New cabinets: hardware and finish tips

Jim Mallery

If the box is the backbone of your cabinet, hardware and finish are like appendages. The best cabinet construction in the world doesn't matter if the appendages are faulty. Here's what you're looking for:

The hardware

Cabinet hardware includes door hinges and drawer glides.

  • Hinges: Whether face-mounted or hidden, you want substantial hinges that will not crack or wobble with repeated use. Hidden, Eurostyle hinges have the added benefit of adjustability. They allow you to move the door in all directions so that you can achieve perfect alignment, as well as make minor adjustments to accommodate shifting through the years.


This hidden, Eurostyle hinge is adjustable in all directions and includes a soft-close absorber

Face-mounted hinges usually allow you to open the door a full 180 degrees if that is important to you. Eurostyle hinges allow you to open the door from 95 to 135 degrees or so.

  • Glides: Your drawer glides, or slides, should be rated to carry 75 to 100 pounds -- even more if you know the drawer will carry especially heavy loads. John Dyer, a cabinet expert with Lowe's in the greater Seattle area, emphasizes you should choose metal ball-bearing glides, not plastic glides.

Dyer says that under-mounted glides are becoming the standard for cabinetmakers. Under-mounted glides have two advantages over side-mounted glides:

  1. They let you build a full-width drawer -- side-mounted glides can waste up to an inch on each side of the drawer.
  2. Under-mounted glides make drawers very easy to remove and replace.

Also, full-extension glides are becoming standard, Dyer said. Full extension allows you to open the drawer completely, so that you have easy access to the farthest corners. A standard-extension glide leaves the back couple of inches of drawer space in the cabinet even when fully extended.

limited extension drawer glide

Without full-extension glides, it is difficult to dig items out of the back of this drawer

custom drawer with full extension glide

Full-extension glides allow easy access to the farthest reaches of the drawer

slides mounted under the drawer

Example of a full-extension, undermount glide is shown

With a full-extension, undermount glide, you lift the drawer off the slides by pressing the orange tabs. To replace the drawer, simply set it on the glides and close it.

With both hinges and glides, the soft-close option also is very popular. The low-cost shock absorbers put an end to slammed doors and drawers.


You will have to decide what type of doors you want -- all wood, particleboard or RTF.

Rigid thermofoil (RTF) is a cousin of particle board; it has been described as particleboard with a shrink-wrap cover. Actually, it is a vinyl coat applied to medium-density fiberboard (MDF) under high heat and pressure. It is very uniform, doesn't warp and can accurately mimic the appearance of real wood. RTF has been criticized for its propensity to yellow and delaminate, though manufacturers say they now have solved those problems. RTF is sensitive to heat and must be shielded from self-cleaning ovens.

Wood-panel doors are considered the top end product, but they need to be solid wood, not plywood, which can warp. If you want a flat door, not paneled, it can be made of MDF, covered with a wood veneer.

example of mismatched wood cabinet construction

These cherry drawer fronts are an example of mismatched wood

Major cabinet manufacturers are less likely to match colors and grains, as with these cherry drawer fronts. Cherry is known for its wide color variation.

example of well-matched wood cabinet doors

The cabinetmaker for these custom cherry cabinets was careful to match colors and grain

The greatest visual difference between custom cabinets and those manufactured on a national scale is the wood selection in the doors and drawer fronts. Small-scale, custom cabinetmakers typically take the time to match grains and colors as they are assembling the doors and drawers. Not so with large-scale companies, and a result, their doors and drawers may look more like a checkerboard than fine woodwork.

Surprisingly, the larger-scale cabinetmakers are likely to have more durable finishes on their wood cabinets than the custom cabinetmakers. Larger manufacturers have baked-on finishes that the smaller builders can't match.

The interior of a plywood box should be a veneer of a good finish wood, such as birch. In the extremes of high-end custom cabinetry, the interior of a plywood box might be in the same veneer as the exterior.

Odds and ends

finishing cabinet trim

When comparing bids on cabinets, make sure you are including extras, such as trim and crown molding

Bids. When you compare bids for cabinet packages, make sure they include the range of materials. Are mounting screws included? Kick board, or filler and trim pieces? What about crown molding? Will the package include knobs and pulls? And does the package include installation, which might cost as much as several thousand dollars?

RTA. If someone tries to sell you ready-to-assemble (RTA) cabinets, unless you are outfitting a cheap rental house and don't care much about its quality, it might be wise to say "no." Usually held together by pins and metal cam fasteners, they tend not to have the durability required from kitchen cabinet use.

In judging cabinet quality, there are many elements to evaluate. Have an understanding of what you are looking for so you can make the best choices within your price range.

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