Cabinets

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Cabinets 2017-01-19T03:42:54+00:00

Depending on the size and scope of a kitchen remodel — full remodel, moving locations of appliances and other alterations, or simply changing out the cabinets — the cabinet portion of the project will normally cost between 30% to 50% of your budget. Accounting for such a high percentage of the overall project costs, it is our opinion that cabinetry should be the most educated and researched product selection in the project, followed closely by the counter surfaces, appliances, and who you choose to do the work.

The biggest mistake consumers make is not looking beyond the sizzle and sales pitch. When consumers get so focused on the look they like and the cheapest cost to get that look, they open themselves up to huge disappointments by not first making sure the cabinet will function as needed. Even more importantly: in one to five years after installation, will those cabinets look the same as the day they were purchased? Will they last?

What is Value? Like beauty, value is a perception that lies in the eye of the beholder. I cannot tell you what you should value, I can only educate you as to what are the true characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses of products you can choose from. From that knowledge, only you can determine what is important to you, what is not, and ultimately, what products to invest in.

In my suggested order of priority, here are the most important things you should know before buying your cabinets:

Finish

The chemical or materials whose function is to make the cabinet look good, and more important, protect the cabinet doors, drawer fronts and other exposed parts from water, chemicals, sunlight (UV rays), scratches, and other assaults of normal wear and tear in the kitchen or bath environment.

The overwhelming majority of cabinets sold that will be available to you are made with solid wood or wood veneer parts. The finish the cabinet maker applies to protect the wood is critical in ensuring color consistency and chemical/wear protection for the life of the cabinet.


Sherwin Williams Clear Wood Finishing Comparison©2006 Sherwin-Williams Company, Publication #200-5713

Not all chemicals commonly used by makers do a good job at this. As our country has slowly kept into its current Disposable Society state, there has been an enormous increase in inferior finishes available. The once high quality Conversion Varnish finish that had become an industry standard for the best cabinet and furniture manufacturers, has lost favor to easier more cost effective options, like Pre-Catalyzed Lacquers and Acrylics. If a manufacturer or seller cannot give you a written document telling explicitly what chemicals are used to color and protect the wood, you should expect a finish you will most likely not be pleased with in the long run.

Below are a few of the characteristics common to all finishes that should be considered prior to making a decision:

Have you ever seen kitchen cabinet doors with a dark mealy looking area around the cabinet handles that no matter how hard you try you cannot get clean? That is not dirt. It is a Lacquer or other chemically volatile finish gone bad due to a change in its chemical composition from interaction with common household chemicals. The first thing a homeowner uses to clean dirt and grime from around the cabinet handles is their general household cleaner. Whether it is 409, Fantastic, or a generic brand, the active ingredient in household cleaners is ammonia. Ammonia and Lacquer do not get along. The ammonia chemically interacts with the Lacquer, changing its chemical makeup from a hard protective covering into a soft gummy substance that catches all the dirt and grime thereafter. Lacquer also reacts with many of the mild acids (vinegar) found in a kitchen.

I was not exaggerating when I started in business back in 1977 when I told clients that I would put my kids through college by replacing all the junk (cabinets with lacquer finishes) installed by all the local builders.

All the specs say all finishes yellow with time, even the better Sherwin Williams finishes. If so, then why should you worry about yellowing? It is all in the context: the speed and degree to which different finishes will yellow. The better non-yellowing finishes on the chart provided will never come close to the same degree of yellowing shown in the weaker finishes! And the weaker finishes yellow fast!

Real Life Yellowing Example

Ever since I started business, I’ve only used Conversion Varnish on my own cabinets, or have bought cabinets from manufacturers whose specs clearly showed they only used conversion varnish.

One manufacturer out of Wisconsin, Design Line, was one such company. In the mid 1980’s, I used Design Line cabinets for a client in Del Mar who lived 1 ½ blocks from the beach. It was a white washed maple door and all seemed to go well until one day, less than five months after installation, I got an alarming phone call from the client saying their white cabinets had turned a dull yellow beige. My first reaction was utter disbelief, thinking that cannot be. I had used conversion varnish finish hundreds of times with no yellowing. I told the client I would be there the next day to investigate; she was not exaggerating. The cabinets looked awful, but when you opened the doors and looked at their backs, they were still as white as they were the day they went in.

As soon as I got back to my office I got on the phone to Design Line to ask them how this happened. Here is what I was told: “Our specifications do state we use conversion varnish, but they also state clearly that we have the right to change specifications at any time, without prior written notice” (a common clause in all manufacturer specifications). I was then told they had stopped using conversion varnish 18 months prior and had switched to Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer, which they felt strongly was a superior finish. When I asked about yellowing and replacing the doors, they stated that they were not responsible because all finishes yellow with time.

When I told the client this she asked what we could do to remedy the problem. See an attorney? I replied that it could take years to collect the money, and I doubted the company would even be in business long enough to collect. They were obviously very stupid and ignorant if they thought Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer is better than Conversion Varnish. I was right — they were out of business in just a couple years later.

I told the client I would take care of the problem. I stripped and refinished the cabinets with Conversion Varnish that we both thought she was initially getting. That is how I run my business. I stand behind what I say. She was another happy client again. Fortunately for both of us, I know how to do that and have the resources to do it. Most cabinet showrooms may not.

My experience has been that it will take finishes like Conversion Varnish more than 20 years to reach its maximum yellowing, and that yellowing will be far less than what Lacquer or the other yellowing finishes on the chart yellow within only a few months of UV exposure.

Finish Options Explored in Detail

More specifically Nitrocellulose Lacquer, either solvent based or the newer Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) compliant water based acrylic versions. Because of its fast drying time, it was the finish of choice for all local cabinet shops, was specified by most builders, and used by many large manufacturers until it was banned because of high VOC content (90%). Its most immediately noticeable weakness is how much and how fast it yellows. Another even more destructive characteristic is how chemically volatile it is (how easily it reacts with household chemicals to ruin the finish). Compared to other available finish options, it is one of the softest finishes, so it scratches easily.

Sherwin Williams White Paper: Lacquer

Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer

The catalyzed version was created primarily to offer a moderately harder, more durable finish than its softer predecessor, it is still not even close to Conversion Varnish in chemical resistivity. It yellows slightly faster than regular Lacquer and is significantly inferior to Conversion Varnish.

As bad as this finish is, we’ve added it here because it has become somewhat of an industry standard for small cabinet shops, imported cabinets (from both Eastern and Western Hemispheres), and unfortunately some of the larger cabinet and door manufacturers on this continent.

Why? Because it is idiot proof.

Conversion Varnish requires measuring and mixing with a catalyst, one ounce per quart. As simple as that is, all it takes is one idiot to ruin an entire kitchen or more, a whole day’s worth of finishing in a large manufacturer. That is why Design Line and many other manufactures since have switched to Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer or Acrylic products that are far less long lasting and durable than Conversion Varnish. Not because they are better finishes, but because they reduce potential losses during the manufacturing process and, as an added bonus, result in products that will need to be replaced sooner.

There are also UV inhibitors that some manufacturers use in conjunction with the pre catalyzed Lacquers and Acrylics. They advertise that as though it creates a finish you can trust not to yellow. Do not be fooled. UV inhibitors do not stop the yellowing, it only slows it down. The material will still reach its maximum yellowing as seen in the chart, but it will just take longer. Design Line cabinets, in my example above, claimed they used a UV inhibitor on top of their Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer on all their white finishes, but I found out the hard way what little effect they really have. They sound great in a sales pitch, but do not perform so well in real life.

In today’s Disposable Society, just because something is an industry standard does not make it a product or process worth considering. As I used to tell my kids growing up: be yourself. Just because everyone else is jumping off a cliff does not mean you have to…and, well, if you do decide to jump off for the thrill, please make sure you are not likely to break a leg (or worse) when you land.

There is very little option for “soft landing” with Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer in my experience.

Sherwin Williams White Paper: Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer

CAB Acrylic Lacquer

This lacquer does have very good clarity and non-yellowing characteristics, but it is the softest finish in this chart, even softer than plain lacquer. I tested it once, and after it is dry, you can actually put a dent in it with your fingernail and watch it disappear when it retakes its shape hours later, if you have not scratched its surface. It is only appropriate for situations where great flexibility is needed, like covering cracks that are going to continually move. This finish is not particularly good for kitchens or baths.

Sherwin Williams White Paper: CAB Acrylic Lacquer

By 1980, Conversion Varnish had become almost an industry standard for the furniture industry and the highest quality large cabinet manufacturers in the US. Really big manufacturers did not need to manually mix the catalyst, which was done by large automated finishing machinery. Smaller manufactures tried to follow, but many (like Design Line) gave up due to the cost of human error.

Why is this finish so good? It is fast drying like lacquer, many times harder, almost non-yellowing in its water white version, and has incredible chemical resistivity. No other commercially available finish to this day equals its chemical resistivity. See the attached Sherwin Williams Conversion Varnish white paper below and note that no other finish can withstand or is even put through the acetone test that this varnish passes. You can literally put some drops of acetone on this finish, cover it with a petri dish to stop it from evaporating, leave it overnight, and have no visual effect on the finish. Acetone is far more volatile and aggressive than any other chemical you will normally find in a kitchen or bath, and Conversion Varnish is bulletproof to it.

I only use this conversion varnish on all my wood products. It is still the most all-round durable finish available for kitchen or bath wood products.

Sherwin Williams White Paper: Water White Conversion Varnish

A low formaldehyde version of conversion varnish is not available for sale in California because it does not meet the state’s volatile organic compound (VOC) standards. Keep in mind that formaldehyde is a VOC and once the finish of regular Conversion Varnish is fully cured before home delivery, there will be no VOC or formaldehyde breathable by the homeowner.

Sherwin Williams White Paper: LF Water White Conversion Varnish

This is a reformulated version of Acrylic Lacquer, it could be better called Acrylic Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer. It does, as the chart shows, have far better clarity and non-yellowing characteristics, but its durability is on par with the Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer listed above. It is not as hard and durable or as chemically resistive as Conversion Varnish. Many manufacturers that have used the Pre-Catalyzed Varnish are moving to this finish because of lower VOC emissions.

Sherwin Williams White Paper: Acrylic Conversion Coating

These coatings will be the future. 100% Solids means no VOC. These coatings are really high tech and require extremely expensive finishing systems to apply. These coatings will not air cure, they are catalyzed but the catalyst must be activated by really intense UV exposure for a few seconds. The finish has very good clarity and non-yellowing and is harder than but not as chemically resistive as Conversion Varnish. This is becoming the finish of choice for the pre-finished flooring industry and will someday become available from products made by large cabinet and furniture manufacturers in spite of its current need to have the UV rays hit each area directly at 90°, which is easy for the floor industry but problematic for shaped pieces of wood on cabinets. This product most likely will always be out of reach for small and medium size shops, which is one reason why the Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer or Acrylic is still so popular by the small shops and many manufacturers.

Beware the Sales Pitches

There are lots of misconceptions and false information out there regarding the quality and characteristics of different finishes. A few I’ve heard so often over the years that they’ve become common “sales pitches”. Be wary of these untruths if you happen to come across them.

I began hearing this one back in 1980, and I still hear it today:

The finish on these cabinets is the best you can buy and cannot be duplicated by local cabinet manufacturers. It is baked on in special ovens!

It sounds impressive, but even in 1980, long before the new 100% Solids UV Cure Conversion Coatings, all manufactures of even moderate size would run their cabinets through a baking cycle right as they came off the assembly line. Not to make it a harder or better finish as the salesperson would have you believe. Production manufacturers simply cannot afford to have cabinets laying around for days while the finish cures. They use ovens to force cure the finish in minutes so the cabinet can go right from the assembly line into a box and on a truck. The oven curing has no effect on the strength or durability of the finish. The finish will have the same characteristics whether it air dries for days or is fast cured in an oven.

At that time, the primary finishes available were lacquer, conversion varnish, and pre-catalyzed lacquer. Now we have the acrylic conversion coatings as well. These all dry to the touch to handle gently in 5–10 minutes, but if you put them immediately into a box for shipping you will have a disaster, such as protective foams or cardboard sticking to the finish as they are still too soft to package. In production plants, they must be force cured with heat or UV to force a full cure in minutes to keep the trucks moving.

Of the various finishes discussed above, 100% solids UV cure coatings are the only finish in which the manufacturer’s forced curing process is an integral component to the strength and durability of the coating. Today, it is unlikely, but possible that a cabinet finished with a 100% solids UV coating is available at a home center or kitchen showroom, but you cannot be sure until you get it in writing. All manufacturers should have that information available.

The precise finish literature and documentation are not readily available on imported cabinets. Taking advantage of this fact, the sales person has been trained to say something along the lines of:

These cabinets come with a piano-grade high quality furniture finish.

Whether it came from a European or Chinese import, when I press them to put me in touch with someone who knows, the answer has always been lacquer of some sort. Press them to tell you the actual chemical used to finish the cabinets, and do not be afraid to reject any ambiguous non-answers they will likely give you.

I first heard this one in the late 1970’s pertaining to Lacquer, and now it is used for Pre-Catalyzed Lacquer trying to say their finish was somehow better than Conversion Varnish:

We use a special UV Block, in actuality it is an Inhibitor not a Block, and we put on seven coats to give you far more protection than you can get with Conversion Varnish.

Come on…if you put on more coats of an inferior finish, it does not give you more protection, just more of the chemical that is going to fail and increasingly block the wood grain as it yellows or leave a deeper gummy dark area around the handles.

The Bottom Line

Water White Conversion Varnish is far and above the most superior finishes available for wood cabinets and furniture in the kitchen and bath environment. It comes in many different sheens (matte, gloss, etc.), colors, and can work well with highly decorative treatments like distressing, crackle finishes, and glazes. Acrylic Conversion Coating is the next best option with good non- yellowing properties, but is also far easier to damage with wear and chemicals. Stay away from all the other finishes.

Exposed Materials Options

Solid Wood, Wood veneers, Thermofoil, Melamine, Laminate, and the new Super High Gloss Acrylics are all excellent choices for cabinet doors and exterior surfaces. They all have strengths and weaknesses. Though you can easily find something negative written about most of them, every negative criticism I’ve read seems very out of context to me. They all eventually fail under use, including wood, which seems to be given a free pass by those who criticise the use of the other materials on this list. To fairly compare and select the worth and value of any product, its pros and cons must be put into context with the other options available.

The charts below reflect pros and cons assuming unlimited customizations or access to materials. Remember many manufacturers have limited their offerings and simply do not offer many of these materials or, at most, only a limited selection of what is available. My offerings are unlimited.

A good design choice for many but not all styles. They must have a protective finish that will define its durability (see section on finishes above).

Pros Cons
Most widely accepted and valued product, all others are compared to it. Very hard for homeowner to repair when damaged or fails. Costs more to repair or replace than most other options listed.
With Conversion Varnish Finish has 12 to 20 year or more life expectancy under normal use. Beware of other industry standard finishes that have much shorter life spans. Wood is significantly more expensive than Thermofoil, Melamine, & Laminate
Unlimited colors: both stains and paints, specialized treatments like glazing, distressing, & crackling are available. Water and moisture are its greatest cause of failure. It is as or more susceptible to damage by water than the other products on this list. Areas of water use — sinks, cooktops, dishwasher, and baths — are where it breaks down earliest.
Many wood species and cuts of wood give great design flexibility. High heat also damages it more quickly. Heat from appliances can crack or discolor the finish. Other materials listed share this issue.
In many, species has great depth and character Compared to other materials on this list, it is the easiest to scratch and wear from use.
Chemical resistivity is excellent (if it has a Conversion Varnish Finish).

Thermofoil is a foil that is heated and vacuum formed around a piece of shaped MDF, The most versatile design choice for almost all styles, arguably more so than wood. Thermofoil is available in many hundreds of colors, woodgrains, and unique patterns. It does a great job at mimicking wood — I have fooled more than one client when comparing samples.

Pros Cons
Easy for homeowner to repair before catastrophic failure (see blog entry). Much less costly than wood to replace if needed. Like Wood, High heat from appliances can deform or delaminate it.
Newer thermofoil 5-piece door styles exist that are hard to believe are not wood. Those same 5-piece door styles are currently limited in colors. Only the most popular wood grains are available.
Solid color one-piece doors look like painted cabinets, but offer far better wear and life expectancy with no cracking in joints that is common in painted cabinets (this has become my clients’ prefered choice for a painted cabinet look) Detailing on better quality thermofoil doors is very good, but not as finely detailed as real wood with paint. Most people do not notice the difference.
Many hundreds of colors are available for single piece doors. Like Wood, standing water can damage it.
Significantly less expensive than wood Considerably more durable than wood
More chemical resistant than wood
Really easy to clean and keep clean.
Glazing is available from some manufacturers.
A laminate that, when heated, can be formed around opposing edges of a door (the other two edges need to be edge banded as is done with real wood veneers). High Pressure Laminate is a very versatile design choice for Contemporary or Modern designs. Like thermofoil, It is available in many hundreds of colors, woodgrains, and unique patterns, and does a great job at mimicking wood veneer.

Pros Cons
Easy for homeowner to repair before catastrophic failure. Normally it is the edgebanding needing repair, not the laminate.(See blog entry). Much less costly than wood to replace if needed. Like Wood, High heat can damage it, deforming edgebanding or delaminate the high pressure laminate.
Good choice for modern or contemporary styles, hundreds of colors and patterns. Like Wood, standing water can damage it.
This is the most durable material with regard to impact resistance of this group. Unlike thermofoil’s ability to form completely around a piece of wood in 4 directions, high pressure laminate can only be formed on two opposing edges
Significantly less expensive than wood
Considerably more durable than wood
More chemical resistant than wood
Really easy to clean and keep clean.
Melamine is a door material that’s a good design choice for Contemporary or Modern designs. Is available in numerous of colors, woodgrains, and unique patterns. There are fewer color choices than thermofoil or high pressure laminates, but it has some unique patterns not available in other materials. Can mimic wood. It is not a laminate in that the color and plastic coating are manufactured on to the MDF substrate and the cabinet maker simply cuts it to size like they would real wood veneer panels. All edges will only be square with edge banding, no detailing available like with thermofoil or solid wood.

Pros Cons
Easy for homeowner to repair before catastrophic failure. Normally it is the edgebanding needing repair, not the laminate.(See blog entry) Much less costly than wood to replace if needed. High Heat from appliances can deform or delaminate the edgebanding.
Good choice for modern or contemporary styles. Like Wood, standing water can damage it.
Lots of colors are available, but much less than thermofoil or laminate. Has some unique textures available. Fewer color choices than all the other materials. Limited door style options, only flat square or shaker style doors
More scratch resistant than thermofoil only when using heavily textured materials.
This is the least expensive on all the materials
Considerably more durable than wood
More chemical resistant than wood
Really easy to clean and keep clean.

he choice is yours and will boil down to comparing price of material with what level of maintenance, durability, and aesthetic appeals you need:

  1. Water damages all these materials, wood probably a little more easily than the others.
  2. Very High Heat or steam damages all these items, thermofoil probably a little more easily than the others.
  3. All the synthetic materials are more scratch and wear resistant than wood.
  4. In a 5 piece traditional style door: Wood is the most universally desirable material, and can be customized with finishes and techniques to give infinite looks. You can save a lot of money if you chose Thermofoil instead, but you will have very limited color selection.
  5. In a painted 5pc tradition style look: In wood, you will have unlimited color selection. In thermofoil you will get enough color selection to make it a viable alternative and it will be a lot less expensive and far more durable than painted wood. see below for more info.
  6. In more modern or contemporary slab type doors styles: Wood is still a very viable option offering unlimited colors, but the other materials on this list offer an incredible assortment (1000’s) of colors and textures in a product that is less expensive and more durable than wood.

Construction Methods

Face Frame vs. Frameless Cabinets

During my 4 decades in business I have built both types of cabinets. I started with a cabinet shop building Face Frame style cabinetry because it was the norm at that time. After learning more about Frameless cabinets and testing the various methods used to build them, I settled on the Frameless system in the early 1980’s and have not doubted my decision since.

  1. When built well, it is just as strong or stronger than Face Frame cabinet construction
  2. It offers better access to all interior storage space. Face Frame style cabinets restrict the opening on cabinetry, which makes all accessories smaller in width and height because of lost space taken up by frame.
  3. Most drawer systems, hinges, and accessories available today are designed to be installed in true 32mm system drill patterns, which are only available in Frameless cabinets. Installing these items in Face Frame cabinets is cumbersome at best, and most often an extremely wasteful use of the interior storage space which is already limited by the frames themselves, further reducing the available space.
  4. Frameless cabinets provide clean, elegant lines and styles, adaptable to both modern and older traditional styles with ease. The same can not be said for Face Frame construction.
  1. Face Frame cabinets have much greater tolerances (bigger spaces between doors) that require far less skill & knowledge to install and make look good when done. A Frameless cabinet must be perfectly plumb and level when installed or the doors can never be adjusted properly. Face Frame construction, because of their tolerances, can hide any shortcuts or errors the installer may have made.
  2. They are outdated in both construction and application. Frameless cabinets require different manufacturing and installation equipment than Face Frame cabinets.
One of these two systems is somehow superior in quality or strength of construction than the other.

The Truth: both systems, when done at their best, are equally strong and structurally sound. When built to cut corners (as is now the norm), both can be seriously inferior structural products. As is true with all products, you need to decide if you want one built to last or built for the cheapest cost.

FACE FRAME CABINETS

Good – High Quality, Made to Last Cheap – Inferior Construction to Save $
Solid Wood Face Frame Veneer Over Plywood or MDF
Dowel & Glue or Pocket Screwed Frame Stapled or Corrugated Brad Frame
Cabinet Sides ⅝” or ¾” Thick Material Cabinet Sides ¼”, ⅜”, or ½” Thick Material
Shelves ¾” Thick, Adjustable & Full Depth Shelves ½” or ⅝” Thick, May be Fixed or ¾” Depth
Mortise & Glue Sides, Top, and Bottom to Frame No Mortise, Only Glue and Staple Joint
Solid Wood or Ply Corner Blocking Plastic Corner Blocking

FRAMELESS CABINETS

Good – High Quality, Made to Last Cheap – Inferior Construction to Save $
Sides, Top & Bottom Shelves ¾” Material ⅝” or ½” Parts
Dowel & Glue or Confirmat Steel Screw Dowels Cam Fasteners Connect Sides to Top & Bottom
Solid Wood 2×4 Toe Kick, Pressure Treated if on Slab or Toe Space Platform Leveling Legs, Sides to Floor, or ¾” Toe Space Frame
Fully 32mm Compliant Drilling Patterns Non 32mm System Compliant Drill Patterns

Wood Interior vs Melamine

This topic is one of the most misunderstood and has the most misrepresentation from cabinet salespeople to internet posts. As I have stated in the materials section above. All materials have pros and cons, the only way to form an intelligent buying decision is to put the pros and cons into context with the material options you have available.

Today, all wood only means all exposed surfaces of a cabinet interior and exterior is some form of wood, normally a thin wood veneer. If by all wood you, like many consumers, mistakenly think it means all solid wood: an all solid wood cabinet is for all practical purposes not available anywhere today, and there is good reason to not want one.

Prior to the mid 1950’s the majority of kitchen cabinets installed here in San Diego were all solid wood. Solid sugar pine interiors were the norm, for one reason. Soft sugar pine, was the cheapest material available to build cabinets with. Plywood had not yet replaced it as the least expensive and superior quality alternative. Yes, I said superior quality! I have torn out hundreds of kitchen cabinets made prior to then, and all had solid pine interiors and cases. The shelving even though it was dadoed and mortised into the the cases were always warped, (cupped) not flat when we tore them out. Solid wood has this tendency. Plywood took over when it became less costly than solid pine, but most importantly the real structural advantage of plywood was it is designed specifically to be far more dimensionally stable and less likely to cupp than solid wood when exposed to moisture which is what caused the cupping.

Wood Interior means Plywood or a Wood veneer over a particulate board. Most manufactures who use a prefinished plywood and claim their cabinets are all wood which leads to the confusion stated above.

Melamine interiors are plastic veneers over a photograph of a woodgrain, pattern, or solid color which are both laminated over an industrial grade particulate board.

Both products are excellent choices for cabinet interiors. Both are extremely dimensionally stable and when of ¾” thickness very strong and resist sagging under load. Both have the same one major weakness: Standing Water. Plywood and Particulate boards are both made of wood. Solid wood, plywood and particulate boards do not stand up to standing water. Large amounts of water that are allowed to stand and soak into the joints or around the wood based material for more than a few minutes, will cause solid wood, plywood, and particulate boards to absorb the water and deform. Hardwood floors and the bottoms of sink cabinets made of either plywood or melamine will deform so much they will need replacement. Anyone who says either solid wood, plywood, or melamine will withstand water, is not very enlightened.

Unfortunately the internet is full of negative comments about melamine regarding this standing water issue, but the commenter omits the simple fact that plywood is no more immune. In reality, if both plywood and melamine sink cabinets have their interior joints caulked with silicone after installation to minimize the possibility of water seeping between the joints when exposed to water, my money (bet) is that melamine, a plastic surface that gives formica its water resistance, would hold up longer under exposure to water than the chemical finish on the plywood what could have scratches or other imperfections what allow water to breach the surface sooner.
Dan prefers Melamine for various functional, aesthetic, and durability reasons:

  1. The plastic surface called melamine is far more scratch resistant and chemical resistant than any finish one could put on plywood, or the shelf paper you will need to add to the plywood. It is the same plastic that gives Formica its scratch and chemical resistivity. So no need to add shelf paper.
  2. Melamine interiors cost about 8% less than prefinished plywood interiors and over 20% less than custom finished wood interiors.
  3. Melamine interiors are available in Clear Maple (looks like plywood), White, or Black interiors as standards, and are also readily available in hundreds of other colors if needed at a minimal upcharge.
  4. Plywood is not as flat and smooth as melamine causing the plywood to wear unevenly during use. Call any hardwood lumber supplier and they will confirm that their best looking smoothest wood veneers are not on plywood substrates, they are on particulate boards that have far smoother surfaces and are preferred for laminating.
  5. Plywood is not as dense as melamine board, so it does not hold screws or glue as well as the denser board. I think melamine creates a stronger cabinet than the most common prefinished plywood used for cabinet interiors.

Drawer Systems, Boxes, and Guides

Drawers are generally composed of two components. The drawer box and the drawer guide. Both are available in wide ranges of quality and features. There is also a newer breed of drawers first introduced by Blum mfg. called meta box, in which the drawer guide is part of the drawer box. I think this concept will be expanded and become the prefered drawer of the future.

Unlike the other cabinet parts that are stationary and do not move, drawers are under constant use holding various loads while opening and closing. Opening and closing also exposes them to other possible abuses or forces.

The strongest joint for wood boxes (solid wood, plywood, or melamine) is the traditional dovetail joint. It is stronger than a dowel or mortise joint and will last longer. Unfortunately way too many drawer boxes available today are none of the above, they are just glued and nailed together. Those glued and nailed boxes are significantly inferior and have a short life expectancy.

With Dovetailed construction, which is best, solid wood, plywood, or melamine?

  1. No matter which material you use, if longevity is your goal, I would highly recommend ⅝” minimum thickness for the material.
  2. Solid wood is the most used and asked for, but it is not necessarily the strongest option.
  3. The plywoods available and used are an extremely dense 7 or 9 ply that is structurally more stable than solid wood, less warping.
  4. Melamine is also more stable but dovetailed melamine over mdf does not look as good as a wood dovetail joint. I like to paint the exposed mdf to make it look better.
  5. With the new undermount guides that are currently the standard the slight warpage of solid wood has little to no affect on the operation of the drawer.
  6. Warpage can greatly affect the operation of the drawer if side mount guides are used.
The standard thickness for drawer bottoms is ¼” and works well in most drawers. However, for Pot and Pan drawers or roll out shelves wider than 27”, I highly recommend using ½” thick drawer bottoms for more strength. Through the years I have seen too many ¼” bottoms fall out on these type of drawers that are holding heavy loads.
There are lots of options for drawer guides today. Many are very good and long lasting. The old standard side mounted options are good, but lack one new feature that has become a standard over the last few years: Reliable and quiet soft close feature found in the new generation of undermount hidden drawer guides. These undermount soft-close slides are the new standard. Within this standard there are many choices and manufacturers in the market. I have tried most and here is a synopsis.

  1. Blum Manufacturing: For years, Blum has been the industry leader in developing new technologies. When they introduced their soft-close undermount Tandem slide, it changed the market. It is a good product at the top of the price spectrum for this type of slide.
    Reason to Buy: A lifetime warranty by an industry leader.
  2. Grass Manufacturing: Grass is another good large industry leader. Their Dynapro series has all the features of the Blum Tandem plus a few of their own innovations that make their drawer slide a little more stable for wider drawers. Comparably priced to Blum and also feature a lifetime warranty by an industry leader.
    Reason to Buy: In our opinion, Grass Dynapro Slides are an overall best buy.
  3. Salice Manufacturing: Another industry leader, highly popular in Europe. Another good product, a little less expensive than Blum and Grass.
    Reason to Buy: About 20% cheaper and lifetime warranty.
  4. There are hordes of Chinese manufacturers in the market. They seem to be very good products. They cost about 40% less than the Blum or Grass alternatives, but offer a 1 year warranty at best — many bring to mind old-time used car warranties: 60 seconds or 60 feet 😉
  5. The best buys, in my opinion, in this class of soft close undermount full extension guides:
    1. Premium Category: Grass Dynapro is far superior in smooth operation and installation than the comparably priced Blum Tandem.
    2. Low-Cost Category: Grass Elite Series, is as good as any import and priced like an import…but unlike the imported alternatives, offers the typical Grass Lifetime Warranty.
As stated above, it is a system that I believe is going to grow and develop into the industry standard. It offer a cleaner look, all white, gray, or metallic than a wood box and is available with or without the soft close feature. It also uses ⅝” thick drawer bottoms which are far superior in strength to the traditional wood boxes. It was introduced by Blum, but is copied by numerous other manufacturers. Cost for a soft close system is a little more as a wood box with undermount soft close guide.

Manufactured Cabinets vs Custom Cabinets

If you have read the previous topics before this section, I hope you have learned the various details that define the quality of a cabinet.

  1. Quality is not dependent on how large or small a shop may be.
  2. With all materials, finishes, and construction techniques being equal, large manufactures will be less expensive, because of mass production, more highly automated systems and standardization of sizes, than a small shop.
  3. The smaller shop can be more competitive when customization rather than standardization is needed.
  4. Smaller shops are more capable of offering materials that do not fit the larger mfg. assembly line system, like Thermofoil, Melamine, Laminates, etc. These materials are less expensive than wood and offer design choices not available with wood.
  5. One important difference between cabinets made in California and those made out of state or country: Formaldehyde – all raw materials, plywoods or particulate boards, available for me and other cabinet makers to buy here in california meet the state’s Low Formaldehyde regulations. The flaw in the law is that it does not regulate finished cabinets shipped into the state which are made of materials that do not meet the state’s Low Formaldehyde law. When you buy any cabinet not manufactured in California, it is most probable that it is not made in compliance with California’s Low Formaldehyde Laws.

Here is a comparison chart of industry standards vs my own custom standards that more closely meet my clients needs and is why they choose my custom cabinets over mass produced products available to them. All manufacturers have their own standards they choose to use, mine are listed here for comparison purposes.

Cabinet Industry Standards Our Custom Cabinet Standards
Cost cutting measures that reduce the longevity of the cabinets are prevalent in the industry. I build only cabinets I expect to last. Read the sections above for details. I save client money by offering material options, most companies don’t
All non standard size cabinets are subject to modification fees. Unlimited customizations with no modification fees. You only pay for the added materials.
Wall cabinets 12” deep, interior storage depth varies between 10 ½ and 11 inches. Formal dinner plates and some cereal boxes will not fit 14” deep, interior depth 13”, I will customize as needed for no extra charge, while larger shops have significant customization fees.
Wall cabinets come in standard heights @ 3” increments, 12, 15,…. to 30, 33, 36, 42” tall other sizes either not available or modifications fees Any size to meet the design needs, no charges for extra labor or modifications. You just pay for the materials needed.
Tall cabinets come in 3 standard heights 84, 90, or 96” tall and only 24” deep. Other sizes if available are subject to sizable modification fees. Any height any depth, no extra labor fees. My most common tall cabinets are 27” deep to give refrigerators a more built in look.
Depending on Mfg. offer only a few wood species and a few to 30 door styles. Normally wood species is plain cut and or non select wood. Any wood species, copy or create any door style. Will use any cut of wood, plain, rift, ¼ sawn, etc. and only use select match, to get the look needed
Pre-catalyzed Lacquer or Acrylic Conversion finish on wood products Conversion Varnish on all Wood products
Very limited offering of materials other than wood for doors. They want to sell you wood, because that is where they have invested in machinery and assembly line set up. Non wood products are like customs for most of them. Unlimited access to all other materials available: Thermofoil, melamine, laminate, stainless steel, high gloss acrylics, or other new offerings give us more design options. Our extensive use of thermofoils, melamine, and laminate save our clients money.

 

Bottom Line: Both local cabinet shops and big manufacturers are all over the map with regards to the quality of construction they offer. When you settle on the quality you want and find makers who offer that quality, larger manufactured cabinet companies will only be bargain if you can live with their standard offerings. Custom shops are a more competitive option when you need non standard sizes or a greatly expanded range of materials, door styles, and colors to chose from.