All Things Cabinetry -- by designers Bonnie Hufnagel and Anna McAuley
Feb 15, 2021

All Things Cabinetry -- by designers Bonnie Hufnagel and Anna McAuley

One of the most important, and sometimes least understood, aspects of a kitchen is the cabinetry. In today’s blog, two of Ulrich’s expert kitchen designers talk about the most common terms and misconceptions related to cabinetry, and offer some great guidance.

Kitchen designers are specialists in kitchen planning (think of this as a specialization within interior design) who pull together all the aesthetic and functional details of a kitchen project.  A good kitchen designer will help you understand and select from the myriad of options among all of the products and services that your kitchen project will involve and will guide you in creating a kitchen that is a joy to live and work in.  One of the most important, and sometimes least understood, aspects of a kitchen is the cabinetry.   In today’s blog, two of Ulrich’s expert kitchen designers talk about the most common terms and misconceptions related to cabinetry, and offer some great guidance.

Cabinet Construction and the “All Wood” Conundrum

One of the most common requests that we get when someone comes in looking for cabinetry is “all wood”.  The term “all wood” is a bit misleading.  First, different parts of the cabinet are typically constructed with different materials to achieve structure, style and price point.  Solid lumber is very costly to use and has a greater tendency to warp than other materials.  For these reasons it is actually not the best material for constructing cabinets, since cabinet boxes must be square and level for proper installation.  (The exception would be the front frame of a “framed” cabinet).

Most manufacturers, from furniture-grade to stock cabinet makers, use plywood or particle board to construct the cabinet boxes.  Both plywood and particle board are used because they are made of layers or chips bonded together with glue, which makes them more rigid, as well as strong enough to hold the weight of the items stored in them.

Plywood consists of wood sheets that are compressed together and then veneered, whereas particleboard is make with wood chips that are compressed and held together by an adhesive.

Is one better than the other?  It depends . . .  There are grades of both plywood and particle board that denote the quality of the material.  The lowest grades might be used as substrate for roofing, flooring, etc, while the higher grades are used for “finish” work.  And cabinet companies that make stock cabinets use a lower grade of plywood or particle board than manufacturers who construct furniture-grade cabinets.

Two Grades of Plywood

Two Grades of Particle Board

Most manufacturers use a combination of the two materials based on the cost and availability of materials. For example, manufacturers might use plywood for cabinet doors and frames and use particleboard for the cabinet box sides and back.

While particle board cabinets will cost slightly less than plywood ones, the best way to determine the quality of either is to review the warranty on the product you are considering.  Warranties ranging from 1 to 4 years is usual for stock cabinets. 5 to 7 years is common for semi-custom.  8 to 10 years or more indicates a well-made fully custom product, and a Limited Lifetime Warranty indicates a furniture-grade product, whether it’s a plywood or particle board construction.

Framed vs. Frameless

There are two styles of cabinets available today:  framed and frameless.  A Frameless cabinet is always used with full-overlay doors, while a framed cabinet is commonly used with inset doors, but can be offered with both inset and overlay styles.

Framed cabinets are built using a frame construction.  The front of the cabinet box looks like a picture frame where the cabinet door sits on top or it can sit flush, inside the frame, depending on the desired look.  When the door sits inside the frame of the cabinet it is called an inset door.   Framed cabinets, with a flush or beaded inset door, are usually used for a more traditional look.

Frameless cabinets eliminate the face frame, and offer you full access into the cabinet.
Frameless cabinets are only available with full overlay doors. Overlay door styles sit on the front of the cabinet and completely cover the cabinet box frame.  They can have a traditional, contemporary or a modern look, depending on the door style selected.

Inset doors (right) and overlay doors or drawers (left)

Inset construction is flush, meaning the door and drawers will be flush within the frame of the cabinet.  A beaded inset adds a small moulding around the frame, and leans towards traditional styles, while flush inset leans more towards a shaker style.

Beaded Inset and Flush Inset Door Styles set into Framed Cabinets

Door Styles

The door style of cabinetry is the most noticed element of the kitchen, and sets the stage for the feel of the room.  While there are many details that differentiate one door from another, there are really only three basic door styles:  raised-panel, recessed-panel, and flat panel. 

Raised-panel is a more traditional style door, and has a weightier “presence” in the room. The door is made of a frame with a raised center:

Recessed-panel doors can also be designed for a traditional kitchen, but this style is popularly used for a transitional style, and makes a subtler statement than the raised-panel doors. The recessed-panel door also has a frame, but with a recessed (flat) center:

Flat-panel doors can give a sleek, modern effect, but can also provide a rustic, weathered look. A weathered look can be paired with recessed or raised panel doors to create an eclectic design.

Flat panels doors are the perfect way to create a contemporary and seamless kitchen.  Whether you want to use a painted finish, stain, and textured finish, the possibilities are endless.  Above, Ulrich’s Bonnie Hufnagel juxtaposed matte and high sheen cabinet finishes for a clean zen-like feel.

MDF - So Misunderstood

When white painted cabinets first increased in popularity the painted finishes were applied to soft maple or poplar wood.  Since cabinet doors are made in 5 pieces (a 4-piece frame and a center panel) these solid woods were vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity.  The paint would often crack where the joints met due to expansion and contraction.  And the resulting cracks in the finish were permanent.

More recently, the cabinet-making industry turned to MDF as a substrate for painted finishes.  MDF stands for medium-density fiberboard, which is an engineered wood composite made up of wood fibers. Because MDF is composed of small wood fibers, there is no visible wood grain, rings, or knots. The making of MDF uses the fibers, glue, and heat to create a tight bonding board, which makes it far more resistant to expansion and contraction, thus almost eliminating the joint-cracking of solid lumber or plywood.  Also, MDF can be sanded to a perfectly smooth surface to accept painted finishes.

In some cases the doors are “carved” out of a single piece of MDF, which altogether eliminates joint-cracking.  By choosing an MDF door instead of a wood door for your painted finish, you ensure the beauty of your whole kitchen for years to come.

A beautiful example of a Kitchen with MDF doors

Drawer Construction

Another important aspect of cabinet construction relates to the drawers.  A wide range of materials and construction methods are used for cabinet drawers. Particleboard, plywood, metal and plastic are common materials and construction methods vary greatly. Lesser quality drawer boxes use butt or rabbet (notched) joints secured with staples to hold the sides together. These may have particleboard drawer bottoms.  But Dovetail drawer construction sets the standard for quality drawer box construction.  Dovetail joints require absolute precision and craftsmanship and are considered a standard in luxury cabinetry.

The term dovetail refers to the joint.  This construction uses solid wood and a joint that looks like a jigsaw piece. It is considered to be the tightest and longest-lasting joint.The joints that makeup dovetail construction create a secure and sturdy drawer. They are also extremely durable.

Other drawers commonly use side-mounted glides which often lead to wear and tear, whereas dovetail drawers use under-mount glides. Undermount glides are protected under the drawer.  More on this below.

Soft Close Doors and Drawers

This is a subject that just about everyone has heard about, and we emphasize that cabinet doors and drawers with soft-close components are the way to go.  Both cabinet doors and drawers see a lot of wear and tear, so don’t skimp here.  Good quality soft-close hinges on your doors will allow you to adjust your doors in-out, up-down and left-right which is very helpful over the life of your cabinet as the doors expand and contract with environmental changes.  Undermount soft-close drawer glides provide smooth operation and long wear, as well as the strength to support the drawer and all of its contents - which in a kitchen can be substantial!  These glides will also provide full-extension to give you access to the entire drawer and its contents.  Last but not least, soft-close mechanisms eliminate the noise of slamming doors and drawers!

Color Trends

White is always elegant, soothing and neutral.   It remains the number one color choice in kitchen cabinetry.  Yet lately we’ve been seeing a trend to “break up” the expanse of white by mixing in colors - subtle or bold - and rustic woods, veneers and laminates.  

In the below example, Ulrich designer Julia Kleyman, seamlessly blends white paint (perimeter) with stained wood (island) and bold color (butlers pantry) for a stunning, timeless kitchen.

Below, Ulrich designer Aparna Vijayan expertly combines pale gray, stainless steel, and accents  of brushed gold to make this kitchen a beautiful and inviting room for family and friends to gather.   The bar’s plum-colored upper cabinets with stainless steel below adds simple elegance to the design.

With a crisp, stainless steel frame and stainless trim around the cabinet doors, this classy bar reads sleek and modern.  Looking more closely, you notice the custom glass inserts in the doors sporting an unexpected linear corduroy pattern. The textured laminate on the doors and drawers adds another linear element, creating textural interest.  Behind the glass, the cabinet interiors are finished with dark walnut wood, adding a warm, organic feel to a bar that might otherwise feel cold and stark. The dark chocolate backsplash has an iridescent finish, providing a bit of glam to this beautiful unit.

One bold color accent wall in a room of soft whites and greys turns a bathroom from blah to brilliant in a heartbeat.  With the right designer guiding you, color can be the key to that one detail that makes your room beyond special.

The Final Call

Cabinetry represents a significant investment, and the options related to this aspect of a kitchen renovation can be overwhelming - there is a lot to consider in the selection process!  We strongly recommend working with an experienced kitchen design professional for the best result and cabinets that are of the style, quality and construction that fit your lifestyle and your budget.  Afterall, a kitchen is a very personal living and working space, and should be tailored to you!


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