Architectural Woodwork Standards reference guide is by far the most comprehensive book to cabinet grades and grading available, and is widely used as the industry standard. It has been produced by the Architectural Woodworking Institute (AWI) to help clarify and define the principles for architectural and millwork woodworking. Section 400 of this manual has several charts that clarify what the specifications of both wood veneer and laminated cabinets are. These charts will help you know exactly what to expect with the various cabinets and grades that are available. If you do not have this reference book from AWI, do yourself a favor and obtain a copy. This guide is readily available online or through a qualified AWI continuing education instructor.
Why Use AWI Cabinet Grading?
Specifying your cabinet grades by using the AWI guide automatically puts the millwork shop on notice as to exactly what you want, and there should be little question as to what they are pricing. The 400A section – wood veneer cabinets and the 400B section – laminated cabinets, contain all the charts and information you could possibly want about cabinet grades. The charts are simple to understand and you will quickly pickup the usefulness of this information. Click on the book icon below to see the charts and information I am writing about, or feel free to call me if you have any questions that you need assistance with.
Note: Remember that a check in the chart does not mean required, it means PERMITTED.
Short Summary of Cabinet Grades:
ECONOMY GRADE: This specification indicates that you are expecting the most basic and minimum of all aspects of cabinet construction. This can be as simple as butt construction with painted particle board members. As this is the starting point of the grade, you could then add the specification of melamine interiors, which is permitted. Also permitted are laminate interiors as well as laminate exteriors, but the more you add to the specification list, the more cost is involved. That is why it is rare to see an economy grade specification since most customers want a grade of cabinet that has more quality to it, even on limited budgets. When you specify economy grade and then add melamine interior, laminated exterior, dado and rabbit construction, vinyl edge band etc, you have reached the CUSTOM GRADE level. It is easier to specify custom grade at the outset and save yourself the time of specifying all the add-ons to the economy grade. You will pay the same for the custom grade specification as you would for an upgraded economy grade specification so there are no real cost savings by specifying an upgrade to an economy grade cabinet.
CUSTOM GRADE: This specification is a step up from economy and you can expect to receive a higher price, but you will also receive a better cabinet. For instance a custom grade cabinet starts with better melamine (and yes there are grades of melamine). There will be other improvements too, such as ½” or greater backs rather than the ¼” backs of economy grade. Also if you are using a wood grain or patterned laminate on the exterior, it is permitted to annotate matching across the face of the finished drawer and door faces. This is the most popular specification as it gets the customer a quality cabinet at a fair price. It also prevents, as stated earlier, the architect or designer from having to specify the melamine interior as those requirements are already included in the definition of the CUSTOM GRADE cabinet.
PREMIUM GRADE: This specification is rare. Very high quality, laminated inside and out, high end hardware, full ¾” back and the edge treatment of all exposed edges is quite different than the other two grades. Economy grade can be sanded and painted at a minimum unless otherwise specified by the architect. Custom Grade has a minimum requirement of color matched pvc edgeband. Premium grade has a minimum requirement of laminate edges to match face laminate and ALL edges including the four edges of the shelves are to be laminated. The construction of this type of grade is also different, with recessed bottom to wall cabinets, dovetail drawers of finish grade plywood and upscale hardware and finish techniques in the case of veneer cabinets. This is also the most expensive of options.
A word about drawer boxes
As with anything you buy, there are shortcuts in materials and labor. And believe me drawer boxes are a favorite location to cut down on materials and labor. With that said, when you specify economy grade cabinets, the drawer boxes can be just plain old painted particle board, if you do not specify anything else. In custom grade they will be at least a minimum of melamine with ¼” dado bottoms, if you do not specify something different. In premium grade the minimum required drawer box material is high pressure laminate on veneer core, with ¼” dado bottoms, if you do not specify other options.
The bottom line…
Note the disclaimer – “If YOU do not specify…”. There are specific elements of the cabinet components and materials that must be specified if that is your expectation. If you think that a mill shop is going to spend the money to improve your cabinet when you specify ECONOMY grade and nothing else, you are mistaken. It is a fact of economics. Also do not specify economy grade and then specify upgraded materials to the extent that you then specified your cabinet into the next grade. You may as well start with CUSTOM grade or PREMIUM grade if that is really what you want.
Just like ordering a car. Your select the model, the color and the equipment you want. If you do not specify that you want air conditioning and the vehicle arrives without it, you can blame no one but yourself. Be clear and upfront with what you and your customer want and your experience with the millwork shop will be a pleasant one.