Solid Wood Cabinet Construction Basics

7 Things to Know About Cabinets Before You Purchase

Understanding the cabinet construction basics will help you choose the best option for you.

  • Materials 
    • Plywood – an all wood product made up of several layers of wood with the grain direction running at different angles with respect to each other. This orientation gives plywood greater strength and stability in comparison to solid wood. It reduces the tendency of wood to split when nailed at the edges and reduces expansion and shrinkage, providing improved dimensional stability.
    • Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) – a wood-based product that’s produced by the combination of very small wood fibers and a glue, resin or similar bonding agent. MDF can be more easily shaped than products like particle board due to the consistency of the material formed by the small fibers. MDF can be used for shelves, doors (typically painted or covered with melamine) and other cabinet parts. It is very dense, strong, durable and resists warping. It is commonly seen in the center panels of recessed cabinet door styles (like a Shaker door) to prevent warping and cracking of the center panel during the wood’s natural expansion and contraction throughout the year.
    • Wood Veneer – thin layers of wood applied to plywood or MDF before it’s treated with stain. Veneers can be used on the sides of exposed cabinets (for example, on the end of a run of cabinets) and on the interior surfaces of cabinet boxes.
    • Thermofoil – A flexible vinyl that is formed over a wood or wood-product substrate and bonded to the substrate. Thermofoil provides a surface that’s easy to clean due to the low-maintenance requirements of the vinyl material.
    • Melamine – a durable plastic, similar to laminate that can be applied to certain areas of cabinets. It is easy to clean and resists stains, chipping and fading.
  • Construction
    • Framed – a cabinet design that uses a ‘face-frame’ which is typically a wood frame attached to the front edges of the cabinet box (where the door gets hinged to).
    • Frameless – a cabinet design that does not use a frame on the front outside edges of the cabinet box. The front of the cabinet box is formed by the edges of the top, bottom and side panels of the cabinet box. The cabinet door typically covers these edges when closed.
  • Cabinet Features and Specifications
    • Face frames & Doors/Drawer Fronts – Higher quality cabinets will have solid wood face frames, door and drawer fronts. The exception is for recessed panel doors/drawer fronts which will commonly use MDF which prevent warping and cracking of the panel when the wood expands and contracts.
    • Cabinet Box – Higher quality cabinets will have 1/2”-3/4” thick plywood boxes and a full back.
    • Drawers – Drawers with solid wood sides will be found in higher quality cabinetry. Dovetail drawer joints and plywood or hardwood bottoms also indicate a high quality construction.
    • Glides (Drawer Hardware) – High quality cabinets will feature full extension drawers which provide easy access to the rear of the drawer. Upgrades like soft close drawer glides which prevent the drawers from slamming shut are sometimes found as a standard feature.
  • Standard Cabinet Sizes and Descriptions
    • Base cabinets will sit on the floor and support the counter top. They are usually 34 1/2” high and 24” deep. Typical base cabinets can either have 1-2 drawers on top with 1-2 doors on bottom, full height doors and no drawers, or multiple (2-4) stacked drawers and no drawers. Other base cabinets include sink bases which normally have faux drawer fronts and no shelves to allow for the sink and plumbing installation. Corner base cabinets can be shaped to fit in a corner and have rotating shelves (lazy susan shelves) which provide easy access to the contents. Blind bases (rectangular shaped cabinets with access from only one side) can also be used in corners where there isn’t enough space to fit an angled corner cabinet.
    • Wall cabinets hang on the wall and are usually 12” deep. Standard heights are 12”, 15”, 18”, 30”, 36” and 42”. Wall cabinets shorter than 30” are considered bridge cabinets and are commonly used above a microwave, refrigerator or sink where there is no window above. The bottom of the wall cabinets are typically hung 54” from the floor which leaves 18” of space from the top of the counter to the bottom of the wall cabinets.
    • Pantry & Oven Cabinets will normally be found in 84”, 90” and 96” heights. Widths will vary but can commonly be found in anywhere from 15” to 33” wide, depending on the cabinet line.
  • Door Style & Design
    • Standard/Partial/Half Overlay – A cabinet design whereby the cabinet door or drawer front partially overlaps the face frame. When the drawers/doors are closed, more than ¼ inch of the face frame remains visible.
    • Full Overlay – A cabinet design whereby the cabinet door or drawer front covers the entire face frame so that only the cabinet door is seen with no part of the face frame visible. A cabinet is also considered full-overlay when the reveal is less than ¼ inch.
    • Slab – A flat door panel with no design, moldings, recessed or raised areas. Commonly gives a more contemporary appearance.
    • Recessed Panel or Shaker – Door style where the center panel is inset or recessed. A common example is a Shaker door style.
    • Raised Panel – Doors that have slightly raised center panels.
    • Arch/Cathedral – Wall cabinet door panels will have an exaggerated arch while the base cabinets are usually square.
  • Wood Types
    • Birch – One of the strongest cabinet hardwoods with a distinct, moderate grain pattern that ranges from straight to wavy or curly. The predominant sapwood color is white to creamy yellow while the heartwood varies in color from medium or dark brown to reddish brown.
    • Maple – A strong wood that is mostly off-white in its raw state. Hard maple is somewhat uniform in appearance, making it ideal for smooth, clean looks. It is usually straight-grained but can be wavy or even curly. Hard maple contains light hues of yellow-brown and pink and occasionally light tan or reddish-tinged streaks that will darken with stain. Burling, bird’s eye markings and grain variations may also be inherent in maple cabinets.  Maple is a popular selection for a more even-toned wood species. You can even mix finishes and wood species to create a more eclectic room.
    • Oak – A prominent, open grain that ranges in color from white, to yellow, to reddish brown. Sometimes streaked with green, yellow or black mineral deposits, red oak’s strong grain often varies from closely knit to a distinctive, sweeping arch pattern. Its timeless beauty blends with many different designs.
    • Hickory – A strong, open grained wood known for its flowing grain pattern and dramatic variation in color—a “wood lover’s wood”. It’s not uncommon to see doors or parts of doors that range in color from light to a deep brown when finished in a light or natural stain. Darker stains will mildly tone these color variations while knots and mineral streaks can also be evident in the finish. End grain is open and will often telegraph the finish. These characteristics are what make each Hickory cabinet and kitchen unique, while crossing a variety of designs.
    • Cherry – An elegant, multi-colored hardwood, which may contain small knots and pin holes. Natural or light stains accent these color variations making a distinctive statement in a full kitchen. Like a good wine, Cherry wood will naturally darken or “mellow” with age and will look richer over time.  Exposure to natural light will hasten this process, which wood lovers consider a natural benefit to owning solid cherry cabinetry.
    • Bamboo – Bamboo is incredibly strong but lightweight. It is also very versatile and can be used for decorative woodwork or cabinets.
  • Finishes
    • Wood Stains – Wood finishes will range from light (or natural) to very dark and will vary in appearance depending on the wood it’s being applied to. The natural characteristics and beauty of the wood will be brought out through the staining process.
    • Paint – Common paint options are white, off white and black. Some cabinetry will provide more colors such as reds, blues, yellows and greens. Unlike wood stain, painted cabinets will have an even look which will normally not show the graining or characteristics of the wood.
    • Glaze – When thin layers of color are added to make wood more shiny and glossy or for two-toned contrast. Glazes will add richness and texture to cabinets and create highlights in corners and recessed areas of the doors and drawers.
    • Distressing – Gives the cabinetry a rustic look with added imperfections such as dents, wormholes and chisel marks.