Build A Kitchen… Without Tools!

OK, you’re not really building it. Just assembling.

The way that woodshops create custom cabinets is changing rapidly, and it’s doing so in a way that benefits homeowners who have basic how-to skills. What’s taking place is reminiscent of what happened in the auto industry over the past couple of decades. Detroit factories that once teemed with welders and fitters now house lines of robotic CNC machines. They cut, weld and assemble parts twenty-four hours a day and never take a vacation, a sick day or a coffee break. That reality is rapidly transforming the way that wooden casework is built, too. And it’s opening up a lot of possibilities for homeowners to build the kitchens of their dreams – even if they don’t own a table saw or a router. Today, a small handful of large factories build the cabinets for a startling number of custom woodshops, and ship them flat-packed on pallets, already finished, directly to the customer’s homes. There, these ready-to-assemble (RTA) boxes are completed in minutes using clever routed joints that snap together, or one of several new types of mechanical hardware that requires few or no tools. So, instead of building whole kitchens or bathrooms, many woodshops now just order and install.

And so can you!

What’s New?

Homeowners can now order RTA cabinets directly online, thanks to an evolution in shipping. Manufacturers were faced with the problem of how to reduce the volume, and thereby the cost of shipping large and cumbersome cabinets while maintaining high production standards. The answer lay in a new generation of knockdown hardware that made the reassembly of RTA cabinets possible, even for people who have never built a box before. A host of high quality, beautifully engineered connectors has been developed over the past five or six years, much of it by names that are familiar to woodworkers such as Festool, Lamello and Häfele. Other companies have developed new plastic solutions, such as those made by Lockdowel and OVVO. 

The materials used in cabinets have changed, too. Over the past decade, less than half the cabinets being bought in the U.S. are natural grain wood. Foil (plastic) and paint finishes have taken over as Americans search for low maintenance, modern solutions. The newest trend is UV coated medium density fiberboard (MDF), which is a very durable, sanitary and stable product.

Some homeowners may decide to replace just the doors and drawer fronts, while retaining the existing boxes. Most RTA cabinet suppliers also cater to that market, and stock related supplies such as self-adhering hardwood veneer that can be used to match face frames with the new doors and drawer fronts. Or perhaps they order new dovetailed drawer boxes at a fraction of the cost of having them made in a custom shop. The point is that the average homeowner can now order single cabinets or complete kitchens that are custom sized and finished, without having to pay premium prices or trying to build the boxes in the basement on a borrowed table saw.

What to Look For

Most people planning a kitchen will need to find a supplier who can help with the design. Computer aided design is offered by almost all online cabinet suppliers. Here, you measure your room (often following guidelines that are provided in a downloadable PDF format), and then the company does the blueprints. You’ll need to choose the door and drawer front styles and materials, and the type of drawer box construction. The supplier will then render (draw) the kitchen, and send you several images. These will include a floorplan (bird’s eye view); elevations (as if you’re standing in front of each wall in turn); and sometimes cross-sections that show how the cabinet or drawer is built. A few of the larger companies will have you log in to their website to see a virtual reality tour of the completed room, with very photo-realistic drawings and 3D graphics. The high quality of the latest software is surprising, especially for anyone who remembers a design program at a big box store even a few years ago.

Ask about the knockdown fittings, and how they work. These are perhaps the most critical aspect of the entire project. Do you need special tools? Are there any videos online that show how the cabinets are assembled? Is there live help via phone if you need it? Do you need to also glue the cabinet parts together as you use the hardware to assemble them? Will the company send you a sample fitting, so you can judge the quality and figure out the process?

Ask about shipping. Will you need to pay for a truck with a forklift to unload pallets of parts? Is there a way to reduce the cost? For example, do you really need a rush order, or can you wait a few weeks? Can you pick up the cabinets in a pickup truck at a shipping company loading dock nearby, rather than having a semi come to the house? Generally, you will be surprised by how small the complete kitchen looks when it’s flat.

You may be tempted to unload the pallets at the dock and load up just the contents but be aware that flat-packed parts are very heavy and somewhat delicate, plus most shippers won’t like you breaking down pallets on their dock.

There are an awful lot of RTA suppliers who ship cabinets with 1/2” or even 3/8” thick walls. Theoretically, that may be sufficient to support doors and counters. But take it from an old cabinetmaker that 3/4” box sides are a whole lot sturdier and more durable. Shelves, too, will warp in thinner stock, especially wide ones over about 16”. Keep in mind how much money you are already saving by ordering, assembling and installing your own cabinets, and use that as motivation to avoid penny-pinching on the materials, or it may come back to haunt you.

Almost any appearance product (foil, veneer, paint) can be applied to almost any substrate. The best casework material is called multi-ply, and this is a laminated, void-free, plywood with lots of layers, such as Baltic or Finnish birch. Standard plywood with fewer cross-laminated layers is next, and then MDF. Fiberboards and chip or strand boards can lack shear resistance, can have much lower structural integrity (lean them against a wall at an angle and they’ll soon bow), and are often a lot heavier because their fine particles and resins are compressed into a very dense mass. Shipping weight is a big issue for casework, and that lack of structure means that mechanical RTA fasteners probably won’t hold as well as they do in multiply.

China supplies a staggering amount of the hardwood plywood currently available in the U.S., and while some products are just fine, there have been issues with adhesives, extremely thin appearance veneer, post-installation formaldehyde emissions, and large voids. Homeowners need to ask a supplier where the components come from and under what brand names, and then do due diligence (as in, Google™ them to see if there are any current issues).

On the Jobsite

Some of the best RTA cabinet manufacturers won’t deal with the general public. They only sell wholesale. But a homeowner who hires a licensed contractor to measure and install an RTA kitchen is still going to be a long way ahead of one who hires a custom shop to build the same kitchen, and the contractor will have access to many more sources for top-grade cabinetry. Unfortunately, some of the consumer-oriented RTA websites push low-grade, flimsy, lightweight cases that weigh less on a truck so they’re cheaper to ship.

For people who have never installed cabinets, there are lots of great videos on YouTube™ that will walk one through the process. Start by sorting the components and make sure they’re all there, before beginning assembly. You’ll need a staging area, so many homeowners prefer to build the boxes in a garage or even a spare bedroom rather than waiting until the old kitchen is completely demolished. This approach can reduce the downtime – the period when the family is without a working kitchen – to a day or two, rather than a couple of weeks.

Patch and paint the room walls before installing cabinets. It goes a whole lot faster than trying to work around new casework.

Most people hire an electrician to rough wire for appliance updates, new lighting, GFCI outlets and other code-related updates. Timing his/her visit is crucial. The electrician (and maybe a plumber?) needs to come after the old cabinets are out and before the new ones go in. If they’re busy and not booked in time, that can delay the entire project while you wait for them to work, and then wait again for an inspector to give an okay.

One final thought… think about installing new flooring after you already have the boxes installed. This will save the cost of new laminate or tile underneath the cabinets, which can be somewhat significant on a larger job. A molding can be used to cover the joint between the toe-kicks and the new flooring.