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Kitchen cabinet design guide:
This article describes the types of kitchen or bath cabinets available, cabinet grades (stock, semi-custom, custom), cabinet materials of construction (hardboard, particleboard, medium density fiberboard (MDF), plywood, solid wood), and cabinet finish choices (wood veneer, high-pressure laminate (plastic), melamine cabinets, vinyl finish cabinets, rigid thermofoil (RTF) cabinets, and painted cabinets).
Kitchen cabinets range widely in styles, materials, and levels
of quality. Well-made cabinets feature sturdy cabinet
boxes and drawers, stiff shelves that resist sagging, and
solid hardware that operates smoothly.
make greater use of veneer-core plywood rather than
medium-density fiberboard (MDF), particleboard, or other
[Click to enlarge any image]
Doors, drawer fronts, and visible end panels
in premium cabinets make use of solid wood, real wood
veneer, or high-pressure plastic laminate. At a glance, it is
not always easy to discern quality levels since the best
wood-grain vinyl facings do a surprisingly good imitation
of real wood, at least until someone dents or scratches a
With so many variables, it is not surprising to find that
a set of cabinets for a midsize kitchen could range in price
from as little as $3,000 for builder-grade cabinets picked
up at a home center to as much as $20,000 for a custom
Here we review cabinet grades: definition of stock cabinets, semi-custom kitchen cabinets, and custom kitchen cabinets. Guide to cabinet panel materials: hardboard, particleboard, medium density fiberboard (MDF), plywood, solid wood. Guide to cabinet finishes: wood veneer, high-pressure laminate (plastic), melamine cabinets, vinyl finish cabinets, rigid thermofoil (RTF) cabinets, and painted cabinets.
Guide to Wall Cabinet Grades
The cabinet industry generally divides cabinets into three main
grades: stock, semicustom, and custom.
Stock cabinets are mass-produced in factories in
standard sizes, typically in increments of 3 inches,
although all sizes may not be available for certain items.
Each line comes in a limited number of materials,
styles, and options.
These are the least expensive option
with the quickest delivery time, but usually not the
best quality. Fillers are used to fit the cabinets into
A 12-inch stock oak front cabinet is illustrated at left and others of this series at the top of this page.
Semicustom cabinets (Illustrated above in solid birch) may be similar to stock cabinets
in quality level or may be significantly better.
these are made to order, however, the buyer has many
more choices for wood species and finishes, laminates,
door styles, and storage options and accessories.
cabinet sizes, including special heights and depths, are often
available. Like stock cabinets, these are built in 3-inch
increments, requiring filler strips for installation.
Custom cabinets are made to order by smaller shops
for an individual job.
Each shop has its own preferred
materials, styles, options, and details; but for enough
money, most shops will create whatever is requested.
With a custom fit, filler blocks are not needed.
Cabinet Materials & Cabinet Panel Products
Cabinets use a wide variety of substrate
materials for panels. The solid cherry front stock cabinets (left) were installed by the editor during renovations of an 1876 home in Wappinges Falls, NY in the 1980's.
The main cabinet panel products, typically
covered with a wood, melamine, or vinyl veneer, are
Hardboard, sometimes referred to by the brand
Masonite®, is made from compressed wood fibers and
lignin or phenolic resin. It swells and degrades when
wet and is used for drawer bottoms, backs, and
bottoms of lower-end cabinets.
Particleboard is made from small wood particles that
are resin-bonded under pressure and heat. Type I uses
urea-formaldehyde resin and Type II uses water resistant
phenol-formaldehyde resin. Density classes
are L (low), M (medium), and H (high).
use medium-density stock (40 to 50 pounds/cu ft).
Some also use Type II, which is water-resistant and
has little off-gassing of formaldehyde. Also see FORMALDEHYDE GAS HAZARD REDUCTION .
tends to swell when wet, and it is used widely for
cabinet panels, shelves, and doors. Formaldehyde
off-gassing may be a concern.
Medium-density fiberboard, or MDF, is a high-quality
substrate made from fine fibers and urea-formaldehyde
resin. It is more stable than plywood, stiffer than
particleboard, and less affected by water. Its surface
is smoother than particleboard and can be routed,
shaped, and painted.
MDF is widely used for all cabinet
panels and shelves. A 36- to 38-lb/cu ft density is adequate
for most applications, although some use 42- to
48-pound material. The high formaldehyde content is
a concern to individuals concerned about off-gassing.
Plywood is made from thin wood sheets laminated to
each other with the grain running at right angles in
alternate plies for strength. Interior grades, typically
used in cabinets, use urea-formaldehyde resin. Better
quality cabinets use plywood for cabinet panels, shelves,
and drawer bottoms. Plywood resists water damage.
Guide to Cabinet Finishes
These are the most common finish materials
used for cabinet sides, interiors, and door and drawer
Wood veneer cabinets. Wood veneer is a thin layer of wood
bonded to particleboard, MDF, or plywood to give
the appearance of solid wood. Used in both flat and
raised panels, veneer provides good grain matching.
Veneered panels rarely have problems, although
scratches or dents are easier to repair on solid wood.
Very high heat or humidity can cause cracking or delamination.
The finish may be a simple solvent-based
varnish or a more advanced and expensive multi coat
High-pressure laminate cabinets. Often called “plastic laminate,”
high-pressure laminate is composed of layers of
resin-saturated kraft paper with a clear melamine finish.
High-pressure laminate is widely used on countertops
because it is inexpensive, durable, and easy to
Scratches and damage are difficult to repair,
however. It is used on door and drawer fronts and
occasionally on side panels. Color-through laminates
are also available at a higher cost. These hide chips
and scratches better and do not leave a telltale dark
edge at corner seams.
Melamine cabinets. Also known as low-pressure laminate,
melamine is thinner and less durable than high-pressure
laminate. It comes applied to particleboard or MDF
with a paper layer under the melamine that provides
the color or wood grain.
Low-pressure laminate can
chip or crack and may discolor over time. It is used
widely on cabinet boxes and door backs, and on door
and drawer fronts on low-end cabinets.
Vinyl cabinets. Vinyl is a plastic sheet material that comes
applied to a particleboard or MDF substrate, and is
printed with a wood-grain or other pattern. It is
typically 2 to 4 mils thick and is not as durable as
melamine, although the heavier 4-mil material resists
scratches fairly well.
Exposed, unfinished edges are
prone to damage, and scratches or dents are difficult
Rigid thermofoil (RTF) cabinets. RTF is a rigid PVC sheet
that is heated, vacuum-formed, and glued onto MDF
doors and moldings, creating a seamless face.
RTF doors are shaped to simulate a raised panel door.
Thermofoil is available in many colors and woodgrain
patterns, although white is the most common.
High-quality RTF is durable, scratch-resistant, and
resists yellowing—a problem with some of the early
Better products carry warranties of five
or more years. When using wood-grain thermofoil, it
is best to use full-overlay doors and matching thermofoil
moldings, since real wood finishes will age differently
than the thermofoil. Many thermofoil doors have
matching melamine backs.
Painted cabinets. There are a number of high-quality painted
finishes that are durable, lustrous, and resistant to
crazing, chipping, or yellowing.
Polyester paint, also
used on cars and appliances, is a very expensive
option that requires many coats that are oven-cured
and wet-sanded by hand. The finish can be gloss or
matte and fills the pores of the wood, giving it a solid
Catalyzed enamel paint is a less expensive
option that uses a two-part formula to achieve a
similar lacquer like finish. Although these paints resist
chipping, nicks are difficult to touch up and blend in.
Also hairline cracks will typically appear at the
joints in solid wood doors due to expansion and
contraction—not a problem with a dimensionally
stable substrate such as MDF.
This article series discusses current best design practices for kitchens and bathrooms, including layout, clearances, work space, and accessible kitchen and bathroom layout, clearances, turning space, grab bars, controls, etc. We include advice on choosing and installing kitchen countertops, cabinets, and kitchen or bathroom flooring, sinks, and other plumbing fixtures and fixture controls such as faucets. A list of kitchen and bath product manufactures and sources is included.
Kitchen Cabinet Associations, Hardware, Manufacturers List
Ball-bearing drawer slides
Comprehensive catalog of cabinet hinges, pulls, slides,
Cup hinges, slides, shelf supports, and storage accessories
Cup hinges, ball-bearing slides, pulls, and
Cup hinges, ball-bearing slides, drawer systems, shelf
supports, and KD connectors
Cup hinges, ball-bearing drawer slides, shelf supports,
and KD connectors
Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers(AHAM)
National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA)
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American Plywood Association, APA, "Portland Manufacturing Company, No. 1, a series of monographs on the history of plywood manufacturing",Plywood Pioneers Association, 31 March, 1967, www.apawood.org
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