with a "wrap-around" epoxy coated side mounted glide. These allow the drawer box to extend 3/4 of the way out. This was the standard system from the mid-1980's to the early 2000's and worked great for people. Manufacturers report very few warranty issues with this system and this is not a bad way to go if you are on a tight budget.
  • Dovetail construction wood drawer boxes with side mount full extension glides or the new undermount full extension soft close systems (Blumotion is one). These are quickly becoming standard or included as "no charge" upgrades on semi-custom cabinets. While there is nothing wrong with these systems be aware that manufacturers have found that the phrase "dovetail drawer" is synonymous with "quality" in consumer's minds even though many companies have found the boxes fail in the field more often than the "good" construction noted above. The good thing is that they are covered under warranty (life time in many cases).
  • One more note on the Blumotion types of glides. I have experimented with some Chinese "knock-offs" of this innovative glide and you would be do well to AVOID them. They are prone to break within a year or 2 and getting replacements is a hassle (one brand is called "V-6"). Some major manufacturers have switched to these because they are 60-80% cheaper (that's how they offer them at "no charge"). 

Wood Doors

  • Solid slab doors or wood veneer on a partical board or MDF (medium density fiberboard). Solid slab doors are glued up from individual pieces of solid hardwood and are beautiful but the color may vary a lot in each door. Veneered doors have a more consistent color and grain. Either one holds up very well. Not necessarily inexpensive.
  • A solid wood mortise and tenon joint or mitered joint door frame surrounding a center panel made of either a flat piece of 1/4" veneered plywood or solid wood. The 1/2" overlay veneered panel doors are the least expensive in most cabinet lines and common in new spec-homes. The solid wood are typically the same price as raised panel doors (see below). Wider frames are available for a Shaker look or a Craftsman look.
  • A solid wood mortise and tenon joint or mitered joint door frame with either a raised, vacumn formed veneer center panel or a solid wood raised center panel. Available in a wide array of decorative treatments, this door has been a standard upgrade for many people throughout the years. Mitered doors can be problematic due to shrinkage in dry climates.
  • As a custom shop, we at The Cabinet Guy make all our doors from "scratch" hand selecting the wood and veneers for quality and appearance. This is one area where we stand out from most companies because they are producing hundreds (and some, thousands) of doors a day which does not allow them to "pick and choose."

Laminated Doors

  • Due to advances in technology the laminate door selection and quality has increased significantly over the last 15 years.
  • Used primarily in commercial or small custom shops these are a durable and elegant solution. Using Formica, Wilson Art, Nevamar and other laminates the choices are virtually endless. This is the same material you have seen on your counter-tops. Generally only available through local cabinet shops.
  • A rigid, vinyl foil is vacuumed and bladder pressed with a bonding adhesive onto a routered MDF substrate. This is a very durable and elegant alternative to painted wood doors. Since it is a one-piece door panel there are no joints like a wood door which eventually show through when they crack. When these were first introduced in the early 1990's they would yellow in sunlight but that problem has been resolved by adding a UV (ultraviolet light) inhibitor. Not necessarily less expensive than wood doors but a great value if you want a painted look without the problems of paint.
  • Marketed by Ultracraft and possibly others, this cutting edge technology offers low cost, durable 5-piece doors with a printed veneer face and edges that looks identical to wood.

Stains & Finishes

  • This is what separates the "men from the boys". In this case you truly get what you pay for. Don't be fooled by ads saying things like "16-step finishing process". Here they count every standard step that any company does - "hand selection", sanding (3-4 steps), stain application (3-4), seal coat, another sanding step, top coat, drying, removing dust, ispection and, perhaps, even a coffee break.
  • Many companies talk up their use of "catalyzed varnish" as if were magic. The reality is all finishes are "catalyzed" either by the varnish manufacturere (pre-catalyzed) or just before application. They also talk about urethane, lacquer, varnish, and acrylics. When it is all said and done, the 3 important things are: 1) the solids content of the finish, 2) how much build up they get (you want 4-5 mils of finish), and 3) how well it holds up under regular usage. Ask the salesperson these questions and see what happens (most often they won't know the answer).
  • Most national companies put on a stain coat, a seal coat and 1 top coat. This gives you a meager 3 mils of finish and will show wear in 3-5 years (especially near the sink due to water, in areas of intense sunlight and on the end grain).
  • Many companies boast that their finishes are "oven cured." This is done, not to enhance the strength of the finish (as it seems to imply), but to reduce dust contamination and to speed up the drying so they can be boxed and shipped so they can collect their $ asap.
  • Below I list the steps we take to finish our cabinets at The Cabinet Guy. This is where we go the extra mile. Most companies actually stop at step 11, rush through the other steps and pay little attention to the end grain.
  • At The Cabinet Guy we take the following steps: 1) true "hand selection", 2) drum sand to 120 grit, 3) drum sand to 180 grit, 4) sand with 180 grit using an orital sander, 5) orbital sand with 240 grit, 6) apply a coat of wood conditioner (if needed for even stain penetration), 7) hand apply stain, 8) hand wipe stain, 9) spray a 1.5 mil "sanding sealer" coat to form a base for proper adhesion of top coats, 10) hand sand the sealer with 320 grit paper to "baby butt smooth" to remove dust from the pores and smooth surface imperfections due to grain raised by the stain, 11) spray a 3 mil intermediatiate acrylic waterborne coat of varnish, 12) lightly hand sand with 320 grit to prep for final top coat adhesion, 13) spray a final top coat with with anothe 1 mil final finish coat of acrylic varnish, 14) lightly "wet sand" by hand with 600 grit for a final smooth finish. Then we take step 15, the coffee break.
  • We also pay special attention to the end grain. This is where the ends of boards are exposed on the doors. This area is especially porous and the finish will soak so far into the pores that it looks "dry" and, in reality, it is. Failure to get enough finish into the end grain means that water can enter through the pores and bead up under the finish on the face of the wood. Over time the finish will crack and peel here (check out the doors under your sink in your present cabinets and you'll probably see what we mean). Our process puts 5 coats on the end grain and door edges to assure that this doesn't happen.


  • Glazing is currently very popular. True glazing means you put on the base stain coat, apply the sanding sealer coat, and then apply an accent stain on top of the sealer. Then this stain is wiped back off leaving build up in the corners and crevices of the wood. This gives a door a lot of "pop" and richness. The door at the top of this page is glazed cherry door. Note the black accent in the grooves of the door and rope molding.
  • In order to reduce time and expense many companies put the accent stain on before the sealer coat which has lackluster results because the glaze soaks into the base stain. Most companies charge 15-25% for glazing yet many of the glazes I have seen looked just like a darker, washed out stain. That's a lot to pay for such poor results!
  • Glazing is an art, not a science and it can't be rushed. However, factories do indeed rush it and you can tell by the poor results.
  • At The Cabinet Guy we take the time to do the process right and do it artistically and our charge is $15-$25 a cabinet not 15-25%.