When Cabinets Fail

Like the poet said, "Everything falls apart." Here's a long discussion of common cabinet failures and the nature of cabinet repair work. June 28, 2007

I was at an architect's office yesterday to look at repairing a bunch of cabinets that they had installed about 4 years ago. They had a page-long list of problems that they wanted me to fix. They had the original cabinetmaker in a couple of times to repair things, but they are still having problems. My intention here is not to beat up on the other cabinetmaker, because a lot of the problems are due to things that I might not have caught if I had done the job. My question is, what kinds of problems have you seen come up with cabinets that you have seen or that you have built and installed? I am really looking at how we can build things that last more than a few years. What kinds of materials, fabrication techniques, hardware do you use that can insure millwork will hold up? What is the reasonable lifetime of a set of cabinets? What, from your experience, are the most common ways in which cabinets fail?

Some of the problems I saw: the millwork consists of large banks of storage cabinets, rift white oak veneer on MDF, euro hinges, side mount slides, full overlay, slab doors, veneer edgebanding. They have edge pulls on the doors that are mortised flush and screwed into the sides of the doors. The screws are 1/2" and are not holding in the edge of the MDF; you can see where the screws are splitting the MDF. They are all coming loose. A lot of the hinge plates have come loose. Some of the hinges have come loose in the doors (they are screwed in, not split dowels). The doors and drawer fronts are not holding their alignment. Some of the doors and file cabinet drawers have cheap cam locks where they cut a groove into the side of the case for the lock arm and the grooves are breaking apart. There is one desktop where the person's sweater catches on the grain of the veneer edgebanding, causing it to chip. In this case, I think they just forgot to ease the edge prior to finishing.

I have come up with ways to fix all of this, but I am curious to know how you folks plan for the future when you are building things. It seems to me that most of these problems could have been avoided with better planning and experience. Like I said, I don't think that I would have been able to catch all of these things, but I would like to be able to prevent callbacks in the future.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor F:
In my experience, what fails first are poorly made drawer boxes. I have replaced kitchens that were otherwise in perfect working order but for crummy drawer boxes.

I'll probably catch some heat here, but the second biggest failure I see is edgebander tape coming loose. I have heard that when the glue temperature is correct, it can be very strong and long lasting, but I have still seen a lot that wasn't good.

Your repair cabinets sound like they could have benefited from some solid wood application where hardware was to be fastened.

Also, while euro cup hinges are fine for the relatively low usage in a residential kitchen, in some commercial applications they will come loose and other hinges would be better. I have noticed that the hinges on a kitchen cab door where the trash container is will lose adjustment fast even with the best of the euro hinges.

Also, 170 degree hinges are really bad for losing adjustment. I won't use them unless it's the only option, like on a bi-fold corner door application.

From contributor P:
MDF seems like a poor choice for the doors. Good quality hardwood particleboard, e.g. Tafisa Tafipan or Uniboard Forpan, have engineered cores that are designed to accept fasteners either parallel or perpendicular to its surface. I've seen a lot of edgebanding failures on MDF as well as the glue cannot get a decent grip on the very dense core of it. 110 or 120 hinges with dowels may have helped as well. I would've tried to sell the client on a heavier weight institutional style hinge such as Hafele Aximat, but I can assume they, being architects, wouldn't want to see the knuckle poking past the face of the door.

From contributor S:
It doesn't pay to buy cheap hardware. I have seen cabinets where the doors are all out of alignment. Some installers like to get away with not putting the third screw in mounting plate. Doesn't take much to work it loose then. I also always use the euro screws, if not doweled inserts. Screwing into the edge of MDF is a recipe for disaster. I like the new plywood core MDF - it gives you a nice flat surface and something to screw into. I wish the strawboard would come back.

From contributor T:
One day they will learn that you get what you pay for. Simple concept. Rarely understood.

From contributor A:
Contributor S, what's that new MDF veneer core plywood you mentioned? I've never heard of such a product.

From contributor O:
You would be lucky to get what you pay for. Hinges, either the mounting or the slop that develops. It is not always the fault of the product. I replace and repair hinges at least once a month and mostly on lower cabinets. People tend to open the lower door and hang on to it to help keep their balance or, like me, are too old and fat to be able to squat down and get back up without a handhold. Once one works loose, the second doesn't have a chance. Cabinets too full of stuff don't allow the door to close like it should, so people try to push it closed, putting more stress on the hinges. People also like to hang things on doors like purses or clothes.

Edgebanding is maybe my next most common repair. Yes, there are bad fab jobs, but again, it is abuse that does the most damage. Corners are just a bad thing to be. Impact to any edge will either chip it or start it working loose. Get one chip or loose spot and then the snagging starts.

Locks are maybe third on my list. Slam the door/drawer shut when the cam is turned wrong and it starts to bend. Try forcing the door/drawer when it is locked and again something has to give.

Draw slides, pulls and faces are not really that common or major for me. I would think that a drop of loc-tite would solve 90% of pull issues or better screws and a lock washer of some sort, either a star or neoprene washer, to keep them from working loose.

From contributor K:
The most common thing that I come across is upper cabinets literally separating from the backs. These are usually 1/8"-1/4" thick backs and involve glue and staples. Like others, the second most common is hinges, and are usually in some combination of melamime, MDF or particleboard.

Third, moldings detaching at the seams for lack of glue.
Fourth, drawer glides with not enough screws loosening up.
Fifth, cabinet buckle/veneer give.
Sixth, misaligned corner lazy susans (pole).
Seventh, knobs/pulls loosening.
Eighth, garbage can pull-out screw failure (again, mostly PB or MDF) or worse, bent glides, due to homeowner pushing down on garbage in can to make more room.
Ninth, scissor hinge for tilt-out trays needing to be re-screwed and aligned.
Tenth, finish failure.

Most of the above can be avoided, but it takes a little extra effort or Monday-morning quarterbacking to do so.

From contributor S:
The product is called FX plywood, manufactured by Norbord. It has a plywood core and about 1/8 of MDF on either side. Not a bad product. There is also one called FX-P. One or the other has a decorative face.

From contributor F:

They call that "classic core" around here. I noticed that they recently thickened up those outer plies of MDF to .125" myself. Breaking us into the idea slowly. I have heard that due to a shortage of the peeler logs needed to make plywood, someday it may be phased out altogether.

From contributor V:
I've also heard it called "armor core". Pretty good stuff.

From contributor S:
While we are on the topic of plywood and MDF, does anyone use or have access to strawboard? I used it for several years and now it's gone.

From contributor G:
For the guys using classic core or FX plywood, is it much flatter than veneer core? I have a job coming up where they spec'd VC, but I need the panels to be flat. I can't afford much warping.

From contributor F:
I guess we all love flat panels. I think it's just luck and mostly bad luck at that. Even when the full sheets are pretty straight, no matter if it's veneer core or classic core, after the parts are cut, a dead flat piece is rare. I just cut parts from some classic core and everything has some bow and/or cup to it. Nothing horrible, though.

From contributor Y:
I did a kitchen a while back using classic core and the warp was pretty minimal, but it did have some. The kitchen after that I was competing for and tried some 1/2" "non-domestic." It cupped and warped really bad. I sent half of it back and replaced it with 1/2" domestic. Half of the domestic delaminated and I had to have it replaced. I think it's the luck of the draw and I had a bad streak. My supplier told me they were changing their supplier on the domestic because the delamination had been a big problem for them and he attributed that problem to a luan core that was used to manufacture it.

From contributor H:
I don't work on cabinets made by someone else, period! If you do, they then become yours - for maintenance and reputation.

From the original questioner:
That's one way to look at it. Another is that this is an outfit that we have done work with in the past, and would like to do more with in the future. If we can come in and solve a problem for them, it builds their confidence in our abilities. We get known as the shop that can take care of things when others can't. I think it also helps to justify in their minds our elevated pricing.

From contributor Z:
I use ultralite MDF core for all my veneered kitchens. I also use Inserta hinges that do not require any screws. The dowelled hinges will also work well in MDF. Even tall pantry doors stay flat with all-MDF and the ultralite is a pleasure to handle. My supplier in Ft. Lauderdale will roll-coat both sides with a UV finish clear only for 20.00 per side. I then cut on my slider, edgeband, and my finisher charges me a minimal fee to spray the edges. The small amount of overspray washes off the UV face in seconds. This only works for clear finishes, but in many modern style flat slab kitchens, customers love the natural wood look of the clear finish anyway.

From contributor O:
We do a lot of repairs for a couple of companies with national service accounts and somehow our name has gotten around to others for doing service work. I hate it, but my boss loves it! It is usually easy money - replace a hinge, tighten screws, re-glue edgebanding, what have you. The sad part is that when you show up on a job, the people think that you are the one that built the crap and that it is warranty work. I hate people thinking poorly about me.

We have a pretty steep minimum at first glance, but when you crunch the numbers we tend to have about four hours tied up in anything that we do when you count travel time and the billing time, anything over our minimum, and we add an hourly rate for building replacement doors or drawer boxes or such. This also gets the travel time to get the materials and a second trip back out to the site to install whatever we had to fabricate. Repairing cabinets by the hour is expensive and the boss just loves it! (Sometimes we will give a bid for major work.)

I am off of the regular service crew that I was the original man for, but I still get the bastard work that the flunkies can't do. Major re-lams or structural damage or anything that would require a second grade education for. I used to think that some of our guys were too stupid for this kind of stuff, but I have come to realize that I am the stupid one, because I end up getting the bastard work while they get the gravy. Go figure.

I may bitch and moan about it, but for the most part I like it when a customer is happy. It is that one out of ten that can't be made happy that tends to bring me down. I could do ten good service calls with everybody happy to have had me repair whatever I did, but that one bad experience just really eats at me and I can't let it go.

From contributor U:
To the original questioner: the flip side of your last comment is that you are being paid to fix something the original cabinetmaker was expected to do for free (most likely). While most cabinets will last longer than 4 years, the life depends on the degree of use and the care given by the owner. You are providing the care needed to extend their life. These owners are educated people and work in the trade. If they can't tell the difference before they bought something, then imagine what the rest of their projects are like.