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Little boxes made of ticky-tacky

It wasn’t long ago that all kitchen cabinets were custom. Just a few weeks back, a veteran carpenter and I were shaking our heads at the shoddy build quality of the cabinets he was installing in a high-end kitchen renovation when he began reminiscing about the days when he and his colleagues would set up their saws in the kitchen and show off their craft by building sturdy cabinets on site. Those times are long gone and most mere mortals choose to use modular factory cabinets to keep their kitchen projects on budget.

The number of cabinet companies competing for our business is mind-boggling. I challenged myself to name as many manufacturers as I could in one minute and came up with this list: Diamond, Kraftmaid, Dynasty, Omega, Plain & Fancy, Merillat, Crownpoint, Ikea, Cliq Studios, Schrock and Bulthaup. And those are just a fraction of the companies that are producing cabinets today.

If money were no object for our kitchen project, I’d head straight to the nearest Plain English showroom (London) and hook myself up with a roomful of their lust-worthy, inset door cupboards. Because they’re British, you can call them ‘bespoke’ without coming off as a poseur.

plain english cabinets

But since we can’t afford to drop forty G’s on cabinets, we’re forced to consider more reasonable options. I used Ikea cabinets in our last kitchen and I’m convinced you can’t beat them for value. But their door styles and case sizes are limited and I don’t trust any particle board cabinet to last indefinitely.

In search of a sturdier option, I ran across Barker Cabinets, an Oregon-based cabinet manufacturer after my own heart. They have a niche operation that’s perfect for an over-do-it-yourselfer like me. Their cabinets are shipped flat-packed and ready-to-assemble, and can be customized down to the quarter inch in most dimensions. They have a decent selection of door styles available in a number of different domestic wood species, though their finish options are limited. One feature that stands out is their cabinet boxes, which are made from 3/4″ plywood, a specification that’s becoming rare even on high-end factory cabinets. Best of all, their prices are extremely reasonable, especially given the extensive customization options.

I ordered a small sample cabinet from Barker to evaluate the build quality and ease of assembly in person.

A box containing the cabinet arrived on our doorstep last week. The contents of the package were carefully packaged with shrink wrap to hold everything together and styrofoam blocks to protect vulnerable corners. First impression: extremely positive. If all of their cabinets are packed this way, it’s a sign that the company truly cares about their product.

box contents

Unwrapping the box’s contents, I noticed that each piece of the cabinet is labeled with a sticker for easy identification. The fasteners are neatly divided into plastic bags, and a clearly illustrated assembly manual is included. The plywood case pieces are finished with a clear varnish that seems reasonably durable. I ordered an unfinished Shaker style door in alder with a maple panel. The door is extremely well built with crisp corners and a smooth face that’s nearly ready for finishing. I haven’t decided yet whether we’d pay up for prefinished doors or try to paint them ourselves. Why I’m even considering the latter option after four months of fence painting is a discussion for another day.

cabinet parts

Assembly was a cinch, and took about twenty minutes including breaks for pictures.

First, you install the hinge plates.

hinge plates

Next, the box is assembled with aggressively-threaded Confirmat screws.

box assembly

The back face of the cabinet slips into a dado groove carved into the case.

cabinet back

The soft-close hinges slip into pre-drilled cups on the door and are affixed with two small screws.

hinge cup

The finished box feels solid, and looks good too.

cabinet box

Here’s a quick rundown of the pros and cons of Barker cabinets based on my initial impressions:

Pros:

  • reasonable prices
  • customizable sizing
  • 3/4″ plywood cases
  • dovetailed drawer boxes
  • nice selection of solid wood doors
  • high-quality Blum hardware

Cons:

  • limited finish options
  • require assembly
  • intimidation factor for the inexperienced consumer
  • website could be more polished
  • approximate one-month lead time

These cabinets aren’t for everyone, but they seem tailor-made for me. I expect to order a room full of them in the coming months.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. mom #

    I’m getting excited!

    September 13, 2013
    • jrh #

      Won’t be long now. But as long as the weather is like this, it’s going to be difficult to drag me out of the yard.

      September 14, 2013
  2. curt #

    Great post, pictures and information. Fortunately for us we live in Indiana Amish country, so ours are being made the old fashioned way. You’re so right about plywood box construction – 3/4″ ply is the way to go. Thanks again – we enjoy your blog.

    September 13, 2013
    • jrh #

      What a wonderful resource to have nearby. I know plenty of very talented custom cabinetmakers, but their prices are nearly as extraordinary as their handiwork. These cabinets seem to strike a nice balance between customization and affordable price. Thanks for reading!

      September 14, 2013
  3. Deb Marner #

    I am going to use Barker for my kitchen cabinets, main reason being their use of “screws” to assemble the boxes.

    I recently purchased a bookcase and media center from another well known RTA company, and being a novice I was more so taken with this companies lovely website and customization options instead of focusing on the oh so vital construction method.

    The quality of the product ended up being “ok”, with a couple of surprising issues such as the holes for the shelves being misaligned which makes for a crooked shelf and one of the shelves barely fits into the media center.

    However, the biggest issues ended up being the glue and nails used to construct the boxes. I was naive to think that the process of applying some glue and shooting some nails would be easy, because the videos on the companies website made it look like a breeze.

    After applying the glue and letting it dry I found that the cabinet’s barely held together. I was scared to move them even slightly.

    I learned the very hard way that clamps (which I did not have) were essential to the construction process, because the boxes did move while the glue was drying and ended up slightly misshapen.

    I managed to miss a few areas where the glue overflowed and dried causing cosmetic issues.

    The pneumatic nailer caused more issues, since I had never used one I ended up with nails shooting through the sides and top of the boxes resulting in splitting and dangerous spikes.

    After all was glued and nailed the boxes still felt wobbly. Luckily due their final location the poor glue and nail job is hidden and surrounding walls are supporting what would otherwise be an unacceptably unstable media center.

    I am SO glad that I opted for the small starter project first as I was initially going to purchase the kitchen cabinets first. After this project I realized that gluing and brad nailing boxes, especially those meant for a kitchen was not a great idea, at least for me.

    Hence, I am so very glad to have found Barker. Yes they may not offer all of the customization and glitz that some of the other RTA companies offer, but the assembly process alone eliminates their competition.

    July 25, 2016

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