Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Tract home trauma, Part 1: Avoid kitchen cabinetry failure

In my last post, I described a Houston trend that drives me batty:  folks in otherwise-upscale subdivisions allowing their fences to look like crap. 

On the same theme, here's another local phenomenon I simply don't understand: folks failing to install hardware on their kitchen and bathroom cabinets, hardware otherwise known as cabinet pulls or knobs. 
These were about $4.00 apiece at a big-box hardware store.  I can't find a listing for this exact product right now and they may have been discontinued due to style changes, but these are somewhat similar.
It's usually up to home buyers to install this kind of hardware, especially if the home was a "spec" (built for speculative sale in the open market) rather than a "dirt sale" (contracted ahead of construction by a specific buyer).  Builders don't generally supply these things unless they are chosen by the buyer as an upgrade because they are so taste-specific, and once you've drilled a set of holes for them, you're married to that hardware for the duration of the cabinetry (which is one of the reasons why I chose knobs instead of handle pulls, because knobs only require a single hole per cabinet and can be easily changed out as styles evolve). 

These are not just for style or convenience - they are important for preserving both the structural integrity and the surface finish of your cabinetry.  Regardless of whether you have entry-level grade cabinets or upgraded cabinets, knobs perform two functions:

(1)  They minimize natural skin oils and food residues from coming into direct contact with the wood or paint finish of your cabinetry and degrading it.  When you open the cabinet, you should be touching knobs rather than the wood finish itself.  In just the course of a few years, oils can break down the cabinet stain around the touch points, making them look awful and shortening the life of the cabinet finish considerably.

(2) They help extend the life of the structure by minimizing lateral stresses on the joinery.  When knobs are not present, people tend to open drawers by grabbing the edges semi-randomly, often in an off-center manner such as this:
If you grab it like this, you're actually pulling sideways as well as straight out.  This has the potential to loosen the joinery over time, because if you pull sideways on a rectangular object, the forces serve to want to elongate that rectangle out-of-square.  If you've ever opened a cabinet drawer and notice that it's "wobbly", this is likely a contributing factor. 
The problem with this is that the structure was not designed to take that kind of sideways forcing.  If you look carefully at the way the drawers are constructed, you will see why:
The drawer facing (the pretty part that shows at the front) is typically connected to the body of the drawer using four heavy screws - two at each side.  HOWEVER...
...the body of the drawer itself is attached to the front portion using staples!  In this case, only three staples, and not very heavy ones at that. 
Let's take a closer look at this configuration:

Why kitchen cabinets are built like this, I do not know, but I've seen this type of construction in a wide variety of cabinets chosen by multiple builders in the greater Houston area.  Even "upgraded" cabinets may look like this.  "Upgraded" sometimes means that the manufacturer puts on a more fancy or elaborately-trimmed wooden cabinet face, but the structure of the cabinetry itself remains the same. 

I've been in Houston houses less than five years old where all the drawers in the kitchen are either loose, or the drawer fronts have totally fallen off.  Once those side staples start to loosen, it becomes difficult to restore the drawer through a repair process because those sides are usually made out of fiberboard, not wood.  Therefore, as the staples work their way loose, the fiberboard tends to crumble around them, making the whole thing very difficult to put back together again. 

If you install drawer knobs, you'll be pulling the drawer basically straight out every time you open it, rather than on a slight angle.  This can minimize the stresses on the side staples. 

Within about one week of moving into our Centerpointe house, I got busy installing knobs on everything in sight.  At the time, my husband questioned whether installing cabinet hardware was really a top priority, given that we had so much unpacking to complete.  AnswerYes.  I can't think of a faster way to reduce a home's value than to allow damage to occur to kitchen cabinets.  If you allow your drawers to weaken structurally, a future buyer is going to notice that and conclude that all that cabinetry is worn out and needs to be replaced, at a cost of many thousands of dollars.  Less than a hundred dollars worth of appropriate hardware can help extend the life of cabinets and minimize the chances of such a scenario arising.
To knob or not to knob...
there is no question.
These cabinets are now 2 years old and look as good as they did the day they were installed.

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