Bestowing the qualifier high-end on kitchen cabinets can be a slippery slope. One homeowner's high-end is another homeowner's low-end. All too often, high style is mistaken for quality—leaving materials and workmanship ignored.
But there are a few accepted hallmarks of high-end kitchen cabinets that help when you buy such cabinets.
What Are Quality Cabinets?
You can define high-end cabinets as a combination of three factors: Quality materials, quality work, and unique styling.
Kitchen cabinets are boxes that are affixed to your walls and resting on the floor. So it's no accident that industry parlance for this part of the construction is "the box."
With quality cabinets, the box should not be MDF or any other type of pressboard. Good kitchen cabinet boxes can be built out of MDF, but better cabinets are built from plywood and solid wood.
- Plywood: The plywood used in quality kitchen cabinets is not the stuff on the bulk racks at most home centers or lumberyards. Instead, it is furniture-grade plywood that performs as well or even better than solid wood. Plywood will be found in the box, not doors and other finish surfaces.
- Solid Wood: Solid wood doors and drawer fronts are par for the course in high-end kitchen cabinets. Solid wood constructed cabinets are the best choice for quality.
- Melamine Inside: It's often better to line the insides of the cabinet boxes with melamine rather than leaving them as-is wood. Wood may react with moisture or can become stained with food. Melamine is easier to keep dry and clean.
Outside dimensions of the box vary. But within each box, recommended thicknesses of panels are:
- Doors: 3/4" thick
- Floor Panels: 1/2" thick
- Ceilings (wall cabinet only): 1/2" thick
- Back Panel (wall cabinet only): 1/2" thick (This is important because the cabinets hang from this panel)
When better-quality cabinets, you'll find dovetail-style construction of drawers rather than stapled drawers.
The cabinets will come full-assembled, not ready-to-assemble. Purchasing RTA cabinets is a great way to save money, but it's not often the best way to get quality cabinets. Instead of using RTA cabinets' cam system of quickly assembling the boxes, pre-assembled cabinets are made with glue and are built with power fasteners, along with the dovetail-style style noted earlier.
At corners, instead of plastic corners, you'll also find that the workers have installed I-beams that run the depth of the cabinets. I-beams are far more sturdy than plastic corners.
Cabinet backs are also an area where some cabinet makers try to use less material or poor-quality material. Often, the back is just a 1/8-inch thick piece of particleboard. In some cases, the board even comes folded up and must be unfolded and nailed into place on the back. Quality cabinet work will always use a 3/8- or 1/2-inch plywood panel, triple-secured with glue, nails, and a joint.
If anything is relative, style certainly is. But does style have to come at a high price?
Not always. IKEA kitchen cabinets have achieved a gloss of high end over the years, mainly through marketing. While its style mimics high-end European cabinetry, its construction is decidedly basic: lots of MDF (medium-density fiberboard), thermofoil, basic fixtures, and Euro-style hinges and slides.
Smallbone has traditional handpainted cabinets with its Iconic Collection, clean lines in its Naples Collection, and even floating, scalloped glass cabinets in its boldly named Icarus Collection. These are bespoke kitchen cabinets with commensurate prices.
Where to Buy
Aran hits this list because its styles are very Euro or Italian, but the sizing is all U.S. Aran's wall and base cabinets come in standard sizes. Not all of its cabinets are high-end (it does offer some MDF products).
With showrooms only in Palo Alto, CA, Palm Coast, FL, and Houston, TX, Aran doesn't make it easy to find its cabinets. But it's well worth checking them out if you're anywhere near. A company called Cabinets By Design is Aran's designated U.S. representative.
This 30-year-old Spanish company has made huge inroads in the high-end kitchen cabinet industry. Like Aran, its U.S. footprint is rather small, with only five locations.
Smallbone of Devizes
Even the name of this U.K.-based company is high-end. Smallbone features distinctive all-wood cabinetry. If you're looking for high-end but not necessarily sleek Euro-style, Smallbone may be the answer.