modern cabinet materials and construction

The history behind modern cabinet materials and construction

The residential and commercial cabinet industries in North America and Europe, by and large use the European Cabinet System. This system developed after WWII to support the rapid rebuilding of residential housing quickly became the industry standard throughout the modern world. Created by European engineers to integrate a system of hardware, materials and machinery using prefinished melamine sheet stock, in order to maximize material, use and efficiency. This new system completely changed the cabinet industry and opened new areas of creativity, training and machinery advancement. It maximized efficiency, time and functionality while creating a visually pleasing result. Cabinet heights and depths became standardized and took into consideration material and appliance sizes. Standards were developed for edge treatment and toe kick heights and finishes along with machining practices (also known as the 32mm system).

The look and assembly methods of the modern cabinet also changed. The European style of cabinet had no face frame (often referred to as ‘Frameless Cabinets’) with the cabinet box being constructed from 16mm (5/8”) or 19mm (3/4”) thick melamine-coated particleboard. Cabinets are assembled with butt joints and special screws (called Comfirmat screws) or cam-type hardware. The edges of the particleboard are capped with a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) in varying colors, thicknesses and textures.

There are many advantages of the European cabinet system over traditional face frame cabinets. The main advantage is cabinet access. In a frameless cabinet you have full access to the inside of the cabinet, not losing space to overhanging face frame material. Most hardware has also been designed to work directly with the frameless cabinet system, requiring no build-up or cabinet adjustments. An example of lost space and hardware adjustments is most clearly explained with drawer boxes:

Drawer box example for a cabinet that is 305mm (12”) wide cabinet:

  • Frameless cabinet drawer box
    • Drawer glides are mounted directly to the sides of the cabinet
    • Drawer box width would be 243mm (9 ½”)
  • Face frame cabinet drawer box
    • The inside of the cabinet requires build-up behind the  face frame to accommodate drawer glides mounting
    • Drawer box width would be 205mm (8”)

The example above best illustrates the loss of space when using face frame type cabinets due to face frame overhangs and the requirement of build-up to accommodate the hardware. When you add up this loss throughout a kitchen it becomes significant. On the other hand, the advantage of face frame cabinets are they greatly reduce negative visual appearance: the movement and warpage that solid wood doors are subject to (especially in high humidity environments).

Among the most exciting advancements to the industry was the development and use of hardware that was completely redesigned and tailored specifically to the cabinet industry. Gone were the days of hardware limitations and inefficiently functioning hardware. An entire new world of hardware options was opened up, giving the consumer cost effective possibilities that previously were completely unavailable and/or only available to an elite few. New hardware advancements dramatically improved adjustability and final site set up allowing for a perfect finished product.

The other development that was a direct result of this system and the rapid advancement of the computer industry (in the last 30 years) is how and where the industry uses machinery and computer software. CNC technology (Computer Numerical Control) has greatly improved production time and accuracy in the cabinet industry and allowed for a repeatable and accurate results. While CNC machines are still not the industry standard (mostly due to costs of the equipment) increasingly ,  companies are taking advantage of this technology to improve productivity and quality.

The millwork and cabinet industry continue to change and improve because this is the essence of life, without it the industry would move backwards with quality and creativity suffering.

Below is a sketch showing the different look of a Face Frame and Frameless cabinets. Pan Pacific Interiors (PPI) manufactures Frameless style cabinets.