Kitchen Cabinets for Period Houses

Cabinet design and details are critical in making a new kitchen fit an old house. We look at traditional construction, and outline the must-haves for restoration-worthy cabinets.
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Cabinet design and details are critical in making a new kitchen fit an old house. We look at traditional construction, and outline the must-haves for restoration-worthy cabinets.
soapstone sink

Hand-selected woods, smoothed by planing and put together using strong, traditional joinery techniques, then beautifully finished—these are the hallmarks of authentic period cabinets made today by a handful of companies. The recessed undersink cabinet makes a toekick unnecessary. Soapstone adds to the timeless look.

What gives an old-house kitchen the feeling of authenticity? It’s the cabinets that connect a new installation to an earlier time, whether or not you choose marble countertops and vintage appliances.

Getting cabinetry right is tricky, given social and technology changes—and because the kitchen has evolved from being a closeted area for servants to the center of family life. Kitchens are larger and filled with such appurtenances as pot fillers and espresso makers, and contemporary homeowners demand storage capacity beyond even the pantries of old. Finding the right balance between, say, a late-19th-century appearance and a 21st-century lifestyle is a juggling act.

Few kitchens before about 1910 had what could be considered built-in cabinets. Islands were rare, worktables plentiful. Even in so grand a structure as the Gamble House, built in 1908, cabinetry was limited to one large and one smaller pass-through cupboard. The area under the drainboard sink was completely open. Fixed cabinets were reserved for the pantry, the transitional space between kitchen and dining room where plates, serving pieces, and cutlery were stored.

Cabinets began to proliferate during the building boom in builder’s cottages and houses in the 1910s and 1920s. Built from solid, locally available 1" x 4" wood, these early cabinets met standardized dimensions even when built onsite by a carpenter, wrote Jane Powell in Bungalow Kitchens (Gibbs Smith).

pullout utensil drawer

This custom pullout keeps oversized utensils out of sight but in easy reach; knife and spice drawers and recycling bins are favorite upgrades.

All of these cabinets were face framed, meaning the front of the box was constructed of stiles and rails joined together, typically using butt or half-lap joints that were then glued and nailed. Dovetails, a traditional cabinetmaker’s joint and a contemporary must-have, were rare even for drawers.

Doors were also face framed, with floating panels at the center held in place by stiles and rails. To give them strength and stability, the stiles and rails were fastened using mortise-and-tenon joinery. Doors were typically inset, meaning the door closed flush into the cabinet’s face frame. Drawer faces, also composed with stiles, rails, and panels, were the fourth side of drawer, not applied over a finished drawer box, a distinction many reproduction cabinetmakers follow today.

In many ways, those early 20th-century cabinets set the standard for what a traditional or “restoration” kitchen looks like today, even when the kitchen is going into an earlier house. Cabinetmakers replicate details like flat-panel or raised-panel doors, face-frame boxes, and sculpted feet, adding higher-end construction details such as dovetail joinery to cabinet styles that would never have had them.

quarter-sawn oak cabinet

Quarter-sawn oak—shown here with a deep, expressive finish—is common in many turn-of-the-20th-century houses, from coast to coast.

While construction standards are sometimes higher than those of the past, most of these designs are cut to such precise tolerances using computer numeric control (CNC) that they’re almost too perfect. Some argue that, like an 18th-century wire-arm chandelier, cabinets should have small variations that give them the appearance of being hand built.

That’s the goal of cabinetmakers at Crown Point Cabinetry, the Kennebec Company, the Cooper Group, and others, who combine the use of modern technologies and hand-craftsmanship. The idea is to use traditional techniques on the visible and functional parts of the cabinetry while using more mechanized methods on items like cabinet boxes, which lack detail but are time-consuming to make.

The practice allows for greater emphasis on details like doors and drawer faces. For its doors, Kennebec starts with rough lumber, then flattens it on a wood joiner, a tool similar to a planer. Once the wood is flat, it’s left to acclimate, says owner James Stewart. “We allow the tension to come out of the wood before we form it into a door.”

The company used to build all components by hand, even cabinet boxes, but it became cost prohibitive, Stewart says. “The main goal was to have our talented cabinetmakers focus on wood selection and joinery rather than putting together plywood boxes.”

Pay attention to finish-carpentry details like rabbeted mouldings and beading, wrote bungalow maven Jane Powell. The importance of the visual composition of face frames, door style, and hardware cannot be overemphasized.  

Using CNC is an industry standard in part because the boxes must be constructed to tight specifications. “You can’t be 1/16th of an inch off,” says Brian Stowell of Crown Point Cabinetry, which designs and cuts boxes that are accurate to 1/1000th of an inch. “Otherwise, things don’t line up right.”

Because solid wood is prone to expansion and contraction and changes in temperature and humidity, less visible box components are composed of ½" or ¾" veneer plywood or, for paint-grade cabinets, MDF. Both the plywood and MDF are stronger and far more dimensionally stable than solid wood, Stowell says. Box sides are dadoed, or grooved, to accept tabs or tongues from the box floors and ceilings. All the parts interlock to keep the construction sturdy and square. Dadoed joints are stronger than those made by other methods, such as mitering or butt joining.

Eddy Refrigerator ad

Old ads like this one for the zinc-lined Eddy from 1911 served as inspiration.

Highly visible and touchable components like face frames, doors, and drawers are built from solid wood using mortise-and-tenon and dovetail joinery. In addition to being one of the strongest joints available for cabinetry, mortise-and-tenon construction can be glued for added strength. “You want the maximum glue-able surface for maximum stability,” Stowell says.

While components may be cut to hyper-precise specifications, skilled carpenters make the wood selections, fit the elements together, and painstakingly hand-sand surfaces. In some cases, the wood for faces is hand-planed rather than passed through a routing shaper, a Kennebec trademark. The planer creates gentle undulations and slightly raises the grain, giving the drawer or door blank a unique texture with a natural antiquing effect.

Like an antique range that’s been spiffed up on the exterior and rebuilt to modern standards on the inside, reproduction cabinet interiors now accommodate fittings from customizable shelving to concealed lighting, bespoke cutlery drawers to pet bowls that slide out of sight when not in use. Mechanical improvements, such as soft-close drawers that work with compression to create a gentle closure, are also available. “Soft-close drawers are one of the greatest inventions known to man,” says Stowell.

A good cabinetmaker will also consider how to engineer the cabinets for wiring and plumbing chases so that other trades can
fit in such necessities without adjustments to the cabinets. “We think about that all through the design process and engineer them right in,” says Kennebec’s Stewart. “You get a kitchen that lives old, works new.”

ice box

The finished icebox-trimmed refrigerator, with functional antique hardware collected by the owner and professionally replated.

Ice Box Wrap

Hiding the dishwasher or refrigerator beneath paneling that matches the cabinets has become a standard option for kitchens, historic and otherwise. A different tack is to turn the largest elephant in the room into a showpiece by cladding it to look like an icebox.

Constructed of thick oak or pine paneling and trimmed with icebox-specific nickel hardware, iceboxes were often small and much shorter than modern refrigerators. (Many allocated as much space to the ice, delivered in large blocks, as to space for chilling the milk.) In fancier homes, they were larger in both width and height, dominating the kitchen or back hall in the same way contemporary refrigerators do today.

Building icebox paneling is more straightforward than constructing cabinets yourself, but requires similar techniques, says Bill Ticineto, who built both for the kitchen in his 1920s home. (See “House & Garden,” OHJ, August 2016.)

First, choose a flat-front refrigerator that can accommodate paneling—and which, crucially, comes with step-by-step instructions for adding panels. A side-by-side Liebherr with two drawer-style freezer compartments at the bottom worked for Bill.

To create the relief effect typical of old iceboxes, Bill began by building face-frame panels from ¾" oak for each door or drawer. Then he built the doors and drawers using the same size stock for the stiles and rails, which he bolted onto the frame panels with screws, bolts, and hex nuts. He made the back panels for the drawers and doors from thin oak plywood
to reduce bulk and make them look more realistic.

ice box

An antique icebox (above), ca. 1900, served as inspiration.

Because many of the iceboxes he’d studied had rounded edges at the corners and on doors and drawers, Bill used a rounding bit to achieve the same effect. Continuing to add depth, he trimmed the top with a cornice and finished the bottom with sculpted feet. The sides have paneled details that are similar to period examples Bill and his wife, Jill Chase, discovered at swap meets and in old advertisements. Even when refrigerator doors and drawers are open, the neatly finished woodwork shows around the edges. 

modern toekicks, kitchen cabinets

Details like the lack of modern toekicks, exposed cabinet hinges, and the lower hanging height of upper cabinets help new cabinets read like vintage ones.

Adding Character to Cabinets

The precision of new cabinets may be mellowed by using one or more of these treatments or upgrades.

• Hand-brushed paint Brush marks show throughout the paint, producing a less
uniform appearance.

• Milk paint Hand-brushed but more labor-intensive than modern paints, milk paint yields a distinctive matte finish and colors that instantly read as “old.” Milk paint can also be burnished, so that some of the top color is sanded away to reveal an undercoat color.

• Distressed finish Beginning with either milk paint or stain, the surface is distressed by scratching, rubbing, or otherwise abrading to leave character marks and wear indicative of use over time.

• Waxing Usually applied by hand, a waxed finish allows the surface treatment (milk paint, stain, etc.) to continue to wear and develop patina, similar to a fine antique.

• Regional woods Choosing a wood that’s similar to woodwork in your house or common to your region (quarter-sawn oak, heart pine, Eastern white pine, Douglas fir, etc.) automatically helps new cabinetry blend in.

• Reclaimed wood Wood salvaged from old barns and factories often carries the hallmarks of history, from saw marks to worm holes, giving new cabinetry age and patina.

• Restoration glass Available in many variations (from light or full restoration to crown bullion), this mouth-blown glass offers the slight distortions and imperfections of glass made a century or more ago.

• Pattern glass From etched and frosted to chicken wire or crackle glass, find hundreds of styles to match any look or period, much of it handmade or mouth-blown.

• Visible hardware True-to-period hardware, whether a rat-tail iron hinge, a cast-brass latch, or a hand-formed wood knob, add character to even the simplest cabinet.

Parts of the Cabinet

Boxes Cabinet boxes are typically constructed with tops, bottoms, sides, backs, and occasionally a muntin between doors or single cabinets. The joints of the box can be butted, mitered, dadoed, or half-lapped together, with or without glue.

Face Frame The face of individual cabinet boxes. Traditional face frame cabinets are constructed with vertical stiles and rails that provide mounting support for doors and drawers.

Frameless The cabinet box is constructed without framing on the front; doors and drawers are mounted to the cabinet sides. It can look contemporary or traditional, as with raised-panel doors.

kitchen cabinets

Flush Doors and drawers are fitted into the face frame and are flush with it.

Setting the Standard

A kitchen cabinet setup from around 1910 consists of upper and lower cabinets built to standardized proportions. Lower cabinets stood about 36" high and were shallower than those of today, about 15" to 22" deep. They were often built in place with the wall serving as the cabinet back, especially if the wall was already finished with a beadboard surface. Upper cabinets were typically only about 12" deep. They hung lower over the counters: as little as 12", rather than the 18" or more typical of modern construction.

mortise-and-tenon diagram

Example of mortise-and-tenon design

Mortise-and-tenon construction is a hidden feature of good cabinetry that gives great longevity. Two common types:

• blind mortise (top)

• through-mortise with square pegs

early cabinet design

Example of an early cabinet design

An example of an early cabinet shows such traditional details as face-frame box construction, a face-framed, raised-panel door with pegged mortise-and-tenon construction, and dovetailed drawers.

traditional drawer joints

Example of traditional joints for drawers

Traditional joints for drawers (top to bottom)

• simple dado: the right angle cut permits room for glue and fasteners

• dado with lip: the lip is anchored in a stronger position than a plain dado

• dovetail: the oldest and strongest joint, with interlocking teeth

light stained wood finish

Clear or lightly stained finishes allow the beauty of the wood grain to show through.

A Better Finish

Finishes have come a long way since the days of shellac and oil varnish. Contemporary finishes are often sprayed and then heat-cured, which makes cabinet surfaces more durable and resistant to fingerprints. The insides of drawers and cabinets are typically given a melamine-resin finish, sometimes with an ultraviolet (UV) clear coat to prevent component materials from off-gassing volatile chemicals. While easy to clean and long-lasting, melamine finishes often have a telltale pebbly texture that doesn’t really fit the historical vibe.

Restoration cabinetmakers, naturally, offer more aesthetically pleasing alternatives that also meet modern standards for longevity and ecology. For its stained wood cabinets, for instance, Crown Point uses a catalyzed varnish that’s sprayed on, then rolled into a 130-degree oven and baked for 20 minutes. The process is then repeated for extra durability. For interiors, the maple plywood surfaces get a clear finish cured with UV light, as durable as a melamine resin.

Kennebec uses water-based stains and finishes that are extremely low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They also offer wax finishes; most are antiqued with several layers of hand-applied color. Interestingly, the company finishes almost every cabinet interior with paint: a low-VOC waterborne alkyd in a satin sheen.

There’s one exception: When the company makes custom trash bins, an exterior-grade composite material with a waterproof finish is now standard. “The wear on the [trash bin] finish was one of our most common warranty calls,” James Stewart says.