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Stripped down to its most basic idea, a cabinet is a box with one side that swivels out, allowing the user to access the inside of the box. However, the modern kitchen cabinet is something more than merely a box with a swiveling wall. Understanding how a kitchen cabinet is constructed will allow you to have a better sense for the relative quality of one set of cabinets versus another and a better idea of the value that you are getting for a particular price. The purpose is not to become an expert on cabinet making, but to gain a basic comprehension which will support subsequent conversations with cabinet makers.
Cabinet construction is a process which has been refined over many centuries. The earliest cabinets were wooden chests dating back to Ancient Egypt. A thousand years before the rise of the Roman Empire, early craftsmen in China created basic box-based cabinets. During the Middle Ages, skilled carpenters throughout Europe built heavy multi-compartment cabinets made of oak. In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, cabinet-making exploded as both a trade and an art-form, with a multitude of options becoming available. During the course of the 20th century, different styles and types of cabinets were further differentiated and enhanced. New materials were incorporated and techniques refined. Today, a vast range of options is available to the homeowner as far as not only materials and designs, but also construction details.

Typically, cabinets are either constructed in large-scale manufacturing facilities as part of a mass production effort where the focus is on standardized sizes, materials, and styles, or at small work centers as part of a local cabinet-making business where the emphasis is on hand-crafted and individualized components. The former is used for RTA and stock cabinets, while the latter for semi-custom and custom cabinets. At times, the boxes may be constructed via a mass production process, while the doors are customized at a local shop.

In either case, the basics of cabinet construction remain largely the same. A box is put together, with one side that is open. This is known as the carcass, or cabinet box. The open side of the box is either framed or left with uncovered edges. A door is added on a set of hinges which are either attached to the frame of the cabinet or the inside wall. If the cabinet is a base or pantry cabinet, then a support is added to the bottom so that the cabinet can sit directly on the floor. Alternatively, if the cabinet is a wall cabinet, no bottom support is needed.

The construction of the box can be done using a variety of different joints at the points where the sides of the box meet. In case of a framed cabinet, the door can be sized to overlay the frame to differing extents. Inside, the cabinet can be compartmentalized in different ways, allowing various types of shelves or drawers. Once constructed, a cabinet can be either built-in or free-standing. A built-in cabinet is one that is sized to fit in a particular opening and then permanently fixed in place. By contrast, a free-standing cabinet is one which may be moved from room to room and from place to place. Kitchen cabinets are almost always built-in, whereas bedroom dressers are often free-standing.

Often, the carcass is made of a different set of materials than the door, and then covered with a veneer to match the door. The primary reason for this are cost and durability. Since the doors are the primary visible component of kitchen cabinets, it is less costly to use a more expensive material for the doors only rather than for the entire cabinet, yet it can still provide the same effect as using the expensive material for the entire cabinet. In addition, certain materials that are popular for cabinet doors are less resistant to the extremes of moisture and temperature encountered in the kitchen than other materials. By using more durable materials for the carcass, a cabinet maker can ensure greater longevity for the cabinet.
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A basic element of cabinet construction is framing. As mentioned, a cabinet is constructed by first creating a box with an open wall known as the carcass. The open part of the carcass is called the face and this is where the door will ultimately go. The face can either be framed or left frameless. If it is framed, then a frame is added around the front outer edge of the cabinet box. The easiest way to visualize this is to think of a window. Typically, the glass portion of a window sits inside a frame, which goes inside the window opening. Without the frame, there would just be a rectangular opening. In case of a window with multiple panes, the frame will have multiple nested rectangles. The same goes for cabinets. For a cabinet with a drawer or multiple shelves, the face frame may have bars separating the shelves or drawers, just as a window frame will have bars separating different panes. The frame serves to cover the front outer edges of the cabinet box and provide a finished surface to which the door can be attached.

Framed cabinets are the more traditional type of cabinet construction. However, cabinets can also be frameless, in which case the cabinet box does not have a frame that is added to the front outer edge. Instead, the face is left unframed and the cabinet door is affixed directly on top. In that type of construction, the front outer edges are given a finish or a veneer to cover the raw material used for the construction of the cabinet box's walls. Frameless cabinets are also often referred to as "European" style cabinets.

In comparing framed to frameless cabinets, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The benefit of a framed cabinet is that it allows more flexibility with respect to door overlay. Because of the presence of the frame, the doors can be built in full-overlay, meaning that they completely cover the frame, or they can be built in partial-overlay, meaning that they cover a portion of the frame, or they can be built in full-inset, which means that they reside fully inside the frame. With a frameless cabinet, partial overlay is not possible. Doors are either full-overlay or full-inset. On the other hand, frameless cabinets provide greater accessibility to the inside of the cabinet, as there is no frame lip to get in the way.

In final analysis, neither framed nor frameless cabinets are clearly superior to each other. The relative advantages and disadvantages of each construction type are limited. The primary differences are stylistic. Framed cabinets are more classical and fit well with traditional, Old World, country, and rustic kitchen designs. Frameless cabinets are more modern and fit well with transitional and contemporary kitchen themes. However, these are general rules of thumb and are not set in stone. Framed cabinets can look quite modern and frameless cabinets can feature door designs that are very traditional.

Whether framed or frameless, a cabinet which is designed to sit on the floor requires a support built underneath the cabinet box. This support is typically referred to as a "base", which is why cabinets that sit on the floor are called base cabinets. There are several different options possible with respect to constructing the base, including a plinth, a scrolled base, or a set of bracket feet.

A plinth is a fully enclosed rectangular base. A scrolled base is similar to a plinth, but rather than being enclosed on all sides, a scrolled base has a portion of the base material removed, at times in a decorative pattern, leaving feet on which the cabinet stands. By contrast, bracket feet are actual separate feet - not connected the way they are on a scrolled base - which are attached at the four corners of a cabinet. For especially wide cabinets, bracket feet can also be attached in the middle.

For a kitchen cabinet, a plinth is the most common type of base. Even in situations where feet may be used, a plinth front is often added to close off the portion of the base that faces the kitchen. This provides a uniform look and prevents pieces of food, dirt, and other particles from accumulating underneath the kitchen counters. Furthermore, a plinth base has the benefit of uniformly distributing the cabinet's weight over a larger surface area and avoiding the floor dents associated with individual feet.
This is especially relevant if heavy countertops are installed atop the base cabinets, such as concrete or stone slab.

In addition to providing support for the cabinet, a cabinet base also lifts the cabinet off the floor and provides a space known as the toe-kick, or the kick space. The base is typically set back from the front of the cabinet by at least 3 inches and also lifts the cabinet off the ground by at least 3 inches. This creates a small space where the front of a person's feet can comfortably go when he or she is using the counter on top of that cabinet. The toe-kick has become a standard design component for base cabinets, but for custom built situations, it is important to double check to make sure that a toe-kick is incorporated.
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Inside, each cabinet is subdivided into compartments. The compartments provide an organization for the space and are installed either in the form of shelving or in the form of drawers. In the past, the main difference between a shelf and a drawer was that a shelf was fixed in place while a drawer could be pulled out. However, with the advent of pullout shelving, a more relevant difference is that a drawer typically has its own door that is independent of the separate cabinet door which provides access to the shelving.

There are several compartmentalization schema for base cabinets. Standard base cabinets have a single drawer at the top and a compartment with one shelf below. Keep in mind that one shelf actually means two shelf surfaces - the shelf itself, and the floor of the cabinet. Thus, standard base cabinets have three compartments - the drawer, the shelf, and the cabinet floor. A variation on the standard base cabinet is the pullout cabinet, which has a single pullout shelf at the bottom and is designed to hold a trash receptacle or a recycling bin.

Drawer base cabinets have no shelves, but feature three or four drawers stacked one on top of the other. Thus, drawer base cabinets typically have either three or four compartments, depending on the number of drawers. For specialized needs, drawer cabinets can be designed to have two deep drawers, or, alternatively, up to six shallow drawers.

Sink base cabinets have a single open compartment, usually designed with a door or set of double doors below a false drawer front. A false drawer front is a plank that is shaped and finished in the same way as an actual drawer door, but which is permanently fixed in place and which does not have a handle. The reason for this design is that there is no room to place an actual drawer, as the sink is in the way. However, a false drawer front provides design continuity with the other base cabinets.

Corner base cabinets are designed to fit in the corner of the kitchen. They typically feature only shelving, with either one or two shelves common. Thus, corner base cabinets have either two or three compartments, depending on the number of shelves. A corner base cabinet may also have a lazy susan, which is a set of shelves that rotate out from the cabinet, permitting easier access within the confines of a corner space. In addition, a blind corner base cabinet will have one side that is unused, or "blind", which is the part that is wedged into the corner and inaccessible because there are walls on two side, and other cabinets on the other two sides, so that portion is completely hemmed in.

Wall cabinets are usually simpler than base cabinets in terms of construction, as they typically feature only shelving and no drawers. Wall cabinets usually have either one door or two doors which both open to the outside. For double doored cabinets, the best access is provided if there is no support beam in the middle. Solid construction is important for wall cabinets, as they are supported by their backs, rather than from underneath like base cabinets.

The materials used for shelves and drawers are usually, but not always, the same as the materials used for the cabinet box, and, in the case of wood cabinets, are typically either plywood, MDF, particle board, or solid wood. Among these, the best options are solid wood or plywood, which are stronger, more durable, and less susceptible to water damage. In addition, the thickness of shelves and drawer bottoms are important to consider. Drawer bottoms are usually offered in thicknesses ranging from 1/8 of an inch to 1/2 of an inch, and shelves are usually offered in thicknesses ranging from 1/2 of an inch to 3/4 of an inch. The rule of thumb here is simple: the thicker the better. Thicker surfaces will reduce the risk of warp, twist, or sag, even when heavy contents are stored on top of them.

Another feature which helps shelves to retain their shape and accommodate large weight loads is shelf support, which may be incorporated in the form of reinforcing strips, underside ribs, or support brackets. These will provide more strength and resilience than pins. In addition, you would generally want a design in which the relative height of the shelves can be adjusted by moving the shelf supports either higher or lower.

For drawers, look for construction where the bottom of the drawer is dadoed into the four sides of the drawer box, which means that grooves are cut into the drawer box sides which hold the drawer bottom in place. This is as opposed to having the drawer bottom simply glued or stapled to the drawer box. The problem with the latter approach is that both glue and staples provide a far weaker bond and can lead to the drawer bottom separating from the drawer box over time.

Another issue to consider with respect to drawers are the slides. Because kitchen drawers are typically opened and closed dozens of times a day, the slides take a lot of punishment. A low quality slide can break easily, leading to the drawer becoming stuck, difficult to open and close, or entirely inoperable. The highest quality slides use metal components and steel ball bearings. Plastic and nylon are a lower cost, but also lower quality option. Regardless of slide material, the slides can either be placed on the side of the drawer, which is referred to as a sidemount, or underneath the drawer, which is referred to as an undermount. Generally, undermount slides are preferable because sidemount slides reduce the width of the drawer, thereby decreasing the amount of storage space available inside.

Aside from material and placement, it is also worth considering whether the drawer slides provide 3/4 extension or full extension. Typically, drawer slides offer 3/4 extension, which means that the maximum extent to which the drawer can be pulled out still leaves 1/4 of the drawer under the counter. With full extension slides, the drawer can be pulled out all the way, allowing unimpeded access to the contents stored in the back. Last, but not least, quality slides also incorporate a soft-close feature, which allows the drawer to close automatically once it is pushed back past a certain point.

If you are having cabinets custom made, you will want to consider and specify each of these shelf and drawer features. Even if you are purchasing RTA, stock, or semi-custom cabinets, you will want to ask questions regarding how these features are designed in order to be able to comparison shop effectively and ultimately select the best value for the price.
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A key element of cabinet construction is the joints. A joint is formed at each corner of the box where two perpendicular sides are joined together. Joints exist for both cabinet boxes and drawers. There are several common methods of construction which are used with respect to the joints, with some of these clearly superior to others.

Properly constructed dovetail joints are the most hardy and durable. Dovetail joints are created by cutting the edges of the two pieces of board which are intended to be joined together in such a way as to create slanting, V-shaped, interlocking "fingers". Another strong joint is the mortise and tenon, where a stub of one board is fitted securely into a tight opening specially cut into the other board. A relatively weaker joint is a rabbet joint, where a groove is cut into the edge of one piece of board to accommodate the other, or a dowel joint, where dowels attached to one piece of board are inserted into holes made in another piece, serving as a sort of weak mortise and tenon. The weakest of all is a butt joint, where pieces of board are simply lain next to each other and attached via nails, glue, screws, or staples.

The same logic applies to drawers. Generally, drawers with dovetailed joints and bottoms which are dadoed into the drawer box, meaning that they are fitted into specially cut grooves will be sturdier and more durable than drawers with glued or stapled butt joints. That does not mean the drawers which are glued or stapled will necessarily fall apart. However, all other things being equal, chances are that the drawers with the worse quality joinery will not last as long.

For wall cabinets, there is another feature to consider, which is reinforcing parts. Unlike base cabinets, which use the floor as support, wall cabinets are supported by their back walls. As a result, it may be useful to incorporate reinforcing features which reduce the chance of the box warping or twisting. One common reinforcing feature is a corner gusset, which is a triangular piece fitted into the corners which connects the side walls of the cabinet to the back wall. Thus, corner gussets provide additional support to the joints between the side walls and the back wall. Quality corner gussets should be substantial and not look like flimsy plastic or particle board pieces.
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The most important component of a cabinet from the perspective of most homeowners is the doors. The cabinet doors are the face which is visible to residents and visitors alike. They have a tremendous impact on the overall look and feel of the kitchen. When most people talk about the kitchen cabinets, they are primarily talking about the appearance of the cabinet doors.

Whereas cabinet boxes, shelves, and drawers are usually made of less expensive material such as plywood, MDF, or particle board, the cabinet and drawer doors are more commonly made of solid wood. For cheaper cabinets, the doors are also made of plywood, MDF or particle board, but then coated with a veneer that resembles real wood.

With respect to construction, the two main styles of cabinet doors are framed and slab. This is separate from and not to be confused with the framed versus frameless style for the cabinet box, described above. This is also separate from the extent to which the door overlays the frame or outer edge of the cabinet. The extent of overlay can be determined independent of whether a cabinet door is frame or slab, although slab doors are typically full overlay. The difference between a framed door and a slab door is simple. A framed cabinet door has an outer frame built around an inner panel, whereas a slab cabinet door is a single continuous piece of material, without a visible frame. The framed cabinet door is the traditional style, while the slab door is a contemporary style.

The inner panel of a framed cabinet door can either be raised or inset, in which case the door style is referred to as either "raised panel" or "inset panel". In addition, the frame does not have to be rectangular, even though that is the most common style. The frame can be curved at either top or bottom, or incorporate an even more intricate shape to create a particular design effect, such as a cathedral style arch.
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Once constructed, the door is attached to the cabinet via a set of hinges. Like slides on a drawer, hinges on a cabinet door receive a lot of punishment over the life of the cabinet, so they must be sturdy and well-functioning. At its most basic, a hinge is a connector between a door and a wall. One wing of the hinge is affixed to the door, the second wing of the hinge is affixed to the wall, and the two wings connect via a hollowed out "knuckle" with a pin in its middle. The wing affixed to the door swivels around this pin, allowing the door to rotate open or closed.

The two basic types of hinges for kitchen cabinets are: "exposed", which are partially outside of the cabinet and visible when the cabinet door is closed, and "concealed", which are fully inside the cabinet and invisible when the cabinet door is closed. There are further two types of exposed hinges. A semi-concealed hinge has one wing attached to the outside of the door and visible and the second wing attached to the inside of the cabinet wall and invisible. A surface mounted hinge has one wing attached to the outside of the door and visible with the second wing attached to the outer cabinet frame and also visible. Some hinges have one wing attached to the inside of the door and invisible, the other wing attached to the inside of the cabinet wall and also invisible, and only the knuckle of the hinge poking through and visible - these are still classified as semi-concealed.

Keep in mind that the type of hinge available to be used is limited by whether the cabinets are framed and the extent to which the door overlays the cabinet frame. Full overlay doors can only use concealed or specialized overlay hinges. Partial overlay and inset doors on framed cabinets can generally support all of the different hinge types. Inset doors on frameless cabinets can only support concealed and semi-concealed hinges.

Exposed hinges are the more traditional type and are often not only functional, but decorative in nature. Mortise exposed hinges are designed to sit flush with the door, but require a corresponding notch to be cut into the door. No-mortise exposed hinges are simply attached to the outside of the door and are raised relative to the door by the thickness of the hinge. Regular exposed hinges are affixed to the door on a permanent basis, while demountable exposed hinges are specifically designed for easy door removal. Exposed hinges also permit the widest angle for the door to be opened, permitting up to 270 degrees, meaning that if there are no obstructions in place, the door can be folded all the way back to touch the outer side of the cabinet. While this is convenient from the standpoint of having full access to the contents of the cabinet, it is not really necessary to go beyond 180 degrees. As a result, cabinets which use exposed hinges have a proclivity for having the doors bang into adjoining cabinets and other neighboring furnishings. Still, for a traditional, Old World, country, or rustic kitchen with framed cabinets, exposed hinges can add a decorative accent and should be selected to match the cabinet handles.

In contrast with exposed hinges, concealed hinges are all about function rather than form. Because they are fully hidden from view unless the cabinet is opened, concealed hinges are designed to work well rather than look good. There are several common types of concealed hinges. A cup hinge, also known as a Euro or European hinge, is made of two interlocking pieces which are mounted on the inside of the door and the inside of the cabinet wall. It is called a cup hinge because the portion that is mounted on the door resembles a cup in shape. It is also referred to as a European hinge because these hinges are commonly used with full overlay slab doors, which are known as "European-style". Cup hinges work well and allow for both side-to-side and up-down adjustment to compensate for minor imperfections in the door and to ensure proper alignment among all of the cabinet doors in the same row.

The one drawback of cup hinges is that they are fairly large and visible, which of course is only a consideration when the cabinet door is opened, as they are fully concealed when the door is closed. For even smaller and less prominent concealed hinges, you can use barrel or Soss hinges, which use either two cylinders or two wings which are inserted into the sides of the cabinet and the door, and connected to each other at the center. In case of inset doors, you can also consider using a pivot hinge, which uses pins attached to the top and bottom of the frame which extend into a bushing at the bottom and top of the door to create a swivel point.

Because they are invisible from the outside, concealed hinges create a clean, modern look for the cabinet fronts. They work great for contemporary and transitional kitchens, and because of their hidden nature, they can be incorporated into more traditional designs as well. They also offer additional functionality that is often unavailable with exposed hinges. Many cup hinges include a self-closing feature, which will automatically shut the cabinet door once it has been closed past a certain point and hold it tightly shut until it is manually opened again. In addition, some hinges now offer a soft-closing feature, which allows the cabinet door to close softly even if it is pushed hard. Concealed hinges can also support a range of different opening angles, and can be chosen in such a way as to provide easy access on the one hand, and reduce the risk of cabinet doors banging into other cabinets on the other. Last but not least, concealed hinges typically allow for much easier cabinet door removal.
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