Kitchen Cabinets: What are the differences?

Kitchen cabinets are a major investment in any kitchen project, so it's important to choose the right ones for your needs and budget. There are many differences between kitchen cabinets and each manufacture or retailer will use different variations, so it can be helpful to understand the differences between them before you start shopping.

This post will concentrate on the actual unit, rather than the door that is fitted to that cabinet - part two will follow on this part.

Cabinet Material

Most kitchen cabinets are manufactured using MFC (Melamine Faced Chipboard). Despite the substrate or core being chipboard, which some consumers believe to be a cheap product, MFC is a great material for kitchen units or cabinets. It is reasonably cheap, versus veneered MDF, plywood or timber, hardwearing against moisture or knocks and uses a large portion of recycled material so it's better for the environment. The majority of kitchen cabinets, whether from cheaper high street retailers such as Wren, Magnet, Howdens etc or from German manufactures such as Kutchenhaus or Nolte will be made using MFC. Most independent kitchen studios, such as ourselves also use MFC for the majority of our projects; we use Egger 18mm MFC specifically. Some retailers will only offer cabinets in white or a few colour choices; those are generally retailers that keep cabinets in stock - the disadvantage of choosing a retailer who operates in this manner is not just the lack of internal finishes, but the fact that each of their cabinets will be pre-drilled for every eventuality. So if you have a hinged door, the cabinet will also have holes pre-drilled for drawer runners. This means the internal cabinet has more holes so is purely a design or aesthetic difference.

Top Tip: Ensure your cabinets have a solid 18mm back panel rather than a thinner 6mm or 8mm panel. This will ensure a robust cabinet that stays 'square'.

Other materials used for cabinets include plywood (often marine plywood), veneered MDF or solid timber, generally hardwood. The main advantage to using these materials is the look or appeal of using real timber. You could argue that they can be repaired more easily than MFC although you can have more movement with these materials. Although some of our kitchen cabinets are made using plywood, veneered MDF or hardwood, less than 5% of our kitchen projects are- using one of these materials for your cabinets vastly increases costs so generally unless customers have budgets in excess of £80,000 we generally wouldn't be looking at one of these cabinet materials.

Top Tip: An experienced designer should be able to work within your budget and will suggest material, layout or style changes to get the most from your budget, prioritising aspects that are most important to your needs.

Cabinet Construction

When it comes to construction method this mainly applies to cabinets made using MFC. Those manufacturing from veneered MDF, plywood or hardwood will be using premium techniques (we assume!) so it is less relevant. Cabinets made from MFC are generally constructed using two methods; Cam & Dowelled or Glue & Dowelled. Cam & Dowelled refers to a method of fixing most easily described as how most Ikea furniture goes together. Metal dowels are inserted and using a screwdriver or other fixing, the sides, back, base, top of the cabinet are pulled and fastened together. Glue & Dowelled units are constructed using wooden dowels which are glued and then pressed overnight. This method of construction results in a stronger and more 'square' cabinet due to less movement. It is slightly more expensive due to the drying time and transport costs. It also means you won't have any unsightly metal cams showing in your cabinets (see picture below);

Kitchen Cabinet Cam & Dowelled

Top Tip: Opt for Glue & Dowelled construction for a better quality cabinet that doesn't cost much more.

Assembly & Installation

Assembly and installation of your kitchen units or cabinets can vary dramatically, depending on how the cabinets arrive and how much work has been completed in advance by the manufacture.

Generally the more premium, made to order manufactures and kitchen studios will send cabinets complete meaning not only are they pre-assembled but with all internals (such as wirework), drawer runners and frontals, such as drawer fronts and doors all pre-drilled and fitted. Some will send units assembled but all other components loose, so drawer runners and frontals will need fitting on site. This tends to mean a slightly longer installation time and I would suggest, an inferior level of fitting detail for those components due to having to be fitted on site. Finally, the lower end of the market sends everything flat packed and loose so cabinets will therefore be cam & dowelled and will need assembling on site.

Although this article is focused on kitchen units or cabinets, it is important to mention that many high street retailers will send doors pre-drilled on both sides meaning your doors will have an unsightly hole or plastic cover cap on the opposite side (see photo below):

Top Tip: Try and opt for a manufacture that sends your units complete. This means a quicker and more accurate installation with less chance for small parts to be missing or lost.

Hardware, Furniture & Accessories - Hinges, drawers & legs

The final aspect of any cabinet is the hardware or furniture that is used. Try and opt for a cabinet that uses solid legs or feet. There are various brands; but ultimately you want to avoid the very thin legs as they tend to break and snap easily when adjusting or moving units.

The market leader in terms of quality for hinges & drawers is Blum. We would advise anyone buying a new kitchen to opt for Blum hinges and drawers which come with a lifetime warranty. If possible and your budget allows for it, opt for the Blum LEGRABOX drawer over the Antaro Tandembox. The LEGRABOX is a newer drawer system, it holds more weight and glides more smoothly.

Top Tip: Don't let sales staff fool you. Cheaper drawers and hinges are NOT 'just as good'.

Final thoughts

Small details make a big impact to the quality and appearance of your kitchen cabinets or kitchen units. They are the building blocks of any kitchen so ensuring you choose a cabinet that has been constructed well using the best components is vital.