Buy to keep: kitchen cabinets

On the market for new kitchen cabinets? You'll find that prices and quality vary enormously. In general, prices reflect quality, though the price for similar-quality cabinets can vary from dealer to dealer. Here's what to know before you make your next purchase.

Buy to keep: kitchen cabinets

Material and assembly

  • A kitchen cabinet is essentially a box made of plywood or particleboard. Plywood is stronger and more expensive, but durable cabinets can be made of particleboard, too.
  • More important than the material is the way the cabinets are assembled.
  • The cheapest cabinets are constructed of 1-centimetre (3/8-inch) particleboard assembled with hot-melt glue and staples.
  • Cabinets of 2-centimetre (3/4-inch) thick particleboard assembled with dowels or special particleboard joint connectors can approach the durability of plywood, as long as they are kept dry.
  • Particleboard turns to mush when it gets wet, and of course, that is a big consideration — particularly for the sink cabinet, where plumbing connections might leak, and for shelves where glasses and dishes are put away wet.
  • For this reason, high-quality particleboard cabinets are often coated with Melamine or vinyl — plastics that resist water.
  • Cheap particleboard cabinets have a very thin, paper-like coating that offers almost no protection from water.
  • Whereas strong plywood cabinets can be constructed with wood screws and glue, screws don't hold well in particleboard.
  • That's why dowels or special connectors are needed for strong particleboard construction.

Drawers

  • Make sure all the drawers operate smoothly without much side-to-side play.
  • The best drawers have "full-extension" hardware that allows the drawer to pull all the way out, so you have access to the back.
  • Drawers with enclosed ball-bearing hardware on both sides are superior to those that have one track underneath.
  • Take out a drawer, and check the construction. Plywood or solid wood drawers should have an interlocking joint between the sides and front.
  • In particleboard, this joint should be made with dowels or connectors.
  • This joint takes the impact when the drawer is closed — if you see a butt joint held together with glue and nails, it's only a matter of time before the drawer fronts will break off.
  • Make sure the bottom is rigid — these drawers will need to support a lot of weight.

Facing

  • Next, you need to choose how the box will be faced. Here the choices are wide and varied, from flat, easy-to-clean plastic laminate to beautiful and expensive natural cherrywood.
  • Your choice of facing materials is more a matter of aesthetics and budget than one of durability.

Workmanship

  • Run your fingertips over the door and drawer fronts to make sure that they are smooth. Sight along the surface to make sure there are no drips, tiny bubbles or sanding marks. Look inside.
  • Make sure all the joints are tight and the shelves look sturdy. Check that the doors open and close smoothly and fit perfectly.
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