Building Low-End Cabinets

Cabinetmakers discuss how to build inexpensive cabinets for the builder market. April 18, 2006

I have a contractor approaching me about building cabinets for him. He does not want to go up in price over what he is currently paying but needs more builders. I went to look at some houses he has built and the cabs are 1/ 2" sides and 1/4" backs. I have never built a carcass except with ¾” material. How do most builders using 1/2" material assemble the carcass, and keep it sturdy? I normally use pocket screws when I do not want the screw head to show, or assembly screws through the sides if I am applying a finished panel to cover the screws. Not sure if pocket screws are acceptable in 1/2" material. Any help would be appreciated.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
Take a look at just about any factory made cabinet and it will be the same - 1/2" box with 1/8” back, 1/2" nailers. The sides and bottom are dadoed and stapled onto the face frame. Rather than take a dive in quality and price, why don't you get yourself a factory cabinet to sell to him? We did it a few years ago and it has worked out well. Many contractors build both spec and custom homes. That way you don't lose a sale and you can be his one stop cabinet shop. To carry a line of factory cabinets, call the manufacturer. Some are cheaper than others. A good one for price is Cardell out of Texas. A good one for selection is Welborn Forest in Alabama. I am not partial to either, they both have their place.

From contributor B:
If you want to talk cheap, I just removed a set of cabinets that were installed in "Presley Homes" here in Tucson. They were 1/4" sides, 1/2" decks and 1/8" backs. Everything was hot glued together and the faceframe was stapled and hot glued to the sides and deck. They literally fell apart when I removed them. That’s a cheap cabinet. If you’re referring to an inexpensive cabinet, that would consist of 1/2" melamine sides and decks. The decks are dadoed 1/4" into the sides, glued and stapled or screwed. End cabinets have a 1/4" MDF core veneered panel applied to them. Yes, you can pocket screw face frames to a 1/2" side. There is a setting on your Kreg drill bit for that and you have to use 1-1/4" screws instead of 1-1/2" screws. The backs would consist of 1/4" MDF core dadoed into the sides and glued and stapled on. A 3/4" nailer is applied to the back and screwed in from the sides. Steel corner gussets are used for anchoring the countertop material. Forget the hot glue, it’s useless and doesn't hold up. These are the inexpensive cabinets I build for builders or people who don't want to sink a lot of money into a house or are just going to fix it up and flip it. Most of your major builders like Thomasville, Kraftmaid, Merrillat, and American Woodmark all make their cabs out of 1/2" material.

From contributor C:
My advice is to know what you must charge and charge it - do not lower the price. No matter what materials you use, you cannot compete with the mass produced boxes. You're better off fishing than getting splinters for someone who thinks he’s the only one entitled to make money.

From contributor D:
I often use a 1/2" hardwood plywood box and would suggest that it makes a plenty sturdy enough box for regular cabinetry. I agree with those who have commented that it is going to be difficult to compete with some of the cheaper cabinet companies. In my business, I have determined that I wish to achieve a certain level of quality with my work and I do not deviate below these standards for the sake of grabbing a few bucks from another market. There may be a place for those other markets, but it is not one that I desire to utilize. Much of my business is word of mouth - and if I made a batch of what I would deem as substandard cabinets, I would be disappointed to know that my name and reputation are being described by a product that does not define what I wish to be recognized as - a builder of cabinets.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for your response. I too feel like I should avoid the cheaper route and stay with the high end builders that I currently build for.

From contributor E:
I think you're making the right choice. I don't understand how a custom cabinetmaker could even attempt to compete cost-wise with a Schrock or Kraftmaid. I also get all my work by word of mouth, no advertising at all. I find generally people looking for custom cabinets are willing to pay for them. People looking for the cheapest cabinets possible will not care or appreciate our work at all and I let them go to the next guy.

From contributor F:
I'll tell you how to compete - I can. Most of the money is spent on talking to the customer, design, layout, delivery and meeting unrealistic expectations. The builder gives a list of cabinets, sizes, door style and finish. You never see the customer, visit the job site or care if he ordered them right. A large chunk of your headache is gone and you can build for less money. The contractor is responsible for everything just as he would be if he ordered from the lumberyard.

From contributor G:
Cheap Cabinets you say? How cheap is cheap and how good is good? I guess it all depends who's footing the bill and what he wants and can afford. That’s how we sell products. If the traffic can afford it, we'll sell whatever you want. You get what you pay for.

Back in the 50's and 60's we worked the California scene doing tract homes for union and non-union cabinet shops. We made an attractive cabinet that was cheaply made. Decorative doors and drawers were appealing. To make them cheap, our face frames supported everything. We used 1/2 inch for our finished sides, shelving was 1 x 12 inch solid pine, and our backs were open along with open wall sides - just cleats and bracing of 1 x 2". These cabinets were shoved up against freshly finished sheetrock walls and secured. Doors and drawers were applied and waited for the finishers to do their thing. Overall they were an attractive cabinet and many of the California homes still have them in them. We built these by the truckloads.

Mobile home cabinets were built even cheaper just a shell with doors and drawers.
For customers who were willing to pay for quality, better material and workmanship was applied. As they say, you get what you want to pay for. This holds true today. There's really not much to a cabinet, it just depends on how much money and labor you want to put into it.

I'm reminded of an Englishman I worked with. His favorite remark was "Yank, its wood, so don't sweat it – you’re still getting paid.” I'd be complaining about the cheapness of materials and construction of the cabinets.

From contributor C:
To contributor F: Excellent point. An expense easily overlooked since no checks are written on it. If a shop can just build-n-deliver, with minimal out-of-shop time, their price can drop dramatically without hurting the bottom line too much.

From contributor H:
My question is if you change your methods in order to build a cheap cabinet what about liability? When the cheap drawer guides come loose or the cheap shelving gives way, who is going to be responsible for repairs? It seems to me that it would be better to stick with the quality and price that you are used to providing and save all the problems that come from trying to save other peoples money.

From contributor I:
It seems to me frameless is about as efficient and low cost as you can get. If you have an edgebander and a boring machine you can crank out boxes in a hurry.