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The Well-Made Cabinet

Cabinet Construction

One thing to look for in cabinet construction: thick, sturdy, adjustable shelves.

Buying cabinetry is a big investment, so it pays to learn something about how they're built and what constitutes quality construction. First, look past the exterior to the interior, also called the box, to see from what material the backs and sides are made, and how they are joined together. Do this with the drawers as well.

Different types of doors attach differently to the cabinet boxes, which gives them different looks as well. Different door styles, of course, also help to create different design themes in the kitchen.

Industry standards for construction quality can help you get an idea of what to look for when shopping and what certification actually means.

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An Overview of Drawer Construction

The drawers will likely be made of solid wood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF); have framed or flat slab fronts; and be held together with either dovetail, mortise-and-tenon, or butt joints.

Glue holds the parts together, though staples or brads are typically used to hold the joints together until the glue has cured. Dovetail joints provide the most strength.



Butt joint



Mortise-and-tenon


Dovetail
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An Overview of Frameless Cabinetry


Product-Guide Cabinets Cabinet-Types Frameless-DrawingIn frameless cabinetry, thicker side panels keep the cabinet rigid without the use of a front frame. Special hardware fittings secure the door directly to the side or end panels of the cabinet. Due to the lack of face frame, the cabinet doors lie flush with each other, forming a tight reveal of 1/8" or less. This clean style emphasizes the door and is often referred to as European style or full-access cabinetry.

Because no rails or stiles block the way, frameless cabinets offer slightly easier access to their interiors. Expect up to 10 percent more interior space. Also, many manufacturers eliminate the center stile in double doors, which provides easier accessibility to platters and oversize bowls and dishes.

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An Overview of Wood Veneers

Wood veneer is made from peeling strips of wood off a tree like you pull paper towels off a roll. As a result, it's much thinner than solid wood and is typically applied to plywood or particleboard to give it strength. It has two main advantages over solid wood: it can cost less and its grain can be more consistent. It also is less affected by humidity and temperature than solid wood.

You can stain wood veneer to match a solid wood door and use it on the side panels. Make sure both the veneer and the door are made from the same wood species.

Wood veneer also makes an attractive option for cabinet interiors visible through glass doors.

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Exotic Wood Species

More unusual and more expensive than other species, these exotic woods make beautiful cabinets.


mahoganyMahogany: Valued for a look that's as rich as its name, this durable hardwood's straight grain often incorporates esteemed figures such as mottle, curly and roe. Reddish in color, mahogany stains well to reveal either light or deep hues.

walnutWalnut: Dark brown to purplish black, this open grained wood's luster grows over time to increasingly reflect light.

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ebony

Ebony: A dark wood with both black and brown grains, this rare species is best suited for decorative inlays and turnings.



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Laminate: A Durable Cabinet Alternative

Laminate cabinets come in all kinds of colors, patterns, and textures. It's durable, stain-resistant, and easy to clean. But it can be hard to repair if it chips because it's made of layers-sheets of kraft paper (like that used in grocery bags), a decorative paper, and a plastic coating. The layers are all pressed together under high heat.

The kraft paper leaves a brown edge that can be covered and dressed up with a stainless steel, brass, or wood trim. Solid-color laminate offers a slightly more expensive alternative that uses plastic sheets of the same color throughout so that no dark edges show.

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Alternatives to Replacing Cabinets

Kitchen with white walls and light wood cabinetry

Save money on a kitchen remodel by refinishing or refacing cabinets instead of buying new cabinetry.

Not every kitchen remodel calls for all-new kitchen cabinets. If new cabinets just aren't in the budget, and your cabinetry remains in good shape but looks dated, you have options. Easy and affordable redos include adding organization accessories to the interior of boxes and drawers to provide more storage, and replacing knobs, pulls and other hardware to add fresh style.

Other exterior makeovers require more effort and money. Refinishing means that keeping all of your existing cabinetry and simply changing the color or finish. This is done through hand sanding or chemically stripping the existing finish from the wood, then applying a new paint or stain. This works best on wood cabinets. Laminate and thermofoil can't be sanded or stripped, and it's "nearly impossibly for paint to stick," says John Williams of Sears Home Improvement Products.

Refacing means keeping the cabinet boxes but replacing the cabinet doors and drawer fronts with new ones. This allows you to change both the style and the color. You can also replace cabinet side panels, face frames and moldings so that everything matches.

Can't decide between refinishing and refacing? Consider door style, kitchen layout and budget. If you hate your door style, why refinish them? Likewise, if you don't like your kitchen's configuration and want to add an island or other cabinetry, don't refinish; it will be very difficult to match to new cabinetry, unless you paint instead of stain. However, if budget is your top priority, refinishing is the cheaper option.

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An Overview of Home Styles

Your cabinetry should enhance and compliment the overall style of your home.

Consider the style of your home when selecting your cabinetry, this helps keep the continuity of the home and kitchen design.

Although it's not essential, you can bring continuity to your home by designing the interior in the same theme as its exterior architectural style.

Use the home and kitchen styles guide to identify the architectural style that most closely resembles that of your own home. Under each category, you'll find a description of the style's general characteristics and recommendations for what kinds of kitchen cabinets, countertops, flooring, and architectural details would best complement it.

You can also peruse the different styles and recommendations to get a general feel for which you prefer. You may end up selecting a style that differs from your home's architecture yet still captures what you had in mind for your dream kitchen.

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Home StylePeriodDescriptionCabinet Door Details

American Colonial
Cape Cod
Farmhouse
Dutch Colonial
Saltbox

1600-1800

Cottage styles
Medieval influence; rectangular, one to two-and-a-half stories; few windows with small, divided panes; add-on looks

Plank doors or simple paneled doors; some vertical or diagonal boards; bucks; small, multi-paneled windows

Classical
Georgian
Federal
Greek Revival

1740-1860

Neoclassical homes
Blocky, rectangular, or nearly square; two to three stories; columns; symmetrical with classical ornamentation

Symmetrical panel doors with varying panel sizes; Palladian-type windows; ornate features

Victorian
Eastlake
Queen Anne
Gothic Revival
Italianate

1830-1880

Picturesque
Board-and-batten siding; decorative barge boards, high gables, and gable pendants; shingles, ornamental trim, and turrets

Vertical planking with arched top; expressed framework

Arts & Crafts
Craftsman
Foursquare
Prairie

1880-1940

Beauty in function/anti-industrial
Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired; sensitive to materials and natural setting; box shapes; low-rising hip roof; geometric forms, art glass, and angular protrusions

Clean, geometric shapes; off-center lights; contrasting textures and lines

Moderne Movement
Art Deco
Moderne

1920-1975

Sophisticated simplicity
Interplay of indoor-outdoor living; blend of International Style & Machine Age technology; geometric forms; walls of glass; natural woods and metal

Elegantly simple; geometric patterns and plain, clean lines; metal and glass accents

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Questions to Ask Yourself When Selecting Cabinets

Kitchen Workspace with Cabinets and Drawers

You can print out the questionnaire and refer to it as you read through the site and while visiting a designer's showroom.

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  1. Do my current cabinets provide enough storage? Do I need more cabinetry, or do I need more organization accessories?

  2. Who will be using the kitchen? Do their needs differ by age, height or other factors?

  3. What activities besides cooking and eating take place in the kitchen? Do I need a desk area, recycling area, or cabinets to conceal a washer and dryer or TV?

  4. Is easy maintenance a must? Which material is least likely to show fingerpaints and scratches?

  5. What features do I need with my new cabinets and which could I live without or add later?

  6. What is the architectural style of my home? Is it distinctive enough that I want the kitchen to reflect it?

  7. What kind of overall style do I want to create in the kitchen? Contemporary? Traditional? Country?

  8. Depending on the overall style, do I want a wood door or would another material better create the right look?

  9. What type and style of door will help to create the look and style I want?

  10. If choosing wood, what kind of grain appeals to me? What finishes will create the look and style I want?

  11. Do I want my cabinets to include display space, such as open shelving or glass-front doors?

  12. Do I need wall cabinets for storage or do I prefer to keep wall space open for windows or decorative items?

  13. Do I need moldings and trim to create the look I want? Do I want to dust them?

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An Overview of Cabinet Box Construction

You might be surprised to learn that solid wood rarely forms the cabinet box. It's more often used in face frames and doors than in the larger side panel parts. That's because it tends to warp-a special concern in the kitchen where the moisture level changes frequently. But in the doors, using multiple strips of lumber in a variety of sizes can reduce the warp factor. A "floating" panel might also be used. The panel floats because instead of being glued to the doorframe, its edges sit between wooden grooves, allowing the wood to move more freely with changes in the kitchen's humidity.

Box materials typically contain wood chips, other wood by-products, and synthetic additives to make them especially strong and warp resistant. Your options include:




All have solid reputations for durability and screw-holding power, particularly plywood. Medium-density fiberboard has gained a following for its ability to be formed into door and drawer heads and other decorative features. Furniture-grade flakeboard offers a stronger alternative than particleboard, which you'll pay the least for.

Often the door and box will be constructed of different materials. A cabinet door might be solid maple and the cabinet box plywood covered with a maple veneer. The same finish would be applied to both, unifying the look. Or you may decide you want different tones on the door and the sides to add contrast.

You'll want to make sure you know if the finish you like requires a certain base material, and you'll want to check out examples of your manufacturer's work. Beware of staples! Staples will pull apart. You want cabinets with thick panels that have been corner blocked and glued or fastened with screws.

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