“If you don’t drive your business, you will be driven out of business.”
Finding the right cabinet manufacturer to partner with is an intricate process that involves brand research, product knowledge, and interviewing. This white paper is a comprehensive study that kitchen and bath firm owners – especially those who serve remodelers, builders, and high-end and mid-range consumers – should find helpful in choosing the right cabinet manufacturer. It concludes with a useful checklist of criteria for reference when interviewing cabinet representatives.
Overview in selecting the right cabinet manufacturer
Get to know the prospective vendor
After identifying their target market, one of the primary considerations for kitchen and bath dealers is choosing the right cabinetry brands for their showrooms to display. The first step in making a decision is to learn the range of options available.
Identify the manufacturer’s values
The quickest way to know what a manufacturer stands for is to read their statement of values. While a good cabinet representative can share the manufacturer’s values with dealers, reading their values is an excellent way to gauge the confidence and expertise of the manufacturer as well as observe how closely their operations measure up to what they say is important to them.
Talk to their cabinet representative
Top cabinet reps are experts in their field and are usually outgoing, skilled salespeople. Effective cabinet reps have a thorough knowledge of the products they sell, which should be reflected in how they discuss them. Likewise, top manufacturers will go out of their way to offer numerous catalog options, enabling their dealers to create excellent designs with their products.
Cabinet reps who need more mastery of the products they represent, answer perfunctorily or are unwilling to go out of their way to satisfy the interests and questions of the kitchen dealer are telling signs that the manufacturer would be challenging to do business with down the line.
It’s a good idea to be ready with a list of questions to ask each cabinet representative interviewed. A short list of considerations dealers may want to factor in when formulating their questions for cabinet reps follows.
- Are they passionate about what they do and the products they represent?
- Are there cabinet questions they can’t answer immediately?
- Can they discuss nuances of the different cabinet lines they sell masterfully, or do they gloss over details or confuse products?
- How informed are they about other brands?
- Are they conversational, informative, and open to questions, or pushy and trying to sell product at every step?
A cabinet rep’s primary function is to inform dealers of the cabinet lines they represent and how to sell them. Reps tend to extol the unique features of their cabinet lines. The quality of the cabinet dealers’ products ought to be the primary factor in considering a cabinet line. The skill and experience of their representatives are secondary factors.
Corporate culture substantially influences how a company interacts with its clients. Dealers may be able to look past pushy cabinet reps to acquire a cabinet line that they love or discover that a manufacturer is an unfavorable option. Let researching and interviewing galvanize the decision, it’s worth investing the time. If the manufacturer’s personnel or operations are flawed but their cabinetry line is fantastic, put them on the shortlist and review other manufacturers before making a final decision. If a cabinetry line resonates positively in a dealer’s mind long after interacting with a rep, it may be time to return to that manufacturer to investigate the line further.
Learn about the manufacturer
Read the manufacturer’s website
Conscientious owners who value their reputation maintain attractive, up-to-date websites that give the reader a comprehensive business overview. Due diligence and preparing to talk to cabinet manufacturers include scanning their websites to understand their capabilities and accomplishments.
Note their affiliations. Check if they’re aligned with industry juggernauts such as the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA) or the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA). If their blog is published regularly, check if it is comprehensive and well-written.
- Do they have a green product line for dealers to offer their clientele?
- Do they use automated assembly and shipping?
- Do they have instructional videos that show how their cabinets are assembled?
- How well do their website and blog show off their product?
- Does their blog discuss industry trends and educate the reader on product specifications?
- What are their construction standards?
If a manufacturer’s website is not a comprehensive overview of their business, they may not be investing enough marketing dollars. Owners may want to forgo interviewing manufacturers who don’t represent themselves well online, as it may indicate that their collateral material isn’t first class.
While it is uncommon to see critical reviews of cabinet manufacturers, markets outside the industry have been transparent in displaying critical reviews alongside stellar reviews. The influence of other industries may catalyze a change in the kitchen and bath industry to adopt this practice.
Thoughtful, critical comments may indicate that while a dealer’s experience was less than superb, doing business with the manufacturer still held value for that dealer. It’s more important how quickly a manufacturer responds to problems and how efficiently their customer service resolves issues than having sterling reviews across the board.
View their specification guides
Cabinetry specification guides provide detailed information on the material, dimensions, construction methods, finishing, and so forth that manufacturers used to create their cabinetry.
It is in the dealer’s interest to know all the information regarding how the cabinet manufacturer builds its products.
Professionals outside the industry, such as architects and interior designers, often use specification guides for their new construction and remodeling projects. For sales designers, and contractors working within the kitchen and bath industry, cabinetry specifications provide valuable information for planning, ordering, and installing cabinetry. They are a good indicator of which manufacturers would be wise to partner with. They also make practical consumer educational tools for prospective kitchen buyers.
Visit their factory and showroom
Many cabinet manufacturers have showrooms because it’s an excellent way to build customer relationships. Since kitchen and bath dealers use showrooms to sell products and services to their clientele, cabinet manufacturers have showrooms to showcase their variety of products in an environment dealers are familiar with.
Manufacturer personnel typically walk kitchen and bath dealers through the product lines in their showroom, giving the dealer a sense of the cabinet’s post-installation look. Visiting factory showrooms is an effective way for dealers to become acquainted with product lines.
It is crucial for dealers to be educated on how a manufacturer builds their products, handles customer service issues, and treats their employees before making a decision between finalists.
Overview of materials used in cabinet construction
As kitchen and bath dealers build relationships with cabinet manufacturers, they will be able to better inform and serve their clientele. The average kitchen buyer needs to be made aware of why cabinetry cost as much as it does. While it’s easy to see that higher quality products factor into a higher price, it is not always clear to the consumer where many of the factors that determine the price of cabinetry originate.
The following types of wood are used in cabinet construction.
Fiberboard. High-density fiberboard (HDF) and medium-density fiberboard (MDF) are excellent alternatives to working with natural wood. Both are great building materials for different purposes. Both are created by mixing wood fiber and glue and setting them under immense pressure and heat.
HDF is denser than its counterpart, making it also thinner than MDF. MDF is better suited for lighter construction, such as furniture, and HDF is used in heavier applications.
Uses of HDF:
- Commercially used furniture
- Laminated flooring
- Door skins
- Backing panels
Uses of MDF:
- Home furniture
- Bathroom flooring
- Cabinets and shelves
- Decorative work
Materials typically used in premium cabinetry:
- Solid wood
- Soft-closing hinges
- Undermount, smooth, self-closing drawer slides
Construction features of premium cabinetry:
- Full-height back panels
- Solid wood, dovetail drawer boxes
- Fully assembled in the factory
- Framed faces
- Customizability and modifications
- A lifetime warranty and industry certifications
Materials typically used in lower-cost cabinetry:
- Medium density fiberboard
- Glue adhesive
- Plastic brackets
Construction features of lower-cost cabinetry:
- Thinner sides
- Weaker,not as tight-fitting construction
- Fewer stock-keeping units (SKUs)
- Limited warranty
A detailed look at the specifications of high-quality cabinetry
All plywood construction
(APC) plywood is a high-density plywood capable of handling hardware, such as screws and adhesives, with better-holding power than others.
Plywood is constructed by gluing thin layers of wood veneer together where connecting layers have their wood grain rotated up to 90° of one another to create flat, sturdy “sheets” of wood with various applications in cabinet construction.
Full-height back panels
Robust and high-quality cabinet construction includes a ⅜” or thicker full plywood for the back panel. They will be sturdily constructed and contain metal hangers, wood rails, and brackets. High-quality back panels allow the cabinet box to be directly attached to the studs anywhere on the back. Given the sturdiness of plywood, hanging rails are not needed. Cuts to the plywood for such possibilities as facilitating electrical wiring or plumbing should not affect the panel’s integrity.
Cabinet hinges are vital components to the length of a cabinet. Higher quality hinges benefit from the support of a soft-closing feature, increasing the life of the cabinetry as it takes the brunt of wear and tear of daily use.
High-quality cabinet hinges have a soft-close feature built into the steel and nickel-plated constructed hinge. Compromised hinge action is noticeable, which usually means the cabinet cannot be closed quickly. Broken hinges can create a diagonal slant of an affected cabinet door, compromising the strength of the remaining hinge and the look and feel of that kitchen space.
Another feature of high-quality hinges is that they are adjustable in six ways: in and out, up and down, and left and right, so the hinges can be adjusted when cabinet doors expand and contract during seasonal changes in humidity. Hinges need to stand up to constant use. Manufacturers would use only hinges that meet or exceed the American National Standard Institute’s (ANSI) requirements.
Undermounted drawer slides
Undermount slides travel on parallel tracks and are mounted to the sides of the cabinet case and underneath the drawer. The quality of the slides should always be commensurate to the intended use of the drawer. Drawers loaded with silverware will be bottom-heavy and should be supported by stainless steel, heavy-duty aluminum, or alloy drawer slides. Drawers used for lightweight objects, such as cloth napkins, could be supported by lower-grade aluminum or plastic drawer slides.
Top-quality drawer slide models are built with steel ball bearings and guides that give a smoother slide and have a longer lifespan. These slides are mounted beneath the drawer. Their value is determined by how heavy a load they can support. Drawers should be able to hold at least ninety pounds. Soft-close slides, also called “anti-slam,” provide a near-silent use of the sliding action and full access to the contents in the drawer.
Other drawer slide systems
There are hundreds of drawers, slide systems, and mechanisms that cabinet manufacturers use. Lower-cost cabinetry frequently uses epoxy-coated metal with plastic rollers, reducing the amount of time the drawer will function properly. Center and side mount slides rarely provide full access inside the drawer, so items in the back of the drawer could be difficult to reach. Side-mounted slides reduce the drawer’s interior width, restricting storage space.
There are three extensions possible for cabinet drawers. Three quarter extension, full extension, and overtravel.
Three quarter extension. The common drawer slides out threequarters of its length. While offering more access to the items in a drawer than wooden slide systems, items in the back of the drawer may not be visible when the drawer is open, since these drawers to not extend their full length from the cabinet box.
Full extention. Full extension drawers are the ideal option for most homeowners since when the drawer is fully open, there is visibility to every corner of the drawer.
Overtravel. Overtravel drawers open beyond their full extension to give an ample view of the drawer’s contents. Overtravel drawers are ideal for homeowners whose countertops or cabinets extend with a lip over the edge.
Hardwood dovetail drawer boxes
Hardwood and dovetail joints, the standard in US quality cabinetry, includes hardwood drawers, boxes, dovetail joints, heavy plywood bottoms, or sometimes back paneling, are the top end of quality cabinetry.
High-quality woods, such as solid, maple, or birch, are cut in ⅝” or thicker for drawer construction. Plywood drawer bottoms fully captured on all sides in “dado” grooved (cut against the wood grain) joints are often glued and nailed into place. Dovetails contain rows of interlocking teeth that contribute to the strength of the design.
Various materials such as particleboard, plywood, metal, and plastics are standard materials in the construction of kitchen cabinets. Generally, plywood and steel are used to construct high-quality cabinetry; well particleboard plastic and pliable metals are used in lower-cost cabinetry; lower-quality drawer boxes often have notched joints secured with staples to bind the sides together. Such drawers may have particleboard bottoms.
Lower-cost methods for cabinetry construction
Economical methods for cabinetry construction involve using thin panels, metal hang rails, brackets, and picture frame construction. Slim cabinets may not contain a back wall or have a mirror ⅛” to ¼” particle board panel that connects to the box covering the entire cabinet height. Any modifications to the box for a necessity, such as electrical wiring, can compromise the integrity of the cabinet, requiring additional onsite reinforcement.
Low-quality cabinetry easily bends and breaks because they eschew the beauty and efficiency of dovetail joints.
Particleboard is a building material made from wood byproducts, such as sawdust and wood chips. When bonded with an adhesive such as cement, formaldehyde, or glue, the sides are sometimes finished with melamine, laminate, or veneer. While particleboard is a lower-cost option, improvements have been made in recent decades. If it is going to be used for cabinet construction, it must be furniture-grade particleboard to be a reasonable option.
Melamine, a type of thermally fused laminate (TFL), is a lower-cost option for finishing particleboard. It can be used to make cabinet boxes, shelves, drawers, and line interior surfaces. It is a popular choice due to being a heat, humidity, and spill-resistant material. It offers a smooth, solid-color finish.
Methods of cabinet assembly
A note on Artificial intelligence
Artificial intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing how cabinet manufacturers do business. It is used to design cabinet doors, pack and ship orders, render 3-D models, and test design options. Algorithms are being used in market research to analyze data on customer preferences, so stylings can be made to satisfy demand. AI is also applied to conduct research to assist in marketing. We are seeing the beginning of what AI can do in the kitchen and bath, and cabinet manufacturing industries.
Fully assembled cabinetry construction methods include dovetail joints, hot and cold glue power fasteners, and other industrial techniques that increase the strength of a cabinet. Factory workers typically use rubber hammers to gently fasten the various panels into a completed box. Then drawers and shelves are put in place. Quality inspectors scrutinize the cabinets for defects and oversights before they are packed and shipped from the factory, ready to be installed when received at the consumer’s home.
RTA cabinets are “flat-packed” in a box and, therefore, shipped more economically. Typically, a box will include the cabinet, face frame, drawers, drawer, slides, shelves, inserts, doors, and all the hardware needed for construction. RTA cabinetry is designed to be assembled by a homeowner or contractor on a construction or remodeling site.
RTAs are typically less costly and can take significant time to assemble and install. While these cabinets can fit almost any budget range for a new kitchen, they are usually less sturdy than factory assembled. Their hand assembly can become noticeable with wear and tear over time.
Tangible differences in RTA cabinetry include price, convenience, and construction strength. RTA cabinetry isn’t as sturdy as professionally installed or fully assembled cabinetry since the tools available to an installer building the cabinet on site cannot render a tight-fitting product as one constructed from state-of-the-art factory machinery.
Framed and frameless cabinetry
There are three construction styles of framed cabinetry: partial overlay, full overlay, and inset. Each refers to the amount of frame visible when the doors are closed.
Full overlay doors nearly cover the cabinet face frame, usually leaving about a ⅛” reveal. Since the door sits outside the cabinet box, full overlay cabinetry provides the amplest storage space of framed construction. More accessible storage space becomes available when the cabinet doors open without a vertical style on the face frame, allowing undivided access to the cabinet box.
Partial overlay cabinetry, also known as standard or traditional, covers part of the 1¾” to 2” wide front frame, leaving a ½” – 1¼” of the cabinet face frame exposed.
Pros of overlay cabinetry
- A more cost-effective option compared to inset
- More interior storage space width is available (especially in frameless cabinetry)
- It may be used on frameless or framed cabinetry
Cons of overlay cabinetry
- A less streamlined look due to the presence of more edges
- More cleaning since edges are susceptible to dust and drip
Doors set into the cabinet box create a flush surface over the face of the cabinet – very much like fine furniture. The simplicity and distinction of the look will elevate the kitchen with a classic touch.
Benefits of inset cabinetry
- Streamlined appearance
- High-quality fully-customizable cabinets
- Hinges may be hidden or exposed
Drawbacks to inset cabinetry
- Higher cost than overlay
- Less storage space, and narrower drawers, compared to full overlay and frameless cabinetry
- Subject to humidity-swelling effects where adjustments may be needed from time to time to make sure the doors and drawers are working properly
Frameless, also called full access, or European-style, cabinets have no frame on the cabinet face. Frameless cabinets have full overlay doors, revealing approximately ⅛” around drawer fronts and cabinet doors.
Their side panels are thicker than that of a framed cabinet – usually ⅝” – ¾” thick – allowing drawer slides and door hinges to be attached directly to the cabinet’s side walls.
While higher-end frameless cabinetry is very durable when built with HDF and MDF, lower-cost frameless cabinetry often uses particleboard, which typically has a shorter lifespan than other options, sometimes causing hinges to become loose and separate from the particleboard over time.
Installing frameless cabinets is a delicate process. The installation has to be perfectly level and plum since even tiny idiosyncrasies will be perceivable. Doors may rub together, and drawers may not function well. Due to the difficulty of installing these cabinets, some installers charge more to install frameless cabinetry.
In short, these two methods of cabinet construction differ significantly in appearance. Framed cabinetry is more traditional in appearance and can even approach the look of fine furniture. Frameless cabinet doors are attached directly to the cabinet panel box, furnishing a cleaner, more modern, and uncluttered look.
Cabinet door styles
Cabinet doors are the most viewed area of cabinet installation, making the door style integral to the overall look of a kitchen. There are three common designs of cabinet doors:
- Raised panel
- Recessed panel
Raised panel. A traditional design featuring a raised center panel and a beveled or recessed groove within the door frame.
Recessed panel. A design where the flat center panel is lower than the door frame.
Slab. A frameless flat panel design, typically less stable than other door stylings.
Customizability and modifications
Sometimes kitchen spaces are unusual – with lower ceilings or angled walls – where a designer may require cabinet unit variations from a manufacturer’s standard product catalog. Many reputable, premium manufacturers develop fully customizable, high-quality cabinets that can be modified to various sizes, finishes, and door designs tailored to the designer’s specifications.
Since ready-made cabinetry limits or offers no customizability, and fully customizable cabinetry is costly, many consumers find middle-ground, semi-customizable cabinetry to be an agreeable choice.
Cabinet finishing systems
Cabinet manufacturers use two primary methods for painting and staining cabinetry:
- Flat finishing systems
- Hanging finishing systems
The main differences between flat and hanging finishing systems are how the cabinet parts are stained, painted, or treated and assembled.
Flat finishing systems require cabinet doors lay flat when the finishing product is applied to the wood. Cabinets may be finished at a set workstation or moved on a conveyor belt through various applications and drying stations.
Hanging finishing systems involve hanging cabinet doors on hooks, racks, or a conveyor that moves them through the application and drying processes. This method allows for more flexibility in the painting process, as the doors and parts can be sprayed at various angles to achieve the desired finish.
Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages. Manufacturers may use either or both methods depending on their production requirements. Flat finishing systems are often used for high-volume production of uniform finishes, while hanging line systems may be used for more complex finishes or custom work.
Cabinet finishing techniques
There are several common ways to treat wood during the finishing process. While some of these options have been around for decades, others are recent developments. Most notably, there is a trend favoring environmentally friendly practices in the production and shipping of cabinetry.
Painted finishes. A traditional finish. As customization is widely embraced, there is a trend among consumers wanting to select shades out of a paint color fan deck. Sometimes a manufacturer will match the paint the dealer wants to satisfy their client’s needs. In such cases, dealers must sign off on the match, acknowledging that it is the shade that the customer wants. This is done mostly by high-end manufacturers.
Textured finishes. Textured finishes come from various methods, such as applying a wire brush to the cabinet door, distressing or weathering the wood, or heating melamine. Textured finishes are growing in popularity because of their quality in adding depth and character to the cabinet surface.
Matte finishes. Matte finishes offer a low-gloss, velvety appearance. Recently, they have been popular in earth tones, including brass and copper, and darker tones, such as black and graphite.
High-gloss finishes. High-gloss finishes offer a sleek look ideal for contemporary or modern kitchen designs.
Stained finishes. Stained finishes are popular with consumers who prefer a more traditional or natural look. White cabinets have been a kitchen standard for several decades. Many of today’s consumers are opting for lighter or darker stained cabinetry, rivaling the preference for white.
Lacquered finishes. Oil-based lacquer finishes offer a durable and smooth water ring and scratch-resistant finish.
Eco-friendly finishes. Eco-friendly, low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) finishing systems, such as water-based paints, are now common consumer choices and negatively impact the environment less than their alternatives. Dealers will want to be prepared for the growing trend toward sustainability and eco-friendly options that continue to enjoy a growing portion of the kitchen redesign market.
Warranties and certifications
Offering warranties on cabinets can help instill buyers’ confidence that they are making the right investment decisions for their homes. Kitchen and bath dealers can not go wrong by offering flexibility to the buyer. Whether the buyer is overly cautious or changes their mind often, client-friendly agreements will appeal more to the prospect than inflexible, punitive structures to the purchasing process.
Lifetime warranty. Lower-quality cabinetry will often begin to break down after five to ten years of use. By that time, their manufacturer warranties may have expired. Since kitchen cabinets are one of the most expensive items consumers will ever purchase for a home, a lifetime warranty can assure that the cabinets will serve the buyer for a long life span.
Lifetime limited warranty. A lifetime limited warranty assures that the manufacturer will guarantee cabinetry operation as long as the original purchaser owns the product. These warranties are typically limited to repair or replacement.
Short-term or no warranty. Many manufacturers only offer one, five, or ten-year limited warranties, while others provide no warranty. Be cautious if considering cabinets with no or minimal warranties. If the cabinets fail, there is no recourse for the consumer.
When selling higher-end products, in most cases, it would be unwise to go with any cabinetry brand that does not have an unconditional lifetime warranty. If the manufacturer does not provide such a warranty, the dealer can decide if it’s worth creating one for their clientele.
How to talk with cabinet manufacturers when shopping for brands
Shopping for a cabinet brand to represent is frequently a lengthy process of getting to know the manufacturer. The vetting process is replete with points of consideration essential to the kitchen and bath firm owner. It can be exhausting to meet with numerous reps to determine the right cabinet line(s) to carry.
Dealers can save time by streamlining the vetting process. By having a set of questions to ask every cabinet rep interviewed, dealers can talk with reps confidently and thoroughly and in less time than if they winged their questions from interview to interview.
Generally, it is a good idea for dealers to answer two questions as they begin to interview cabinet reps.
- What do their kitchen buyers want in cabinetry quality and features?
- What are they willing to pay?
Kitchen and bath dealers shopping for the proper cabinet manufacturer to partner with may want to print the criteria below so that each point is addressed with every cabinet representative with whom they speak. Thorough questioning of cabinet reps from every brand investigated will produce measured findings and make it easier to determine with which manufacturer to partner.
Before engaging cabinet or factory reps, it’s a good idea for kitchen and bath owners to have a set group of merits to look for and questions to ask before the interview starts.
Adopting a systematic vetting process enables the kitchen and bath owner to weed out the lesser options and select the best options in a shorter period.
The list of merits and the following questions can be used as a guide for thoroughly vetting cabinet manufacturers. Create a file for each manufacturer who is interviewed. The owner or sales designer can curate the criteria as needed.
Print and use this form to thoroughly question cabinet manufacturers, and their representatives, when shopping for new brands to carry.