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Choosing Kitchen Cabinets

Kitchen Remodeling Philadelphia

Purchasing new kitchen cabinets is one of the biggest investments you can make in your home. Cabinets are one of the first things people notice in a kitchen and they can have a huge impact on both the value and the appeal of your home. You want your kitchen to look beautiful and the best way to achieve that goal is by updating your kitchen cabinets.

When you are making an investment in your home, it is important to remember that looks aren’t everything. With kitchen cabinets, you truly get what you pay for. The reason being is that there are a variety of materials and techniques that are used to construct cabinetry, in effect creating different classes of quality that we define as ‘low-range’, ‘low-to-mid-range’, ‘mid-range’ and ‘high-end’.

Besides the materials and techniques used to construct kitchen cabinets, there is also a long list of options to consider that will enhance the functionality and value of your cabinets. In this article we will not explore the long list of options available, we will simply touch on the core construction methods and materials that are used to build cabinets, because bells and whistles can essentially be added to cabinets of any class.

As a highly experienced Doylestown kitchen remodeling contractor, we aim to educate our clients on the various techniques and materials used to construct kitchen cabinets so they can make an informed decision on the product line they choose, and effectively balance quality and affordability.

This article aims to give you an in depth look into the most important aspects of kitchen cabinetry to help you understand your options as a consumer, so you can make an informed decision and be aware of what you are getting for your money. The best way to educate yourself on kitchen cabinets is to learn about the differences in materials and construction and how they impact the durability and quality of a cabinet.

When you decide to take the leap towards updating your kitchen, it is important to note that cabinetry generally makes up about 1/3 of a complete kitchen remodeling project.

The Basic Elements

Framed and Frameless

The construction of kitchen cabinets varies among cabinet manufacturers, but they all utilize two basic styles called framed and frameless. Framed cabinets are also known as face-frame cabinets. There aren’t major differences in the way they are actually constructed or the durability of the structure, but what is different is the overall look and the amount of accessibility you have to the inside of the cabinet.

Framed Cabinets

Framed cabinets have a wood ‘frame’ around the front outer edge of the cabinet box. Framed cabinets are considered to be a traditional style and lend to more options regarding the way the door covers the face frame.

Essentially, framed cabinets are a simple wooden box. The face frame consists of several pieces of wood, which are fastened to the front of the cabinet. The edges of the frame are flush with the outside surfaces of the cabinet box and the inside of the frame extends slightly past the inside edges of the box.

Partial Overlay: Doors and drawers cover only part of the frame.

Full Overlay: Doors and drawers cover the entire face frame

Full Inset: Doors and drawers fit within the face frame opening.

Depending on the manufacturer, there are varying styles available regarding the extent of the overlay.

Frameless Cabinets

Frameless cabinets offer more accessibility than framed cabinets. This is due to the fact that there is not an inside edge of a frame blocking the cabinet opening. The amount of storage space increases in both the drawers and the cabinets themselves.

Frameless cabinets are a European style of cabinet. Doors are usually a full overlay but some are made as full inset. Frameless full inset cabinets are usually finished with a veneer to cover the unfinished edges of the cabinet box.

Essentially, the only differences between framed and frameless cabinets are style. Quality and durability of the structural design between the two types are viewed as equal; you just have two different construction methods that offer different looks.


Most people assume that kitchen cabinets are entirely made of wood, that is definitely not the case and the materials used to construct kitchen cabinets is a major factor in the determination of quality. Let’s take a look at the various materials used and categorize them into the classes of quality we touched on earlier.

Low-Range Materials

Low-range cabinets are usually constructed of particleboard with an overlay or veneer material covering the fronts, doors, sides and shelves.

Particle board Construction: Particle board is used to construct kitchen cabinets, it is an engineered wood product that is made from wood chips and wood particles that are fused together into boards and panels using an adhesive. Particleboard retains moisture and is subject to expansion and discoloration, which in our opinion is not a good choice for a kitchen.

Plastic laminate Veneer: Plastic laminate is sometimes used as a veneer on low-range kitchen cabinets. Plastic laminate is a plastic product that is formed by fusing paper and plastic resin together under heat and pressure. Plastic laminates are used for covering cabinet boxes, doors, drawers and shelves and usually convey a cheap look.

Melamine: Melamine is another plastic-based product that is also used to cover cabinet surfaces. Melamine can be made to look like wood or other popular finishes. Melamine is used for covering cabinet boxes, doors, drawers and shelves. Melamine will bubble and blister when penetrated by moisture.

Low-to-Mid-Range Materials

Low-to-Mid-range cabinets are usually constructed of MDF with a thermofoil overlay.

Medium density fiberboard (MDF): MDF is an engineered wood product that’s made up of wood fibers which are combined with an adhesive under pressure and formed into boards and panels. MDF is heavier and denser than particle board. MDF is a more durable product than particle board but it reacts poorly to moisture and it is subject to delamination of the veneer, swelling and the fibers are known to split when under stress.

Thermofoil: Thermofoil is a thin vinyl film that is used to cover cabinet boxes, doors and drawer fronts. The material starts as a rigid film that is heated and formed over the box, door or drawer front. Heat from appliances can cause peeling; moisture can cause delamination and over time thermofoil finishes will change color.

Mid-Range Materials

Mid-range cabinets are usually constructed of MDF or plywood with solid wood doors and fronts. Since we discussed MDF above, we’ll touch on plywood in this section.

Plywood: Plywood is made of thin layers of wood (known as plies) that are glued together. Plywood is used for shelving, doors and cabinet boxes. Plywood is constructed using a cross grain pattern, making it more stable than MDF or particle board. This minimizes moisture stress, resulting in less expansion and contraction and fewer structural irregularities.

Due to plywood’s density, it is more resistant to water than other products. MDF or particle board will swell and split, even with short-term exposure to water while plywood will maintain its structural integrity.

While plywood will be affected by water exposure over long periods of time, it will rot or twist instead of splitting or swelling.

While plywood is found in mid-range cabinets, it can also be found in higher-end cabinets due to its durability and resistance to moisture. Some regard plywood as being a more durable product than solid wood due to its cross grain pattern, which lends to less expansion and contraction than most solid wood types.

High-End Materials

High-end cabinets are usually constructed of a solid wood frame with solid wood doors and fronts.

Solid wood: Solid wood is naturally beautiful and durable. Solid wood will withstand the test of time and adds the most value to a kitchen out of any other cabinet type. Solid wood offers the widest range of options out of any cabinet and can be customized to your hearts desire.

Quality of Construction

Quality of construction will vary based on manufacturer and the price you pay for your kitchen cabinets.

It is important to understand that the methods used to construct cabinetry will determine the cabinet’s level of quality and durability.

Below we will explore the different classes of quality based on the method of cabinet ‘joinery’ that is used. Joinery can be defined as how wood parts are joined together. You should be concerned with the method of joinery used for your kitchen cabinets and in our opinion, you should settle for nothing less than a mid-range construction.

Low-Range Joinery

Staples, Glue, Nails & Screws: The use of staples, glue, nails or screws are not truly wood joinery techniques but they are often used in low-quality kitchen cabinets so we must consider them as such. This method of joinery is quick and cheap therefore reducing the cost and quality of the cabinet. These methods will not withstand the test of time.

Low-to-Mid-Range Joinery

Doweled joint: This joinery method is the most popular in a low-to-mid-range cabinet. This method uses round wood dowels, sometimes referred to as pegs. Holes are drilled halfway into each piece of wood that is used to construct the cabinet and the dowels are pressed into the holes to hold the pieces of wood together. Sometimes the dowels are glued into the holes for extra support.

While doweled joinery is more effective than staples, glue, nails and screws, it is still an inferior method compared to other joinery techniques.

Mid-Range Joinery

Rabbet: Rabbet is a notch that is cut into the edge of a board to accept the edge of another board to form a 90-degree angle. It is an open cut, which has the look of a ‘shelf’.

Dado: Dado is a groove that is cut into a board or panel that is sized to allow another board to slide into it.

High-End Joinery

Dovetail joints: This is the most effective method of joining two pieces of wood together. The ends of separate pieced of wood are notched with v-shaped cutouts that mesh with corresponding notches on the adjoining panel almost like a puzzle. Tight dovetail joints are regarded as a solid and strong joinery method.


The method used to manufacture kitchen cabinets will determine the level of customization, quality, value and price. Below we will explore the different manufacturing options and the price levels associated with each option.

Standard Box $$$

Standard box cabinets come in predetermined set of sizes and options. They are made in a factory and shipped to distributors and can be purchased on the spot, often without a lead time. No customization is offered, what you see is what you get. Standard box kitchen cabinets are available from big-box retailers and discount suppliers.

Semi-Custom $$$

Semi-custom cabinets are built to order. You have more flexibility when it comes to sizes and options. In many cases, you can achieve the look of a custom cabinet while paying significantly less. Clients can order semi-custom cabinets through a supplier or their contractor. Measurements are taken in your home and cabinets can be made to exact measurements in most cases providing a more customized end product. Tip: If you are buying direct from a supplier, get your contractor involved from day one. Ultimately it is your contractor that will install the cabinets so they should work hand-in-hand with your supplier to ensure that measurements are accurate and conflicts can be avoided.

Custom $$$

Custom cabinets are typically solid wood cabinets that are completely custom-made to fit your kitchen and your needs. Unique sizes can be fabricated and you are given complete control over materials and options. When you go the custom route, your options are virtually limitless and the end product is of the highest quality.


The information above should give you a clear understanding of the core components of kitchen cabinets that determine durability, quality and value.

If you have a home in Doylestown, Bucks County, Montgomery County or in the Greater Philadelphia region, we would love the opportunity to discuss your next kitchen renovation project. Feel free to contact us to schedule a free in-home estimate.

This article is Copyright © 2012 Chase Building Group, LLC.

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