What to Look for in a Kitchen Cabinet
Dig into the internal architecture of a top-quality cabinet
Kitchen showrooms are emporiums of grand illusion. The floors always glisten, countertops are uncluttered by coffemakers and the cabinets — wow! The cabinets are always perfect. No scratches, no dings, none of the 3-year-old's favorite stickers, no dishes cramming shelves. The cabinets are stained in the latest colors endorsed by shelter-magazines, floated under 16-foot ceilings (so you'll never notice how tall they're not) and lit by several thousand watts of halogen. When the doors swing shut with resounding thumps and the drawers slide to a firm stop, you're sold. Too bad. You think you bought furniture that will last a lifetime, but you probably got dressed-up orange crates that will last barely a decade.
Top-quality kitchen cabinets are made like good furniture, but even the most devoted watchers of the Food Channel don't know what to look for. Worse, what to look for is usually hidden. So we ordered up a finely crafted — but unassembled — base cabinet made by a small family-owned company that has only one line of cabinetry — the good stuff. Print out the following pages, and take them along the next time you go kitchen cabinet shopping.
The Well-Built Cabinet
Face: All pieces visible from the front of a cabinet. The wood used on the face of a quality cabinet shouldn't have knots, pitch pockets, sanding scars, grain irregularities or color differences. (Slide 2, at left)
1. Face-frame stiles and rails are joined with long tenons (protruding wood tongues) and deep mortises (the slots into which tenons fit). Where two pieces of wood meet in a joint, the line between them almost disappears.
2. Drawer fronts are cut from a single piece of solid wood.
3. Flat door panels are made from solid pieces of wood.
End Panel: The side of the cabinet exposed to view. (Slide 3)
4. Solid wood is chosen for similarity of grain and color.
5. Frame pieces have mortise-and-tenon joinery; assembled panel is attached to the carcass (a plywood box) with screws driven from the inside out.
Drawer: All sides are made from hardwood 5/8 inch or thicker. (Slide 4)
6. All sides are routed with a groove that supports drawer base.
7. Joints are dovetailed at all corners.
Carcass: The plywood box that forms the cabinet's interior, seen here lying on side panel. (Slide 5)
8. Side and floor panels are 1/2 inch minimum thickness.
9. Plywood shelves are at least 3/4 inch thick.
10. Cabinet floor and back fit into a routed side panel.
Details Make the Difference
Tunable Hinges: Whether visible or hidden, a hinge should be not only strong but also adjustable so that doors can align with the surrounding face-frame.
Floating Panels: The frames around panels on the cabinet doors and on the exposed side of the cabinet have deep grooves. Panels aren't glued or fastened into the grooves, which allows them to expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity without cracking or pushing the frame apart. Tiny pads keep the panels centered.
Drawer Slides: A drawer supported by two side-mounted slides is much stronger than one that runs over a single slide centered underneath. The quietest slides run on nylon bearings. A good slide can carry loads of at least 75 pounds and will allow a drawer to open fully.
Frame-to-Carcass Joints: A strong connection between the carcass and the face frame (the five narrow pieces of wood that surround the drawer and the doors) is a mark of good craftsmanship. At the bottom corner of the back of the face frame, the vertical piece (the stile) has a wide groove, which locks onto the side panel of the carcass. The narrow groove across the horizontal piece (the rail) lines up with an identical groove in the floor of the cabinet. Biscuits glued into these grooves join the rail to the cabinet floor.
Shelf Locks: Shelves should be adjustable and supported by metal brackets, not plastic ones. To keep the shelf from wandering, a locking device such as a plastic retainer plugs into an adjustment hole above.