See also: Strong Home Sales Keeps Cabinet Industry Steady

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What Happened to the Frameless Revolution?

Frameless cabinetry fills a significant niche in the U.S., but consumer attitudes and design advancements have prevented it from dominating.

By Greg Landgraf

Twenty years ago, frameless cabinets were the Next Big Thing, the wave of the future that would eventually eclipse face-frame construction.

For the most part, frameless cabinets have done so in Europe, and even Canada. But in the United States, “It hasn’t really taken off the way it was predicted to,” says Dick Titus, executive vice president of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Assn. While frameless cabinetry is a significant niche, Titus adds, there is little threat that it will win even a majority of the U.S. market from face-frame cabinets.

“I think a good part of the reason is the existing support and infrastructure,” Titus says. “Employees were trained to build and install framed cabinets, and training to install frameless properly took longer than expected.”

According to survey participants, while frameless cabinets are still gaining market share, they are doing so at a snail’s pace. Among the 38 survey participants who manufacture both framed and frameless cabinets, 11 say they had seen relative demand for frameless cabinets was growing, while 4 say their face-frame cabinets were regaining popularity.

Not What You Make, But Where It Goes

Regional tastes are part of the reason. John Horton, senior vice president and CFO of Omega Holdings Inc. of Waterloo, IA, says his company has seen roughly equal growth rates for framed and frameless cabinetry, but that demand for frameless cabinetry is “Really on the coasts — if it’s near water, we do pretty well.”

For Custom Wood Products of Eureka, IL, production shifted from all framed cabinets to 60% frameless when it changed its distribution from Midwest retailers to a dealer base with work in coastal areas. “The Midwest is always the last to adopt anything new,” says President Mitch Fowler.

Larry Doyle, general manager of Valley Casework Inc. of El Cajon, CA, says his company has seen stronger interest in frameless cabinetry. Valley sells to home builders in the southern California market. “It seems like the developers are looking for something to set their homes apart,” Doyle says. “As we move into higher-end homes we see more interest in the European-style cabinets.”

Valley Casework currently manufactures about 25 percent frameless cabinets.

About one-third of Omega’s cabinet sales are frameless; its Kitchen Craft division in Canada manufactures all frameless cabinetry, while its Omega Cabinets and HomeCrest Cabinetry divisions use face-frame construction.

Horton notes that about a third of Kitchen Craft’s U.S. sales are in Florida and California. “In Florida, frameless cabinetry is not an issue. In the center of the country, it is. You need dealers committed to the product,” he says.

Can You Even Tell Anymore?

Which is framed, which is frameless? Some cabinetmakers blur the lines between the two types of construction, making the frameless domination predicted two decades ago unnecessary. Both cabinets pictured were made by Wood-Mode Inc. of Kreamer, PA. On the left is the frameless Brookhaven I; on the right, the framed Brookhaven II.  

It could be the best of both worlds: the ability to duplicate the appearance of framed cabinets without shifting production methods. Eric Decarlo, general manager of Eastland Industries of Minto, NB, says the adoption of concealed hinges for cabinet doors has stunted frameless cabinetry’s growth by minimizing the issue. “It’s given the framed cabinets a cleaner look,” he says. “The cleaner appearance of frameless cabinets has been somewhat overcome.”

Eastland sells in Eastern Canada and the Northeastern U.S. Dicarlo says that about 20 percent of the company’s production is frameless cabinets, but that face-frame cabinetry seems to be getting more popular.

Other companies see the similarity of appearance driving the market the other way. Rand Moeller, president of Sweetheart Cabinetmakers of Rohnert Park, CA, says his company introduced a frameless product because frameless cabinets were cutting into its niche. ”We had a high-end inset look, but we were losing some people to [similar-looking] frameless cabinets and their lower price point,” Moeller says.

Sweetheart’s frameless production is now about 40% and growing. “It has shorter lead times, and is easier to build and use automation for while still maintaining quality,” Moeller says.

Fowler notes that Custom Wood Products will do hybrid cabinets, combining features of framed and frameless construction to create the look the customer wants.

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