Choosing Kitchen Cabinets Part 5 – Cabinet Components

Extreme close-up of a table saw blade cutting through a piece of lumber

This is the last installment in our series of posts about choosing kitchen cabinets. In this post, we’ll discuss the components that make up your kitchen cabinets.

Cabinets have three basic components: the box, the drawers, and the shelves. The quality of these cabinet components can vary widely depending on how and by whom the cabinets are manufactured.


There are two types of cabinet boxes, framed and frameless.

Framed boxes include a “face frame” that attaches to the front of the box. The face frame consists of two horizontal pieces, called “rails”, and two vertical pieces, called “stiles”. (Wider cabinets have a third stile in the center of the frame.) These rails and stiles are typically 1 ½ inches wide. Door hinges and drawer runners attach to this frame.

Frameless boxes (often referred to as “European-style”) have no face on the box. Door hinges and drawer runners attach to the inside of the box. Because there is no face frame, all you see with frameless cabinets are the fronts of the doors and drawers.

Whether framed or frameless, most kitchen cabinet boxes are built using either plywood, particleboard or MDF (medium-density fiberboard).

Plywood is made of layers of wood that have been glued together. It’s considered a superior material for cabinet construction because it’s strong, durable and performs well in areas of high humidity. It also has grain, so it’s stainable, unlike particleboard or MDF. Plywood is available in a variety of wood species, such as oak, birch, ash, maple and more.  Plywood can be expensive, however. Depending on the grade and appearance, it can cost about the same as solid hardwood.

Particleboard is made of small bits of wood that are mixed with adhesives and pressed into sheets. For use in cabinet construction, particleboard is often covered with a wood or melamine veneer. The upside to particleboard is its price. It can cost as much as ten to twenty percent less than plywood. The main downsides to particleboard are its tendency to absorb moisture, and its lack of strength at stress points, such as where screws have been used to attach hardware.

MDF is an engineered product made by mixing fine wood particles with wax and resins and forming it into sheets using pressure and heat. Like particleboard, MDF will absorb moisture if it’s not sealed properly. And, because MDF is made from very fine wood particles, it doesn’t hold screws or other fasteners as well as plywood. MDF does have its benefits, however. It costs less than plywood, and it has a very smooth surface, which makes it an excellent choice for kitchen cabinets that are going to be painted.  


One of the best and easiest ways to judge the quality of a cabinet is to examine the drawer boxes. Good quality cabinets feature drawer boxes with backs and sides that are at least ½” thick, with dovetail joints.  The drawer bottoms are “fully captured”, which means set into grooves on the sides, front and back of the drawer box. Inexpensive drawer boxes often use thinner materials for the backs, sides and bottom and are typically glued and stapled together. Drawer boxes made using these shortcuts are among the first things to fail in lower-end kitchen cabinets.


Strength is a major consideration for kitchen cabinet shelves because they must bear weight for long periods of time. Because of its strength, plywood is the best choice for cabinet shelves. Plywood is less likely than particleboard or MDF to bow under the weight of piles of dishes and stacks of pots and pans. Cabinet shelf thickness ranges from ½” to ¾”. The thicker the shelf is the more resistant it will be to sag, especially in wider cabinets.

That brings us to the end of our series of posts on choosing kitchen cabinets. We hope you enjoyed it. If you have any kitchen cabinet questions that weren’t answered in this series, please let us know.

3 thoughts on “Choosing Kitchen Cabinets Part 5 – Cabinet Components”

  1. I never knew that many kitchen cabinets are made with plywood. That is good to know because we can start figuring out what that would look like in our kitchen design and what other types of materials we should put in our kitchen. We’ll have to start planning everything out with a contractor so that we can really get a feel for the end product as well as our budget for the cabinet replacements!

  2. It will be helpful for us to remember your tip that you gave to check the drawer boxes for high quality to help you judge the cabinets. My wife and I have been talking about finding kitchen cabinets, and it will be important for us to know that they will be a good option. To be sure that they will have a high quality, I will be sure to check their drawer boxes for quality workmanship.

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