Now, there’s a leading question. One could be facetious and say something glib like ‘dishes’, but the truth is that for many woodshops this can be a complexing issue.
Every shop’s manufacturing process requires careful consideration about issues such as sheet goods, coatings and hardware. But the process begins earlier than that, when a client first expresses an interest in having work done and the shop decides whether it will build in-house or outsource. The decision to outsource can often be influenced by the quality of available components. Afterall, if a woodshop is going to place its brand on the cabinets that it buys, then it’s placing its reputation on the cabinets that it sells.
The issue isn’t as simple as deciding between MDF or multi-ply, or perhaps going with 1/2” instead of 5/8” thick drawer sides. It involves subtler concerns such as using imported plywood where the face veneer is exceptionally thin, or there are repair footballs in the good face, or a sheet’s adhesive emits formaldehyde. It’s hardware that looks like brass or bronze but is a base alloy with a thin metallic coating, or slides that have plastic instead of steel guides. It’s a matter of corners that were cut but don’t show up for a year or two, and by then the shop’s good name falls apart as quickly as the casework.
So, for shops that outsource, the first thing that goes into a good cabinet is a reliable, honest supplier. And really the only way to ensure quality here is to ask around. Attend trade shows, visit with fellow members of woodworking organizations such as the Architectural Woodwork Institute or Cabinet Makers Association, and then visit the cabinet factory in person and stick your nose into the production process as far as they will let you. It’s a relationship that needs to grow, so most shops begin by ordering just drawer boxes until they’re comfortable with the supplier.
Design is a huge part of what goes into a good cabinet. This is subjective because it involves using the most appropriate software (not necessarily the most powerful) and then hiring the right person to run it. So, every shop is different.
Most CAD programs let shops use libraries of cabinets from outsourcing suppliers, so kitchen design can be a simple click and drop exercise. But the problem with custom woodworking is that it’s custom. Almost every job seems to require a little tweaking and imagination and having somebody on staff who knows how to do that really helps. Experience is one of those things that goes into a good cabinet, as do training and an artistic eye. Unfortunately, we can’t buy any of those on a website as easily as we buy boxes, but we can at least outsource the CAD. A possible downside here is that this third party (the designer) may be a genius on a computer but a lead weight when it comes to dealing with clients. That makes this another of those relationships that need to be fostered.
Shops that build everything in-house have a different set of parameters when it comes to building great casework. Beyond trained and competent staff, the first big issue is equipment. For a production shop, that includes CNCs, robots and lots of electronics.
Shops just getting into CNC production or increasing their current assets have arrived at an opportune time. Router tables are being enhanced with improved vacuum systems, material handling solutions such as automatic loading/unloading and placement, better Z axis zeroing on smaller machines, more options such as lasers, engravers and aggregates, and even better dust collection right at the tool. Fortunately, most of these updates can be retrofitted to existing machines.
What goes into a great product here is having CNCs that are powerful enough to do the job accurately and quickly without many rejects. It can be heartbreaking when a shop has half a dozen kitchens to cut and the CNC is beautifully accurate, but it travels at the speed of an elderly snail. Or when an aggregate is used to make angled cuts and it slows the machine down because the tool is now extended farther from the gantry and is running slower than the spindle’s max. If those issues sound familiar, it may be time to look at a true 5-axis machine before interest rates start to follow inflation.
The way that carcasses, doors and drawers are assembled is another aspect of great cabinetry. The choices here include traditional sheet joinery such as glued and clamped dadoes and rabbets; updated furniture joints such as floating tenons or biscuits; or one of dozens of tried-and-true mechanical connectors that almost all lend themselves to CNC production. Cutting slots, drilling holes and routing mortises for hardware all takes time to set up and execute, but it’s usually faster than traditional joinery and it has a couple of other advantages, too. For a start, many types of RTA connectors can be inserted in the shop and then the components can be flat-packed and shipped on a pallet to the jobsite where assembly takes place. Or they can be disassembled if needed. Most draw the joint tight without clamping, and many don’t require glue and the time it takes to set.
Perhaps the best way to choose a connection system (and maybe you’ll need more than one), is again to connect with other shops and ask about their experiences. The truth is that most of the leading systems will deliver excellent results every time so there’s not much to choose in terms of quality. But the mechanics of different systems may work better for the way that a shop designs, builds, assembles or installs, so shopping around can be worthwhile. For example, a small shop without a CNC will choose different connectors than a highly automated business, and a shop on one of the coasts that installs its products within a few miles of home will look differently at RTA and flatpacks than one in the middle of the country where traveling long distances is part of the process.
Finishes and coatings have a huge impact because they’re the most visible and apparent indicators as to the quality of a job. A foil job made with two rolls, a paint job coated from different batches, or maybe an uneven stain application – any of these have the potential to negate the value of a custom job. It’s simply crushing when one installs a pair of doors and they don’t match. So, care and training (and a good buyer) are all part of what goes into a good cabinet.
As for what literally goes into a good cabinet, there are many ways to store those dishes mentioned earlier. Some of the newer hardware solutions are quite clever, such as a blind corner pull-out from Hardware Resources (hardwareresources.com, item SWS-BCFH15BN) that’s designed to maximize the use of inside corner base cabinets. It comes in black and chrome versions, and it allows the user full access to the entire cabinet. That’s because it has four baskets that extend out of the cabinet on soft-close ball-bearing slides, and then tuck neatly back in place. The customer just swings them in place and pushes. It is designed to fit most 45″ wide, full-height blind corner cabinets, and there’s an extra inch of clearance when it’s open so it doesn’t interfere with the pulls or handles on the neighboring cabinets.
Another smart solution is the new Short Base Pullout from Kesseböhmer (cleverstorage.com), which is a pullout that is cut short so it fits under a drawer in a base cabinet. This shorter frame is available in two colors and can be combined with any of five tray color combinations. It comes in 12 different tray widths ranging from 4″ to 20″ and uses two center-mounted runners that are supported at the top and bottom. It gives clear access on both sides to stored items.
As these examples show, hardware can transform a cabinet. Take, for example, Osborne Wood Products’ new barn door hardware that’s designed for cabinets, where the rollers can pivot. So, instead of the door having to be flat and just slide halfway across the opening so it’s always blocking half of the cabinet’s contents, this hardware lets the doors fold up as they are slid to the side. And when a customer needs complete access, the rollers can lift off the track and the doors swing fully open. For more info, go to osbornewood.com and search for folding barn door hardware.
The bottom line on what goes into a great cabinet is an amalgam of high-end materials, a great deal of care and patience, a solid knowledge base, plenty of experience and the benefits of good management. There are no short cuts to quality.
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.