Troubleshooting Wood Movement with Outsourced Cabinet Doors

      ztp Cabinetmakers advise a colleague on how to figure out what happened to a set of Maple cabinet doors and how to manage the resulting situation. November 8, 2007

I always outsource my cabinet doors and on my last two jobs, the maple doors have expanded in the middle. The top is now 3/8 out and so is the bottom of the door. The middle is touching. Three drawer fronts have exploded at the mitred corners. My client is threatening a lawsuit. The cabinet door company is saying it is the humidity in the air. I live in the same area, but my cabinets are okay. Also, I have several clients in the same area that are okay. Does anyone know what happened? I have not changed my finishing techniques.

Forum Responses
From contributor D:
Start by checking the moisture content of the doors as installed. Observe the open miters - are they open at the toe (outside) or the heel? Ask your supplier what the MC is at manufacturing. Use a sling hygrometer to find the relative humidity at the install location. Inquire of the owner what the humidity situation has been just before and since installation.

Inquiring of the owner is the tricky part - the rest is just basic science. The owner may get defensive, thinking you are laying the groundwork to fault them. Even the best finishes do not (ever) prevent moisture exchange, only slow it down. If the miters are open at the toe, then the MC has increased since the miter was tight. If open at the inside, then the MC has decreased. Your job is to determine if the doors were made to the factory specs, were stored properly at your facility, and have been in a stable environment since install.

From contributor C:
I'm assuming these are solid wood panel doors. From your description I'm betting the joints are open at the heel, i.e. your panels have expanded (picked up moisture). A couple of potential causes that would be the fault of the door shop are: the wood was over-dried before manufacture, or the door shop didn't leave an expansion gap for the panels. Other than that, I don't see where they are liable. As contributor D said, you need to check the moisture content as installed and the humidity first. If they are threatening suit, you need to document everything, stat.

From the original questioner:
I really appreciate your help. Since the doors are already up, can I still check the moisture content? Also, what about the swelling in the middle of the doors? Miter joints are intact.

From contributor C:
Yes, you can still check the moisture content. Swelling in the middle implies that the panels have expanded, but the joints are very good. Are they assembled with joint nails? They are long flat pieces of metal with a barb on both edges.

From the original questioner:
The miters were put together with biscuits. I bought a moisture meter today and will go to my client's tomorrow and check it out. It is interesting to note that the problems I am having are only on maple. I have installed cherry cabinets and have had no problem. My gut feeling is that the maple from my cabinet door company hadn't cured yet. Am thinking of running the door through my table saw and taking care of the bow. Just a thought.

From contributor D:
If I understand your description correctly, the doors are 3/8" wider at the middle of the door. That is, a 16" wide door is now 16-3/8", but still 16" at the top and bottom. If so, that is one heck of a lot of stress on the corners. They will not last forever with that type of stress. It also indicates that the panel has swelled, and the fibers at either end are severely crushed. When the panel dries out, then it will crack at the ends. Sawing or jointing out the bow will help them fit, but may look wrong, and will do nothing about the root problem.

If the panel has expanded over 3/8" from manufacture, then either the panel wood was extremely dry or the site was extremely wet, or both. Simply checking the current MC on the door panels and the door rails will only give you part of the story. Determining the shop humidity, the site humidity, and the history of site humidity (concrete, painting, leaks, etc.) will help fill in the blanks. A possible cause may be that the doors were manufactured with the 3/16" bow in each stile, but that would have shown up when you first received them.

Once you have determined all these factors, you can present a verifiable cause and effect scenario to your customer and supplier, and resolve the issue fairly. Do not go on current MC in the doors alone.

From contributor C:
I concur with contributor D. Also, when they settle back, you're going to have some really bad looking doors. Not just cracks, but potentially exposed finish lines, and the stiles will relax and be bowed in. Resolve the issues properly now and maintain a documented chain of custody on the new doors, and if it happens again, then let the homeowner deal with it. They must be tall doors to not have already busted at the joints.

From the original questioner:
Thank you. I met with the cabinet door company today with less attitude and more understanding. The bottom line is that wood moves, and maple more than most. Explaining the movement of the wood to my clients may be a little difficult but with all your help, it will go smoothly.

From contributor M:
Please let us know how it worked out with the homeowners and the supplier.

From the original questioner:
The cabinet door company offered to replace the bad doors and drawer fronts. However, it would probably happen again, so I met with the homeowner and we decided to let it go through the Winter and see where it is in the Spring. We will go on from there. My feeling is that they will probably shrink. I will wait and see.

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