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Cabinet Construction

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The Basic Elements and Design Styles:

There are two basic kitchen cabinet design styles, framed and frameless. Framed cabinets are also called face frame cabinets.  The construction of these two styles are very similar, but the look is different and the amount of room you have to the inside of the cabinet,  is different.

Framed Cabinet Construction:

Framed cabinets incorporate a wood frame around the front of the outer edge of the cabinet box.  A frameless cabinet doesn’t  have a frame around  the outer edge of the cabinet box. Framed cabinet construction is generally considered more traditional looking.  Overlay just means the extent to which the door covers or lays over the face frame.

     *Full overlay means the doors and drawers completely cover the face frame.

     *Full inset means the doors and drawers are made to fit within the fame frame opening.

Frameless Cabinet Construction:

frameless cabinets offer a bit more accessibility than framed cabinets.  This is because there is no inside edge of a frame, partially blocking the perimeter of the cabinet opening.  the amount of storage space in frameless construction drawers is grater than with framed cabinet construction because the drawer box is bigger for a given cabinet size (in other words, the drawer box has to be smaller on framed cabinets to fit through the face frame opening). 

Frameless cabinet construction is often described as a European style of cabinet.  cabinet doors are typically full overlay (covering the entire front edges of the cabinet box). The significance of these differences in cabinet construction, isn’t to much, other than some style differences and a little less accessibility to the inside of framed cabinets. they both work well and just evolved from different design traditions.

Base/Wall/Tall Cabinets:

Beyond framed and frameless design, the other primary elements of cabinet construction to be aware of are their basic units or building blocks.  These are the predominant components that your cabinets will be comprised of.

     *Base cabinets are the cabinets mounted on the floor that usually support the counter tops.  Kitchen islands are also a form of base cabinet and can be a combination of several base cabinets joined together or a custom made base. 

     *Wall cabinets as their name implies are mounted to the wall, with no connection to the floor.  They’re typically located above the counter tops and stove and ovens.

     *Tall/pantry cabinets are tall base cabinets.  They stand on the floor and may be free standing or attached to another wall and or base cabinet. 

Most kitchens are a combination of all of these base units. 

Cabinet materials and Construction:


Most of us think of kitchen cabinets as being made out wood and that is true for the most part. But don’t think that it’s all solid wood like the lumber used to frame a house.  There are other materials that go into the construction of cabinets.  Some are wood-based, but others are not.  Here is a list of the primary cabinet materials you will encounter. 

    *Solid wood: just as the term implies.  It’s homogeneous wood, all the way through.  the only variation might be boards or panels that are several pieces of solid wood joined together. 

     *Melamine: an engineered wood product that is made from wood chips and particles that are combined with an adhesive and fused together into boards and panels.  The panels are laminated with a resin coating to provide a durable surface.  These boards are available in a variety of colors as well as wood grain patterns. 

     *Medium density fiberboard (MDF) – another engineered wood product that is made up of wood fibers.  the fibers are combined with an adhesive under pressure and formed into boards and panels.  MDF has a finer texture than particle board and is denser and heavier than particle board.  It is used in cabinet doors, shelves and cabinet boxes.

     *Plywood – another engineered wood product but one that is probably most familiar to people.  It is made up of thin wood piles or layers of wood that are glued together in a sandwich form.  Plywood is used for shelving, doors and cabinet boxes.

You will typically see plywood as an upgrade from melamine or MDF from many cabinet makers.  

Also, watch for the terms solid wood or all wood as it pertains to cabinet construction in a manufacturer’s literature.  Solid wood should represent whole uniform lumber, not a fabrication or wood composite, like particle board, MDF or even plywood.

All wood is slightly different in that it usually means all plywood construction or a combination of plywood and solid wood.

When you encounter these terms, be sure that you are clear on whether it’s solid wood or plywood as you don’t run into any surprises.

Construction Methods:

Cabinet construction methods will vary based on manufacturer and the level of quality you pay for. 

The following terms describe some common methods of wood cabinet joinery (joinery just being the trade term for how the various wood parts are joined together).

     *Dovetail joints – this is a strong method of joining two boards together at right angles, such as with drawer boxes.  The ends of two boards or panels are notched with y-shaped cut-outs that mesh with corresponding notches on the adjoining panel.  If they’re tight, these types of joints are considered very solid.

     *Mortise and tenon – another form of joinery, this method uses a square post protruding from one end of a piece of wood that fits into a square hole or cutout in the mating piece.  This type of joinery might be used to fasten the pieces of a cabinet’s face frame together.

     *Dado and tenon – this is a groove that’s cut into a board or panel that the edge of another board/panel can fit into.  A good example is the sides and back of a cabinet drawer that are dadoed to accept the edges of the drawer bottom.  It’s a stronger way to capture the drawer bottom than just gluing or nailing the drawer bottom edges to the side panels.

     *Rabbet – this is a notch or step that’s cut into the edges of a board to accept the edge of another board to form a 90 degree angle.  It’s similar to a dado cut except one side is left open.

     *Doweled joint – this joinery technique uses round wood dowels (pegs) that are pressed and or glued half way into holes drilled into one piece of wood.  The protruding part of the dowel is then fit into holes drilled into the mating piece of wood.  This method is another way to join the sides of drawers or cabinet boxes together. 

     *Butt joint – on a butt joint, the ends of two pieces of material are brought or butted together, edge to edge.  Some form of mechanical retention like nails, screws or glue is need to hold this joint together.

     *Nails, screws, staples, glue – while these aren’t classified as true wood joinery techniques, they’re included because they’re also used in a lot of cabinet construction.  They either reinforce the wood joinery techniques or they’re used alone, which marks for less sturdy construction.

The bottom line on cabinet construction methods is that good joinery techniques where the parts lock together or where one piece is captured in the other makes for the strongest joints.  Supplemental fastening methods on these joints (such as a mortise and tenon joint plus screws) makes an even stronger connection.  Stronger joints equate to more durable cabinets. 


     *Cabinet Boxes & Face Frames: cabinet boxes are made from melamine, MDF or plywood.  Solid wood panels normally arnen’t used to construct the cabinet box except for the face-frame on framed cabinets.  Panels made from hose wood products are usual covered in either a wood veneer, plastic laminate/melamine or thermofoil.

*Construction: The cabinet box is essentially just that – a box.  The key point to understand here is that there are several methods used to reinforce the box and make sure it remains rigid.  Another feature uses an beam brace, along the back from side to side.  The brace usually fits in a dado slot in the side panel.


    *Materials: Cabinet drawers are predominately made from the same materials that are used to construct the cabinet cases such as plywood and solid wood. On higher quality drawers more of the drawer parts tend to be made of solid wood to stand up the abuse from more frequent opening and closing.

*Drawer fronts: the part of the drawer that you see, tend to be made from solid wood.

*Construction: the way a drawer is built plays a large role in it’s durability and longevity.  The drawer box is made up of two side panels, front and back panels and the bottom. Most cabinet drawers have a separate front piece that is attached to the front drawer box panel.

The parts that make up the drawer box can be assembled in several ways. Dovetail joints that are tight form the strongest construction at the corners of the drawer. Dovetailed joints where one side of the drawer box has dowels installed on one and that fit in holes in the matting panel and is another form of joinery.  Drawer bottoms that fit into ado slots in the drawer slides are stronger than bottoms that are just nailed and/or glued to the bottom of the drawer box.  Glue, small nails and staples are also used to fasten drawer parts together.


     *Materials: cabinet doors are made from solid wood or one of the engineered wood products (MDF & plywood). Engineered wood doors are covered with a wood veneer, laminate or thermofoil.

*Construction:  there are two basic types of cabinet doors construction – framed and slab. Framed doors are made up of an outer frame that is built around a panel in the center of the door.  The edges of the panel fit into slots nailed into the inside edges of the frame and are allowed to float within the frame to allow for normal expansion and construction of the wood. Raised panel doors are a common variety of the frame door style.

slab doors don’t have the separate parts like a framed door and are usual one-piece construction. Slab doors made from plywood or MDF are covered in a veneer, laminate or thermofoil covering.


     *Materials: cabinet shelves are made from one of the engineered wood products – either plywood or MDF.  Regardless of which material used, they are normally covered with another material such as wood veneer or laminate ply.

*Construction: there really isn’t much to a cabinet shelf’s construction except for the mention of thickness. Shelf thickness varies based on cabinet manufacturer and the particular line (often equating to the level of quality) within a certain brand.  Shelf thickness ranges from 1/2″ to 5/8″ to 3/4″ thick.  obviously thicker is better when it comes to longer shelves on wide cabinets in order to avoid sagging.




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