Secrets of quality cabinet construction

Jim Mallery

When choosing cabinetry for your kitchen remodel, the cabinet material -- whether particleboard or plywood -- is important to the quality. But cabinet construction is certainly of equal importance. Here is what you need to look for in both the cabinet box and the drawer construction to assure your cabinets can stand the test of time with everyday use.

Box construction

A list of the variables in cabinet construction can spin your head like an orbital sander. The two main areas of box construction, however, are thickness and joint bracing.

  • Thickness: Whether you choose particleboard or plywood, the ends of the box should be made of stock from ½-inch and ¾-inch boards -- the thicker the better, obviously. The back of the box may be made of the same stock, though often it is thinner, even 1/8-inch to ¼-inch thick. You may find 1/8-inch fiberboard on the back, but only on the really low-end products. Dismiss any thought of the cabinet if it is backless.
  • Joint bracing: The bracing and joint construction of the box is critical. The boards should be joined with a glued dado joint -- where the end of one board is glued into a groove cut into the other board. That joint also may be nailed or stapled.

Upper cabinets have a top and bottom, which also should be dadoed into the sides. Lower (base) cabinets have no top: The counter serves as the top, but the top joints still need to be braced.

Cabinetry brace made from particleboard

A medium-grade manufactured cabinet with particleboard bracing dadoed into the sides.

The best bracing would be a 4-inch-wide strip of plywood that is dadoed into the end and runs from the front to the back; a particleboard brace would be a step down.

plastic corner braces installed in cabinet boxes

Low-end cabinets made of ½-inch particleboard with plastic corner-bracing and no back

Lower-quality cabinets may simply have wood-, particleboard- or plastic-triangle braces attached to the corners of the box. The quality of those cabinets can be gauged by the size and material of the brace.

Drawer quality

John Dyer, a longtime cabinet specialist who works for Lowe's in the Seattle area, puts a lot of stock in the drawers.

"A look at the drawers will give you a quick feeling for the overall quality of a cabinet," he said. He likes to see all-wood drawers, not particleboard. And he prefers dovetail joints.

dovetail joint on a manufactured cabinet

A dovetail joint on a manufactured cabinet

  • Joints: Once upon a time, top-quality drawers used dovetail joints. Not as much anymore; stronger, eternally binding glues have greatly strengthened other types such as dowel, biscuit and dado joints.

drawer made with dowel joint

A hidden, dowel joint was used on this custom drawer instead of dovetail. It is a cleaner look, but still very strong

While today you see dovetailed joints on common manufactured cabinetry, such as Thomasville or KraftMaid sold through the big box stores, your high-end custom cabinetmaker may just as well use one of the other types of joints.

"The dovetail still is the strongest joint," Dyer said. "But maybe some manufacturers will go with hidden joints for cosmetic reasons."

Also, there are good dovetails and bad dovetails. They should fit snugly, with no gaps in the wedges.

Whatever the joint, it needs to somehow interlock using dovetails, dowels, biscuits or grooves.

poor quality particleboard drawer

A low-quality drawer of ¼-inch particle board, with deteriorating glued and stapled butt joints and plastic rollers

You don't want simple butt joints held together with glue and a couple of staples.

  • The stock: The drawer box should be made of substantial wood, ½- to ¾-inch thick. Your worst product -- and they are out there -- would be ¼-inch particleboard with glued and stapled butt joints. That crumbles faster than a stale Oreo.

The drawer bottom should be dadoed into the sides, not just tacked to the bottom. It should be strong enough not to sag under the expected load.

To get a truly solid cabinet, you need to choose the strongest material you can afford, but also, you must see that it is constructed with proven methods.



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