Custom vs. Box Store or Pretend high end Kitchen cabinet companys

Not all Cabinets are made the same

It took me a long time to write this article because there is a lot of confusion in the market. The clients  go around to several cabinet shops looking for quotes thinking that all the shops work the same way and that everybody is playing from the same play book. Most clients would be shocked to find out that cabinets from big box stores have been shipped halfway across the world and have been in containers for almost a year and the melamine used for the cabinets is saturated with water from the voyage. Thus coming to your home.

The clients will be told that the cabinets come from a central distributor but basically they are Chinaville cabinets. The big box stores will give the cabinets cute names but it is basically all a Chinaville line.

Clients think they are saving money. However the backs are only ľí thick and what is most shocking is that the installers have very limited experience. This  drags out the install.  

A  true high-end cabinetry built in north America will be built with cabinet grade plywood. They will have full ĺĒ backs. All the materials that are used are made in North America. Columbia forest products being the largest in north America. The main reason north America has not been flooded by Chinese sheet goods is because China does not have the quality forest. The fact is they canít compete against north America.

Ball bearing slides vs plastic wheel slides. Ball bearing slides can last 20-30 years. All top manufacturer give a lifetime warranty. Plastic wheel slides: the big problem is they have 2 plastic wheels. The plastic wears down over time. When one wheel breaks the drawer will not work properly. They just donít have the same feel as ball bearing slides.

Most local cabinet shops know the above. They have to live in the community and donít really want to put out a cheap product. A lot of times at their own  expenses, they will install superior products in order to stay competitive with big box stores.

The reality is, that with local cabinet shop the client buys the cabinets direct without the middle man. Big box stores cannot compete with the reality of competing with a local cabinet shop. People think it is the other way around, that is a myth.

That is why it is important to get a check list and start asking the hard questions. If a company does not have a website, yet they say they can do a certain amount of work, is it true or not? The coming trend in the new year is the up and down cabinets are dated, face frame is long gone it is a dinosaur. Light and medium colors are the trend. Going to the ceiling is ďinĒ as well as  stone countertops . Solid surface is out. The furniture look for cabinetry is ďinĒ. the best way to tell if a cabinet shop is up to date, look at something they did 10 years ago.

There is no substitute for a craftsman doing the most important room in your house.

Particle Board vs. Hardwood Plywood

The most popular materials used in the construction of cabinets today is either a form or particle board or plywood. Each material is available in different thickness and durability. I will touch on each material separately.

Particle Board: This product often has different names (MDF, HDF, etc.), but all are made up from small particles (often saw dust) that are glued together to form a flat panel. The surface area of this panel is then laminated with various products, cut to size, and used in cabinet construction. There are different thicknesses, different densities, different surface coatings, and different glues used. The lower priced cabinets generally use the least durable versions. Often the low-end products are coated with a low pressure laminate (i.e. malimine, vinyl, thermofoil, etc.) and will tend to break down as the cabinet ages. From my past experience selling such products, I observed that cooking oils would build up on the laminated surface and hold dirt. When the dirt was wiped clean it would cause the surface to quickly wear and become more porous which would make it harder to clean in the future. The problem would escalate with time until the surface was nearly impossible to get clean.

Many companies use a form or particle board because it lowers production costs. They often say that it is more stable than plywood and resists warping, cracking, etc. Yet, when I viewed cabinets in the field, I could see that much of the particle board was dramatically expanding when a moisture source was nearby (i.e. over a stove, near a dishwasher, touching floors that are often mopped, near a shower, etc.). I also found that nearly all remodeling projects were due to the particle board cabinets degrading in some fashion and homeowners wanting something more durable. I often witnessed the decorative surfaces coming off the particle board in the field.

From examining things in aging kitchens I could see that particle board didnít hold glues as well as real wood, most fasteners didnít hold as strongly as solid wood, over-all I saw a decrease in performance over solid hardwood or quality plywood. Generally I would rate the particle board I have seen as a less desirable material to use in constructing cabinets.

Plywood: This material is made from veneers of wood laminate glued into layers forming sheets. Like particle board, this product comes in different thicknesses and varying qualities. On the low-end of the scale, soft woods, quick dry glues, and voids can be often found between the layers. This plywood is often coated with a plastic that has a wood grain pattern applied because the wood they use isnít very attractive and may not finish well. The types of wood used often arenít ideal because they shrink and grow too much with changes in humidity. This causes the plywood to be unstable (cracks, warps, delaminates, etc.).  This version of plywood seems to be another poor choice for fabricating cabinets.

On the other hand, the higher priced plywood has inner layers that are formed without voids, hard wood is used, slow drying water-resistant glues hold it together, and the exterior is an attractive real wood. If you examine the edge of the plywood you will NOT see spongy wood or voids and you can easily see the layers of hard wood forming the material. The better made plywood holds fasteners well, readily absorb glues, and seems to be nearly indestructible when used in cabinet construction. When the layers are arranged so that the wood grain run in opposing directions, the plywood seems to be highly resistant to warping and more stable than solid wood. In my experience I have yet to see a quality plywood cabinet degrade in the field.


Pet peev:  pretend high-end. " Expensive appliances and counter tops are disguising cheap cabinets"  Kevin Dunphy 2002

  1. Most cabinets built at KD Custom Woodworking are built with maple plywood D3 grade made by Columbia Forest Products. Our high-end cabinets have solid wood edging. We are the only cabinet company in Newfoundland offering these standard cabinets. These high standards can last several lifetimes. On most kitchens this is a $2,000 upgrade.This is a secret in the kitchen cabinet industry because profit seems to be more important than the client.

  2. To make and install a cabinet on plastic feet with quarter inch back will fail or fall apart mainly because of the constant opening and closing of fully loaded drawers which act as a battering ram. All painted cabinets are birch; we do not use MDF or melamine for base boards. It's important to note that most partical wood in contact with floor will fail and hold mold due to accidental spillage of water and washing of floor. We use seperate bases made of exterior plywood which are level.

  3. White melamime or rock maple or any other laminate with particle core will break down after time and the first sign of this is black at the bottom of a shelf in pantry where cans slide back and forth making the shelf go black.
    The client asks how can this be there? Shocked to find out there is no standard. The client is at the mercy of the salesperson or designer who are being honest but who, most times,and  have no stake in the company are more concerned about the sale. We at KD Custom Woodworking offer a challenge to all kitchen companies to put the client first and give a quote for:

  4. Plywood interiors no less than 3/4 " thick D3 Maple Colombia with backs and solid wood edging
    Plywood bases leveled within 3 degrees
    All ball bearing slides
    All birch on painted cabinets
    No exposed laminate on island
    Lifetime warranty on all hardware

  5. We believe the above list is simple; this is the most important room in the house. If you fell the above is extreme then you are only shopping not for a lifetime only 10 years. One must compare apples to apples meaning make a list of features that are important to you. The pictures to the right and on the bottom illustate 3/4" thick backs, drawer bottoms and tops.

Cabinets waiting for inspection from client before going into spray both .Top cabinet antique blue all wood construction
  All wood cabinets with full extenstion slides shown with no bases with are separete

Particle Board not used for high end cabinetry

  Hardwood Plywood

COPYRIGHT 2005 Business News Publishing Co.

Portland, Ore. -- Columbia Forest Products ( has begun the conversion of all its veneer-core hardwood plywood plants to formaldehyde-free manufacturing processes, using a patented, soy-based adhesive cooperatively developed by Columbia, the College of Forestry at Oregon State University and Hercules Inc. Hercules has awarded Columbia a license to...


Now water based glue

 Ball bearing slide
Under mount slides

Example of ball bearing slides with cabinet grade plywood 

Example of under mount slides with oak plywood interior