Stretchers Versus Full Tops

Stretchers at the top of cabinet carcases sometimes cause drawers to get stuck. Is it wiser to just build a full top onto the cabinet?July 5, 2011

I recently had a client call regarding a stuck drawer. This is the second client to call in the last several years, and this problem has occurred in my own kitchen as well. It happens when an item in a top drawer catches on the back side of the top stretcher. It can make opening the drawer impossible without ripping off the drawer front. It is not a professional sight to be in a client's kitchen with your feet against the toe kick pulling with all of your might until the screws holding the front on give way. Then there's the drawer front repair cost.

I have done hundreds of jobs and have thousands of base cabinets out in the world. To my knowledge, this has only happened three times. But I'm still considering the idea of going to full tops to prevent this problem. Any of you have an opinion?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor K:
It's a waste of time, material and resources (both yours and the customers) for a statistical anomaly, but if it will bring you comfort to use full tops, and you can recoup the cost from the customer, go for it. It's extra income in the end. We add a divider to the garbage/recycle cab, so items in the drawer above are protected from rotting garbage.

In reality, your answer lies in the description of the problem. Out of thousands of drawer bases, it's only been a problem on three occasions. Sounds more like chance than anything else. I wonder if once you remove that obstacle it would be replaced by another.

I've never run into the problem you describe, but the reverse - the ladle put in the drawer, handle first, pushed down because the drawer is overfull with items, and when the drawer is closed, the ladle pops up and bumps against the face of the cabinet and it becomes wedged and pushes against the back of the drawer when you try to open it. That, and the customers who chose to use a plastic cutlery insert instead of paying the price for an integrated cutlery insert. They fill the plastic cutlery insert up, and put stuff around it (because it's not made to fit that drawer and there is usually extra space), and the stuff works its way under the plastic cutlery insert, the kids force it shut instead of removing the obstruction, and bingo - stuck drawer!

One more reason to go totally frameless I guess (and one more reason for the totally frameless crowd to add to their arsenal for reasons why).

I am sure the customer looking at the butt-crack of a plumber when he is sprawled out trying to fit in an undersized sink-base also looks unprofessional, but if he solves their problem, they may joke about the butt-crack later, and will know who to call for their plumbing and who to write the check to. I am assuming you charged for this service call, right?

From contributor G:

We use full tops on our base cabinets except sink cabinets because the extra material usage is not a factor, but the labour is. We find it faster to treat the top and bottom of the cabinet the same to streamline the process. This also means on install you can shim the uppers off the lowers and stand on the lowers in a pinch if needed. Our cabinets are frameless.

From the original questioner:
Contributor K - you're right, I've had four callbacks regarding this. One was that the back of a drawer was busted clean off from an item being stuck up against the stretcher and the customer forcing the drawer open. I guess in that case the drawer back was weaker than the drawer front screws. And no, I didn't charge for that callback either.

From contributor M:
I use full tops except on sink/cooktop cabs. I find that full tops cost less than stretchers. Assuming you are using the same material in either scenario, I figure you are saving on average 4 square feet of material. If you want to argue that it is easier to optimize the stretcher, then we can call it 5 sq ft... 5 sq ft of the most expensive pre-finished ply I use is worth $7. That is being generous. I have optimized my jobs both ways (I used stretcher tops until a year ago) and could never see a waste factor difference in the reports on jobs that have more than 10 sheets.

So instead of one $7 part you have two $1 parts. More cutting on the saw (or CNC), more boring, more part labels and definitely more assembly. Simply more parts in the mix. If you are using ordinary birch/maple ply or melamine, there would really not be a reason to use stretchers. Am I missing something?

From contributor R:
If you are manually picking up a cabinet, stretchers make the world of difference. Getting it off the bench, on the truck, in the house - even you high-tech guys with conveyors still have to manually take them off and on the truck and in the house. As a guy who has slung them around for nine years, is there anything worse than a full depth 24" (let alone 30" for base) fridge cabinet or a lazy suzan base, with nowhere to grip or get a handle? I figure up to that point you are a wash on stretchers for full top, but you'll bury me believing in stretchers just for the lifting ability.

From contributor E:
Have not had that happen, but did have drawers screwed shut from above when the countertop was installed (on site p-lam). You could try beveling the back edge of the front stretcher.

From contributor J:
I'm another one in the full top camp. As has been stated already, the savings in material using stretchers is so minimal it's not worth doing. Then add in extra time for cutting different size parts and it's not worth it to me.

As someone who installs his own work I don't see the extra 1 or 2 lbs a full top adds as a real issue. To be honest I've never even considered the weight until reading this thread.
I think where you see a savings using stretchers is when you get into mass production. When you're cutting thousands of parts, a few pennies here and there add up.

From contributor M:
Contributor R is not referring to the weight, he is referring to the fact that stretchers make a convenient hand hold. I agree that they do. But I can't really say I have a hard time with moving the cabinets anyway. The cabinets are usually carried by two people. For really heavy cabinets (lots of big drawers) we pull out the drawers. Most smaller cabinets can easily be carried by one person. I don't think having handles is a good enough reason to use stretchers.

Do you inset your backs or are they nailed to the outside? Our backs are inset 12mm and it is usually easy to pull off the door or open the drawer a little to grab inside the cabinet. We use dollies and carts so the lifting is limited to stairs, lowering off the truck, and shuffling on the site.

From contributor R:
Several years ago I decided to slow my pace of life and went back to just myself after running a pretty decent size shop, and those stretchers make all the difference for one man lifting. I'm often referred to as a bull or grizzly - there isn't much that I can't lift or move - but my arms are only so long and there is no hand hold without the stretchers. Yes, you can remove doors/drawers, but isn't the whole idea in the first place to use the easiest/fastest way possible? Even when you have a dolly, unless you take the time to strap each cabinet on, often you need a place to hold the cabinet firmly on the dolly and the stretcher makes it a ton easier.

From contributor G:
For lifting we use Lee Valley's vacuum cup lifters. I sometimes use just one on the top of a cabinet and lift from the back side while tilting back to keep the doors and drawers closed or in pairs with one or two people. Two of them will lift 375 lbs. If it weighs that much I use the forklift!

From contributor M:
Do they work on stipple finish melamine, or does it have to be smooth?

From contributor R:

I like those, but always stretch wrap my cabinets to keep drawers and doors from flying open and to help them stick together in transport to eliminate damage. If I could still plastic wrap and use those... but I don't think I could.

From contributor G:
They have worked on all the melamine I have tried them on. I have used them on some textured surface melamine but I am not familiar with the stipple texture. I use mostly Panolam melamine. They are great for delivery - you can have one hand on the handle and one on the hand rail or door jamb to pull yourself up the ramp with those full height pantry cabinets.

Contributor R, I see what you mean. We don't wrap ours completely - just a band around the top and the bottom to hold the face cover on. These handles work well for moving file cabinets, fridges, stoves, glass, etc. also. Anything smooth and sealed enough to pull a good vacuum on.

From contributor S:
I keep waiting for someone to mention that it's easier to screw to the wall from the open top than to crawl inside with a solid top.

From contributor M:
We don't screw into the walls. Our walls are almost always concrete block. If it is a single cabinet or a scenario where I am concerned about the cabinet falling over, we use angle brackets mounted to the top of the cabinet and the wall. Screwing into the wall makes it very difficult to get a perfect installation, as the walls are never straight enough. So then you have to use shims and it takes a lot longer. Also tightening the screws into the nailers usually twists the case or rocks it back, making the job more difficult. Finally, there is no way to adjust the case after the nailer is screwed. Typical kitchen cabs with a countertop simply do not move. If there was enough force to move the cabinets, it would almost certainly tear out a flimsy nailer. If we use a bracket, it is attached to the wall first, then after all the cabinets are straight and aligned, we screw it into the top of the case. It is a lot faster and easier than reaching through a stretchered top and handling a drill inside the cabinet. The countertop will conceal the bracket even if there is no splash.

I know I sound like a broken record, but the way European companies install cabinets is a lot faster than the traditional US methods. The European methods also allow easy removal with little or no damage to the structure.

From contributor A:
Only a European would take his cabinets with him. The American method is to hit them with a sledge hammer until they say mercy. Kinda like our foreign policy.

From contributor M:
The un-installability is a non-issue, but I still think it is easier to install and screwing into the wall adds no real additional support in most situations. Cabinets in other countries are not falling over due to a lack of nailer/screws. Neither are refrigerators, buffet cabinets and other similar cabinetry.

I had never had a stretcher cause a stuck drawer, but I have seen it happen with the face frame. So the risk is still there.