Choosing cabinets for your remodel or new custom home can be so much fun. You are deciding on an overall style – raised panel, craftsman, slab, or shaker – just to name a few. You are deciding whether to use paint or stain, and what color will work best with all the other elements of the space. But before choosing what looks attractive on the surface, it is valuable to understand how different grades of cabinets are constructed.
If you’ve ever wondered how cabinets are built, here is a look behind the door at what good cabinets are made of, and how to decide on what construction and materials choices are best for your home.
Door - Before we go behind the door, there is a lot going on with the door itself. Most often, it will have a center panel and a frame comprised of rails and stiles. A slab door will just be the panel itself without a frame.
As you can see in the image below, a door can be placed on the front of a cabinet in three ways; an inset, partial overlay, and full overlay.
Box - Behind the door and beneath the exterior finish wood is the box, which is the “foundation” of a good cabinet. A standard/semi-custom and custom box would be all plywood, while a production box might be made with another engineered wood material.
On the front of the cabinet, there is another choice to make, between frameless or framed construction. If you are considering between “traditional” and “contemporary” designs, this is a piece of that puzzle. There are pros and cons to each, so it’s good to have a sense of what you are getting with either choice.
With a frameless cabinet, the box front does not have added rails and stiles to form a frame around the cabinet. The cabinet door covers the box and serves as the de facto frame. These are sometimes known as “European” cabinets because frameless is the standard in Europe. This construction method has become popular with American homeowners who want a contemporary cabinet design. The image to the right shows frameless cabinets.
Advantages of Frameless Cabinetry
Disadvantages of Frameless Cabinets
Just as the name suggests, framed cabinets have what is called a face frame that is attached to and covers the front of the cabinet box. These are the more traditional choice here in the US, and are often called the “American” style of cabinet. Having the frame gives you the option for inset, partial overlay, or a full overlay cabinet door. The following image shows framed cabinets.
Advantages of Framed Cabinetry
Disadvantages of Framed Cabinets
The custom cabinet makers we work with tend to stick with the framed cabinet method for b both durability and versatility.
Does it matter what your cabinets are made of? Absolutely! The cabinet box itself can be made from a number of different engineered wood materials. What you see when you look at finished cabinets are the face frames and doors. There are several material options for those visible aspects of the cabinet as well.
One of the most common materials in cabinet construction is plywood, which is built up of layers of thinly sliced wood slabs (known as flitches), layered in opposing directions and bonded together with adhesive. This is a more durable choice than the fiberboard options we’ll cover below. It’s the strongest of these materials, making it the best choice for cabinet boxes, drawer floors, shelves, and frames. There are different grades of plywood, so it is worth asking about the grade used in cabinets under consideration.
Another box material option is high-density fiberboard (HDF). This wood fiber material is mixed with resin and glue to create a board with higher density than solid wood or plywood, but with a lower price tag. HDF does not hold nails or screws well, and is susceptible to water damage.
Another engineered product, medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is less dense than HDF since it is made using less pressure. It is often used as a substrate for cabinet surface layers like veneer and laminate. It can also be used as drawer and shelving material for mass production cabinets. It is less durable than HDF.
Beyond the plywood box, what are the most common cabinet materials for doors and face frames? The preferred choice from a custom cabinet maker’s perspective is solid wood. It is more expensive but also more durable than the other choices. Solid wood is one of the most popular materials for kitchen cabinets because of its natural beauty, strength, durability, longevity, and versatility.
For some cost savings you might choose wood veneer, which is less expensive than solid wood and has a good appearance, but can be susceptible to water damage.
A material you may not be as familiar with is thermofoil. Thermofoil cabinets are constructed with a foil-like material vacuum sealed with heat over MDF. High gloss thermofoil in particular creates a shiny and reflective surface that makes your kitchen look bigger and brighter. Thermofoil is prone to peeling away from the MDF and can be difficult to paint.
Laminate is generally a step up from thermofoil. Laminate is made with a resin combined with a paper featuring the desired design, color, or pattern, pressed together with heat. Similar to veneer, it affixes to plywood or other fiberboard on the cabinet body. The quality of the laminate will affect its price, strength, and tendency to peel from the core component. Choose high-pressure laminate (HPL) for a stronger and longer lasting surface than low-pressure laminate. PET laminate in particular features a thermoplastic polymer laminated to substrate, like MDF, that has a stronger heat seal with special adhesive and a beautiful transparent, reflective glossy surface.
If you have experienced the frustrations of some of the lower cost materials, it may be a good time to upgrade to a higher level of semi-custom or custom cabinets, made from durable and timelessly beautiful materials. Other materials have their place, but for areas like your kitchen and bath, high-quality materials will stand up well to day-to-day use.
Mitchell Construction has designers who are specialists at creating the unique and beautiful cabinet design for any room in your home. Schedule a home renovation discovery session to learn how cabinet design can enable you and your family to enjoy your home for many years to come.
To learn more about the home renovation design process, please read our eBook, “Expert Design Tips to Improve Your Home's Form and Function.”