Canadian Woodworking

Building kitchen cabinets – part 1

Author: Danny Proulx
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: April May 2003

This article details some of the issues involved in design, as well as the two major cabinetmaking styles.


Kitchen design

Kitchen design is an important issue, as most family members spend a great deal of their time at home in the kitchen. The kitchen is used to prepare meals, for informal eating, and as a casual gathering place for family and friends. People soon realize how important that room is when it’s torn apart during renovations – even the simple task of making a cup of coffee becomes a major undertaking without a kitchen. It is therefore critically important that tear-out and new installation are co-ordinated properly to minimize down time. Most experts agree that a kitchen renovation project will return almost 100% on investment when the property is sold. Surveys by the real estate industry show that a kitchen is one, if not the most, important feature with potential purchasers. Real estate agents have told me that the quality of the kitchen often makes or breaks the sale.

Kitchen design is very subjective; there are few hard and fast rules. A feature or layout that is perfect for one person is far from perfect for another. The issue of lifestyle and how that lifestyle revolves around the kitchen is very unique to each family. In most cases, the family, and especially the prime user of the kitchen space, have very definite ideas about what the end result has to be to meet their needs.

Two design “rules” that seem to be true in every case deal with colour and illumination. Light colour or natural wood cabinets tend to brighten and visually enlarge a space. Improved general and task lighting always enhances the project. Older kitchens seem to have dark cabinets and poor illumination, which gives the impression of being in a cave. There are many styles of kitchen layouts including the L kitchen, galley, U-shaped and island style. However, most kitchen designers agree that the perimeter of a work triangle – formed by distance between the fridge to the stove to the sink and back to the fridge – be not less than 10 feet and not greater than 25 feet. If the perimeter of a work triangle is too small, people will be tripping over each other and, if too large, food preparation may be a very tiring task. I analyze this work pattern each time I design a kitchen layout and it’s proven to be a valuable exercise.

Bathroom cabinets are built using the same kitchen cabinet construction methods. The counter heights are typically lower on bathroom cabinets so adjust the side and back board dimensions to suit your requirements. Bathroom renovations are as popular as kitchen renovations. Frameless cabinets edged with wood veneer and wood doors, in light natural finishes, seem to be the style of choice. Bathrooms, like kitchens, are being given more space during the design process in new construction and renovation projects in existing homes. The trend seems to be towards larger, brighter, and more functional bathrooms with whirlpools, shower stalls, and all the other new fixtures that are available.

Design considerations

1. Discuss the existing kitchen space and layout with everyone involved, listing the good and bad points of the design.
2. Investigate the traffic patterns in and through the kitchen.
3. Analyze the day-to-day meal preparation tasks. Try to formulate a “normal” daily meal preparation routine.
4. Questions should be asked about your family’s desire to do more in the kitchen. Is there a hobby of interest or area of interest, such as baking that they would like to do more of, if there was added space or facilities?
5. Do the family members feel that a lot of walking or movement is necessary during meal preparation?
6. Ask whether or not cleaning up after meals seems to be a monumental task.
You may not solve that problem, however, it could be reduced by simple layout changes.
7. Question everyone who uses the room about his or her desire to entertain more in the kitchen or formally in the dining room, if the kitchen space functionality could be improved.
8. If you run a business, determine how long the client plans to own the house.
A $20,000 kitchen renovation may not be fully recoverable if the intention is to upgrade for a quick sale in the near future. If you over improve and the return is not realized during re-sale, you may lose a client and the good references they would give if they were pleased.
9. Discuss the wish list. If space or money were no object, what would family members like to have in their dream kitchen?
10.Discuss topics such as lighting, area and task illumination, kitchen seating needs, and appliance upgrade needs.

Face Frame Cabinets

It’s now common to see a modular blend of European and North American cabinet construction methods. The final product, once installed, looks more traditional because of the use of the face frame on a frameless box cabinet. The main difference between the two styles, traditional and European, is the use of the face frame. Today, many cabinet shops have adopted the best features of the frameless cabinet system and incorporated those designs into their face frame cabinet.

This hybrid style is extremely popular and can almost be considered a standard. Once you understand the frameless system, you’ll see that most “traditional” styled kitchen and bathroom cabinets are a frameless carcase with a wood face frame applied. Neither system is “best” – it’s a simple matter of design choices. Credit should be given to those cabinet designers that realize the qualities in other systems and have the good sense to incorporate those superior features of each into a “best of both worlds” cabinet. Face frame material for the standard cabinet is solid hardwood, normally oak, cherry or maple. Traditional North American style cabinets, with wood doors installed, have the exposed panel edges covered with a thick wood frame. The stiles (the vertical members of the face frame) are ¾” thick by 1” wide and 31 ¾” long. The rails (the horizontal pieces of the face frame) are ¾” thick by 1 ½” high, and 2” shorter than the overall width in the standard cabinet design. This applies to both the upper and base cabinet face frames. Standard upper and base cabinets can be full door, drawer-over-door, drawer bank cabinets, or a combination design. Cabinet door height is variable, particularly in the base units, as overall door height is dependant on whether or not a drawer will be fitted above the door(s) in the cabinets. Special sized cabinets, such as those used over the stove, refrigerator, or sink, need smaller doors to match the reduced cabinet height.
As previously mentioned, the North American traditional style of kitchen cabinet is basically a box with a wooden face frame attached to the front edge.
Doors are installed so they overlap the face frame with a space between cabinet doors. Many designs make use of exposed hinges but the recent trend is to use the superior European hinges to eliminate the center stile, which is the vertical face frame component between doors. Cabinets were traditionally supported on a wooden base with end cabinet sides extended to the floor. Often the drawers were supported on wooden runners or tracked in grooves on the drawer box.

Early traditional North American cabinets were frame and panel construction, typically using glued up boards for the sides, backs and bottoms. And, most often the cabinets were built in place.

Frameless Cabinets

Frameless cabinets have been designed without a centre stile. When the cabinet doors are open, in the case of a two-door cabinet, you have complete access to the interior. This is made possible by the use of the fully adjustable European hinge. Doors can be adjusted with a 1- to 2-mm gap between them when closed. European hinges are installed on each door by way of a 35-mm hole drilled on the inside of the door. They are high quality hardware items and simple to install. The other added advantage of the European hinge is that they are hidden when the door(s) are closed so you don’t have to worry about carrying different styles of hinges. In about 90% of the applications I use a 100 to 120 degree full overlay cabinet hinge. The sides of the standard upper and base cabinets can be the same length for easy production cutting. Only the depths are different, about 300mm (12”) deep for the uppers and 600mm (24”) deep for the base units. These dimensions allow for maximum use of a 4’ x 8’ standard sheet of melamine-coated particleboard for carcase construction. The sheet length of 97” gives three side ends, and the side depths of the standard cabinet allows for four upper side ends and two base side ends across the 49” width of the sheet (most sheet goods are described in Imperial measurement sizes in North America).

Five panels are needed for the uppers, two sides, one top, one bottom, and the backboard. The base units require four panels plus a 50mm (2”) high rail at the top, two sides, one bottom and one back. A top panel for a base is not required because the kitchen countertop assembly covers it.

Cabinet Doors

You will have to decide whether you want to build or buy your cabinet doors. If you are building cabinets as a hobby, time may not be a relevant cost factor. On the other hand, if you own or manage a cabinet shop, labour, material and machinery costs often dictate the final decision. As a cabinetmaking contractor, I find it more economical to buy my doors from a specialty manufacturer. From a business point of view I can’t hope to offer all the styles that are readily available from the suppliers. I would have to equip myself with routers, shapers, and jigs in many different styles and sizes to be able to offer a competitive selection to my clients. However, if you’re planning to build new kitchen cabinets for your home, make your own doors and save money. If you plan on opening a small cabinet shop, look at all the cost issues and then decide if you should build or buy your doors. They are among the most expensive items in any kitchen renovation project, so being able to build your own will be a real plus, but be sure it’s cost effective from a business point of view.

Door width, using full overlay European or hidden hinges, is determined by using a simple rule. The interior cabinet width plus 26mm (1”), equals the required door width for that cabinet. If you need two doors, divide the total number by two.

Interior cabinet width is the shortest distance between the inside faces of the stiles on a face frame cabinet or side panel inside faces with frameless cabinets. A 760mm (30”) wide frameless base cabinet has an inside dimension of 728mm (28 ¾”), if the cabinet has been constructed with 16mm (⅝”) sheet material. Adding 26mm (1”) to that dimension means you need one 754mm (29 ¾”) wide door, which is too wide, or two 377mm (14 ⅞”) wide doors for the cabinet.

Drawer Design

Kitchen cabinet quality is sometimes judged by the construction style of the drawers. While this is true in some respects, a drawer in a working kitchen does not have to be constructed out of solid hardwood with dovetail joints to be high in quality. And, drawer construction is not always the absolute measure of craftsmanship. It is true however, that a high quality drawer is a requirement. It should be solid, well constructed, and easy to maintain. Drawers are subjected to a good deal of abuse by normal everyday opening and closing. Spills can occur, grease and grime can build up on the interior, and wear on the movable parts are facts of life.



The choice of countertop materials has greatly increased over the last few years.

At one time, a kitchen countertop was simply a piece of plywood with square edges covered with high-pressure laminate, known as the self-edged countertop.

Fortunately, we’ve realized that countertop material was more than just a covering for the base cabinets. It’s understood now that it must be functional, able to withstand years of use, and add design, as well as interest to the kitchen.

In the next issue I’ll begin detailing the construction of cabinets. The first types we’ll look at are the face frame and frameless upper cabinets, including hinge theory, door sizing, and joinery options.

The hybrid cabinet system is fully detailed in Danny’s book, “Build Your Own Kitchen Cabinets”. The European or frameless style cabinet is the subject of his book, “Building Frameless Kitchen Cabinets”.

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