What to Know Before Buying Ready-to-Assemble (RTA) Kitchen Cabinets

Female home improvement store customer examines wooden cabinets

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Ready-to-assemble (RTA) kitchen cabinets offer homeowners an option to save money on kitchen remodeling. Rather than ready-to-hang cabinets, these cabinets are delivered in parts in a flat pack along with all the hardware needed for assembly. Because you do the assembling yourself, you can cut costs significantly.

Before you start shopping for new kitchen cabinets, it pays to take the time to learn more about RTA cabinets.

What Are RTA Cabinets?

The ready-to-assemble name explains these products in a nutshell. When you order RTA cabinets, all of the parts have been cut to size, holes have been drilled where needed, and any finishes you requested have been applied. Then the parts are stacked and wrapped. You can bring them home from the store, if they have them in stock, or have them shipped to your home.

You then face the job of assembling and installing the cabinets. They should have instructions included, but these may be mostly drawings and steps with minimal or no written guidance. Some also have a link to online videos that show how to assemble your cabinets.

Where to Buy RTA Cabinets

You can find RTA cabinets at some big-box stores (IKEA, Home Depot, Lowe's, and Costco), but a much broader selection is available from online retailers. Buying at a store allows you to interact with the staff, who may be able to help explain the differences in the cabinets available and give advice on your room layout. These types of services may also be available at some online retailers, with some sites having the ability to create a custom layout and display photorealistic renderings of the room.

Getting Good-Quality RTA Cabinets

Like pre-assembled cabinets, ready-to-assemble cabinets cover the full spectrum of quality, from poor to very good. You can buy RTA cabinets that are every bit as strong and attractive as anything you find in a kitchen showroom. But you need to be able to recognize inferior quality. Avoid cabinets with stapled particleboard drawers, integrated rail drawer guides, and doors made of veneered particleboard or medium-density fiberboard (MDF).

The features of a quality cabinet include:

  • Solid wood drawers with dovetail joinery
  • Full-extension drawer guides
  • Doors that have a solid wood frame, with panels made either of solid wood or plywood
  • Finishes and coating applied by brush rather than sprayed on

While you can check these features in person at a store, you can also request a door sample when buying online. You may have to pay a small refundable deposit and shipping, but this ensures you know what you will be getting when you eventually place an order.

Cost Factors for RTA Cabinets

You can save a substantial amount of money with RTA cabinets as opposed to custom cabinets or assembled cabinets. The savings come in two ways. First, because they come to you disassembled, RTA cabinet shipping costs are less than fully assembled cabinets since they take up less room. Second, because you are taking care of assembly and installation, you will save on labor charges.

Your costs can vary significantly depending on such factors as materials, finish, complexity, and degree of completion. At the low end of the cost spectrum are cabinets with white, melamine-coated, particleboard cabinet boxes and drawers; flat panel doors; and unfinished elements that you paint yourself.

More expensive options will include veneered plywood cabinet boxes, hardwood face frames, solid wood doors, and dovetailed drawers. Cabinets in odd sizes and with angles can cost more, as can accessories such as crown molding or interior lighting.

Kitchen cabinets are often priced by the linear foot, which is simply the horizontal distance along the wall that will be filled with cabinets. The linear foot cost typically includes both upper (wall) and bottom (base) cabinets in one price. Depending on the mix of low-cost and expensive options you choose, kitchen cabinets for a full kitchen can range from roughly $250 per linear foot to $750 or more.

Make sure to get price quotes for comparable products from two or three suppliers. It's possible you might have to price out separate suppliers for the cabinet boxes, doors, and hardware. RTA cabinet suppliers are usually helpful in suggesting sources for the other materials, and you should be able to do this work online.

Check for the availability of replacement parts for your cabinets. If something breaks or is damaged in assembly, awaiting a replacement part might cause a delay in your kitchen remodel job. And if a part breaks years down the road, you'll want to be able to replace it easily.

Assembling RTA Cabinets

Ready-to-assemble cabinets have become so popular in part because they are so easy to put together. Most products need nothing more than glue, wood dowels, and screws, all of which should be supplied with the cabinets, along with clear instructions. Cabinets, drawers, and doors are predrilled for attaching hardware and hinges. Often, the only tool you will need for assembly is a screwdriver.

However, it's a good idea to refer to online videos showing how your cabinets are assembled, if available. Reviewing demonstration videos can help prevent common assembly mistakes.