This topic really presents me with a dilemma: I have a hard time recommending cheap anything. Full disclosure—I tend to like the expensive stuff.
When I walk into the home improvement store, if there are fifteen different kinds of anything on a shelf, you can bet I’ll choose the most expensive one there—without even looking at the price. I’m no price tag snob—if I can get it cheaper, great—but I do love quality. I imagine that’s because I grew up around a veteran carpenter and master builder, who taught me to try to see and build quality into my work.
Here’s the story: when I was 5 years old, my grandfather suggested we make a wall-mounted desk together. I was about to enter kindergarten, so I suspect he had studying in mind, although I don’t know any kids who do much studying in kindergarten.
But my grandfather built things to last, so perhaps he expected our little drop-front cabinet-style desk to last my entire academic career. As a veteran builder of homes and dams and even entire towns, grandpa knew his way around the shop.
So we drew up a set of plans—well, he did, and I watched and made a few childish suggestions. He showed me how to select the wood and measure twice and cut once and all those other carpentry clichés; and then we assembled the desk with wood screws.
I stood back and admired my first creation, which I thought was absolutely a work of art.
“Nah,” Grandpa said, “No good.”
“What?” I almost cried.
“See here, and here, and here?” he pointed to all the flaws.
“Nobody will see those,” I said.
“You will,” he told me. “You’ll always know they’re there. Take it apart, and we’ll start over.”
So we did. That day I learned to cast a critical eye on anything poorly made, and it probably ruined me for life.
Anyway, back to cheap kitchen cabinets. These days, the era of true hardwood in custom-built cabinets has almost faded entirely into the past. Hardwoods have gotten ridiculously expensive, as they probably should be, because it takes a long time to grow an oak or a maple tree. Most modern modular cabinetry is constructed of softwoods like pine or Douglas fir, or of plywood, or at the low end of the scale, something called MDF, or medium density fiberboard.
There is one grade of cabinet even lower than MDF, called low density fiberboard, or LDF. Avoid that material like you would a pit viper.
You see, fiberboard is basically hot-glued sawdust and small wood pieces, pressed into a mold and made to look like a board. They call it particle board because it’s made of particles. It’s heavy and dense, sure, but it doesn’t have the directional stability of real wood, or the holding power of plywood, either. It basically came from someone’s desire to do something with all the by-products of wood production: “Hey, can’t we make something profitable out of all this waste material?”
Eventually, MDF and LDF will fail. Because it’s a particle board, moisture will, sooner or later, make it distend, warp and sag. Nails and screw holes will enlarge or pull out. Doors and drawers will swell and refuse to open or close properly. The weight of heavy dishes or glassware will make particle board cabinets distend and sag even further. No matter how good your cheap cabinets look at first, you’ll always know that cheesy fiberboard lurks in your kitchen, ready to give in to humidity and gravity. Plus, you’ll hate yourself in the morning.
A kitchen is a humid environment. Water is always running, boiling, simmering or being used to clean and cook. Coffeemakers and rice makers and slow cookers and your hot water faucet itself all give off water vapor, which rises into the air, sometimes right under your cabinets. Spills are inevitable. Glasses from the dishwasher get put away in the cupboards, and each time a little bit of moisture accompanies them into a closed environment. In other words, you cannot avoid water vapor and humidity in any kitchen, which makes it a terrible environment for anything made out of sawdust and glue.
If you don’t believe me, go to any architectural salvage or home recycling center, and look at the cabinetry that has been taken out of homes and replaced. You’ll find some old, painted solid wood cabinets that have seen a lot of abuse, and you’ll invariably notice that they are still in relatively good shape—still square, solid and substantial. Then you may see some fiberboard cabinets, and you’ll instantly know the difference—they’re swollen and de-laminated from moisture intrusion, which makes them lose their structural integrity and their ability to hold anything.
So here’s my recommendation for cheap kitchen cabinets: whatever you do, avoid any MDF or LDF construction. Can’t afford a cabinet maker or the name brand solid wood cabinetry? At a minimum, buy RTA plywood or real wood cabinets. What’s RTA? It means ready-to-assemble, just like a piece of flat-pack furniture. It’s hard to find in stores, but readily available from good-quality manufacturers online. Installing well-made RTA cabinets isn’t difficult, and will save you a drawerful of cash.
Next suggestion: take another look at the previously-owned solid wood cabinetry at the home recycling center. I know of several contractors and remodelers who have bought those used, take-out cabinets (for next to nothing), stripped them of old paint and varnish, and refinished them. Then they installed new drawer and cabinet fronts, and wound up with incredibly high-quality kitchen installations as a result. The homeowner got great karma for recycling, and great, long-lasting cabinets, too.
Or last, in the absence of other options, bite the bullet and go with a good, well-respected local cabinetmaker. They can often be less expensive, more creative and more amenable to custom designs than any of the major name-brand cabinet sources—and they can actually cost less.