As with most everything else, cabinets are available in many price ranges, but just because a cabinet is expensive doesn’t necessarily mean that it lives up to the standards of good quality. There are various things which affect the price of cabinetry, such as the materials, the quality of construction, wood type, features, the type of cabinet, the finish and whether it is a semi-custom or custom built cabinet. Being knowledgeable about what to look for in cabinet quality can help you to get the most for your money.
The Composition of a Quality Cabinet
The casework, or the box is the most basic element of any cabinet. The sides, back and floor of a cabinet are essential for structural stability and resistance to damage. Cabinet cases are built from Plywood, Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) or Particle Board.
Particle board is the least expensive and least durable of the three. It can do just fine, especially for the back of the cabinet. However, it is not very water resistant and cracks easily when stressed. MDF is very durable, stable and has the advantage of being paintable. It resists water better than particle board and is much stronger. One drawback to using MDF is that it tends to outgas formaldehyde (depending upon the manufacturing process) which can cause health issues at worst, or merely an unpleasant odor. Plywood is the most durable material.
The material of the cabinet interior can be plastic or film laminates or wood laminate. Wood laminates look the best and are the most durable. A cabinet that will have an exposed exterior side will usually match the cabinet fronts. Laminate plywood is the best quality choice for cabinet ends.
Joinery is how the wood of a cabinet is fitted together. In casework, interlocking joints are a great deal stronger than butt joints. A butt joint is just two pieces of wood, butted together and held in place with some type of fastener, such as staples. A better joint is a dado or rabbet joint in which one piece is fitted into a slot on a second piece. The slot provides mechanical strength and is usually additionally secured with glue and staples.
An excellent way to judge a drawer is by the material used as the drawer bottom. Pressed wood will begin to sag by and by when used for this purpose. Plywood of about 1/8″ thickness is better and it should fit into a slot in the drawer sides. In the old days, solid wood was used with the edges whittled down to a fraction of an inch to fit into a slot on the drawer sides.
Since doors are subjected to constant use and abuse it is essential that they be well made. Butt joints in a door are the lowest quality. Doors should have a shape cut into the edge and the matching piece should have the reciprocal shape cut into the end. This joint makes a tighter lock than a butt joint. An even stronger joint is a mortise, where a protruding tenon of one piece is fitted into a mortise hole on the other. Usually this type of joint is invisible, but will be noted by the manufacturer as a quality feature.
The components found in all cabinets — drawer slides, door hinges, knobs and pulls — can be costly. Stock cabinets use basic quality hardware, which can save you substantial money. The disadvantage to using this type of hardware is mainly the feel and appearance. Low quality drawer slides can make a drawer feel rickety. Noise and unattractive looks are also associated with cheaper hardware. Full extension heavy-duty drawer slides, are ideal. This way the back of the drawer is visible and accessible.
Quality construction will use pieces that look similar, or even have all door pieces for one door cut from one single piece of wood.
The center panel can be made from plywood, particle board, MDF or solid wood. For stained doors with contours carved into the surface, solid wood is usually the best choice. In that case, look for panels that are assembled from fewer edge joined pieces. Too many pieces joined together result in uneven coloring and grain pattern. Painted doors hide the construction of the panel and so MDF is a suitable choice. For flat panel doors, plywood is the best choice.
Finishes include stain, paint, glaze, laminate and thermofoil. Laminates and thermofoil are the most prone to failure and are associated with less expensive cabinets. They can be perfectly adequate, but there is a greater chance of damage or deterioration. Wood laminates are common and better than plastic and film laminates. Stain, paint and glaze quality vary but there is no easy way to determine quality by inspection.