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What Are RTA Cabinets?

VirginiaLynne likes to share her creative ideas for DIY home renovation and maintenance.

RTA cabinets are cabinets that have all the wood finished on them, but they are not assembled. They come packed flat in a box and need to be put together before being installed. Can you assemble RTA cabinets? As a 50-something mom of five kids, I assembled 31 cabinets for my home over a two-week period. If I can do it, you can too!

Better Quality and Lower Price

Are these right for you? Here are some things to consider:

  • In spite of being up to 50% cheaper than cabinets ordered through Home Depot or Lowe's, these cabinets are actually a much higher quality than anything but the most luxurious line at those stores.
  • Instead of particle-board construction and laminate shelves, most RTA are usually made of solid wood throughout. There are many websites which talk about this difference, and I have found it to be true in my own remodeling. In fact, it was the poor quality of the bathroom cabinets we purchased at Home Depot that led me to look for an alternative. The cabinets we eventually purchased are far superior in quality, construction, and beauty to our box store ones.
  • So, these sound like a great deal, but can the average homeowner really build them? Most RTA companies do not have consumer-friendly return policies, so this is a very important point to consider.

Questions to Ask

Because this is an important investment, it really pays to ask plenty of questions from the dealer you are buying from, such as:

  • What is the return/exchange policy?
  • What type of cabinet assembly is required?
  • Can you get a sample door before purchasing?
  • Will the company design the kitchen for you?
  • How do you take measurements?
  • What sort of products do they have available for finishing ends of cabinets?
  • Do you have a company representative who is assigned to help you through the project?
  • Do they have names of previous customers you can contact?

DIY or Hire Out?

Do you have the willpower to face a big project or the fall-back of someone with know-how who can help you? If so, choosing RTA might be a very good idea. In our case, we did all of the work we could, but we hired a contractor to do what we were not physically able to do ourselves. That saved us a lot of money, but it did take a lot of time.

DIY—What We Did:

  • Measured the kitchen and designed what we wanted.
  • Evaluated a lot of cabinet companies.
  • Chose a company, looked at their catalog, and figured out how many we needed of each type of cabinet.
  • Ordered the cabinets and stored the flat boxes in our garage.
  • Watched videos and talked with the company representative to learn how to correctly build the cabinets.
  • Built all of the cabinets, storing them in our living room and garage.
  • Stained molding to match the cabinets.
  • Installed molding around the cabinets after they were installed.

Hired Out—What Our Contractor Did:

  • Take out our old cabinets and prepare the surfaces.
  • Install our new cabinets.

Cheaper Cost and Better Choices

We replaced all the cabinets in our kitchen and laundry as well as adding pantry cabinets as built-in storage to our dining and living room, 31 cabinets in all! We paid maybe 25% of the price we would have paid for cabinets from Home Depot or Lowe's. I know because we re-did our bathroom cabinets from those stores. Moreover, the RTA cabinets are much better built, with better fixtures, features, and nicer wood.

When I got cabinets from Home Depot for my bathrooms, the salesperson asked the dimensions of the room and then told me the cost of the whole project. When I asked about alternative cabinets and whether I could know the cost of the individual cabinet pieces, they were very vague. Perhaps that was just my experience, but I found the clear pricing at RTA cabinet dealers to be one of the best selling points. Each cabinet in a line had a price, and I could easily compare the prices of 18-inch drawer base cabinets with 18-inch door and shelf units. That helped me to choose a design I liked that also fit my budget.

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Buyer Beware

Besides making sure you really are ready to build everything, you need to be very careful about what you order. Most RTA cabinet firms don’t allow returns or have a stiff return fee. So you have to make sure that you have measured everything correctly and ordered the right pieces, or you may end up with a mess rather than remodel. Some firms will do the planning for you if you send them the dimensions of your kitchen, but you still must be sure the measurements are correctly done. If you are unsure of how to do the measurements, then you may want to hire someone to do this for you. If you do it yourself (like I did), then be sure you check and recheck your measurements before you order.

No Model Kitchen to Examine

Frankly, it was rather frightening to order thousands of dollars of cabinets based on a few Internet pictures. However, we did order sample doors before we made our purchase. Many companies offer this option, and being able to look at the wood and compare this to other designs available locally actually helped us to make our decision.

Another thing that eased our fears was talking to the sales people at the company. Even before we made our purchase, we were assigned a salesperson who walked us through our decisions. That person answered my emails promptly and always returned phone calls. Choosing a company that has good customer service is important. If you can't tell, ask the salesperson for some references from previous customers.

Limited Choices

Although there are many RTA companies, many of them do tend to offer the same oak and maple cabinets. In addition, within each line, there are often a limited number of types of cabinets and only a few choices of molding. Some extras like wine cupboards or pantries are only available in certain lines.

We did not want oak or maple—the two most common woods used—so that eliminated a lot of companies. We finally found two lines we liked at RTA Unlimited. One was a cherry and the other was a walnut. While we had to look a long time to find something we liked, the process of thinking through our options actually helped us to slow down and design more carefully.

You Have to Build It Yourself

After ordering thousands of dollars of cabinets, I was terrified by the fact that I may not be able to put them together! Most of the websites will tell you it is easy to put their cabinets together. However, I was a 49-year-old housewife with very little previous carpentry experience. So I was careful to choose a company which gave instructions for putting cabinets together on their website.

I viewed the videos provided several times before I made my first attempt. How you put the cabinets together varies greatly, so be sure to find out through website research or talking to company representatives exactly what is involved in putting together the cabinets you are interested in purchasing.

Ordinary Homeowners Can Do This

If a middle-aged (OK, maybe more than middle-aged) housewife can build these by herself, you probably can too. In fact, I not only put together cabinets for my kitchen, but also for three other rooms in my house. Altogether, I assembled 31 cabinets, including 14 large pantries. My husband only helped me to move the pieces into the house after I finished building them in the garage.

In all, I spent about two weeks building the cabinets, mostly in the evening after my kids had gone to bed. About half of our cabinets were cam and lock; the others were grooved and required finishing nails and clamps to hold them together while the glue dried. The only tools I needed were a screwdriver, hammer, and clamps. In addition, I used good wood glue and nails. If you’d like to save money and have some beautiful cabinets, you may want to go for RTA.

Storage and Installation

You probably will want to consider whether you are going to install your cabinets yourself or have someone do it for you. For us, the installation was not very expensive, because we already had a carpenter working on some other projects in the house. I think we probably could have done it ourselves, but because the cabinets are heavy, and we are both in our late 40s, we didn't want to risk hurting our backs. Once our cabinets were installed, they looked completely professional.

Before you begin the project, you probably will want to consider where you will be building. Most of the work of building I did in our garage or living room. Although the garage did keep the mess out of the house, it made it more difficult to move the cabinets once they were done. So I ended up moving into our living room halfway through the project. I used the boxes the cabinets were delivered in as a surface to build on. That kept the glue off my floors and made sure the cabinet fronts were not scratched during construction. The only tool we needed to move the cabinets around was a wheeled dolly.

I'd love to hear comments from you if you have used RTA cabinets in your home. Let me know about your own building experiences!


Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 12, 2016:

Hi RTalloni--I would definitely advise this and while I don't generally promote any particular company. I would have to say that I do feel that the company I used is very reliable and has good products. I have some work to do on a condo we bought and I will plan to go with RTA from Custom Service Hardware again. Compared to the Home Depot cabinets I bought for our bathrooms the RTA cabinets are much higher in quality and cost about half as much (although I did have to build them of course).

RTalloni on May 12, 2016:

You did a great job on the cabinets! Thanks for the introduction to the RTA Cabinet concept. All wood finish construction as opposed to the cheaper ones is a huge factor. Will definitely have to look into this option.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 12, 2016:

Hi Dollar! It seems hard to believe but these are much better built and more durable than custom cabinets from big box stores. The biggest difference is that they have solid wood in the construction and shelves rather than plywood and veneer. There is some veneer on the edges of the shelves which has sometimes come off and needed to be reglued, but other than that my cabinets (all 31) have held up for about 8 years.

Wagner Construction from Jacksonville on May 11, 2016:

Very interesting thanks for a good in depth post. How durable are these cabinets usually?

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on December 31, 2013:

I agree that it does seem a bit scary, but if you look at my pictures above you can see that even a fifty year old mom can do this. Me that is! Now I am pretty crafty and I'd done some minor woodwork before but the only tools I needed for this was a screwdriver, hammer, clamps and wood glue. If you can use those, you can probably put these together. Be sure to find out how the cabinets you are buying are put together before you buy, however. Some are easier than others.

RTA Cabinet on December 27, 2013:

Some people are doubtful of whether or not they will actually be able to put up the cabinets together all by themselves. But it´s really not an impossible task plus it´s cheaper!

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