Kitchen cabinet construction isn't rocket science nor do you need to know every last detail about it. But even if you're not the type of person who's inclined to ponder "how things are put together", it's still helpful to understand the basic parts and how they're constructed. That way you'll have a better feel for the different levels of cabinet quality and what you do or don't get for the various levels of cost you'll encounter.
Most of us think of kitchen cabinets as being made out of wood and that's true for the most part. But don't think that it's all "solid wood" like the lumber used to frame a house. There are other materials that go into the construction of cabinets. Some are wood-based but others are not.
Here's a list of the primary cabinet materials you'll encounter:
MATERIALS FOR KITCHEN DOORS, FACES AND BOXES
Solid wood - just as the term implies, it's solid homogeneous wood, all the way through. The only variation might be boards or panels that are several pieces of solid wood joined together.
Particle board - an engineered wood product that's made from wood chips and particles that are combined with an adhesive and fused together into boards and panels. Particle board makes up a large percentage of the materials used in today's cabinetry, from the panels that make up the boxes to shelving.
Medium density fiberboard (MDF) - another engineered wood product that's made up of wood fibers. The fibers are combined with an adhesive under pressure and formed into boards and panels. MDF has a finer texture than particle board and is denser and heavier than particle board. It's used in cabinet doors, shelves and cabinet boxes.
High density fiberboard (HDF) - Same as MDF but with a higher quality.
Marine plywood - yet another engineered wood product but one that's probably most familiar to people. It's made up of thin wood "plies" or layers of wood that are glued together in a sandwich form. Usually the plies are oriented with their grain direction at varying angles with respect to each other to give the board or panel more rigidity and stability. Plywood is used for shelving, doors and cabinet boxes.
Stainless steel/metal - yes, not to be outdone, stainless steel is used to make complete cabinets though it's much less prevalent than wood cabinetry. There are whole cabinets (boxes and doors/drawers) made from stainless steel and there's also some manufacturers that produce stainless steel doors for wood cabinets.
Plastic laminate - this is virtually the same material that's used on laminate countertops although it's usually thinner when used on cabinets. It's basically a plastic product, formed by fusing paper and plastic resin together under heat and pressure. Laminate's used for covering cabinet boxes and/or doors to provide a easily-cleaned surface. Our laminate is of the HDL quality (High Density pressed).
Melamine - another plastic-based product that's also used to cover cabinet surfaces. It's a popular material for covering particle board panels that are used in making cabinet boxes. One type of construction you may see involves cabinet boxes made with melamine and wood veneer over particle board. The melamine is on the inside part of the cabinet and the wood veneer is on the outside of the cabinet box.
Thermofoil - a thin vinyl film that's used to cover cabinet boxes, doors and drawer fronts. The vinyl usually starts as a rigid film that's then heated and formed over the substrate material (such as cabinet door made from MDF). You'll usually encounter the term "thermofoil cabinets" which implies cabinets that are covered with the thermofoil material (the base material will usually be one of the engineered wood products).
MATERIALS FOR COUNTERTOPS
Stainless steel - Stainless steel lends a modern look any kitchen. Stainless steel coordinates with any color and is one of the easiest countertop materials to clean — just wipe it with a cloth and mild soap. The most appealing characteristic of this material is its ability to prevent bacteria buildup, making it the most hygienic countertop available.
Wood - To get a rich, warm look in your kitchen, opt for thick wood countertops. Wood countertops can be both functional and decorative. Functional ones are ideal for chopping food, and most decorative ones are installed on kitchen islands for a luxurious look. Once sealed, wood countertops are sanitary for chopping meat, and you don't have to worry about putting hot pots and pans on the surface because it's heat-resistant.
Granite - One of the most popular types of countertop choices today is granite. One option when going with a granite countertop is honed granite (*), which gives a nice matte finish instead of the traditional polished look. Its resistance to scratching, chipping, cracking or breaking makes it one of the most durable stone countertops.
Marble - A nicely toned veining in marble isn't just aesthetically pleasing, but also helps disguise wear and tear and hide stains. Soem types of marble have the look of elegant, pricey marble yet is may be on eof the least expensive marbles available.
Tiles - Tile countertops are a great choice if you want an inexpensive material that's easy to maintain. It's simple to coordinate with or mix and match with different design styles.
(*) There are plenty of good reasons why granite is quickly becoming the most demanded material for countertops in the kitchen and bathroom: it's durable, and when properly maintained stain, chip, and heat resistant. For homeowners who like the look of granite but not the high shine, honed granite is a popular substitute.
With a honed finish, the polishing process ends before buffing to create a matte or low-gloss sheen that lacks the highly reflective, mirrorlike look of traditional granite. The softer honed finish is particularly popular among homeowners wanting an aged or casual look.
Honed granite offers the same durability as a traditional polished finish but should be re-sealed every few months rather than once a year. Without a light-reflecting glossy finish to distract the eye, the natural imperfections of granite are more visible with a honed finish. Also, these matte finishes are more absorbent than polished and require more effort to keep clean. Honed granite is highly susceptible to fingerprints and watermarks, which darken the affected area and become quickly noticeable to the naked eye. This problem is most noticeable on dark colors, especially popular black countertops. Spills should always be cleaned right away to avoid stains, which can be difficult or impossible to remove.