A lot of people ask us what exactly European cabinets are, so we felt it was time to compare our preferred cabinet style to another very popular style, American.
Here is a great article from Sweetwood Cabinet in Boise, Idaho discussing the difference:
Photo Courtesy of Bray and Scarff
How do you tell which is which?
It is easy to tell the difference between a face frame cabinet and a frameless cabinet at a quick glance. The main difference is whether you can see a wood face frame without opening any doors or drawers. American Style face frame cabinets typically have large gaps between the doors and show the wood face frame all the way around the door. There are two types of face frame cabinet styles. There is the American style face frame where the doors lap on top of the face frame, and a flush inset style where the doors fit perfectly inside the frame. We will stick to talking about the American style face frame cabinet because this is by far the most common style. European Frameless style cabinets will have very small gaps between the doors that are typically less than a quarter inch and should look more like a shadow line. Frameless cabinets still have a matching edgeband on the cabinet box that is visible when the doors are open, but you should not really be able to see this at a quick glance.
What are some of the main differences between these two styles beside the face frame?
American Style Face Frame:
Face frame cabinets carry most of the structure in the face frame and usually have thinner cheaper materials for the cabinet box material. They will have door mullions, which are additional frame pieces, between all of the door and drawer faces. So if you have a cabinet with a pair of doors there will typically be piece of wood in the center of the cabinet where the door lands. The doors on American style cabinets are typically attached to the face frame with concealed compact hinges. The most commonly seen face frame cabinets are red oak cabinets ordered out of a catalog in three inch increments.
The lower cabinets usually have half depth shelves and the upper are reversible so that they can be hung right side up or upside down. If they were built by a custom shop they will most likely be medium stained alder or painted white and built in custom increments, but they can be stained or painted any color that is desired. Some custom shops will build the frame for an entire wall as one piece to add additional structure to the cabinets, but we do not see much of that here. Typically face frame cabinets will have doors that are not very square, because they really do not need to be. They will usually be finished to the walls with a piece of trim mold, which is a thin piece of wood about an inch wide that is pressed to the contours of the wall and nailed on to the face and sides to fill any gaps that may exist after installation.
This style of cabinetry was created to keep costs low and to allow cabinet builders to get away with a much less precise product. Which usually correlates to a less expensive final product for the customer.
European Style Frameless:
Frameless cabinets are built with the cabinet box being the main structure and a thin edge is applied to the box to match the exterior of the cabinet. Box materials will be thicker and beefier than most face frame cabinets because the box does all the work. The doors and drawer glides are attached to the box itself instead of to a face frame. Both styles of cabinetry typically use concealed hinges, but the hinges for Euro style cabinet are bigger and beefier. Euro style cabinets can still be ordered out of a catalog, but most people opt to have them custom made and installed by local professionals. The margin for error on frameless cabinets is almost none so it is a harder style to tackle as a DIY project.
The doors on the Frameless style have to be square, the lines between the doors and drawers have to be straight and consistent, and typically all of the finishing details are scribed and cut to fit the walls instead of adding a trim molding. Euro style cabinets can also be stained and painted to any color, but they also have the ability to match any room style. They can be made to look rustic, modern, industrial, traditional, transitional, contemporary, and anywhere in between. The only style that Euro cabinets should not be made to look like is the American Face Frame style.
European Frameless cabinets are built around precision and longevity which typically equates to higher prices as well.
Which Style is "Better"
European cabinets are much more visually appealing because of the flexibility in style, precise building techniques, and thought that goes into each project. The finished product is actually cut, carved, and sculpted to the walls when completed. European cabinets can be made to match any style of the room, details of a house, or designer’s vision. That is the reason that almost all of the pictures of popular kitchens on the internet and in magazines are either European or Flush Inset. American Style cabinets cannot be made to look like anything other than American style cabinets. Which means that all of the creative and fun styles that are so popular right now are pretty much off the table.
European style cabinets have more usable room for storage, especially at drawer banks and at cabinets with multiple doors. American Face Frame cabinets have bulky door mullions at every door and drawer face that take up valuable space.
The fact that the hardware attaches to the cabinet box on a Frameless cabinet means that the doors and drawers will still look great decades later. With American Style cabinets, the face frame will typically crack where the hinges and slides are screwed into it. Often within a few years and the doors will start to droop and sag until they eventually fail.
The most notable reason to go American is the price difference. American Style cabinets should almost always be less expensive than European due to the way that they are built and the materials used. Also, because they cannot offer every design style, they typically have reduced options and are more standardized. This allows American style cabinet companies to take advantage of economies of scale.
If you want better style and functionality, however, European cabinets are the way to go for your next home improvement project.