Think Inside The Box – What To Look For When Buying Cabinets

by Carlos Ramirez September 15, 2019

Think Inside The Box – What To Look For When Buying Cabinets

The kitchen is the heart of your home and shopping for cabinets one of the biggest aesthetic decisions you’ll make as a homeowner. Not only do you have to commit to a design for at least the next few years, but you're also spending thousands of dollars. We want you to have all the information possible before making your decision.

With so many cabinet options available, the sky is the limit. But, what works best for your family? Do you need something standard or more personalized?

Ready-To-Assemble (RTA) Cabinets

RTA is often the most economical option. However, as with everything, there are tradeoffs. The available door styles and finishes are often very limited (e.g. a few paint colors, a few stains, and no veneers or laminates). More importantly, the painted finishes are not as hardened or well-adhered as their more expensive competitors. Considering that repainting your cabinets properly will cost around $4,000, it's worth give thought to how much you are actually saving over 5-10 years.

RTA cabinets are generally made out of birch or maple plywood (3/8" to 3/4" in thickness). As you'll read in the section on materials, plywood is generally superior to most particle boards. It can be stripped and refinished, an advantage not afforded to particle boards. Although the makers of RTA cabinets tend to opt for cheaper finishes and hardware, the cabinets cases—assembled correctly—are typically of fine quality.

RTA cabinets come flat-packed and you must consider who is going to assemble them. In addition, they come only in standard sizes (e.g. widths of 15", 18", 21", 24", 30", 33", and 36") and, if you have an odd-sized space, you'll have to use filler panels to make up the difference. This is obviously not the most well-optimized or efficient use of space, but it can be a way to save money.

Stock Cabinets

Like RTA cabinets, stock cabinets are sized in 3inch increments by the manufacturer. However, they come assembled! If buying plywood, the quality of wood is generally slightly more uniform and therefore will warp more slowly than the ready-to-assemble. Stock cabinets will also lack some of the fun features you would get from custom and semi-custom. So, if it comes with a lazy susan or built-in spice rack, consider yourself lucky. These are the base cabinetry lines typically sold in big box stores.

Semi-Custom Cabinets

These cabinets are in the mid-price range and they have a healthy offering of materials, sizing options, and finishes. Semi-custom cabinets are a great option if you want a personalized feel without the huge price tag. Some manufacturers will allow you to extend the depth of the cabinets along with overall sizing. Unlike standard cabinets, semi-custom cabinet builders will let you pick from a selection of materials, hardware, and storage solutions to give your kitchen a special touch. 

Custom Cabinets

The possibilities are endless. In this category we will include local master craftsmen as well as custom European and American cabinetmakers. Measurements for custom pieces are precise and no detail is left unturned. It is worth considering that custom cabinetry generally has lead times in months not weeks, and the cost can exceed that of a single-family home in a small Midwestern city.

Custom cabinetry is made to order and the materials sourced are some of the best you can get. If you can afford to go this route, please consider the forests from which the wood is coming from. Look for FSC-certified woods from sustainably managed North American and European forests. Some wood species to consider are maple, cherry, beech, birch, hickory and some walnut. Avoid exotic wood veneers of unknown origin.

Pre-Owned Cabinets

Purchasing a pre-owned luxury cabinet set is a way to get higher quality at lower cost. You will be able to pick from styles and finishes unavailable anywhere else, and resellers, like us, offer kitchens at between 30-80% off the retail price. In exchange for paying less for a luxury product, you accept whatever slight imperfections or beauty marks are present. Often, after repair and refabrication, there are almost no noticeable imperfections, but the ReDesign process is custom and creative, meaning a particular result is never guaranteed.

Second-hand kitchens are more than a great deal, they also support our broader environmental and social goals. First, you are helping divert beautiful materials not at the end of their usable life from landfill. Second, when buying used cabinets, showroom displays, overstocks, or floor models, the carbon, water, wood, land and labor costs were internalized in the original purchase. Therefore, the environmental footprint of your purchase is almost zero.  Last, when you buy from us or Habitat for Humanity, your purchase will benefit job training and construction of housing for low-income families.

Not all kitchens are made to last, so let’s talk about materials.

Solid Wood

Solid wood is the standard for face frames, doors and drawers. It’s also a great option for accent pieces. It’s easy to modify, stain, and paint. If properly cared for, solid wood can last decades. Cabinet boxes aren’t made out of solid wood because there are two kinds of wood: Wood that is warped and wood that is going to warp.

Plywood, MDF & Particle Board

These composite materials are mainly used to build cabinet boxes because of their durability and consistency. You can think of the three as different size wood chips with varying amounts of glue. Plywood has the largest wood chip (a.k.a. plies or sheet of about 3mm thick wood) and uses little resin. Particle board has the next largest chip (a.k.a. actual chips of hard and soft wood) and requires more glue. MDF is essentially heat-treated wood pulp/fibers. Of the three listed here, it requires the most adhesive to bond. 

Plywood is made out of veneered sheets of wood that are glued together and the sheets are rotated to create a cross-grained effect, which makes it very strong! This material is more expensive than particle board or MDF and it’s also lighter in weight. It’s stable and warping and shrinkage are virtually non-existent. 

Particle board (a.k.a low-density fiberboard [LDF] or chipboard) is made by taking wood chips, shavings, and sawdust that are heat pressed into layers and then a sheet. The result is a board that is generally heavier and less flexible and durable than plywood. It also requires more urea-formaldehyde resin to bond, which in turn leads to more off-gassing of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Unlike plywood it requires a laminate or veneer to have a finished look. It cannot be painted or stained. The primary advantage of particle boards is that they can be made from dying, diseased and aging trees plus the byproducts of the milling process. This makes useful waste that might otherwise be thrown out.

However, not all particle boards are created equal. Without getting too far into particle geometry, the size and shape of the chips used for the middle versus the exterior layers of the board will imbue the board with different properties. There are also different resins available to manufactures and regulatory standards that they have to adhere (pun intended). Lower VOCs often means longer cure times and/or a less durable product. European cabinetmakers use particle board almost exclusively for the construction of cabinet boxes (a.k.a. cases). They are also subject to strict emissions standards. In spite of this, the quality of their chipboards is generally better than those made here in the US. 

This is likely due to a combination of factors. First, American cabinetmakers view particle boards as inferior to plywoods. Thus, there hasn't been as much of an investment in the technology. Second, high-end Italian and German cabinetmakers have the margins to invest in better particle boards. 

MDF is made from ground wood fibers that are glued together and hot-pressed to make a board. This material is smooth and grainless, which makes it a carpenter's dream. You can cut it into almost any shape. But, it cannot be stained, is very dense—so keep in mind that it will be heavier than plywood or particle board—, and MDF is susceptible to water damage. It should not be used near an area that experiences regular moisture.  

Whatever your vision may be, consider mother nature first and see what a green design business can do for you. It’s a great opportunity to get a high end look, like a custom kitchen, at a deep discount. The kitchen of your dreams will be all yours and you’ll be keeping a perfectly great 2nd hand kitchen from ending up in a landfill.

Carlos Ramirez
Carlos Ramirez


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