RTA Cabinets: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
All RTA Cabinets Are Not Created Equal
Ready-to-assemble cabinets are a great way to save money on your next kitchen or bath remodel. They offer value, quick turn-around time, and rich features that can rival what you might find in a semi-custom line that costs twice as much.
However, before you set your sights on imported RTA cabinets, it's important to realize what you are getting. Among brands, there are several different construction methods, vast differences in finish and wood quality, and overall selection. While you might save some money, you may also find that the sacrifices you need to make may not be worth it.
Imported RTA Cabinets
A dozen years ago, when I was a product development manager for a large cabinet component manufacturer, we used to talk about the effect China would have on kitchen cabinets. Many of us were naïve and considered it ludicrous that China would ever be able to mass produce and ship kitchens of such quality that U.S. buyers would take them seriously. Plus, logistical nightmares such as replacement parts and "out of stock" situations kept us feeling safe from the threat of imported cabinets. As time went on and we saw what was happening to the furniture industry, we realized how wrong we were and that it was only a matter of time before the U.S. market was flooded with cabinets from China.
You know what? These products have come a long way. There are literally dozens of manufacturers with operations in China to build and ship very decent RTA cabinets back to the U.S. The quality has improved over the years as well.
However, as a savvy buyer, you still need to be aware of what makes a quality cabinet (regardless of where it is made) and what you may be sacrificing when you purchase imported cabinetry. I want to stress that there is nothing inherently wrong with Chinese cabinetry, but you need to go into the purchase with your eyes open because sometimes the super low, factory-direct pricing can have you so giddy that you don't consider why the price is so low.
How They're Constructed
- Cabinet box The cabinet box is generally touted as "all plywood" and it is. However, the plywood itself is purchased with low price in mind, so it is common to experience peeling veneers and severely warped panels. Furthermore, the interior coatings used to finish the plywood are of low quality, so the interior generally has a 'starved' and coarse look/feel.
- Assembly Chinese cabinets are manufactured with absolute ease of assembly in mind. Therefore, most of them use a cam lock mechanism where the cabinet face frame and cabinet sides/top/bottom are held together with a hook-type fastener that engages the opposing piece when a screw is turned. A common application of this that we all grew up with can be found in Sauder or Ikea furniture. There are usually some plastic blocks to assist in keeping things square as well. Some manufacturers suggest the use of glue and advise that the client not depend solely on the cam locks.
- Finishes In an effort to keep things inexpensive, most importers stock a selection of 6-8 cabinet doors and styles/finishes. You can't mix and match. If you are fond of the "Brighton" door, you had better reconcile yourself to the finish it comes in. The finishes are typically water-based or use atypical solvent properties, so repair can be a problem if you need to touch up a scratch. It's not uncommon for the finish to wipe right off with a rag that has the repair material on it. Stains are always applied with spray equipment as opposed to wiped-on with a rag, an issue which often leads to color drift from batch to batch and different colors from piece to piece (such as a filler compared to a door). Glazes are applied with a marker pen as opposed to true glazing which is wiped on the whole surface and then wiped back off and left to hang in the profiles.
- Door styles As indicated above, you are generally limited to the 6-8 door designs that are in stock, and you must take them in the color they come with. There is no allowance for glass doors on any cabinet. You have to choose from a small assortment of wall cabinets that are able to accept glass. Wainscot panels for backs of islands are generally not available, so you must use either standard door panels or plywood. Doors always come hinged one way. If you want the door hinged on the other side, you need to flip the door over. This is no big deal except with cathedral door designs where there is a distinct left/right. In these cases, the manufacturer supplies plastic plugs to fill the unused hinge holes on the non-hinged side of the door.
- Wood quality Most often, the cabinet face frames and doors are made of solid wood, but it is generally Russian Birch, even if they advertise it as Cherry. Some manufacturers offer real Hard maple, Oak and even Cherry, but the quality of the lumber is below our domestic select grade. They are basically using the least desirable cuts of lumber that the domestic cabinetry and furniture markets can't or won't use. There is nothing wrong with this approach. Just be sure that if it's Cherry cabinets you are after, it's real Cherry cabinets you are getting.
- Accessories What makes cabinetry these days so different than it was 15 years ago is the interior storage items that are now available. Plate storage, spice pull-outs, towel racks, mixer lift-outs, and adjustable roll-out trays have made cabinetry so much more user-friendly and modular. With the imported cabinets, you will be forced to accessorize your storage needs yourself, hoping that the roll-out you bought at Lowes fits the cabinet you bought from China. Any storage items that do come with your cabinet are of lower quality, typically a white coated wire.
- Overall fit and finish While most Chinese cabinets are touting dovetailed drawer boxes, you generally need to assemble the drawer boxes yourself. This often results in rough, unfilled dovetails and out of square drawer boxes—as well as a huge increase in your assembly time. Slides are often marketed as full extension soft-close, but the manufacturer is typically another Chinese low bidder, and the quality is quite suspect. Hinges are generally fully concealed, but the hinges themselves are of a cheap stamped metal variety and do not have longevity in mind.
- Installation Chinese cabinets install as any other cabinet would, but since they are often out of square and require so many fillers to complete the install, the result looks fairly rough around the edges if proper care is not taken.
- Other considerations Be sure to ask your cabinet retailer about things such as replacements, out of stocks, and damages. For instance, if your son breaks a door after six months and you request a replacement door, do you have to purchase an entire cabinet? Probably. What happens if your sink base cabinet is out of stock and you need everything installed next Wednesday? How long will you need to wait for the replacement?
I want to stress the point that imported RTA cabinets have been a huge success in recent years. They have placed the power of cost control in the hands of the DIY homeowner, and the quality and options seem to get better every year. They fill a special place in the price spectrum for many Americans, and in these tough times, this is a good thing.
However, there are other alternatives that homeowners need to be aware of. The rest of this article is devoted to helping you determine what to look for in your cabinets. In the end, you'll have a better understanding of what you want in your next kitchen and where to buy it.
What to Look for in RTA Cabinets
Avoid cam locks and dado assembly that separate as wood expands and contracts.
Look for a good selection of colors and finishes.
Avoid spray-on finishes. Look for hand-wiped, which last longer.
Look for quality. Ask dealer about reports of breakage. Are hinges self-closing?
Domestic manufacturers can replace individual components more easily and quickly than importers.
When looking for your next cabinet for your kitchen or bath, take a look at the following and make sure it's what you have in mind for your remodel. Just because it's advertised as an "all-plywood box with a Cherry stain" does not make it a quality cabinet any more than a Chevrolet advertised with four tires and an engine is the same car as a BMW.
- Assembly While the cam locks are somewhat avoidable in the import cabinets, there are a few that offer a true dado assembly and require glues and fasteners that are nailed or screwed on. Some even use pocket screws to hold the cabinet together. While this seems like a minor point, it's actually huge. Over time, as wood expands and contracts and cabinet contents shift, inferior construction will almost always lead to separation of cabinet panels, cabinets peeling from the wall and other shocking developments. There is one American Made RTA cabinet (made by Conestoga Wood Specialties) that even offers a really unique sliding dovetail technology where the wood panels (top/bottom and sides) dovetail together so that the cabinet literally cannot fall apart once assembled.
- Doors/drawer fronts Does the line offer the level of door selection you may need? Do you require a special color? Maybe even unfinished where you can finish it yourself? Chinese imported cabinets are rigid in this area, so look at a domestic line if you are going to require unique doors or want a special door overlay like full overlay or inset.
- Finishes Look for something that uses coatings made in the U.S. if possible. One of the most prevalent things we have seen in the RTA industry is horrible coating quality. Unless you buy from a domestic manufacturer, you will most assuredly receive a spray applied stain versus wiped stain, and the glaze will be penned on. This is not necessarily bad, but compare brands as some of the finishes out there are quite poorly done while others are quite beautiful. Remember, hand-wiped stains cost more because of the labor and material expense, but the difference is the most noticeable thing about your new ready to assemble cabinets. The hand-wiped stains add a level of depth and richness you just can't get with spray stains.
- Hardware Make sure the glides are of a good quality and are soft close (a standard these days). Ask your retailer how they handle requests for broken glides and hardware a year or years down the road. As for hinges, are they self-closing? Are they of good quality? The hinge on your door actuates a lot in the course of its life, and you do not want to be constantly adjusting the hinges or replacing them.
- Replacements/damages Ask your retailer how stock outs, damages, and replacements are handled. If you can't get the cabinet when you need it, every other tradesman is held up (counters, tiles, plumbers, etc.), which can cost you weeks in your project schedule. Some manufacturers are build-to-order and allow for replacements to be shipped in as little as a day. If everything is built in the U.S., there is no issue with something being out of stock. Furthermore, if you only need a shelf or a cabinet side, it is no problem. You don't need to replace the whole cabinet. Just get what you need. Best of all, replacements are basically "no questions asked."
Shop With Confidence
Now that you have seen the differences in the levels of quality you can expect in RTA cabinetry, you should be able to confidently purchase your next kitchen or bath. The trick is knowing what you need to have and what you can live without.
If the project is an investment property, a secondary kitchen or bath, or perhaps for a house you know you'll be selling soon, the imported RTA cabinets are a great buy. They offer sound value and great window-dressing. However, if you're looking for something for your dream home or remodel, consider higher-end, American-made cabinetry.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.