Understanding materials used in RTA cabinets
In this article, we will look at the materials and parts used in ready-to-assemble, or RTA, cabinets. We will look at everything from the materials used to make the cabinet frames and doors to the parts used for the drawer glides and hinges, and even the screws.
If you ever wanted to understand the differences in quality of materials between RTA cabinet suppliers, this article will answer all of your questions.
RTA cabinet frames: plywood vs MDF
Generally, RTA cabinet makers offer one of two types of frames: full plywood or MDF.
While they’re both technically real wood, full plywood is more solid — the kind of wood you find at your local Home Depot or Lowes.
Plywood is made by gluing together thin layers, or “plies,” of wood veneer. The grain of each ply runs in a different direction, which gives the panel strength. Manufacturers that use plywood to construct their cabinets take top quality (or “cabinet grade”) plywood and cut the parts for the frames out of it.
This results is strong and sturdy frames, which don’t break easily and don’t come apart or separate if chipped.
Other manufacturers use MDF, or medium density fiberboard for their frames. This is a much cheaper and lower quality material. IKEA is most well known for using MDF in their cabinets, although many other companies use MDF as well.
MDF is an engineered wood product made by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibers, often using a resin binder, and creating a panel. The top and bottom may be layered with a melamine foil to make them smooth.
When you’re selecting a RTA cabinet, you should always look for a full plywood frame. These are much heavier and solid, and they are much better at securing fasteners, such as screws.
The difference between MDF and plywood cabinet frames is so stark that you can often tell which material was used just by touching the cabinet.
The verdict: choose plywood
RTA cabinet door faces: MDF vs HDF vs plywood
Cabinet door faces and drawer faces are generally either plywood, MDF, or HDF. We have discussed MDF and plywood in the previous section. HDF is somewhat in between plywood and MDF in terms of quality and price.
HDF, or high-density fiberboard, like MDF, is a type of engineered wood product made from wood fibers. HDF is much denser than MDF, and is therefore stronger and more durable. It is often used in high quality furniture, cabinetry, and flooring.
HDF has a heavier feel than MDF and the difference in quality is apparent to the touch. It can be as strong or stronger than plywood, while being smoother.
One of the key benefits of HDF and MDF is that these fiberboards resist water and don’t crack in changing temperatures as easily as plywood. For this reason, MDF and HDF are used often used for cabinet door faces — even when the cabinet frames are made of plywood.
While MDF is clearly inferior, there is no hard rule about whether HDF or plywood is better for cabinet door and drawer faces. For cabinets that are supposed to have wood grain and a wood feel, plywood works best.
However, newer cabinet styles like white shaker tend to de-emphasize the wood look, so these can be better with HDF. The HDF allows the cabinet faces to be smoother and more water-resistant, and they are also less prone to cracking due to changes in temperature.
The verdict: choose plywood or HDF
RTA cabinet hardware: drawer glides
RTA cabinets generally have two different types of drawer glides: full extension and standard, with two different closing options: normal and soft close.
Full extension drawer glides allow the drawer to slide all of the way out so that you can reach the back of the drawer without reaching your hand into the frame. This is achieved using a telescoping mechanism which extends in two pieces.
Standard drawer glides use only a single glide track and therefore can’t extend all the way out. These are less expensive to produce than full extension because they don’t require as much hardware.
Until recently, most RTA and other cabinets used standard glide mechanisms, due to the cost savings. However, today’s RTA cabinets often have full extension drawers. Even IKEA cabinet drawers in many cases now have full extension mechanisms.
The other feature available in RTA cabinet drawers is a soft close mechanism. This forces the drawer to close gently (and slowly) when pushed hard. A soft close mechanism not only protects your drawers, but it also gives them a high-end, expensive feel.
If the drawer does not have a soft close mechanism, it can be slammed, damaging your cabinet frame and putting additional wear on the cabinet.
Many RTA cabinets these days have soft close mechanisms, but it’s important to inspect the mechanisms from different manufacturers thoroughly, as they can vary greatly and quality and workmanship. We have found that several manufacturers’ soft close mechanisms are prone to breaking with use and quickly become worthless.
The verdict: choose full extensions with soft close mechanisms
RTA cabinet hardware: other hardware
Other hardware for RTA cabinets tends not to vary much. However, when choosing a cabinet manufacturer, try to look for cabinets with hardware that is weighty and solid.
The cabinet door hinges you choose should feel secure and strong. Some RTA cabinet hinges include a bit of resistance for a softer close, although unlike drawer glides, the difference between these and standard hinges is minor.
The verdict: look for weighty, solid hardware
RTA cabinets have gotten better and better, but it’s important to choose cabinets made from the right materials. Look for full plywood frames, with wood or HDF doors and drawer faces. Also, look for full extension, soft close drawers and weighty, solid hardware. There are a number of companies who sell RTA cabinets with all of these characteristics. Check out our other pages for more details.