Choosing Cabinetry Part 2: Cabinet Component Construction

When choosing cabinets for your next project, it is important to understand how your cabinets are built so that you know the quality you are getting. We will walk you through the things to look for on your doors, drawers and more.

Photo by Anete Lusina on

Last week we discussed the construction of your cabinet box and the differences between framed and frameless cabinets. This week we cover the cabinet components. While the cabinet box needs to be structurally sound in order to hold all the weight of the cabinet contents, the components usually get the most wear and tear from daily use. Because of this, it is important to know what you are getting and what to look for when making your purchase.

We will also discuss a little about cabinet certifications, warranties, and the most important part, how not to blow your budget on cabinets. Let’s get started!



Cabinet Component Construction

Most of the components of your cabinet will be shared by both framed and frameless designs. Some of the dimensions and styles may differ, but the overall purpose and quality markers will be the same. Because of this we are combining them into one list and will let you know if there are any notable differences.


The interior components of your cabinet will vary by options offered by your manufacturer, but the standard is basic shelving. Shelves will usually be 1/2″ to 3/4″ thick and made of furniture board (particleboard) or plywood. These will be edge banded and finished to match the interior of your cabinet. With shelves, the thicker the better. A 3/4″ shelf is much less likely to sag when holding heavy dishes. Shelves will typically be supported using shelf pegs or clips that allow the height to be adjusted using holes drilled into the interior sides of your cabinet. Some lower quality cabinets will have shelves that are dadoed into the sides of the cabinet and will not be adjustable.

Upper cabinet shelves are almost always the full depth of the cabinet, while the depth of lower self will vary by manufacturer. Less expensive cabinets will often save money by offering half-depth shelves, while better cabinets will offer full-depth or, the most common, 3/4 depth. You might think that the 3/4 depth shelves are a just money saving feature for the manufacturer, but this design actually serves a purpose. A 3/4 depth shelf will provide storage while still allowing you visibility and accessibility to the cabinet bottom. This is important if you do not plan on adding any in-cabinet accessories, such as a roll-out tray. It will also avoid issues if you plan on adding any back of the door storage options now, or in the future. We do find that most manufacturers will offer a full depth shelf option, but the cabinet will need to be ordered that way. Make sure to verify this if a full depth base cabinet shelf is important to you.

As far as the finish of the shelf, this will be determined by the interior finish of the cabinet and construction. Usually you will receive a wood-look laminate on furniture board for standard construction and a wood veneer on the plywood for the all-plywood construction. Both of these are typically a natural maple or light wood color. On more customizable cabinets you can order the inside of the cabinet to be the same, or similar, as the outside finish. This is usually not necessary unless you are doing an open cabinet or glass door.

The durability of the different shelf finishes are similar, although sometimes the laminate will be a little more water resistant if you find yourself putting away damp dishes often. One other note, on some white thermofoil or laminate cabinets, often the interior and shelves are white laminate as standard instead of the natural maple, even if you upgrade to all-plywood construction. Make sure to verify if this applies to you.


Most hinges on cabinets are now concealed, making them a functional piece of hardware and not an aesthetic one. Since hinges are one of the most used item, next to drawer glides, make sure you check for quality and durability. While no cabinet hinge will likely withstand a child swinging on it, they should easily last the life of your cabinets with daily use.

Look for features such as anti-slam or cushion close to prevent that annoying noise every time you close a door. This feature will also reduce wear on your hinges and their attachment to the cabinet. Most quality hinges will also have the ability to make multiple door adjustments with the turn of a screw as well as be able to easily remove the doors without unscrewing the hinge.


Doors and Drawer Fronts

Door styles vary widely by manufacturer, but they typically will fall into a couple of categories.

Framed Wood Doors and Drawer Fronts

In the above example, they have used a solid wood door and drawer front frame, in this case birch, with a veneer, raised, center panel. Note that they call the cabinet Maple Walnut. This is the finish name and not the actual wood used to construct the cabinet. This is a common tactic in off-brand cabinets.

These doors will have an outside frame, usually of solid wood, with a solid or veneered center panel. Since all of the supportive structure is in the frame, the center panel construction is usually purely decorative. A solid panel will allow you to have additional decorative routed detail, while a veneer panel will have a smoother look. If the center panel is flat instead of raised, it will almost always be a veneer panel, although sometimes a reversed solid panel is available. A reversed solid panel will move the raised portion of the center panel to the hidden, inside of the door. This allows you to have a solid wood door, with the look of a flat panel.

There are a couple of differences you might find when ordering a specific framed wood door. Make sure to ask your designer if this applies to you. When painting a door, it is not uncommon for a center panel to be changed to a MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) instead of a veneer. The reason being is that the MDF gives a smoother painted finish and will avoid cracking. Also, when painting any framed wood door, very small hairline cracks may be seen on the frame joints. This is due to expansion and contraction of the wood throughout the year as humidity levels change. You may also see a halo effect around the center panel due to this same expansion and contraction. These small issues are just par for the course when working with wood. Make sure to order an extra touch-up pen for the first year, then you should be fine going forward.

Any of these humidity related issues will, of course, be lessened, but not eliminated, with the use of a home conditioning system. If you live in an area that has a lot of humidity changes, you are installing your cabinets in a humid space such as a bathroom, laundry, or basement, or don’t have good humidity control in your home, they will be more apparent. You may want to avoid using wood doors if these small issues bother you.

Thermofoil Doors and Drawer Fronts

The above example is a frameless cabinet with a white thermofoil door routed to give the appearance of a raised center panel framed door.

If you want the look of painted cabinets, but don’t want the issues related to paint, as mentioned above, thermofoil may be the way to go. Older style thermofoil had a rough and kind of bubbly texture, but the new thermofoil is smooth and sometimes difficult to tell that it isn’t paint. Usually thermofoil is made by taking MDF, routing any wanted details into the door, then covering with a sheet of thermofoil (basically a sheet of plastic). The plastic is then heated, adhering to the door and settling into any routed groves. The result is a door that is extremely durable and gives you the look of paint, without the seams. Thermofoil is extremely popular in slab (flat) style doors as it gives a smoother edge to the door than the laminate alternative.

Some manufacturers are now making thermofoil doors in a frame style to make it look even more like paint. By wrapping the frame and center panel individually, before assembling, you get some seams on the frame corners, but no expansion and contraction issues as well as the added durability of a thermofoil. A perfect compromise for those humid areas.

Thermofoil sound too good to be true? Well, it does have some downsides. First, even though thermofoil is extremely durable and difficult to scratch, if it is scratched, it is not repairable and will need to be replaced. Second, it does not show detail as well. One of the biggest giveaways that the door is thermofoil, and not paint, is that the routing details will be a little softer. During adhesion, the thermofoil settles into the grooves and the routing loses a little definition. Because of this, we suggest using this on more plain door styles or seeking out a manufacturer that makes the frame style thermofoil doors. Third, but very important, thermofoil is very susceptible to heat. Because it is a plastic and is adhered using heat, it only makes sense that heat will take it off as well. Make sure you are installing a heat shield next to any self-cleaning range or oven. We would also advise using it in any space that gets more extreme temperatures.


Metal Framed Doors

The example above is of a kitchen using aluminum frame glass doors with the frame mounted behind the glass.

These are most often seen with glass center panels and have become a very modern approach to glass doors. They are usually made of aluminum and are either mounted in front of or behind the glass. Because this style is usually a glass front, you will not find this in a drawer front.

Laminate Doors and Drawer Fronts

The above example uses a textured wood-grain look laminate door.

Laminate is a thick paper and plastic sheet that is glued to a panel, usually MDF. The panel is then edge-banded in matching or coordinating material to cover the exposed edges of the door. Since laminate starts off as a paper, it can be a solid color, printed to look like wood, or any number of patterns, but because it is so thick, you will only find it in slab style doors and drawer fronts. Laminate and thermofoil are most commonly used in frameless style cabinets, though it can be found in framed.

Like thermofoil, laminate is very durable and difficult to scratch, but can not be repaired if scratched. Issues such as peeling or chipping can also arise if the edge-banding isn’t done well.

Veneer doors

The above photo is an example of a wood veneer slab door.

Veneer doors are made the same way as laminate doors, only using wood veneer. This allows you to have real wood in a slab door or drawer front without the expansion and contraction issues. This process will result in a sharper square edge and it is imperative that the edge-banding is done well to avoid peeling, cracking, and breakage.

Solid Slab Doors and Drawer Fronts

The bar cart above is an example of a solid wood drawer front with a routing detail, while the door appears to be a framed, flat, veneer panel door.

Solid slab doors are out there, but not very popular due expansion and contraction issues, cracking and warping. The solid slabs doors and drawer fronts are made by gluing multiple slabs of wood together then sanding and finishing. One advantage is that a solid slab will allow you to have rounded, eased, or routed edges and corners to your door. Because of the smaller size of drawers, this is, however, a popular way to make drawer fronts.

Inset Doors

The cabinet above shows an example of an inset, framed, wood door.

Inset doors are more of a way that the doors are made to be installed instead of a style of door. The door is made to fit inside, instead of overlapping, the frame. This is also the exception to the concealed hinge, as the decorative barrel of the hinge is often used as an added detail in this door style.

Inset doors can be made almost any door style, but are most often framed doors to reduce expansion and contraction issues. This type of door is not recommended in very humid areas or those that change humidity levels drastically to avoid large gaps and sticking doors.



Drawers are one of the most used parts of your cabinets, next to doors, so it is imperative that you look for strength and durability. The two main parts of the drawer is the drawer box and the glide.

Drawer Box

The photo above shows a solid wood drawer box with dovetail joints.

The drawer box will be built with either solid wood, a laminated furniture board, or plywood. The sides are typically 3/8″ to 5/8″ thick and will be joined at the corners with a glued dovetail joint or a stapled and glued rabbet joint. A better quality cabinet will have a full four-sided box, while a lower end cabinet might have only three sides, with the fourth side being completed by the decorative drawer front.

The bottom of your box might be a thin furniture board or a thicker laminated plywood up to 1/4″ thick. Your box bottom will either be held in place by special clips, tracks, dadoed into the sides, or a combination of methods.

Look for a solid wood, four-sided drawer box with dovetail joints and a thicker (over 3/16″) bottom that is fully enclosed in dado joints on all four edges. The only exception to this will be your deeper drawers, as it is common, even in higher quality cabinets, to have veneered plywood drawer box sides to avoid warping. These should still be dovetailed with a fully captured bottom. Your drawers should be rated for at least 15 pounds per square foot.

Drawer Glides

The photo above shows an example of bottom mounted drawer glides mounted to a drawer box.

There are many different types of drawer glides on the market. The most common will be your side mounted roller glides in your lower end cabinets and your bottom mounted glides in your better quality cabinets. The bottom mounted glides will help with drawer stability and strength as well as allow your drawer to be as wide as possible to maximize storage space. Again, these will be holding a lot of weight, so you should look for two, bottom mounted glides that are rated for at least 50 pounds.

Other options that are nice to have are anti-slam or cushion close glides to prevent the drawers from slamming and a full extension option to allow access to the back portion of your drawers.

Another tip is that these same features should also be found on any pull-out shelves or trays that you are adding to the inside of your cabinet as they will also need similar strength and durability requirements. One difference may be that the glide may be side-mounted to allow mounting of the tray mid-cabinet.


Other Construction Considerations


Did you know that particle board is heavier than plywood? If weight of the cabinets are an issue, you may consider the upgrade to full-plywood construction.

Cabinet Certification

When looking to purchase cabinets, it is important to look for an ANSI/KCMA A161.1 certification. This means that the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association has tested the cabinets for basic strength and design standards. Keep in mind that these standards are minimums. It is usually best to look for other quality construction features we mentioned earlier if you want a cabinet that will truly last.

Cabinet Warranty

We are firm believers that any manufacturer worth purchasing cabinets from should stand behind their product. It is not uncommon in the cabinetry world for them to even offer a limited lifetime warranty. Make sure to read the details carefully, but this usually means that they will fix or replace any cabinet part that fails due to defect under normal wear, tear, and household use, as long as it is properly installed. We highly suggest seeking out these companies.

One thing about warranties is longevity. The warranty is only valid as long as the manufacturer is in business. We are all for small businesses, but while it is no guarantee, this might be a good reason to go with the larger companies. If you plan on replacing your cabinets every 10 to 15 years as trends change, then this may not be as big of an issue, but if you want your kitchen to stand up over time, it may be something to think about.

Another thing…KEEP YOUR PAPERWORK! You will need proof of purchase for any warranty issues. You should not only keep your receipt, but part list and record of your wood, finish, and door style as well. We have ran into issues in the past where a manufacturer had record of the sale, but it was so old that details needed for a replacement part had been purged. Keep these things filed away and pass them on to the future homeowner if you sell. A lot of manufacturers already do this, but we also recommend placing a tag on the inside of your sink base with the manufacturer, order number, door style, wood species, and finish so that it is readily available if the paperwork should get misplaced.


How Not to Blow Your Budget on Cabinets Part 1

Okay, so here is where we get practical. We know not everyone has the budget for the best made cabinet, so where will your dollars be best spent?

When you are looking at the construction of your cabinet box, usually full-plywood is better than furniture board and the thicker the boards, the better. But do you really need a full-plywood box? We recommend making sure to first look for those manufacturers who stand behind their cabinet with that limited lifetime warranty we spoke about earlier. It is a pretty good bet that if they are willing to replace the cabinet if it fails, that it is built to not fail under normal use. Once you have found a reputable manufacturer, it is okay to order their standard construction for the majority of your cabinets.

Splurge on the cabinets that matter. If you have a wall cabinet specifically to display great-grandma’s china, then that is worth the upgrade.

Keep in mind that you need to pay special attention to making sure that your cabinets are being installed correctly and that your plan allows for everything being properly supported. For example, if you put a deep cabinet (usually 24″ deep) above your refrigerator, most manufacturers will not consider it to be properly supported unless you have a tall cabinet, panel, or wall in which the front frame can be secured on both sides.

We will speak a little more about this when covering cabinet finishes in a couple of weeks, but it may be a good idea, if it is in the budget, to upgrade any sides that you will see to the flush furniture plywood construction. This will make your side a wood veneer, in most cases, so that it will age the same as your cabinet fronts. It will also make your side even with your face frame, as we discussed during framed cabinet construction, to make installing moldings easier. Save the money by leaving the sides of the cabinets you are never going to see standard construction.

As far as drawer boxes, shelves, drawer glides, and hinges go, this is where you want your budget dollars to go. They take the brunt of the weight and wear and tear on a daily basis. Splurge a little on the higher quality, especially if your warranty is not limited lifetime.

We hope you learned a little more about cabinet construction so that you can make an educated decision when purchasing your cabinets. Make sure to subscribe or follow us so you do not miss the continuation of this series: Choosing Cabinetry Part 3: Cabinetry Classifications. We will discuss the differences between Custom, Semi-Custom, and Builder Grade cabinets. We will also continue How Not to Blow Your Budget on Cabinets Part 2 where we discuss how these classifications help you to get the best cabinet for your budget.

Related Reading:

Choosing Cabinetry Part 1: Cabinetry Box Construction, Framed Vs. Frameless

Choosing the Right Countertop

Starting Your Project Part 1: Budget


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