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How Custom Cabinets are Made

| Amy Meade

Custom cabinets are expensive. The more custom the more expensive. However, what makes up most of the cost of any cabinet, and I would argue the most important part of the cabinet, is what you cannot see: the material that the box of the cabinet is made out of. This, how custom cabinets are made, is what determines how long they will last and how they will look after years of use.

First let me define what a custom cabinet is. There are 3 basic types of cabinet customization. At the top (meaning the most expensive) is custom. Custom is defined as having the most options in terms of sizing, type of cabinet, appearance of cabinet (type of wood, color and stain) and interior storage options. Semi-custom cabinets have fewer options in terms of all four but there is still some customization available, because the cabinets are not built until you order them. Finally, there are Ready to Assemble cabinets (RTA) which are sitting in a warehouse until you order them. There are limited sizes, types, colors and storage options.

What all these cabinet options have in common is that they are made out of engineered wood. No cabinet, whether it is custom, semi-custom or RTA, is made from wood. Wood is too expensive, harmful to the environment and more likely to warp. Of course, to make the choice confusing there are many different types of engineered wood and just as many opinions about which is best or worst for custom cabinets.

The term engineered wood covers plywood, MDF, HDF, particleboard and fiberboard. Below is a diagram of the different types of subtypes of engineered wood.

Diagram of different types of engineered wood helps illustrate how custom cabinets are made

Each kind of engineered wood is made differently. Plywood is constructed of layers of wood veneer glued together, alternating the grain of the wood for stability. There are differences in quality of plywood, which could be from the types of wood veneer and glues used as well as the number of plies (layers) used.

Fiberboard subcategories are particleboard, MDF (medium density fiberboard) and HDF (high density fiberboard). All are made up of materials such as recycled paper, wood waste, hardwood and softwood flakes that are then glued and then pressed together. Each of these engineered woods varies in density and cost. The least expensive and least dense is particleboard. Particleboard is what manufacturers use in cheaper cabinetry, often RTA, and is the reason many cheap cabinets only last a few years.

A cabinet material’s density determines how much abuse the hinges can take. The denser the wood the more gripping power for the screws of the hinges, so they will last longer. Also, a denser cabinet will be stronger and as a general rule less susceptible to moisture. MDF (medium density fiberboard) is denser as the name suggests and more expensive. There are types of MDF that are more moisture resistant and even fire resistant. High Density Fiberboard, sometimes called hardboard, has high density, highly compressed fibers which is ideal for high quality cabinets and furniture. It acts the most like good quality wood, and is the most expensive option.

There is an impression that plywood is better than fiberboard. This is not always true. In general, I would say that high plies plywood is better than particleboard and can be equal to MDF and most often not as good as HDF.

When purchasing semi or custom cabinets I would insist on plywood, MDF or HDF. The problem is that you cannot tell what a cabinet is made of when looking at them. Having experience as a cabinet dealer, I often do not know. However, I can get a good idea from the pricing of the cabinetry. But my best information comes from working with a cabinet manufacturer for years. The fewer complaints, the more likely the cabinets are not particleboard. I have had clients with cabinets for over 30 years that look wonderful: those with HDF cabinets.

Teknika Kitchens & Baths Will Help You Choose the Right Custom Cabinets for Your Remodel

If you would like to know more about how custom cabinets are made, or the different materials used to manufacture custom cabinets please contact Teknika Kitchens and Baths at 410-778-2036. To see examples of high-quality custom cabinets please visit