Kitchen cabinet

Kitchen cabinet

Kitchen cabinets are the built-in furniture installed in many kitchens for storage of food, cooking equipment, and often silverware and dishes for table service. Appliances such as refrigerators, dishwashers, and ovens are often integrated into kitchen cabinetry.


As commonly used today, the term kitchen cabinet denotes a built-in installation in which a single counter covers multiple cabinets and neither wall nor floor is generally accessible behind or under the cabinet. Kitchen cabinets per se were invented in the early 20th century. An early precursor was the Hoosier cabinet, a single piece of furniture incorporating storage and work surfaces.

Pre-WW-I cabinet design

Typical kitchens before World War I used freestanding work tables and a pantry for dry storage. Cupboards were sometimes used in kitchens, though in larger houses dishes were more typically stored in the dining room or butler's pantry. Perishable foods such as milk, meat, and vegetables were purchased daily.

Post-WW-I industrial era

An increasing interest in household efficiency pioneered by Lillian Moller Gilbreth led to more systematic kitchen design in the 1920s, typically including built-in cabinets surfaced with linoleum or stainless steel.

Improved materials and tools also made the industrial production of cabinets possible.

Post-WW-II cabinet design

In the U.S., countertops of high-pressure laminates such as Formica became popular. Laminates led to the adoption of a seamless flush-surface kitchen look that is almost universal today, though laminates themselves are often replaced today by synthetic solid surface materials or (in more expensive installations) natural stone.

In Europe, built-in cabinets had also been pioneered in the 1920s.

With improved materials, the frameless cabinet style, appealing for its architectural minimalism reminiscent of Bauhaus design, emerged in European kitchen design, and elements have now been widely adopted worldwide.

Post-modern cabinet design trends

Other elements of kitchen design affect the choice of cabinetry as follows. In post-modern kitchens, hardwood floors are increasingly installed, earth tones are in greater use for painted surfaces, and wallpaper is less favored. Further trends include the introduction of more expensive options in kitchens, a larger number of ovens, the use of thicker solid countertops (2-3 inches), the use of higher base cabinets, the introduction of "quartz" countertops and countertops with honed rather than glossy finishes, higher countertop appliances, pervasive use of undercounter lighting, and the use of higher 9-foot ceilings rather than more traditional 8-foot ceilings formerly used in postwar construction. While not all are kitchen cabinet trends per se they all affect the choice and design of cabinetry.


Modern kitchen design is indebted to the ergonomic research of Lillian Moller Gilbreth.

Kitchens may include as many as fifty drawers and cabinet doors. Common features in new kitchen cabinets include deep drawers for cookware, pull-out shelves to avoid excess bending, sponge trays on the front of sink cabinets, pullout hideaway garbage/recycling containers, pull-out spice cabinets, elaborate lazy susans in corner cabinets, and vertical storage for cookie sheets. Cabinets often have full-extension drawer slides, sometimes concealed under drawers and trays. Drawers and doors may have soft-close/positive-close mechanisms.

Cabinet options

Cabinets consist of six-sided wooden boxes or "carcases" closed on five sides with a door on the sixth.

Quality vs. price and wood selection

Solid wood is more costly than plywood which is more costly than particle board or other similar sheet goods that need to be specially protected from prolonged exposure to moisture. Solid wood is suitable for cabinet elements that show, such as face frames, doors, drawer fronts, etc. Among solid wood species used for door construction, cherry is more expensive than maple or oak.

Solid wood is almost never used for cabinet carcase construction. Plywood and high-quality particle board are more suitable than solid wood for any panel element that is not shaped, such as carcases, shelves, and drawer bottoms. Plywood thickness varies from ⅜- to ¾-inch (with ¼-inch used often for drawer bottoms). Plywood shelves and higher-quality particle board, which are stiffer than lower grades of particle board, do not sag noticeably. Particle board quality is determined by the resin used to bind together the wood filler particles (sawdust). Plywood carcases may be assembled with screw and nail fasteners, whereas particle board is best assembled using glue or mechanical fasteners such as confirmat-cam assemblies designed for particle board applications. Plywood-carcase cabinets are more expensive than particle-board-carcase cabinets.

The higher cost of solid wood or plywood components can be justified on the basis of a long service life. Solid wood antiques centuries old are still in use today. Since cabinet components are subject to damage, the ability to repair affects the value of the cabinet. Solid wood components (drawers, door fronts, panels) can be repaired by furniture refinishers to exactly match the existing finish on the surrounding wood.

Particle board cabinets are well-suited for intermediate service life.

Cabinet construction

Cabinet carcase

Cabinets may be either face-frame or frameless in construction. Each options provides features and drawbacks.

Face-frame cabinets

Traditional cabinets are constructed using face frames which typically may consist of narrow strips of hardwood framing the cabinet box opening. Cabinet carcases were traditionally constructed with a separate face frame until the introduction of modern engineered wood such as particle board and medium density fiberboard along with glues, hinges and fasteners required to join them. A face frame ensures squareness of the cabinet front. It also increases rigidity and provides a mounting point for hinges. Face-frames confer an appearance of strength and durability, and face-frame cabinets retain popularity in the U.S.

An important distinction to be made between modern (manufactured) and traditional custom-built face-frame cabinets relates to the catalog-selection of cabinet components entailed by mass-production. Original custom face-frame cabinets accommodated multiple sections (cavities) in a single carcase. But stock (or semi-custom) face-frame cabinets are constructed individually and joined during installation. As a result, modern face-frame cabinets differ in having significantly wider (double-width) stile materials overall after installation. Two 1½" stiles joined as adjacent cabinets result in, effectively, a 3" stile. Wide stiles can interfere with access to the cabinet interior. When base cabinets were typically shelved, this was not much of a drawback. But with base cabinets increasingly being fitted with trays and drawers (using modern hardware), the extra stile width results in significantly less access to the cabinet cavity space. This drawback does not pertain to custom face-frame cabinets.

Door Mounting

For both face-frame and frameless kitchen cabinets, it is conventional for cabinet doors to overlay the cabinet carcase. Face-frame cabinets allow for various door mounting options. Traditional overlay doors do not abut, allowing a view of the face frame when the doors are closed. Full overlay cabinet doors fit closely so that they obscure the face frame when closed. A third less-conventional option for face-frame cabinets is to inset doors into, and flush with, the face frame (see below).

Since frameless (see below) cabinet doors also fully overlay their carcases, the two types (frameless and full-overlay face-frame cabinets) have a similar installed appearance (when doors are closed), both may use European cup hinges, and both require decorative door and drawer pulls (since there is no room for fingers at the door or drawer edge when installed).


Custom face-frame cabinets offer more efficient use of space because double width stiles (see above) can be avoided.

Frameless (full-access) cabinets

Frameless (a.k.a. "full-access") cabinets utilize the carcase side, top, and bottom panels in place of a face-frame. In general, frameless cabinets provide significantly better utilization of space than do face-frame cabinets. A preference for frameless cabinet design developed in 1950s and 1960s Europe following the devastation of World War II. A burgeoning market for reconstructed housing in Central Europe provided a fertile environment for introducing improved hinge and cabinet designs. Frameless cabinets use modern manufacturing techniques for sophisticated metal-based assemblies (hinges and slides) and engineered wood products (for strength, dimensional tolerance, and stability). The intent of the frameless design is to achieve a more streamlined appearance but also a more efficient use of space, a proliferation of well-designed moving components such as drawers, trays, and pull-out cabinets providing better access to interior components.

Many benefits coming out of frameless cabinets have been applied to face-frame cabinets such as the proliferation of multiple drawers in base cabinets, the use of full-overlay doors, and the use of cup hinges. Accordingly much of the hardware used by U.S. cabinet manufacturers is imported from Europe.


Since typical face-frames are 1½" wide and frameless side panels ¾", access to the cabinet interior is 1½" wider for a typical frameless cabinet as compared to a face-frame cabinet. A 12"-wide cabinet accommodates a 10"-wide drawer in frameless construction or a 8½"-wide drawer in framed construction. The 1½" difference is most significant for narrower face-frame cabinets. Hence, the nomenclature "full-access." Custom (higher-cost) face-frame cabinets, which use one 1½" stile to frame two cabinet openings, can also accommodate wider drawers comparable to frameless cabinets.

Frameless wall-oven cabinetry further saves 3" of wall space as compared to the same wall-oven installed in a face-frame cabinet: Many, if not most, contemporary ovens (and other cabinet-front-mounted major appliances) have been designed with the space-utilization advantage of frameless cabinets installation in mind. The oven is dimensioned, and thermally insulated, to fit within an industry-standard external width (e.g., 27 or 30 inches) cabinet cavity, less two standard ¾-inch cabinet side-wall thicknesses while providing for a small space between the oven box and the internal cabinet wall. In ovens, the bezel is sized to fit the full external cavity width and overlay the cabinet side wall. Such an installation avoids any unused lateral space around the oven. (While, hypothetically, ovens can be installed similarly in face-frame cabinets, such an installation may requires cutting away all but ¾" of each 1½" face-frame - specifically not recommended by vendors as it may weaken the joint between side-wall and face-frame - and buttressing face-frame cabinet side walls accordingly.)

Wood options

Frameless cabinets, which exhibit a modern appearance in keeping with the design movement of "minimalism," are typically constructed of particle board, which features a high degree of dimensional stability, adherence to dimensional standards, absence of warping (as supplied), and uniformity. Accordingly, the so-called European hinge includes a 35-mm-diameter cup press-fit to a bored recess particularly well-suited to particle board construction. By virtue of the 35-mm "European" cup design, European hinges avoid reliance on screws as a primary mechanism holding door to hinge.

Plywood and/or solid wood can also be used in frameless cabinet construction, generally at higher cost.

Hinge design features

Those European hinges intended for use with frameless cabinets afford a quick-release mechanism enabling a door to be removed and replaced without the use of tools. Such hinges typically afford six-way (three-axis) positional adjustment by screwdriver for door alignment. Some accommodate complex motions, e.g., to avoid interfering with interior cabinet components while fully overlaying the carcases (e.g., permitting the full-interior-cabinet-width dimensions for pull-out trays). Scissors-type articulating hinges support wide-angle non-interfering adjacent doors.

Inset door face-frame cabinetry

A special, and unconventional, category of framed cabinets is represented by those with inset doors. An inset-mounted cabinet door is fitted to the frame just as would be an ordinary full-sized room door; such doors fit into a frame when closed. (Full-size doors do not simply cover the opening between rooms or at an entrance to a building.)

Inset doors require more precise alignment of the doors to the frames. Further, this alignment must be maintained with use. Upon opening or closing, inset doors are gently braked by the air cushion trapped between the door and frame. This desirable feature is one hallmark of high-quality inset door construction.

Frameless or full-overlay face-frame construction can superficially resemble inset construction when doors are designed to fit closely within a cavity formed by surrounding doors, drawers, and/or an adjacent countertop.

Cabinet doors

Cabinet doors may feature a variety of materials such as wood, metal, or glass. Wood may be solid wood ("breadboard" construction) or engineered wood, or may be mixed (e.g., engineered wood panel in a solid wood frame).

Frame-and-panel construction


In the U.S. solid wood frame and panel construction, using either mortise and tenon or cope and stick jointed frames, is traditional, with maple, cherry, oak, birch, and hickory among the most commonly used species. Mortise-and-tenon frames, with their greater strength and permanence, are more costly to produce and less commonly used as compared to cope-and-stick frames.

As an alternative, miter joint frames, which may be identifiable by face-surface relief that follows continuously around the frame, have become popular. Miter-jointed frames typically employ embedded metal fasteners to secure frames elements (stiles and rails) cut at a 45° angle.

Captured within frames, panels may be either solid or veneered engineered wood (either particle board or medium density fiberboard). Laminates, including those designed to resemble hardwood, can typically be identified by a more rounded appearance associated with the minimum bending radii necessarily entailed by the manufacturing process of applying laminate to an underlying substrate. By comparison solid surfaces, in particular solid hardwood, can be milled with more sharply defined corners, edges, or grooves on either a panel or frame.


Panels used in frame-and-panel kitchen cabinet doors may be fashioned either of solid wood or covered by paint, veneer, or laminate in which case they are fashioned of engineered wood. The panels are typically not fastened with glue or nails but rather "float" within the frame to accommodate seasonal expansion or contraction of the wood frame.

olid-door construction

Doors may be fabricated of solid material, either engineered wood (particle board or medium density fiberboard, but not typically plywood) or solid wood. Engineered wood panels may either be used as slabs or may be shaped to resemble frame-and-panel construction. In either case, engineered wood panels are generally painted, veneered, or laminated. Solid wood panels are typically formed of multiple boards of the selected wood species, jointed together using glue and may either be painted or finished. Solid wood construction offers the possibility of refinishing in case of damage or wear.

Decorative panels

Cabinet doors panels are used decoratively on cabinet sides, where exposed, for a more finished appearance.

Glass door construction options

Doors may have glass windows constructed of muntins and mullions holding glass panels (as in exterior windows). Other designs either mimic the divided-light look of muntins and mullions with overlays, or may dispense with them altogether. Cabinets using glass doors sometimes use glass shelves and interior lighting from the top of a cabinet. A glass shelf allows light to reach throughout a cabinet. For a special display effect, the interior rear of a cabinet may be covered with a mirrors to further distribute light.

Drawers and trays

A functional design objective for cabinet interiors involves maximization of useful space and utility in the context of the kitchen workflow. Drawers and trays in lower cabinets permit access from above and avoid uncomfortable or painful crouching.

In face-frame construction, a drawer or tray must clear the face-frame stile and is 2" narrower than the available cabinet interior space. The loss of 2" is particularly noticeable and significant for kitchens including multiple narrow (15" or less) cabinets.

In frameless construction, drawer boxes may be sized nearly to the interior opening of the cabinet providing better use of the available space.

However, the same is not true for trays. Even in the case of frameless construction doors and their hinges when open block a portion of the interior cabinet width. Since trays are mounted behind the door, trays are typically significantly narrower than drawers. Special hinges are available that can permit trays of similar width as drawers but they have not come into wide use.

Shelves provide in all cases more storage space than drawers or trays, but are less accessible.

Wall oven cabinets

Stock wall-oven cabinets may be adapted to built-in ovens, coffee-makers, or other appliances by removing portions of the cabinet and adding trim panels to achieve a flush installation.

Frameless cabinets provide for wall oven front panel widths equal to the cabinet width (see above). In such an installation the oven front panel occupies a similar profile as a cabinet door. Accordingly, frameless installations for wall-oven make most efficient use of the available wall space in a kitchen.

This effect is difficult to achieve in typical face-frame cabinet installations, as it requires modification to the face-frame (essentially eliminating the face-frame at the oven cut-out).

Cabinet finishes

Cabinets may be finished with opaque paint or transparent finishes such as lacquer or varnish. A variety of decorative finishes is available. They include distressing, glazing, and toning. There are many aspects of the appearance of a finished wood surface that can be perceived, color being one. Another is sheen (referred to as satin, gloss, and gradations thereof). There are several others.

Opaque finishes

High pressure laminate (HPL) has become ubiquitous in the modern industrial world. HPL is formed of a resin and paper components under high pressure (ordinary wood does not sustain such pressures, and can readily be crushed to less than half its natural thickness in a hand operated arbor press). The high pressure confers a density and a resistance to damage simply because any utensil, tool, or other object that may come in contact with, or strike, the HPL will not impart a force greater than what was employed to form the HPL itself. In effect, the HPL has been "dented" in advance. HPL can be decorated in any pattern and is applied using contact cement and pressed in place using a "J-roller." HPL is cut slightly larger than the panel on which it is to be installed and "trimmed" using a router-like laminate trimmer along the edge. It may also be filed to obtain the final edge. Since the 1970s the trend has been away from HPL in favor of wood.

Melamine is utilized as a coating for furniture board panels often utilized in building cabinet carcases. Melamine is a unique white-in-color chemical formulation which is advantageous for chemical and impact resistance not unlike HPL. Melamine coated boards are widely available in home centers for purposes such as shelving.

Thermofoil is a plastic coating applied to furniture-board which may have been milled, shaped, or routed so that it can assume a fairly complex profile (particularly when compared to HPL). As a laminate, grooves and edges conform to manufacturing requirements for minimum radius, as compared to a milled solid surface such as hardwood. Thermofoil can be made with a very glossy sheen. In this sense it is unique. The drawback is that thermofoil, which although durable is less resistant to impact damage than HPL, typically cannot be repaired.

Paint can be used over cabinets where desired. Paint is considered very traditional and subtle evidence of brush strokes in the finish are considered by many to be attractive.

Cabinet hardware

Hardware is the term used for metal fittings incorporated into a cabinet extraneous of the wood or engineered wood substitute and the countertop. The most basic hardware consists of hinges and drawer/door pulls, although only hinges are an absolute necessity for a cabinet since pulls can be fashioned of wood or plastic, and drawer slides were traditionally fashioned of wood. In a modern kitchen it is highly unusual to use wood for a drawer slides owing to the much superior quality of ball-bearing metal drawer slides.

Drawer and tray slides

Slides are manufactured hardware assemblies that enable cabinet components such as drawers to be extended from the carcase in smooth linear motions with minimum effort. The primary design parameters of any slide are its extension, weight rating, and position. Separately, durability and serviceability are important as are the smoothness of operation and the availability of features such as soft-close buffering. Slides are used not only for drawers but also for trays and pull-out cabinets of various designs.

Drawer "extension" is the proportion of a drawer that is exposed when fully opened. Traditional drawers built with wood-on-wood runners cannot be opened beyond about three-quarters extension. Manufactured sliding ball-bearing runners enable full-extension drawers, where specified.

The typical weight rating for a drawer or tray is 75 to 100 lbs, sufficient for ordinary use.

Slides may be mounted on the side or the bottom of the drawer. On the drawer bottom, they are completely out-of-sight, contributing to a significant gain in popularity in recent years. In the bottom-mounted configuration, drawer slides can accommodate the widest possible drawers in a frameless cabinet opening. However, the depth of the drawer must necessarily be slightly curtailed to accommodate the undermounted hardware. (Conversely, the width of the drawer is slightly reduced for sidemount installations.)

Drawers have become increasingly popular for the bottom cavities of base cabinets, and even more so in frameless carcases. Using drawers, items can be much more conveniently accessed from above such that the need to bend or squat is lessened.

Drawers or trays may be thought of as devices that improve ergonomic accessibility to the contents of a cabinet, at the cost of reducing the usable space somewhat. This reduction in space is most noticeable for pull-out trays or for face-frame cabinet drawers (semi-custom or stock). For a given cavity opening, trays are normally somewhat more narrow than an equivalent drawer. The narrower width provides for clearance for the cabinet door and a symmetric installation. To compare with a shelf, the width of a tray may be 5 inches narrower than the interior of the cabinet. Such reductions in width owing to the use of trays or drawers in face-frame cabinets are more significant for narrower cabinets (21" or narrower) since they amount to a larger proportion of the overall cabinet width.

By comparison, in frameless "full-access" cabinetry, drawers occupy nearly the full available width such that available space is compromised to an absolute minimum extent. This accounts in part for the increasing popularity of drawers.

pecialty hardware

There is a large variety of specialty hardware for kitchen cabinets.

Special hardware for corner and other blind cabinets makes their contents more easily accessible. They may be in the form of lazy susans with or without a wedge cut out or of tray slides which enable the hidden corner space to be occupied with trays that slide both laterally and forwards/backwards.

Sponge drawers use special hinges that fit between the cabinet front and the sink.

Procuring cabinets in the marketplace

Cabinets may be "stock," "semi-custom," or "custom". The term "semi-custom" is partially outdated since both stock and semi-custom cabinets are produced in incremental widths, typically 3 inches. The distinction between "semi-custom" and "stock" that remains significant, however, is that stock cabinets are manufactured in advance and available on short order (1 week) from a warehouse or home center, whereas semi-custom cabinets are produced to order (approximately 4 weeks).

In general, there are three categories of cabinets from any manufacturer: Base, wall, and tall. Base cabinets are typically 24" deep and 34½" high; a countertop surface is normally at 36" above the floor. Wall cabinets are typically 12" deep and most frequently are used in heights of either 30" (e.g., top-mounted to a soffit), 36" (top 6" from the ceiling of an 8' room, which may be covered by built-up crown mouldng), or 42" (top at the ceiling of an 8' high room). The conventional distance from the countertop to the underside of a wall cabinet is 18" for a full 96" (i.e., 8') ceiling. This 18" space is reduced by installation of a floor (i.e. reductions in the 8' ceiling height) and also by the use of undercabinet lighting and "light rails" that conceal it.

Cabinets can be mounted with an open top for display of ornaments. For higher ceilings, such as 9', another level of cabinets can be used if desired. Among the three categories are multiple catalog offerings depending on the manufacturer.

Custom cabinets are designed and built to the dimensions required by the kitchen plan; delivery schedules are longer. Custom cabinetry offers several advantages at higher cost. First, cabinets of arbitrary dimensions can be supplied to most efficiently and attractively fit the available space, and provision can be made for out-of-plumb or out-of-level walls or other surfaces. Second, custom cabinets can combine more than one opening and eliminate unsightly doubled stiles in face-frame installations. Finally, custom cabinets can provide esthetic choices such as unusual woods or finishes, the use of inset cabinet doors, matching existing or period furniture styles, and other features as implied by the term "custom."

Some manufacturers offer the possibility of mixing custom and stock cabinetry of identical finishes to accommodate custom dimensions at a lower cost than an all-custom cabinet run.

Cabinet manufacturers

Cabinets are designed and sold through multiple channels including specialty retailers, kitchen remodelers, home centers, on-line retailers, and ready-to-assemble furniture manufacturer-retailers. Kitchen cabinets are frequently sold as a package deal involving measurement, specification, and installation services.

The vast majority of cabinets sold in the U.S. are manufactured by one of the following companies: Masco, MasterBrand, American Woodmark, Elkay, Norcraft, Cardell, Wood-Mode, Armstrong, Wellborn, and Republic. The two largest, Masco (a publicly traded company) and MasterBrand (a subsidiary of Fortune Brands) manufacture the overwhelming majority of kitchen cabinets sold in the U.S. Home Depot and Lowes each sell Masco's KraftMaid line. Most other mass-market brands are manufactured by one of the above 10 companies. However, there are many other manufacturers. Large higher-end manufacturers include Wood-Mode, Dura Supreme and Wellborn.

Cabinet doors used in mass-produced cabinets may be purchased from third parties that purvey to manufacturers such as those above-listed.

Assembled cabinets

The vast majority of cabinets are delivered assembled, packed one to a carton. Problems are not unusual. Carcases must be inspected carefully before installation. Some defects in the carcase are difficult or impossible to repair properly once installed.

Ready-to-assemble cabinets

Ready-to-assemble furniture cabinets are lower-in-cost and are delivered to the customer in a flat box. They are assembled with particle board fasteners. The largest and best-known manufacturer of ready-to-assemble furniture, including kitchen cabinets, is Ikea. Ikea offers numerous options for facing their cabinets, including solid wood.

Custom cabinets

Cabinet shops throughout the U.S. fabricate custom cabinets for kitchen or other applications.

pecifying cabinets

Kitchen measuring

In specifying new cabinets for an existing kitchen, precise measurement of existing conditions is essential. With imprecise measurements, empty space may be left unfilled where needed, cabinets may not fit, or there may be interference between cabinet doors or drawers and nearby items.


* Mary Drake McFeely, "Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?: American Women and the Kitchen in the Twentieth Century"

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