Cabinet Back Construction Choices

Cabinet backs are important for attachment to the wall. What's the best detail? April 16, 2010

I recently changed from 1/2" rabbeted inset glued and stapled with 3/4 x 1 1/2 stretchers to the same but no rabbet. My goal is the clean look of no stretchers and the time to put them in, as well as the scraps of 1/2". Reaching this goal would mean using 3/4". It is very close to the same price as 1/2". The scraps would be used for shelving. 3/4" backs would be screwed and glued. The negative is that itís heavy for a one man shop! Any thoughts?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor J:
We have also been thinking of going to 1/2'' backs. In our area 3/4'' melamine is about $6 less per sheet than 1/2''. Loss of depth on the interior of the cabinet and weight are the concerns we have right now. Bumping the cases 1/4'' deeper is one consideration for the depth issue. We build/deliver a lot of our work, so weight for installing is not a huge factor for us.

From contributor F:
I'm jumping in on my latest project. I've been thinking about it for awhile and it seems like a good way to go. I've found that I end up tossing a lot of 1/2" scrap as it can't be used for much else. With 3/4" I cut up smaller stuff for shelves, ladder frames or whatever. I pay about the same if not a little more for 1/2" ply so there's no cost savings. I'm using veneer core so the added weight shouldn't be too bad. I'll also have less different sizes to inventory. Really the only cons I can think of are weight and the loss of 1/4" depth on upper cabs, which really isn't much. So my next three kitchens will be all 3/4".

From contributor S:
We make all our cases in 16mm, 5/8 material. It makes them somewhat lighter, and also is what the 32mm system was designed for. I know that many people in North America use 3/4 and I am not really sure why. I have heard the stronger argument, but when I think about this how much stronger is the case really Ė certainly with full inset backs butt jointed, Senco finishing galvanized staples, weld-bond glue, a few wood screws. The case is a solid as it can be. I have tried to remove a side panel right after it has been stapled, it is surprisingly difficult and the glue hasn't even gone off. Once installed I believe that there is no real difference. If it is commercial and spec'd then I will use what is spec'd. If thicker side panels are desired I will apply 4" stripes to the front edge and back leaving 1/2" at the back to allow for scribe, making the panel 32mm, 1 1/4". Cost is less for the materials, lighter overall, and for me the only way to go. I have done cabinets overseas and they are all 5/8 materials.

From contributor R:
I use 1/2" backs rabbited, glued and stapled. Scraps go to drawer bottoms. I just don't like the 1/4" in bottoms.

From contributor Z:
1/2Ē bottoms are not overkill, especially for large pot and pan drawers. We use it and pockethole the bottom to the sides of the drawers. I often stand inside my drawers at full extension (that's the drawers, not me), to show clients how much weight these drawers can handle.

From contributor S:
I agree with contributor Z that 1/2" bottoms for drawers are not over kill, I use 5/8 on all parts of my drawers and have little worries even if pots and pans are dropped in. I have seen many drawers with bottoms dropped out, miss aligned, out of square, etc. etc. etc. when 1/4 bottoms are used. For me the drawers are one of the most important components of the job. They are used daily and can be the weak link if they do not operate hassle free. Quality hardware, quality work, and prompt service if needed will keep them coming back for more.

From contributor F:
I use 3/8" ply or MDF for my drawer bottoms. 1/4" is way too thin for kitchen drawers in my opinion. I'm also one of those crazy dummies who still makes his own dovetailed drawers, and 3/8" is the thickest material I can get to fit between the dovetails.

I can't see using 5/8" as I don't believe youíre going to find a large variety from most suppliers. I know I can get any veneer, melamine, or whatever, readily available on 3/4". I also get my veneer tape in 13/16" sized for 3/4" material. I'd also guess you wouldn't save much since 1/2" and 3/4" are almost the same cost, and are likely going to be more competitively priced, again more common than 5/8". Plus 3/4" gives you more meat to sink your fasteners into. Some of my Euro screws are 5/8" long. I can't really see much (if any) advantage to using 5/8" material unless youíre a major manufacturer bringing it in by the train load. The weight difference alone just wouldn't sell me, but maybe I'm missing something else?

From contributor U:
A big problem with 5/8" particle board for cabinet sides is that they are not nearly stiff enough for applications such as pantry sides with frameless construction (unless, of course, they go up against another cabinet end). A 5' long non-cross supported end of 5/8" would surely need a stiffner applied to the front edge to keep it from bowing outward from shelf weight. If you don't use applied cabinet doors at finish ends as I don't, 5/8" is dangerous.

From the original questioner:
I too use 1/2" for drawer bottoms but I usually donít have any drawers small enough for the scraps or the grain is wrong direction for drawers. My uppers are 14"d so depth is fine. If I have a 9' wall cab, 36" 2 door,36" stove hood and upper and a 36" 2 door that is six stretchers and a lot of time. All together through the whole kitchen the scraps of 3/4 backs and cases can be used for shelves.

From contributor G:
I switched over to 1/2" backs a while ago. When all the 1/4" plywood became 5mm ply and they still called it 1/4". Itís just too thin. Now instead of cutting two stretchers and sizing, edge banding, pocket holes and installing them, then cut a 1/4 back and install it. I have changed all that to cut a 1/2" back and install it. The time savings alone make up for more than the cost of the 1/2" ply and if I have unusable scraps I can throw them away and still be ahead of the money game. Labor is a lot more expensive than material. I also use 1/2" bottoms in my drawers.

From contributor U:
I recently got called out to an office to fix some upper cabinets which had fallen off a wall. To my surprise, the cabinet backs were still neatly screwed on the wall and the cabinets were on the floor. The cabinet maker had apparently decided to use 1/2" thick nail-on backs instead of thin backs and hanging strips. Since the cabinets were melamine board, he couldn't glue the backs on and depended only on a shit pot of 1 1/2" staples to attach the backs to the cabinets. That became the weak point.

I use 1/4" backs dadoed into the cabinet partitions 3/4" from the back edge. I screw a hanging strip onto the wall before the cabinets go up and hang the cabinets on that ledge. Since the cabinets have a notch on them so that the tops can hang over the top of the ledge, weight failure is almost impossible, and, as two other advantages, the ledge automatically lines up all the cabinets on it and the cabinets are much lighter than those with thick backs.

From contributor J:
1/4" ply backs glued and stapled on the back of the cabinet, nailers show on the inside so a little extra sanding and some edgebanding for uppers where seen. Nailers are plywood and glued and pocket screwed to the sides. Cabinets will stay up there. I like the plant on backs as there cut square on a slider and they help square up the cabinet when put on. Plus that extra 3/4" of space is sometimes what someone needs for a larger dinner plate.

From contributor H:
Iím with contributor J. Iíve recently seen some old (45 plus years) upper cabinets that have no backs, just 3/4 nailers nailed through the sides and shelves. These cabs are still hanging quite well. I donít really know why everyone uses backs so thick.

From contributor A:
Last month I gutted the kitchen in our house (circa 1825). Some fine craftsman in 1959 had done a built-in in place kitchen out of solid core maple plywood. It was a heck of a thing to take down. He must have used 5 lbs (I am not kidding) of finish nails in this kitchen. No backs. Ledgers/sides/bottoms. He even nailed them at angles. They have been there for 50 years. The original lacquer or was it shellac finish was still in decent shape when we bought in 2002.

From contributor U:
I go with contributor U 100% on this. 1/4" backs, dadoed in, 3/4" stretchers behind. It is just the proper frameless construction method. Rabbeted or applied backs are not for frameless casework.

From contributor L:
Nailers can be in front or back of the back. Nailers and applied 1/4" backs are just as strong and are easier/faster to manufacture and assemble/square. The only reason I would dado the backs is if I were using hangers on the uppers.