How to tell quality custom cabinetry?

RChicagoMay 14, 2014

I've located a custom cabinetmaker who's recently completed a project very similar to what I'm envisioning - vertical, grain-matched walnut veneer, frameless.

We're meeting the cabinetmaker at the condo tomorrow to check it out.

I plan to ask the obvious, such as what upgrades are in that kitchen vs. what he's quoted us. And, to look at basic things like finish,door allignment, and how the drawers are put together. And I have a list of questions, based on GW threads, asking about cabinet construction, edge banding, etc.

But, as a lay person, how can I tell quality? What should I be looking for? Are there certain things I'll be able to see that only a quality shop would do?

Apologies if this has been covered before -- I tried searching and couldn't find anything.

Many thanks!

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When assessing for my own business I look for:
-Boxes dowelled and glued.together as opposed to screwed.
-Dadoed backs, 3/8 minimum with good hanging rails or 3/4"
-Blum or Grass glides and hinges
Glides mounted with euro screws, 5mm diameter, more than two per
-Fully catalyzed varnish. Almost no one can ever tell me what the wet build of the finish is. I'm looking for 6 mil and can pretty much tell even in matte. 6 is enough, looks good, smooth but not too thick.
-The ability to omit intermediate stretchers between drawers, or that they are not there to begin with. Increases height between drawers and indicates a well built stiff box.
-I like to have at least the option of a synthetic edge banding and look for how well it matches.
-Tolerance of cabinet sides to top and bottom of less than 1/32, I really expect almost perfect.
-I actually prefer to have a furniture board option, 45 lb long grain ( particle board). Gotten rarer especially with veneer interiors thanks to misguided consumer blowback.
-Feel edges of doors and drawers should be silky.
-Do they bother to properly finish bottoms of drawers.
-A detail on drawer tops is "nice" but no biggie.
-Look at a couple of doors on angle with some glare on them. Looking for hairline sanding scratches, dust specks and tiny dimples(fish eye) speaks a lot to quality.
-like to see a little glue along the back, not gobs but some. No pins.
-Get all that and it's as good as better to top end manufactured.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2014 at 8:08PM
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A nice start.

Drawer hardware can also be Hettich, which is used by many a custom shop. I also look for dovetailed drawers. Ask if he makes his doors in house, not that it matters, mine does not, but good for full disclosure. It is more about the finish today than anything else. Anyone can by all the parts online that are of the highest quality today as they are perfectly machined with high end equipment. It comes down to the little design elements and the finishing techniques and installation.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2014 at 8:48PM
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I don't consider Hettich on par.

    Bookmark   May 14, 2014 at 9:21PM
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Would you please include your list of basic questions? Your research and putting it together into one place would help so many who are just starting out and could use help in learning to discern. While some of these things may now be "obvious" to you, you will be surprised to hear our gratitude. If you have the links to the threads and could include them as a fuller resource, you would have offered a very useful aid. I know I would love to keep such a reference, with or without the links, and plan on keeping this thread.


    Bookmark   May 14, 2014 at 10:39PM
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Thanks so much for the input. I plan to ask questions, but I think my particular need is how someone who's only taken one woodworking class can tell the difference between really great cabinets and ok cabinets. Anything to help with that is very appreciated.

wannaknow1, I'm happy to share my list, which is targeted at the type of cabinets I'm considering (wood veneer, frameless). And, I've specified Blum Intivo drawers and Blum soft close hingers, so I don't plan to ask about doors. (Parents just installed a Leicht kitchen and I LOVE the Blum drawers.) Hopefully, this list will be helpful to others. And if anyone has comments, that's helpful, too!

1) Your quote says maple melamine - what's under the melamine? What brand? How thick are the sides of the boxes? Do you think plywood is necessary ($1400 upgrade)?

  1. Your quote says stained and finished. Why would you stain walnut veneer? How are the walnut surfaces
  2. Your quote offers LED lights for $450 - what kind? tape, pucks, etc?
  3. Your quote included installation, but not decorative hardware (pulls/knobs?). So we'd have to have someone else install that? Or do we supply and you install?
  4. How are the framed pieces put together? (e.g. mortise-and-tenon joinery, dowels, glue, staples, etc.)
  5. What are the doors made out of - material and thickness? How are the edges of the doors treated - edgebanded or small pieces of solid wood?
  6. What are the shelves made out of? Same as boxes?
  7. Will there be edge banding behind the cabinet fronts to match the walnut veneer? How thick is the edge banding? Are shelf fronts edge banded?
  8. Do you have a written warranty?
  9. Are there upgrades in the kitchen we're seeing that we should be aware of as we look at the kitchen - in other words, features that aren't included in the quote you gave us?

Again, any and all thoughts are appreciated. The cabinets are the most expensive part of the kitchen, so we want to know what we're getting. I'm concerned my questions will irk the cabinet maker, but this isn't like doing car research, where I can go online and find nearly all the info I might want.


    Bookmark   May 15, 2014 at 9:51AM
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So, we went to see the kitchen yesterday. It's beautiful.

What I learned -
--The boxes are made of Flakeboard, but I can switch to something with no added formaldehyde if I prefer. Or to plywood.
--The doors are MDF.
--The boxes are assembled using screws, staples, and glue. He said he could do dowels if I wanted, but has been in business for 30 years and doesn't think it's necessary.
--He recommends staining walnut, NOT going with a clear finish. He uses a lacquer finish, but can also use something called Greenguard, for lower vocs.
--They have never had a problem with the veneers peeling off.

After seeing the kitchen, we're concerned about durability. There were places that the door edges are slightly damaged, and it's a nearly new kitchen. The cabinetmaker said we could go with real wood walnut edges which would make them more durable, but we'd see a bit of that edge. He hasn't priced that option out yet.

As we're not gentle on kitchens, perhaps real wood veneer is not the best option for a kitchen that we want to last 15-20 years. I don't prefer the look, but am starting to think about a wood look laminate, perhaps from a German company that does thousands of kitchens a year. I have a hunch it'll hold up better over the long term.


    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 10:25AM
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I have gone back and forth with melamine and plywood for years, there was a time where I would only use melamine for cabinet question it wears better and is more stable then plywood.....but have since went to plywood as it fits my area (New England), formaldehyde free etc

MDF core for veneer doors is the ideal substrate

Boxes assembled with screws and staples is fine, I actually prefer having a mechanical fastener over just glue and dowels...

There is a lot of variation in Walnut and that is why he is suggesting a stain, by stain I assume he is going to just use a light stain to try to even out the color of the walnut throughout the kitchen....depending on budget you could also have the doors made from specified veneers, from past experience the Walnut from Kentucky area is the premium stuff for color and grain....yes I specify that I want to see veneer flitches from Kentucky

When doing slab veneer doors I always spec them to be banded first with 3MM solid wood and then veneered..that way you have the solid edge but the fronts are not "picture framed in solid"

Also make sure that in the quote the veneer is bookmatch (not slip matched), and that the veneer is sequenced

I have bought and installed my share of German and Italian kitchens over the years....stopped buying them several years ago once I found a local guy that could do exactly as I wanted

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 10:49AM
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From what I am hearing you say, this does not sound like a quality custom cabinet maker. The box construction to the sub-par veneers (that is why he wants to stain it...), etc. It all depends on budget, how much abuse do you expect (ie little kids), and so on. I would not be comfortable with any door that is thin veneer edge banded. Maybe that is me, but eventually that is coming apart, even slightly, and it will not look good. That is why you see doors with real wood on the edges and MDF panels, as MDF edges can/will get damaged.I know my custom guy offers MDF doors and they look great, but I will not be getting that option.

What sort of 'Look' are you trying to achieve?

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 11:12AM
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Great input, thanks.

ajc - Yes, he says that the light stain will both even out the color and keep it from changing as much over time due to light exposure. Great tip about edgebanding first -- why wouldn't the cabinetmaker just do it that way, instead of mentioning the visible edge?

bakerboy - We expect a fair amount of abuse - kids, a retriever, and lots and lots of cooking. We live in the kitchen.

So, can you get veneers and solid wood for the edges that match so you can use a clear finish and don't have to worry about them not matching?

I've attached a pic with the look we're going for. Gorgeous kitchen from Build LLC. More pics available here:

Again, thank you.


    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 1:03PM
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I love the look of horizontal bookmatched veneer but I've decided that veneer is not for me. We are too hard on things and most of our fronts are drawers which have a lot of edges to get banged up. I've seen too much edge-banding peeling off in the past.

I'm going with solid oak doors with Rubio Monocoat hardwax oil finish (grey stain) - knowing that there is a risk of warping. I am not too worried though, as most of my fronts are drawer fronts and it should be possible to avoid warping. My cabinet front fabricator will replace pieces that warp (and they have padded the price accordingly).

(I'm doing IKEA boxes).

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 1:04PM
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Love the work that BuildLLCSPD does, actually heard about them from someone on this forum and go on the site frequently

The job you show is quartered walnut, hand selected veneers....not sure your price point, but this a a pretty expensive option. Not at all like a local cabinetmaker going to the plywood supply house and buying some walnut sheets off the shelf

If you look at the pictures in your link, you can see the applied banding on the doors...they band after the veneering is done

The reason your guy didn't offer to band first is because he probably does not have veneering capabilities and buys the sheets off the shelf already veneered

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 1:24PM
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As ajc stated, this is not 'off-the-shelf' veneered work. Now that I see you like the modern look, edge banding on the plywood veneer is the only realistic option. You would not edge band this style with solid wood. This is most likely hand selected veneers, also as ajc says, applied to cabinet grade plywood then edge banded with a thin veneer. You have expensive taste, as do I, so hopefully your budget is large. If you find someone who can create this exact look in walnut veneers, don't worry, that person builds quality cabinets. If your guy thinks he can do it, have him create a test door to see if it meets your goals. Seeing is believing...

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 1:52PM
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ajc71 says: "Love the work that BuildLLCSPD does, actually heard about them from someone on this forum and go on the site frequently."

That'd be me. :)

I've learned so much and gotten so many ideas from Build LLC's blog. I wasn't sure what I wanted in a kitchen until I saw their kitchens.

I'm now leaning toward doing trim/paneling and some feature fronts in the walnut with the sold wood edgebanding, but doing most of the cabinets in a solid color (gray?) laminate. That way, I can have my beautiful, grain matched cabinets while minimizing the durability issue and keeping costs in check. The cabinets we'd do in walnut would be what you'd see upon entering the kitchen, and they'd be out of the main traffic flow.

We'd do trim/panels similar to what's in this SHED Architecture house - But probably only do one laminate color. And then do select feature fronts in walnut.

I haven't seen anything exactly like this online, but no reason it wouldn't look ok, right?

Thanks again for all the input.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 2:12PM
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For the fronts, have you thought of linoleum? It is such a lovely matte durable practical surface. That would look great with wood trim.

Here is a link that might be useful: linoleum cabinet fronts!

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 2:30PM
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Ok, so I've been looking further.

This second cabinet company also suggests a light stain, instead of a clear finish on walnut cabinets.

When I expressed my concerns about veneer durability, especially with the edges, they said they could do three layers of veneer on the edges. This seems a bit better than a single layer, but you still wouldn't be able to easily repair edge damage as the second and third layers won't match (I can't imagine they perfectly match the three layers of veneer, but I could be wrong).

Is it that using real, solid wood edge banding is both time consuming to apply and difficult to color match to the fronts?

Perhaps I can't have durable book matched cabinets? Perhaps the companies that do his would be out of my price range.

Any thoughts, experience-based words of wisdom would be really appreciated.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2014 at 12:51PM
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I have done multiple layer banding many times, usually when using a reconstituted veneer though....not when using a natural veneer

Using solid banding is for sure more time consuming, even with a big edgebander there is additional time required then applying a simple veneer edge....

No question the color match using real walnut veneer and 3MM solid walnut (or multiple layers of veneer) will be near impossible...with a light stain you can minimize the contrast but not totally. Just like in that beautiful BuildLLC kitchen that you (and me!) like!

Even requesting several sample doors with banding on them as they are suggesting, and having them look perfect will not be a true representation of what the entire job is going to look like....using natural products there will for sure be some variation in color/grain

    Bookmark   May 22, 2014 at 6:28PM
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Sophie Wheeler

Move to a rift sawn white oak that is stained for a similar look that is more affordable. With the change of materials you may be able to afford the better construction.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2014 at 6:39PM
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hollysprings: I do not think that you would be able to have the look that the OP is shooting for using RWO....certainly not going to get the color and the grain would be totally different then the pic from the BuildLLC site

As for the price difference, it is so minimal between RWO and walnut it is not even worth trying to change species...

What type of better construction are you suggesting the OP can get by switching veneers?

    Bookmark   May 23, 2014 at 9:12AM
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Thanks for the input. Yeah, I'm not sure switching to oak would be a big enough savings to make a significant difference.

My problem seems to be that the cabinet companies I'm talking to don't think it's necessary to apply solid wood edge banding. And I'm concerned I'm going to end up with $30,000 cabinets that look crummy after two years because the edges are so damaged from kids and dogs.

I spoke with a veneer company, and was told that quality veneer applied well and finished well won't be a problem. They've been in business for years and had never heard of solid wood edge banding.

Any tips on finding a cabinetmaker in Chicago who will use solid wood edge banding? Should I just start Googling and calling?

Or should I abandon this project and go with a laminate?


    Bookmark   May 23, 2014 at 1:02PM
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Start with any of these guys....if they can't do it because the job is too small I am sure they could give you great referrals

Here is a link that might be useful: AWI shops Chicago

    Bookmark   May 23, 2014 at 2:33PM
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If you're looking for quality kitchen cabinets in the Chicago area check out Hummingbird Woodworks. I've never before seen anything built the way they do it.

Here is a link that might be useful: Hummingbird Woodworks link

    Bookmark   May 23, 2014 at 3:00PM
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