This post was revised and edited on Oct. 29, 2019.
Sticker shock. That’s one thing you get used to in the kitchen and bath upgrade business. We understand. Kitchens and baths are typically the most expensive rooms in any house to have work done on. That’s because the systems required to make them functional are the most expensive parts of your home. Cabinetry is one of the biggest expenses most homeowners face when upgrading or remodeling these rooms, especially kitchens, but making price your primary concern may leave you lacking in the end result.
While price point is important, focusing on value is the best way to get the most of your hard-earned money.
To the inexperienced, one cabinet can look very much like another. Many times all you have to go on is the professional photographer’s images of the cabinets you’re ordering, and those can be deceiving. But, if you understand the various grades of cabinetry, and what goes into a quality cabinet, you’ll be better prepared to make an intelligent choice on the cabinets for your next kitchen or bath upgrade.
Let’s start with the various grades of cabinetry.
While we all know there are various quality levels in many products we buy, like clothing, automobiles, and electronics, sometimes it’s hard to know if what looks like quality cabinetry really is. The price point is often a big clue, but it’s not true that you necessarily get exactly what you pay for. Sometimes you’re paying more for features, or style, but sacrificing quality.
At Explore Granite and Quartz, we want you to do your due diligence, so we’re going to walk you through the various options available and show you how we select the cabinets we put our name behind. There are five basic grades of cabinets. They may be called different things in different places, so we’ll be describing each level as we go along so you can compare.
- RTA cabinets.
These are “ready to assemble” cabinets, packed in flat boxes and ready to be screwed together. They are generally the lowest quality, but at a great price.
- Thrift grade cabinets.
These are generally made of particle board, and may have pressed on faux wood grain, or solid color finishes made of thin plastic or vinyl. You can find examples of this in every discount retail store.
- Builder grade cabinets.
Particle board, MDF and plywood are the main ingredients. Builder grade cabinets can be made to look expensive, but generally, don’t hold up. They are generally sold unfinished.
- Stock cabinets.
This is the best grade of cabinet you can generally go home with today. Usually comes with nicer features, such as concealed hinges, available in one or two paint colors and maybe a light and dark option for wood.
These are special order and generally medium quality. They can be ordered in a variety of woods, finishes and hardware styles. Typically delivered finished and installed on site.
- True custom.
These are built to order, of the highest quality materials, hardware and finishes. They are generally built and finished onsite to fit your kitchen or bath. Very expensive.
What You Should Look for in a Cabinet
There are six basic elements cabinets should be judged on.
Start with the Look You Want
At Explore Granite and Quartz, we make this easy. Our bath and kitchen visualizers allow you to become your own interior designer. Whether you collect images from online, draw your own design, or clip pictures from Architectural Digest, knowing what look and feel you’d like to achieve is the most logical starting point.
In interior design, often the most important factor of the design aesthetic is the visual impact or impression a space gives. With a little creativity, almost any design aesthetic can be achieved, even on a tight budget. Starting here will set the stage for what you want to achieve.
- Architectural details such as moldings and door/drawer styles are the first place to start when selecting cabinets to achieve a look. Color and finish can be applied to all but the cheapest cabinets, but finding the right “lines” is critical to achieving the look you want.
- Next would be finish. If you plan to do your own paint or stain, almost any look can be applied on a budget. If not, you may want to consider ordering prefinished.
- Unit styles available are the next consideration. If you want open shelving, specific cabinet types or sizes, you’ll want to make sure the cabinets you want, come with those specifications or be prepared to pay the price for custom work.
Once You’ve Established the Look, Determine Your Budget
This is often the most critical piece of a kitchen or bath upgrade. Homeowners frequently sacrifice quality to get the correct aesthetic, but managing the budget carefully can give you a great value while creating the right look and feel.
- Focus on large, upfront pieces first. If you need to save money, select cheaper pantry shelving, or settle for fewer custom options, such as built-in drawer dividers, etc.
- Start with the cabinetry you actually need for storage and function. Many kitchens have more cabinets than required. Fewer, better quality pieces will create more luxury and functionality.
- Things like tile, paint, and light fixtures are often better places to save money than cabinets. They will serve as the worktop for your kitchen, and poor quality cabinetry can make that a chore, rather than a pleasure.
Understanding the Difference in Materials
We’ve all heard the virtues of “solid wood” praised over and over, but if you’ve never been a carpenter or DIY type, you might not understand the value of high-quality building materials. Wood is the primary source of all cabinet materials. Even products like chipboard, particle board, and Medium Density Fibercore (commonly known as MDF) are made from wood particles.
Because of its porous nature, wood is very sensitive to humidity and will expand as humidity rises, and contract as it drops. The tighter the bond in the wood, the more structural integrity it will have. That’s why solid wood, as it comes from the tree, is generally the strongest and longest-lasting, while particle and chipboard products tend to break down when moisture is introduced.
- Cabinets made with solid hardwoods and hardwood layered plywoods are typically the longest lasting. The stand up to moisture the best.
- Fasteners, such as nails and screws, also hold best in wood grain, versus particle board or MDF.
- Finishes also bond better to real wood surfaces, as manufactured woods, such as particle board and MDF can bubble, pucker, and split when wet.
You can recognize the various sheet wood products by looking at an unfinished finished edge on your cabinets. If it has one block of wood grain, running the whole length of the piece, it is likely made of solid wood. If it has striped layers, it’s made of plywood. If the texture looks like sawdust or particles, it’s a manufactured wood product.
Why Construction Matters
Since your cabinets are protected by a countertop and bolted to the wall, it may not seem that important to consider construction. But because of wood’s natural expansion and contraction rates, some methods of construction are better than others.
- Look for solid wood supports in places like corner blocks to indicate solid construction.
- Main joints along the fronts of cabinets should be rabbeted or dovetailed for strength, rather than just being overlapped and “butt jointed”.
- Look for reinforcement screws in outside panels, corners, and other joints. These will help keep the cabinet rigid and maintain joint integrity.
- Solid backs, back supports, and top supports will help keep cabinets rigid. Look for these.
- Sloppiness such as staple ends or nails poking out and messy glue joints are sure signs of rushed construction, which generally means, no adequate quality control measures.
RTA, thrift and builder-grade cabinets are generally assembled with staples. It’s a fast, easy, inexpensive way to build, but often the joints won’t stand up to daily use. Corners and joints are also not properly reinforced, causing cheaper cabinets to fail when put under stress.
Stock cabinets, semi-custom, and custom cabinetry typically have the best construction, with semi-custom representing one of the best values for price overall in construction.
Why You Should Care About Finishes
Your cabinets have four main enemies when it comes to longevity and lasting beauty. Moisture is by far the most damaging, then use, light, and dirt and dust. Your cabinet’s finish is its only armor and the better it is, the more likely you’ll still be just as happy with your choice five years from now as you are today.
- Higher quality finishes start with better prep. The bond between surface and paint or stain is the most important factor.
- Look for interiors that are stained or painted, rather than lined with melamine or thin vinyl. They clean easier and stay looking good longer.
- Check along a finished edge to get an idea of the depth of the finish. More coats mean thicker finish that maintains beauty and cleanability longer.
- Cheaper finishes look good initially, but crack, blister and peel with use, requiring repairs.
As the finish deteriorates, the material underneath absorbs more moisture and grime, and glued joints tend to fail with finishes as well.
Cabinet Hardware is More Than Just Jewelry for Your Kitchen
Even the best build cabinet boxes won’t function for long without quality hardware. There is a wide range in hinges, drawer guides and pulls. Slamming doors and drawers are one of the biggest stresses on cabinet structure and tend to tear at some of the weakest points of construction. Soft close hinges and drawer guides can not only make your kitchen quieter but help keep things in place inside doors and cabinets and add life to your cabinetry.
- The gold standard is Blum hardware. But, even here there is a range. Look for heavier hinge metal, and guides with heavier nylon glide wheels.
- The quality of metal on door and drawer pulls makes a huge difference, as screws must stay snug to keep them functional. Look for thicker metal around threaded pockets in the pulls to mark quality.
- Adjustability is another key factor for cabinet hardware. Most concealed hinges have some adjustment, the best have two screws for up to ⅜ in adjustment up, down, in and out to keep doors in alignment for proper appearance and function.
Higher quality brand cabinets will feature fully adjustable drawer faces as well. Homes shift over time and being able to adjust drawer faces to keep them aligned is a big benefit. Quality hardware allows you to continue the daily use of your cabinets for years after lesser hardware breaks down.
The Best Value in Kitchen Cabinets
Here at Explore Granite and Quartz, we work hard to provide the very best value in every facet of our kitchen and bath upgrades. That’s why we only select one wholesaler for each element. Fabuwood Cabinets is our exclusive wholesaler for kitchen and bath cabinet fixtures. Their Q12 quality assurance model puts them head and shoulders above other brands at the same price point.
Fabuwood incorporates many features in their semi-custom line of mid-range luxury cabinets you’d normally expect to pay much more for, like fully adjustable door and drawer fronts, full extension guides on every door, and dovetail joinery on every drawer and cabinet front, plus all wood construction.
To learn more about the different types of kitchen cabinets and which might best for you, please contact us. We’d love to help!