Ask the Architect

Some advice on wood cabinets


Q. We have been looking for real wood kitchen cabinets, and they really run the whole spectrum, from semi-reasonable to very expensive. A salesman told us that well-made cabinets and doors cost more because they’re made better, with more pieces fit together instead of from single panels. He told us that we’ll regret picking the cheaper doors, saying they won’t last. I know that over the years, our closet doors bind up from the changes in humidity, but is it really a significant cause to have to buy more expensive cabinets?

A. Yes. The most important factor when selecting materials for any type of construction, whether it’s a building or a cabinet, is to keep in mind that everything has movement, both internal and external. As I have written many times, wood was once the center of a tree, never intended in nature to be cut up and exposed. Once the wood is taken from the heart of a tree, it begins to change shape based on temperature and moisture content.
Wood that is intended for structural use, like a common 2 x 4 wall stud, is typically dried to about 19 percent moisture content. This is done by laying the lumber outdoors in a covered area. Indoor lumber products are kiln dried to around 8 percent to balance out with indoor humidity, but the wood will not just stay at that moisture level. As the seasons change, wood products continue to adjust to the humidity they are subjected to.
It used to be that craftsmen let the finish trim moldings remain stored indoors, on site, to adjust to their final indoor installation. Unfortunately, most people are in a hurry to get the job done, and move on so the wood doesn’t get the chance to acclimate. Every so often I am asked to explain why there is cracking in sheetrock at corners or around doors. Most of the time, people suspect that it’s a structural problem, when it actually is the twisting and expansion or contraction of lumber that still has a different moisture level than the building. The dynamic movement can split the lumber and crack the walls easily.
The same kind of movement can occur in cabinet doors, so to adjust for this internal movement, doors are often configured with what is referred to as “rails and styles” surrounding the center panel. A well-crafted cabinet door will have movement if you place your hand on the center panel and move it up or down or side to side. The movement allows the door panel to expand or contract without binding, twisting or warping. Many doors imitate the look of multi-part doors, but are routed panels made from a single board. This kind of door can warp from typical moisture changes in a kitchen, from boiling water on a stove, a cross breeze on a summer day or when the heat comes on and the house gets dry. Good luck!

© 2022 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.