What To Look For In Kitchen Cabinet Construction and Materials

Learn The Facts On Kitchen Cabinet Construction

In a kitchen design, the kitchen cabinets are not only functional; they are a major focal point that can also help to establish your style. Choosing the right cabinets might not be quite as exciting as picking out your chef's appliances, but how they are constructed is one of the most important decisions you'll make in the long-term functionality and usability of your kitchen.

Kitchen cabinet construction can vary widely in both quality and price. Much depends on the material used and the quality of construction. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cabinets is essential. Let's take a look at cabinet boxes, what they are, the materials used, and what to look for in quality kitchen cabinet construction.

What Exactly Is A Cabinet Box?

When your designer is talking about the kitchen cabinet box, they're talking about the physical infrastructure of the cabinet, minus the hardware, trim, and doors. The cabinet box consists of a floor, sides, a back, and a top, along with shelves, and if it is a base cabinet, a toe kick.

How the cabinet is constructed can vary between manufacturers. However, there are only two styles of kitchen cabinet boxes – framed and unframed or frameless.

Frameless Cabinets

Also called European-style cabinets, have no face frame, and the drawers and doors attach directly to the box. Frameless cabinets have a more contemporary look, and it's easier to access the inside of the cabinet.

Frameless cabinet construction's durability relies on the quality of the material used. If done with inexpensive materials, constructing a box without a face frame can compromise the structural integrity of the cabinet. If you want the benefits of a contemporary look and feel, but prefer a framed cabinet, consider using a full-overlay door as a good compromise.

Framed Construction

Also known as face-frame, consists of a box and a face frame. Framed construction incorporates planks of wood which “frame” around the outer edge of the box to which the doors and drawers attach. This construction consists of a basic wooden box, to which several pieces of wood are fastened to the front, creating what looks like an attached flat picture frame.

View Our Kitchen Design Portfolio

The inside edge of the frame extends into the box and is used to attach the cabinet doors. The edges of the frame are flush with the outside edges of the box. The face frame reinforces the cabinet box providing sturdy construction that will last for many years. Framed cabinets come with three different door styles. A full-overlay door completely covers the frame. Partial overlay doors mean the frame is partially covered, and inset doors and drawers are designed to fit within the frame.

Kitchen Cabinet Construction: Materials

Kitchen cabinets are typically constructed of three types of “engineered” woods. All have their place in your kitchen design, depending on the type of wood used in the construction. They can vary widely in price. Better materials mean better quality and will last longer and stand up to daily use. It's essential to buy the best cabinet boxes you can afford.

From the highest to lowest price, the materials you can choose include:


This is the most expensive choice and is generally what your designer means when they say the cabinets are of “solid-wood” construction. It's the strongest and most structurally sound material for cabinet construction. Plywood consists of thick layers of wood veneer that are glued together in contrasting grain patterns to add strength. The grade of the plywood depends on the number of layers, the thickness and grade of the wood used. All of these directly contribute to the quality of the box.

Plywood is easily painted or finished and accepts veneers and laminates well. In locations that experience high humidity, like Alabama, solid-wood cabinets may be prone to warping. Using marine-grade plywood in their construction is an excellent choice. Today, there are “green” plywood options that emit fewer VOCs.

MDF (medium-density fiberboard)

MDF is a structurally sound, solid material. It too takes veneers well, and you'll see many products that use MDF along with solids and veneers in their construction. MDF is made by gluing wood fibers together. There is some concern about off-gassing formaldehyde, which is sometimes used in resin glues. Talk to your contractor. Today, some manufacturers use low VOC emitting materials.

Particle Board

If you're working with a tight budget, particleboard may be a good choice. Rather than using wood fibers and veneers, it's typically constructed from sawdust and wood scraps bound by resin. Particleboard contains higher levels of VOCs than either particleboard or plywood.

The construction of particleboard makes it challenging to use screws, and if you need to disassemble and reassemble your cabinet boxes, they may not survive.

Particleboard and MDF can expand when exposed to moisture or high humidity. Both hold veneers well, but MDF is a denser material. If VOCs are a concern, speak with your contractor or designer. There are materials available that minimize off-gassing.

While the material is an important consideration, ultimately, how your kitchen cabinets are constructed is critical. The construction methods used can vary widely, by the manufacturer and the level of quality you pay for. Make sure that whatever cabinets you choose, whether custom or stock (more on this in a minute), the manufacturer uses proper joinery techniques. Strong joints equal durable cabinets. Mortise and tenon, or dovetailed joints connected using glue, nails, and screws make the strongest, most durable connection.

Stock, Semi-Custom, or Custom Kitchen Cabinets

When it comes to your kitchen cabinets, you have three cabinet types to choose from: stock, semi-custom, and custom/premium cabinetry. Each level of the build has elements to consider. Your contractor and designer will examine your wants, needs, and budget when determining which level of cabinetry is right for your kitchen.

Stock Cabinets

Stock cabinets are the lowest cost option. They are a good choice if you are working with a limited budget, or you'd rather splurge on upgraded countertops, fixtures, and other elements like appliances. Stock cabinets are usually limited in colors, styles, and sizes. You also need to understand that not all stock cabinets are built to last, so you need to look closely at how they are built to make sure you get a quality built product. Many stock cabinets have size limitations, and that can result in a poor kitchen layout.

At Toulmin, we occasionally use stock cabinetry; however, we only work with high-quality manufacturers who offer options like filler strips and panels that provide our clients with a semi-custom look.

Semi-custom Cabinets

Semi-custom cabinets allow your designer to create a kitchen design that will fit perfectly into your space and often have features that are not available in stock cabinets. Typically stock cabinets are available in three-inch size increments (18”, 21”, 24” etc.). Semi-custom kitchen cabinets are available in incremental sizes, so if you need a 22 1/2” counter depth, it is possible.

Custom Cabinetry

Custom Cabinetry is the most expensive option. However, if you have the budget, custom cabinets give you the ability to create a design that is unique to your home and will precisely meet your needs, both aesthetically and functionally. With custom cabinetry, you have more choices of features, can use exotic wood species, and are built to your exact specifications.

Call Toulmin Cabinetry and Design For Your Kitchen Remodel

Your kitchen cabinetry is a critical element of your kitchen's design and functionality. Here at Toulmin Cabinetry and Design, we work with the top manufacturers of high-quality cabinetry products, and with our clients to provide cabinetry that meets their lifestyle needs, aesthetic vision, and budget.

If you have a home in the greater Tuscaloosa, Alabama area, and are planning a kitchen remodeling, give the expert designers at Toulmin Cabinetry and Design a call at (205) 366-0807. Let us help you design the kitchen you've been dreaming about!