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Ultimate guide to kitchen cabinets

Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Cabinets

A confused couple talking to a cabinet designer in a cabinet store

Table of Contents

Section 1:  Anatomy of a Kitchen Cabinet
1.1 Cabinet Types & Construction
1.2 Cabinet Doors and Drawers
1.3 Cabinet Overlay
1.4 Cabinet Hardware
1.5 Cabinet Finish

Section 2: Kitchen Cabinets Types and Brands
2.1 RTA & Stock Cabinets
2.2 Semi-Custom Cabinets
2.3 Custom Cabinets
2.4 Outdoor Cabinets

Section 3: Kitchen Cabinet Finish Options
3.1 Woods, Stains and Paints
3.2 Thermofoils and melamines
3.3 Reconstituted Veneers
3.4 Acrylics
3.5 Metals
3.6 Sheen and finish options

Section 4: Kitchen Cabinet Modifications, Accessories and Options
4.1 What are modifications and accessories?
4.2 Most popular modifications
4.3 How kitchen cabinet modifications relate to cost
4.4 How kitchen cabinet modifications relate to design

Section 5: Kitchen Cabinet Design
5.1 How design impacts kitchen cabinet selection
5.2 How design impacts kitchen cabinet cost
5.3 How design impacts kitchen cabinet installation
5.4 How design can make ordinary kitchen cabinets extraordinary

Section 6: Kitchen Cabinet Installation
6.1 How to install kitchen cabinets (Industry guidelines and documentation
6.2 How the type of kitchen cabinet selected affects installation
6.3 How the right installer can impact the fit and finish of kitchen cabinetry
6.4 How to maintain and clean your kitchen cabinets

Conclusion and Summary on Kitchen Cabinets


Section 1:  Anatomy of a kitchen cabinet


1.1 Cabinet Types and Construction

As you begin your journey for your new kitchen cabinets, you’ll most likely come across three main types: wall cabinets, base cabinets and tall cabinets.  

Wall Cabinets

Wall cabinets mount to the walls and are typically hung or mounted at 54” off the finished floor.  Wall cabinets are 12” deep without making any modifications to depth.  Widths and heights of kitchen wall cabinets can vary from brand to brand.  

The most common heights are 30” which would result in an overall cabinet height of 84” leaving a 12” gap above the cabinets to the ceiling in an 8’ high kitchen.  42” high cabinets are popular as well but cost a little more than 30” high wall cabinets.  42” high cabinets finish at an overall cabinet height of 96” which would go all the way up to the ceiling in an 8’ high kitchen.  

Taller wall cabinets are available in semi-custom and custom lines or by stacking different height cabinets on top of each other.  This increases cost and requires additional pieces like end panels and skins to create a finished look.  

Base Cabinets

Base Cabinets are cabinets that sit on the floor and are secured to the wall with hanging rails.  A standard base cabinet has one or two doors with a drawer above but base cabinets can be different configurations.  Full height bases have doors from top to bottom and don’t have a drawer.  Drawer bases are common and one of the best cabinets for storage.  Drawer bases  usually have two, three or four drawers. 

The standard depth for any base cabinet is 24” deep.  Overall height of a base cabinet is 34-½” high because most countertops are about 1-½” thick.  This combination creates a countertop height of 36” or 3’ off the finished kitchen floor.  Base cabinets also have a toe kick area in the front that is notched out so you can stand and work in front of the cabinet without hitting your feet on the cabinets.  Base cabinets need to be perfectly square and shimmed at installation to be perfectly level to avoid any issues when measuring for and installing the countertop.

Tall Cabinets

Tall cabinets are the last main type of kitchen cabinets.  Tall, pantry or utility cabinets are other common names for tall kitchen cabinets.  Most of these cabinets are 84” or 96” to finish at the same height as common wall cabinets and the standard depth is 24”.  

Tall cabinets can simply have a tall opening for storing tall items like brooms, vacuums or mops.  They can also have adjustable shelving or roll-outs to double as pantry storage.  Some tall cabinets are built with openings to house appliances like built-in ovens, microwaves or warming drawers.  

With stock or RTA cabinets, the opening is pre-made but needs to be cut, trimmed or modified to fit the actual appliance specifications.  Most semi-custom and all custom tall cabinets will have the exact appliance cut-out opening and support prepared at the factory for an easier and cleaner looking installation.  

Cabinet Construction

The construction of any kitchen cabinet determines the quality and the longevity of the product.  As you begin your journey searching for the perfect kitchen cabinets, you’ll quickly realize that there are many different materials used in the box construction of the cabinet.  There are two main construction methods for kitchen cabinets:  Framed and Frameless.  

Frameless or European-Style Cabinets

Frameless cabinets or European-style cabinets are basically a box without a front.  The door or drawers actually become the front creating full-coverage of the box resulting in very tight spacing between doors and drawers.  These cabinets often offer typical woods and finishes as well as interesting textures and veneers.  

Framed Cabinets

Framed cabinets are essentially a four sided box with a frame applied to the front.  The doors and drawers cover the frame.  The amount the doors and drawers cover the frame is referred to as the overlay.  We’ll touch more on this in a later section.  

Many lower end cabinet products will be constructed using particle board or furniture board with an upgrade to plywood construction in some lines usually at an additional cost.  It’s largely agreed that plywood is the best material for cabinet construction but even with plywood, there are different grades and thicknesses.  

The way the parts are connected makes a difference as well.  Less expensive cabinets usually have simple joints where the sides of the box meet the frame.  Structural bracing is usually better on more premium cabinets to keep them square for installation.  Take a look at the difference between one of our RTA lines and one of our semi-custom cabinets lines.  Notice the difference in the sides, the hanging rails at the back and the corner blocks versus the front to back bracing. 

1.2 Cabinet Doors and Drawers

Cabinet Doors

Kitchen cabinet doors and their construction varies from brand to brand. Most doors are constructed with two vertical pieces of wood called stiles and two horizontal pieces of wood called rails. These stiles and rails are joined in or near the corners using different joints depending on the style. These stiles and rails make up a frame which holds a center panel in place.

The center panel of the cabinet door can be made of different material or different thickness. Doors on many of our entry level kitchen cabinets are usually constructed with ¼” veneered center panels with solid stiles and rails on the frames. It’s usually possible to upgrade to solid wood center panels at an additional cost. Our more premium products will have solid wood center panels ¾” thick.

Some kitchen cabinet manufacturers change the substrate material on certain finishes like paint and use a more stable product like High-Density Fiberboard (HDF) to reduce the amount of expansion and contraction that you would typically see in an all wood product. This is especially true in the Midwest where Thompson Price is located. The expansion and contraction issue is amplified with our hot, humid summers and cold, dry winters.

Cabinet Drawers

Drawer fronts follow the same rules. Some inexpensive kitchen cabinets only offer one type of drawer front or drawer box. The standard drawer front could be a solid, flat piece of wood usually referred to as a ‘slab’. Some kitchen cabinets offer 5 piece drawers where the drawer front is constructed like a cabinet door for a more visual appeal. In many semi-custom and custom cabinet lines, you have the ability to mix and match for a unique design combination. In higher end kitchen cabinets, you can even select the edge profile of your cabinet door and drawer edges and even the finished opening profiles.

Drawer boxes vary greatly from product to product. The biggest difference between drawer boxes is the material and construction. Every kitchen cabinet offered by Thompson Price features dovetail construction and full-extension with soft-close. Our custom kitchen cabinets even let you choose between an English or French dovetail and a finished dovetail joint.

1.3 Cabinet Overlay

Kitchen cabinet overlay is a misunderstood part of cabinetry. Overlay simply describes how much cabinet doors and drawers overlay the face frame of the cabinet. As we mentioned in the box construction section, frameless cabinets are pretty much full-overlay by default. With a framed cabinet, the most common overlays are standard/partial/traditional or full-overlay. Some lines like our custom kitchen cabinets offer a “Marginal” overlay. Since this product shares stiles and rails, partial overlay creates an almost hybrid overlay.

Some higher end products also offer an overlay called “inset” where the doors and drawers are installed flush within the face-frame. Inset construction is tricky because the tolerance between the doors, drawers and frame are minimal – often times around ⅛”. The accuracy, fit and hardware must be excellent. Full-overlay and inset overlays usually cost more than standard overlay.

Cabinet Hardware

The doors, drawers, box and construction are definitely important but the hardware used really determines the functionality and longevity of the cabinets. Many kitchen cabinet manufacturers are providing soft-close drawers and doors as standard features but the best cabinet manufacturers are using Blum hardware. Opening and closing a standard drawer versus a Blum drawer feels totally different. The Blum glides move like butter and reliably close properly every time. Installation and adjustability is far greater and easier using Blum products.

Lower grade cabinets will typically offer less adjustability in terms of shelf placement. Hole drilling and spacing for shelving is usually limited compared to premium products. We also see many inexpensive kitchen cabinet manufacturers using plastic locking shelf clips to support and hold the shelf in place. Our better value products come standard with metal spoon clips for excellent support and the easiest shelf adjustment.

Cabinet Finish

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