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Cabinets Nat Rea

Stuff. Where do we put all the stuff we accumulate in our homes? In cabinets, of course. Upper and lower cabinets in the kitchen, vanity and medicine cabinets in the bathroom, storage cabinets in the laundry room, bedrooms, and garage, to name a few.

Cabinets are basic boxes, yes, but they are also expected to be attractive and stylistically appropriate to their surroundings; and their doors, drawers, and shelving should be adjustable and functional. They are an integral part of any house, so it’s no surprise that an entire industry exists, solely focused on designing, manufacturing, and installing cabinets. And there are nearly as many types as there are houses, so it helps to first narrow down the choices.

Anatomy of a Cabinet

First, know the anatomy of the cabinet. The carcass is the box—the body of the cabinet. A frame applied to the front of the cabinet is called the face frame; cabinets without a face frame are known as European, or Euro-cabinets. Doors and drawer fronts on a Euro-cabinet are typically installed to cover the leading edge of the carcass, a style known as full overlay. Doors and drawers paired with a face frame can be installed as recessed (flush with the leading edge of the frame), or as a partially overlay or full overlay.

Cabinet Materials

Cabinets’ carcasses are made from a variety of materials. Less expensive cabinets are often made from MDF (medium density fiberboard) or particleboard that’s covered with melamine, thermofoil, or wood veneer. Over time, cabinets made from particleboard generally don’t hold up well to wear and tear. Better quality cabinets are made from plywood because it’s strong and its smooth veneer makes a great substrate for either paint or a clear finish such as lacquer. Less common and pricier are sleek cabinets (often imported) made from enameled steel or aluminum.

Doors and drawer fronts follow a similar line of quality: less expensive faces are made from MDF that’s painted or that has some sort of veneer applied. More expensive and durable are frame and panel doors, whose frames are made of solid wood. Their panels, flat or raised, can be made from plywood, MDF, or solid wood.

Cabinet Finishes

The Ideal cabinet finish is one that is tough enough to resist scratches and scuffs, and is easy to clean, year after year. Melamine and thermofoil excel in these characteristics—they are a form of plastic, after all—but their color choices are limited, and they’re often paired with lower quality substrates.

The most widely used finish among professionals is some form of a sprayed two-part lacquer. It can be tinted to any shade and opacity and dries to an extremely durable, smooth finish. When buying custom cabinets, some homeowners may also opt for a hand-applied finish such as tung oil that accentuates the highlights of the wood grain.

These softer finishes don’t protect as well as a lacquer and must be re-applied periodically.

Buyers’ Guide to Cabinet Types

When buying cabinets, there are three basic levels from which to choose: stock, semi-custom, and custom.

Here, cost relates to the options made available to the buyer. Cabinet pricing is generally expressed in terms of linear feet and can vary widely within the levels of quality. Stock cabinets are readily available and the least expensive (about $75-$200/ lin.ft.), but are somewhat limited in configurations, styles, and finishes. The overall quality is often barebones. Semi-custom cabinets are typically more expensive than stock (typically $150-$300/lin.ft.) but are offered in a much wider array of styles and finishes and manufactured with better quality materials. Expect a wait of up to several weeks for delivery.

Custom cabinetry is the most expensive ($300/lin.ft. and up), but the tradeoff is that you get exactly what you want. Often made in a local shop, the quality of materials and craftsmanship is topnotch. Delivery wait times can be longer than those of semi-custom cabinets.

Installing New Cabinets

New cabinet installations have the potential for some homeowner involvement. Installing a single cabinet can be a relatively straightforward task, well within the abilities of even the greenest DIY’er. The job requires a few basic tools (cordless drill/screwdriver, Phillips screwdriver, measuring tape, flat bar), shims and a carpenter’s level. Identify where the framing lies inside the wall, make sure the cabinet is level and plumb, and screw it to the studs.

The process gets trickier as the number of cabinets increase – you must take into account the levelness of the floor, the straightness (or lack thereof) in the walls, jogs in the cabinet layout, angles, elevation changes, spaces for appliances, etc. At some point, it may be a good idea to call in the pros.

Professional installers have the experience and tools to transform a jumble of boxes into an assembly of clean lines, crisp reveals, and most importantly, great storage.

Cabinet Care

Over their lifetime, cabinets will get a lot of use, so a little routine maintenance will keep them looking great and working properly. When cleaning the cabinet surfaces, be aware of their finishes and don’t use harsh chemicals or abrasives. Cabinet hardware such as hinges and drawer slides may need periodic adjustment to keep doors and drawers aligned and working. Doors that don’t close properly can become warped over time. Most modern hinges and slides can be adjusted with a Phillips screwdriver in a couple of minutes .

Repairing and Restoring Cabinets

Over time, less expensive cabinets, especially those made of particle board, may deteriorate to the point where shelves are bowed, doors are warped, and the material just won’t hold screws anymore. Replacement is the only answer. But if the cabinets are just worn or dowdy, a homeowner may choose to give the existing cabinets a face lift instead. Chipped or worn areas can be touched up with paint or finish. Small areas of peeling veneer can be reattached by squeezing carpenters glue in between the laminations and clamping them with painter’s tape.

Changing the doorknobs and drawer pulls is another upgrade that won’t break the bank. There are literally thousands of styles from which to choose, and sometimes a new set of sleek drawer pulls in brushed chrome is just what your cabinets needed.

If the structure of the cabinets is still sound, a new coat of paint will go a long way to making a kitchen or bath shine again. Interior latex house paint offers the broadest options for color, is easy to use, and is the key ingredient in lots of money-saving kitchen remodels. However, for a quality paint job, even the simplest cabinet styles require a sizable investment in time. All surfaces to be painted should be cleaned, sanded, and dusted before the paint can be applied. Painting kitchen cabinets can also be left to professional painters. This is especially advisable if the cabinets in need are clear finished, in which case a painting contractor may choose to spray them in place.

As an alternative to paint, some homeowners opt to reface cabinets. Suitable for DIY’ers or a professional crew, refacing is the process in which adhesive-backed veneer is applied to the cabinets’ surfaces. Typically, new doors and drawer fronts are installed at the same time. While refacing is a less expensive option to replacing the cabinets, as with painting, it only makes sense if the cabinets are in good structural shape.