Know Your Cabinetry Basics

As architects, builders, remodelers and designers, one of the biggest obstacles in any project is balancing reality with client expectations. You must be a subject-matter expert on every aspect of your business. Even though you rely on the trades for specifics of their profession, you must be able to speak intelligently and effectively to your clients in terms they will understand. This ultimately will help bring the project to a successful and profitable conclusion.

Working with architects, builders and designers, I find there are some basic terminology and topics that are consistent need-to-knows about the industry today.

Cabinet construction is divided into two types: full access, also referred to as frameless; and face-frame construction.

Full access (European style). The technology for this type of cabinet construction was developed in Europe. A huge rebuilding effort with limited resources post-World War II brought about the technology and product for this type of cabinet. In general terms the cabinet is constructed using panels to build the box. Better-quality construction uses is ¾-in. thick panel material and a captured back dadoed into the side panels. The cabinet box is doweled, glued, then case-clamped together. The cabinet door is hinged to the interior side of the panel. The term full access refers to the ability to fully access the usable interior with no obstruction. The drawer box for full-access construction typically is wider than a drawer box used in face-frame construction for a same-size cabinet. The cabinet door and drawer fronts fully overlay the box with a reveal of 1/16 in. between doors and drawers being the most common, but can vary depending on the manufacturer. Full access cabinetry is easy to install but it depends on the attitude of the person holding the power tools.

Face frame. Check out your great-grandmother's side board. Face-frame cabinetry is an adaptation of traditional furniture construction. Typically, ¾-in. thick by 1½-in. wide solid stock material is used to build the stiles and rails of the face frame. The sides and back of the cabinet are joined and attached to the face frame using a variety of methods depending on the manufacturer. The cabinet door is hinged on the stile. The actual cabinet door or drawer front size will vary depending on how much or how little it overlays the face frame. Inset doors are where the door is in line with the face frame. This is a carryover from traditional methods of furniture construction. Face-frame cabinetry can be difficult to install; it depends on the attitude of the wood and its nature to twist and warp even after finishing.

Stock vs. custom. The term stock implies that it is pre-made and sits on a shelf somewhere. In most cases this is true, but stock also refers to standard sizing options, generally increments of 3 in. Manufacturers use this type of sizing to build a catalog of cabinet options and pricing. In the industry today many stock manufacturers have added custom capabilities and extensive modifications to their cabinet lines. This allows them to be competitive with smaller custom shops or custom manufacturers.

The National Kitchen & Bath Association has developed “Kitchen & Bathroom Planning Guidelines with Access Standards” to aid professionals in the safe and effective planning of kitchens and bathrooms. The guidelines are based on historical review, current industry environment, future trends, consumer lifestyles, new research, new building codes and current industry practices. As an architect, builder, remodeler or designer, you know consumer health, safety and welfare are more important than the color of cabinets and countertops.

Planning Guidelines

The “form follows function” theory applies to the layout of kitchens and baths. If you address the function of the space and how the homeowner will use it, the form or the shape of the space follows. Too many times boxes and appliances are slammed on a house plan without a lot of thought to how it is used and most importantly if it is safe. What works on paper vs. reality are two different things.

While all of the NKBA guidelines have relevance and in some applications are based on code, a few safety planning guidelines should not be ignored.

Kitchen Guideline 5: Work Triangle Traffic. No major traffic patterns should cross through the basic work triangle.

Kitchen Guideline 6: Work aisle. The width of a work aisle should be at least 42-in. for one cook and at least 48-in. for multiple cooks. Measure between the countertop edge, tall cabinets and/or appliances.

Kitchen Guideline 7: Walkway. The width of a walkway should be at least 36-in.

Kitchen Guideline 16: Refrigerator Landing Area. Include at least 15-in. of landing area on the handle side of the refrigerator; or 15-in. of landing on either side of a side-by-side refrigerator; or 15-in. of landing area which is no more than 48-in. across from the front of the refrigerator; or 15-in. of landing area above or adjacent to any undercounter style refrigeration appliance.

Kitchen Guideline 17: Cooking Surface Landing Area. Include a minimum of 12-in. of landing area on one side of a cooking surface and 15-in. on the other side. For safety reasons, in an island or peninsula situation the countertop should also extend a minimum of 9-in. behind the cooking surface if the counter height is the same as the surface-cooking appliance.

Kitchen Guideline 22: Microwave Landing Area. Provide at least a 15-in. landing area above, below or adjacent to the handle side of a microwave oven.

Kitchen Guideline 23: Oven Landing Area. Include at least a 15-in. landing area next to or above the oven. At least a 15-in. landing area that is not more than 48-in. across from the oven is acceptable if the appliance does not open into a walkway.

I challenge you to take a more detailed look at the NKBA's “Kitchen & Bathroom Planning Guidelines with Access Standards.” Did the last project you worked on meet or exceed these standards? Will the next one? This is one area where an NKBA certified kitchen or bath designer can assist you in balancing reality with client expectations.


  • Anvil For more info, please indicate #64 in E-Inquiry
  • Aristokraft For more info, please indicate #65 in E-Inquiry
  • Fu Tun Cheng For more info, please indicate #66 in E-Inquiry
  • Hettich For more info, please indicate #67 in E-Inquiry
  • Omega For more info, please indicate #68 in E-Inquiry
  • Stealth For more info, please indicate #69 in E-Inquiry
  • Wellborn For more info, please indicate #70 in E-Inquiry

For more product information, please visit Kitchen & Bath Spotlight: Cabinetry