Cabinet Specs for Value and Durability

Cabinetmakers recommend material and hardware choices for a school project. April 14, 2010

I have been asked to help out with a project at my son's school: a new residential dorm for autistic teenagers. I am being asked to recommend specifications for several runs of cabinets with drawers and doors. My career has been 99% furniture, so I don't know as much as I should about kitchen cabinets. The school is looking for cabinetry that will last a long time under heavy use. They would like wood doors and drawer fronts. What would be the best value, i.e. toughest at lowest price, for the following aspects of the job?

1. Countertop materials: I lean towards good old laminates. Anyone think differently? What about edge treatments/backsplash?

2. Case materials: I don't believe in anything tricky here; I prefer some kind of melamine coated board. Flake or ply?

3. I'm going to recommend face frames, as I prefer surface mounted hinges - how wide should rails and stiles be?

3. Doors: I'm thinking maple rail and stile with flat veneered panels, clear finish. How wide should the rails and stiles be? I know flat panel is cheaper, but I worry about the longevity of edgebanding.

4. Case backs: thick or thin?

5. Case construction: dowelled? Something else? Best way to fasten face frame?

6. Door hinges: I like surface mounts, as they don't go out of adjustment and are easy to replace. Does anyone have a favorite brand?

7. Drawer fronts: solid okay?

8. Drawer construction: Are dovetails worth it? How about solid sides? Does anyone dovetail ply sides? Best thickness of sides? Bottom material? I plan to outsource the drawers, but there will be a fair number of them so I may as well ask for what I want.

9. Drawer slides: I favor simple side mounted epoxy coated metal slides - they seem to be pretty much foolproof. Anything better?

I'm anticipating that I will be ordering a complete package of parts and assembling them in my shop using volunteer parent labor. Then they will be delivered to the site for the GC to install.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor P:
I have owned and operated a custom shop for 10 years and know a good bit about residential cabinetry (I hope). Here are my recommendations:

1. Laminate tops are durable and cheap, relative to other choices. There are some attractive colors too. I do not do a ton of laminate tops. Granite and synthetic surface top prices are down, but still more than laminate, by a lot.

2. Use a thermofuse melamine product. I pay $23+/- for a 3/4", 4x8 sheet of white or almond. HR maple is $26+/-, extremely durable and affordable.

3. Industry standard is 2 1/4" stile and rail. 1/4 veneer panels are cheap and attractive. We do a lot of edgebanded veneer slab doors/df kitchens. Using our Holzher bander combined with ML Campbell pre-cat sealers and lacquers produces a very durable cabinet. Attractive and easy to clean. We use MDF or PB cores for panel stability.

4. We use blind dado construction with 1/4" slide in backs, all euro construction. The 3/4" material with blind dado is a strong case; the slide in backs are wonderful at install for ease of cutting in outlets and for hiding screws. If cut tight, they square the box up beautifully.

5. We built mostly face frame cabinets for 7 years before discovering the real advantages of the euro system. Often seen as cheap and less durable, but not so. Once the euro boxes are all screwed together, they become as strong as or stronger than face frame. Bringing two 3/4" sides flush together = 1 1/2" thick panel. Setting hardware is a piece of cake, 1/8" reveals throughout, applied end panels, face frame at open shelf sections, etc. The eruo installs are a bit trickier, but when done properly, the euro system is far superior, in my opinion. There is a learning curve to switch. If you must build face frames, I prefer to pocket the box to fasten the face frame.

6. Blum 35mm euro concealed, all day! Fully adjustable, bombproof.

7. Solid is fine - veneer slab works too.

8. We either blind dado our boxes out of 9 ply maple on our CNC, or buy the dovetailed 9 ply from the Drawer Connection, a local maker. 9 ply pre-finished material is also bombproof. Build when slow, buy when busy, nice time buffer.

9. Epoxy sides are durable and cheap. A nice undermout, full extension is nicer. We use Blum tandems. At $17 a pair, they are expensive, durable, easy to install, etc. Stay away from cheap undermounts, especially the soft close variety. If price is critical, go epoxy.

I would look for a regional shop that has panel processing and edgebanding capabilities. If you could purchase blind dado parts, the boxes would be cake to assemble. Have the parts CNC machined to have all hinge and glide holes already drilled. Volunteer labor will need the simplicity. The right materials, construction methods, finishes, and a quality install are key with the euro cab.

From contributor B:
1. Laminate is cheap and durable. I prefer to do a solid wood nosing with a router detail for the edge - just seen too many laminated edges falling off over time. As far as backsplash goes, a piece of 1/2" or 3/4" particleboard with matching laminate should work and keep costs down. (Take this bit with a grain of salt, as we let someone else take care of the counters when at all possible.)

2. Same as contributor P - we use it all the time - inexpensive and durable.

3. Face frames I don't know - it is vanishingly rare that we ever do them. Stiles and rails we usually go wider, roughly 2-1/2" or better, just to give us a little more meat. We use the Blum hinges.

4. We use 1/2" backs nailed and screwed to the back of the gables and shelves. 1-1/2" #6 screws, maximum spacing 6" apart.

5. Case construction we just pin and screw the sides to the shelves. I am sure there are those who will argue the method, but our product stands the test of time and it is not real tool intensive. However, if you do get your parts outsourced or have the right tooling, dowelled parts will make construction for the volunteer labor force pretty much foolproof.

6. I agree with contributor P here as well - easy to adjust, durable and inexpensive. But maybe not the right thing for you, as working outside what you are most comfortable with can lead to expensive mistakes.

7. Contributor P - ditto.

8. Seeing as how you are outsourcing them, dovetail ply shouldn't be a problem. I wouldn't do it myself - it is hell on the bits - but I'll more than happily let someone else do them for me! I would ask for 1/2" Baltic birch sides with a 1/2" matching ply bottom, dadoed in a half inch up from the bottom edge of the sides. You could drop a dumbbell in there and the bottom won't fall out.

9. I swear by the Blum tandem undermounts, but they are a bit pricey. Your own preference is probably best bang for your buck - simple and durable product that works well.

From contributor T:
I think you are right about the surface mounted hinges. You can usually get 180 of swing, and with a little creativity end up with something that is pretty good looking.

Take a look at almost any residential installation that that has been in place more than a year. If they used concealed European hinges, the gaps and reveals will be pretty messed up. The hinge mount plates on the doors that get high use will probably need to be re-bolted in place. This type of hinge has got a lot of adjustment but it also needs it, particularly the doors that open 170. To open that wide you have to have a lot of moving parts and this won't hold up in the scenario you're working on.

Same thing with drawer slides. The undermount Blum motion type slide has a lot of golly-gee in the showroom but also has too many places for adjustment. The reason they have all this room for adjustment is because they need it. It's one thing to get the drawer bank all tuned up at the shop or on installation day, and quite another to keep it tuned up after the customer has loaded it up and their teenage kids have slammed it shut a few times. The only advantage to the undermount is that the hardware is on the bottom of the drawer and therefore easier to keep clean.

Side mount slides like Accuride or KV are going to be your longest performing product and will start out at about half the price. Just match the slide to the expected load rating and life will be good.

Stylistically I would look at something like a Hoosier style. The perimeter of the doors and drawer fronts are typically bullnosed and the drawer faces are flat slabs. These are also inexpensive to produce and relatively easy to keep clean. Think of it as the p-lam cabinet of the 1920's.

From contributor P:

I have to respectfully disagree with contributor T on the hardware. I have kitchens that are 10 years old - originally installed with Blum concealed hinges - and no adjustments needed, ever. However, if there were a need for adjustment, it is there! As far as the ball bearing side mount, full extension glides, they are durable. They are a pain in the rear to set, hard to adjust, with not very smooth action in my opinion. If you do face frame construction and don't fur the sides out, you will have to use a rear mount bracket - pain! Blum undermounts are the best - adjust them one time to get your reveals perfect, walk away and sleep well. Go euro, use the system - it works!

From contributor L:
I pretty much agree with contributors P and B. The only changes I would make are in the drawers. I have found the Tandembox slides to be the perfect compliment to the euro boxes, and for someone who is assembling cabinets with volunteer labor, these are a snap if the parts are machined on a CNC in advance. Plus they have the built in adjustment to be able to line up reveals that you won't get with wood boxes where you are fastening a DF to them. They really complete the simplified and improved process in my opinion. And if budget is an issue and epoxy is acceptable, the Metabox drawers give the same basic features in a less smooth package.

From contributor D:
I recommend Blum Maxus institutional hinge. Easy to install, very durable and adjustable.

From contributor A:
Has the school made any suggestions regarding the safety or accessibility of the cabinetry with regards to the autistic teenagers? My wife is a PT who spent 3 years in the trenches with some special kids, including a few with aggressive autism. This is a serious question that could have merit in this discussion.

From contributor J:
If durability is the primary consideration, using p-lam slab doors and fronts are about as simple and durable as you'll get. Not great looking, but I've torn plenty of them out of old kitchens and they always seem to still be in great shape.