American Made Cabinets vs Chinese Cabinets

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. 

Final Score

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.

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American Made Cabinets vs Chinese Cabinets Comments

Plywood vrs particle board
After working for 15 years as an handyman and cabinet installer, I would have to agree with almost everything in the article. I have taken apart dovetail joints (what installer hasn't) in drawers and such and reassembled them to create replacement pieces. Those two staples in the Chinese pictures do a lot to stabilize the joint, for very long time. I have also seen plastic corner braces in both American and Chinese products. I understand that it is price and economy to use melamine cabinetry, and foil wrapped doors, as it hits the consumers price point. Most people do not want to pay for the quality of the high end product that can be done here in states by even the smallest mom and pop cabinet shops. I have installed the Chinese products, but the set time is so much more time consuming. The cabinets are not always square, and the plywood is not strait, and some time has defects. This forces any installer to rebuild the cabinet just to make them work.
10/03/2019 - Rod Kreinbrink from Port Charlotte, FL

Most info is accurate
As a 30 year custom cabinetmaker, I agree with most of this information. The only area I vary slightly is the plywood/particle board comparison. Someone replied with a statement, that a good particle board cabinet is better than a bad plywood cabinet. I agree with that. But in no way is a particle board cabinet always superior. The kitchen is a room with some, maybe many sources of water. Dishwashers may spring a leak, there are sometimes multiple sinks, faucets, and water supply for ref/freezers. Please don't be naive and think that you will not have a water leak at some source in your kitchen's lifetime. When that happens, the particle board cabinet will swell as it absorbs water and your disaster has just started. The cabinets structural integrity is gone and other distortions may occur. While plywood will get wet too, its expansion and distortion is minimal. Is this scenario the ONLY reason to avoid particle board? No. There are many other things to explore with cabinetry like the finish, the drawer quality, the hardware (slides and hinges), etc.

Your budget will dictate so many decisions in cabinetry. You need to ask yourself the questions like: How long will I live in my house? How much do I use the kitchen? How hard on the kitchen am I? Do I like my kitchen to be a visual focal point? If you consider a kitchen renovation, get estimates. Don't forget your local custom cabinet maker. They will live in your community, therefore, be more invested in maintaining their reputation should something go wrong. You know who to call if there is a problem. And they can usually do other things: mudrooms, laundry rooms, etc. They are modest guys usually making an okay living. They are not a showroom, marking cabinets up 100% or more on cabinets made elsewhere. Cabinets may cost $5000, or ten times that. You need to compare apples to apples and really learn how the cabinets are built before deciding. Its not just how they look. Good luck. Dave
12/03/2018 - Dave from York, PA

Scare tactics, hmmmmm
Formaldehyde is in American made carpet and many other household items. It's all over most American homes. So saying it might be in Chinese cabinets may be true, but is it? Did you test the cabinet from China to confirm?

Here is a fact, you showed one of the best samples of an American made cabinet and the worst Chinese cabinet.

As a cabinet installer, here is one thing I know for sure; the majority of consumers want to save money on cabinets and rta cabinets from China definitely do that. By the way, they don't fall apart in five years as implied.

Todays rta cabinets are superior to cabinets from the past generations and will last longer than most people own their homes.

I have searched every American made cabinet company I could find on the internet, and much to my dismay, most American made cabinets are mostly sourced from other countries with a small portion of the work done in the U.S.A.

Bottom line, while handcrafted cabinets may be better in many ways, most American cabinets are not really all that American. There is a lot of hype regarding American made. American made like Chevy, Ford and Cadillac, right....???

I know this for sure; once the kitchen is installed using RTA cabinets from China, the customer is friggen thrilled that they paid around 35% of what so-called American cabinets were selling for. I doubt that they lose any sleep over the fact that if you got a magnifying glass out you could see a gap somewhere on the joinery on the bottom of a drawer.
08/06/2018 - Jerry from Carson City, NV

Wrong, Dianna...
Hey, Dianna -
"Re people should get their lazy butts up and look for it at the store", most people not in the design / cabinetry business have no idea what they are looking at, or should be looking for, in a store. An abundance of the so-called experts in store know little more than the buyer, and their agenda is to sell you something and to say whatever it takes to accomplish that. Buyers who do no research before heading to the store are lambs to the slaughter. This topic is complex and a little true education & preparation goes a long way. As a professional NKBA Kitchen & Bath Designer, I welcome a real discussion of options with potential buyers. The better equipped the buyer is, the easier their choice and the wiser their investment, whatever their budget. As for 'people and their lazy butts', apparently you are too lazy to even use punctuation. That's one long run-on rant you posted, completely free of any punctuation. Apparently, your own "butt" is far too "lazy" to even hit the question mark or period key on a keyboard, yet you disparage others for making the effort to educate themselves before heading out to a store and spending thousands of dollars. Ridiculous.
07/03/2018 - NmgCle from Cleveland, OH

Plywood VS Particle Board
I would much rather have plywood over particle board. Let's just say that we would rather keep American workers working. That's the number one reason to buy American made. I don't think this site makes a particularly good argument for US over China made.
04/19/2018 - Scott from Los Angeles, CA

Particle board vs. plywood
I researched this with high-end cabinet companies that I sold. There are many grades of "particle board". If you use similar grades, the engineering specs are the same. Plywood will warp and split in moist conditions. A good particle board will beat a bad plywood any day.
03/14/2018 - P Marks from Merritt Island, FL

Kitchen cabinets are not created equal
Thank you for taking the time to differentiate the difference between a Chinese made cabinet versus an American made one. This helped me to avoid a costly mistake. Overall I want to get the best value for my dollar.
10/14/2017 - Lesley Clay from Schaumburg, IL

Reply - Video
Scott, thanks for watching. In response to your comments, I think you missed the point. I am not making a case that particle board is stronger than plywood. The point is that without the correct construction methods, plywood doesn't matter. For more details on particle board vs plywood, check out the video specifically on plywood vs particle board.
10/12/2017 - New Leaf from Tacoma., WA

I'm laughing hysterically right now. Did I seriously just hear you try to make a case that particleboard is better than plywood? Although you did almost admit plywood is better by trying to impugn their motives for using it. Here's a hint: you know where else it gets wet and humid? Kitchens and bathrooms. I think your video is probably selling a lot of Chinese cabinets.
10/11/2017 - Scott from Chandler, AZ

Why do you compare this stuff I honestly think that people should get their lazy butts up and look for it at the store
10/11/2017 - Dianna Mickison from No, WA