It’s no secret that Chinese cabinetry is significantly cheaper than the vast majority of American Made cabinetry. Most people are generally aware of why Chinese goods are less expensive and are typically equally aware that the quality of the goods, like the price, is also less. But how much less?
In the article below, I base the comparison not only on my experience of having installed many Chinese cabinets and many more American made cabinets, I also specifically compare two standard kitchen base cabinets. One American, one Chinese. There are several pretty huge differences that every consumer should be aware of before making their final decision.
Disclaimer: All Cabinets Are Not Made Equally
Before we begin, it is important to state that every cabinet manufacturer, whether American or Chinese, makes their cabinets differently so this comparison does not represent every American cabinet, nor does it represent every Chinese cabinet. As we go through some of the key differences, some of the differences will be more common among the majority of manufacturers, other differences may be more specific to each individual manufacturer. With that being said, let’s take a look.
Comparing Shaker Cabinets
I will be comparing two similarly sized 3 drawer base cabinets. They are both face frame cabinets, they are both full overlay, shaker door styles, and they are both standard sizes with no modifications. Both are very standard cupboards that you would expect to see incorporated into any kitchen design.
Key Difference #1 Plywood vs Particle Board
The first obvious difference between the two boxes is that the Chinese cabinet is plywood, while the American cabinet is particle board. This is fairly typical across most manufacturers and is one of the major selling points Chinese cabinet manufacturers use to their advantage. Most Chinese cabinets come standard with plywood boxes, most American stock or semi-custom cabinets come standard with particle or furniture board boxes. Even most full custom lines are using particle board, MDF, or some type of engineered lumber as its standard box construction. (See our custom kitchen cabinet page for a description of stock, semi-custom, and custom cabinets).
Particle board vs plywood is a much bigger topic that has an upcoming blog post in the works, but here is a secret about why Chinese manufacturers use plywood instead of particle board: boats. Chinese cabinet makers only use plywood construction because the cabinets come over on boats. The biggest weakness of particle board when compared to plywood is that if it gets subjected to a high humidity or wet environment for long periods of time (such as the inside an ocean bound shipping container for months at a time) it has more problems than plywood has, so they typically make their cabinet boxes using plywood.
Plywood cabinets are not always a good thing. We all know that china has far less environmental regulations than the united states, so we have no way of knowing what type of unregulated chemicals and glue are holding the plywood together.
Although the Chinese cabinet is made of plywood, the plywood has a significant warp to it, while the American made furniture board is extremely flat.
Key Difference #2 Cabinet Construction
Right off the bat the American Cabinet feels far more sturdy. It’s heavier, the pieces fit perfectly, and it simply feels like one solid unit. The Chinese cabinet feels extremely delicate and if it might fall apart if you so much as look at it wrong. Upon further examination, there are several reasons for this.
The American cabinet uses front to back I braces to strengthen the cabinet box, whereas the Chinese cabinet doesn’t have anything to stabilize the top of the cabinet box other than a tiny plastic corner brace.
Another huge difference is the overall fit of the pieces. The dado’s and rabbet joints on the American Cabinet are amazingly tight while the Chinese connections have large gaps. In addition to a perfect fit, the American cabinet pieces are also secured together with pocket screws and glue. The Chinese cabinet uses staples, many of which missed the connecting piece completely. I also do not see any evidence of glue in the Chinese construction.
Key Difference #3 Cabinet Drawers
Both cabinets contain dovetail drawers, but when compared side by side, the American Drawer box is clearly superior. As with the cabinet box, the pieces of the American dovetail fit perfectly leaving a nice smooth seam. The Chinese dovetail is rough, splintered and appears forced.
The interior of the drawers appears comparable. Both drawers feel to have a smooth natural finish on the wood. The drawer guides also appear comparable.
The underside of the drawers reveal another huge American advantage. The bottom panel of the American drawer is slightly thicker and is inset on all four sides of the drawer. The Chinese bottom panel is only inset on three sides and stapled on the back side. I would assume that over time these staples will fail from the weight of items in the drawer and eventually start to sag and rub against the frame of the cabinet until complete failure.
Key Difference #4 Cabinet Drawer Faces & Face frame
Overall, the face frame of the cabinet and the cabinet doors appear to be constructed about the same, But the center panel of the Chinese cabinet appears to have a bit more play in it. If you knock or tap on it, it feels slightly loose. The American drawer front feels tight.
Key Difference #5 Cabinet Finish
The two base cabinets being compared in this article have different finishes, the Chinese is a stained finish, the American is a paint, so it is not practical to compare them. However, I will provide a tip based on my experience as a cabinet professional. The deeper the finish looks and the smoother it feels, generally means the higher quality finish. If you can still feel the texture of the wood and there is not a very noticeable sheen or depth to the wood, that is typically a sign of a thin finish coat that will wear out quickly, scratch easily, and rapidly discolor.
Another notable mention regarding the cabinet finish is again the fact that Chinese manufacturers are virtually unregulated. What this means is that it is highly likely that the stains, varnishes, and paints used in China contain high levels of Chemicals that American manufactures can’t and won’t use for both environmental and safety reasons. Chemicals known to cause cancer, such as formaldehyde, have been found in extremely high levels in Chinese stains, glues, paints, lacquers, and varnishes.
Key Difference #6 The Unseen
So far we’ve talked about the differences that we can see, but there are additional differences that also must be considered when purchasing cabinets, such as the warranty and dealer service.
All cabinets sold by New Leaf Cabinets & Counters from Tacoma, WA include a Limited Lifetime Warranty. Obviously, there are limitations to that warranty, but the bottom line is that we expect our cabinets to last a lifetime.
To my knowledge, the vast majority of Chinese cabinets come as is, no warranty at all, but I have seen warranties with limited periods such as 1, 3, or in some cases 5 years. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I’ve found that while many products will outlast their warranty, a warranty is a pretty good indicator of how long the cabinet maker expects their cabinets to hold up. Considering the average kitchen is only remodeled once every 30 years, Most people want their cabinets to last far more than 5 years.
Dealer service is another huge factor when purchasing cabinets. Generally, the quality of service you get before your cabinet purchase won’t be too much different than the service you get after you purchase your cabinets. If your service is bad while you are making the purchase, it’s bound to be bad during the cabinet delivery, the installation, and any required service after the purchase. At New Leaf Cabinets, we pride ourselves on providing a VIP cabinet experience from the moment you initiate contact with us and throughout the lifespan of your kitchen.
American made cabinets are clearly superior to Chinese cabinetry in every factor except price. At a glance, in a completed kitchen remodel, the cabinets may appear comparable, but a detailed examination quickly reveals several key components in the cabinet construction that make a quality cabinet worth the extra money. After all, if you’re spending thousands of dollars remodeling your kitchen, do you really want to have to do it again in 5 years because your cabinets are falling apart? Do you really want your children exposed to unknown chemicals in the cabinet finish? Buy American. It’s worth it.
If you would like a free design consultation, contact us to schedule an appointment!