Quality Cabinets – what does it mean?

What does “quality cabinets” mean?

An over used, and subjective term within the industry meant to attract customers.

When a company says they produce quality cabinets what do they mean? You’ll have to ask them for that answer, but just because they advertise as “Quality Cabinets” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone. Here are some tips to consider before you take anyone’s word for it.

Over the years I’ve heard many people say they make, bought, sell, or have quality cabinets, and then I listen to how they talk about those cabinets. Statements like “they look so nice”, “the drawers slide so smoothly”, “I love the finish”, and “they cost me an arm and a leg.”

So, is this to say quality cabinets are based in cost and appearance? I think not. The old saying “you get what you pay for”  is still true. And a nice finish is the visual appeal to the product, but (and that’s a big BUT) they are not the only parts of the equation.

A year or two, or even five years down the road, I’ve heard those same people talk about the finish coming off, the drawer slides are not smooth anymore, the shelves sag, and how they thought these cabinets would last longer. When the throws of life hit your cabinets you begin to see how other factors play into the overall quality.

Material

First up is material, and with good reason. When products are built with inadequate materials they simply never last. Today’s industry standard for cabinetry is 5/8″ thick melamine. For a discussion on melamine see an earlier post where I review the pros and cons of melamine. In the not so distant past (40-50 yrs ago) the standard was 3/4″ thick material, but the decrease was based in cost savings. Thinner material costs less and is adequate for many applications, but not all applications–and that’s where people get in trouble. So being “good enough” with a lower cost, the industry moved its standard. The buyer needs to know 3/4″ thick material is far superior, that additional 1/8″ of an inch makes a world of difference.

The most visible difference is in shelf sag. For upper kitchen cabinets the max a  5/8″ shelf should span is 24″, that’s with a 20 lbs load. A shelf under the same load with 3/4″ thick material has a span of 36″. An increase of 1/8″ in thickness gains 12″ in span for shelving.

In a bank of drawers another weakness can be seen in gable deflection. Most often seen in cabinets with large heavy drawers or large pantry units, 5/8″ thick gables will begin to bow out under the weight. This causes the drawer slides to rack, bend, or twist, making them harder to pull out and/ or wearing out prematurely. In my 15 yrs of cabinet making I’ve seen drawer slides break and screws pull out before the 3/4″ thick gable bow under the weight.

My last point about material thickness has to do with construction. In this case, more is better. More fastener options are available, less defects occur (such as the material bulging where you placed a screw), and machined joints (dadoes and rabbits) are stronger, all because there’s more material to work with.

So is 5/8″ thick material bad? No, of course not, but it’s not the “do-all” product most shops take it for. If you have large shelf spans, heavy drawers, or need more strength in construction, I would suggest you opt for 3/4″ thick material. Quality cabinets are built with materials suited to their task.

Construction

Next up is the construction of the cabinet–how it’s built. I’ve worked in many different shops and they all do things differently thinking their way is best. Some use only glue, others dowels, or biscuits, or brad nails, or staples, or screws, or a combination of these. Some fasteners are better than others in case-construction, but it depends on your idea of quality to know which one (or two or three) needs to be used. If constructed poorly, some cabinets even have a hard time making it through the installation process.

One part often overlooked in cabinet construction is the cabinet back. The back is very important to square the cabinet, help reinforce the other joints, and in mounting the cabinet. When the back is attached to the cabinet in the manufacturing process it aids in squaring the cabinet. When cut square it gives a reference for the other parts to fit against.

If a back is dado-ed or rabbited into the other parts and left without any other reinforcement, i.e. glue or screws, it will not keep the cabinet square as it is floating between them. If hung on the wall for an upper kitchen cabinet the back become nothing more than a hanging cleat, and all the stress and weight of the cabinet will rest on the gable joints, which is insufficient for the use and will shortly begin to pull apart at those joints.

Some manufactures omit the back and add mounting strips at the top and bottom of the cabinet. This is a proponent to the issue of gable bowing, as discussed above, because there is nothing holding the gables together. When constructed properly the cabinet back helps to reinforce the other cabinet joints. This is done by gluing, screwing, or fastening the back to the other assembly parts. By doing this all other parts have 3, of their 4, edges permanently fastened to the cabinet. Now, when hanging an upper cabinet, the back becomes a mounted structural component, carrying its share of the weight and stabilising the other joints. Quality cabinets have construction techniques based in strength and application.

Hardware

Lastly I want to mention hardware in regards to quality. Hardware is the medium that helps us interact with our cabinets. When we open a door, pull a drawer, have organisation systems in a blind corner cabinet, or any other mechanism used to access the items in the cabinet, it all comes to hardware.

Just like material thickness, or construction methods, the hardware chosen will have been built for certain applications. The most common example of this is in drawer slides. All slides are not created equal, and therefore, there is no single slide that fits all drawers. The main concern is weight capacity. Most drawers do not need a slide weight limit of over 20 lbs, although large pot drawer can often need slides with 100 lbs limits. No one I know has ever weighed their drawer with everything in it, so when choosing slides err on the heavy side.

Having a higher weight limit on your slides does 2 things: 1) you never have to worry about the drawer being overloaded, and 2) the slides are more capable of handling the load you do put in them. An overloaded slide will fail much earlier causing more damage, frustrating the user, and needing  more energy to activate it. An under-loaded slide will last much longer and be easily activated, as indented, for the duration of its life.

Cabinet door hinges are another sore spot for a quality check. Many doors can–and do–get away with 2 hinges, but when it comes to wider and taller cabinets, over 36″ in either direction, additional hinges are needed. When a door has inadequate hinges, the weight of the door racks the the hardware on the door and on the cabinet mount. It becomes sloppy and loose, and people start saying “what poor quality cabinets”, all that was needed was additional hinges.

When considering any hardware look for weight limits, manufacturer specs, and the overall intended use of it. Whether a big pot drawer, large pantry door, or any other modern convenience hardware, having extra weight capacity or an extra hinge (or two) will go a long way in extending the life of your cabinetry. Quality cabinets have hardware with excess capacity for the task.

Wrap up

In a world of cost-cutting, don’t be fooled by the big price tag or the shiny lacquer finish. The material, construction techniques, chosen hardware, as well as the finish and price, all play a part in the overall quality of cabinetry. So, the next time you’re out shopping for quality cabinets, do yourself a favour and define what quality means to you, so that when you buy, you know what you’re buying is, indeed, quality cabinets.

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