Methods for building and assembling cabinets will vary based on manufacturer and the level of quality you pay for. There’s no need to become a master carpenter to be an informed cabinet buyer but there are some terms and construction techniques that you’ll probably encounter, even if it’s just browsing a cabinet maker’s brochure or website.
The important thing to take home on this subject is that there is a relationship between the type of construction and the cabinet’s level of quality and durability.
The following terms describe some common methods of wood cabinet “joinery” (‘joinery’ just being the trade term for how the various wood parts are joined together):
Dovetail joints – this is a strong method of joining two boards together at right angles, such as with drawer boxes. The ends of two boards or panels are notched with v-shaped cutouts that mesh with corresponding notches on the adjoining panel. If they’re tight, these types of joints are considered very solid.
Mortise and tenon – another form of joinery, this method uses a square “post” protruding from one end of a piece of wood that fits into a square hole or cutout in the mating piece. This type of joinery might be used to fasten the pieces of a cabinet’s face frame together
Dado – this is a groove that’s cut into a board or panel that the edge of another board/panel can fit into. A good example is the sides and back of a cabinet drawer that are dadoed to accept the edges of the drawer bottom. It’s a stronger way to ‘capture’ the drawer bottom than just gluing or nailing the drawer bottom edges to the side panels
Rabbet – this is not the kind that Elmer Fudd chases but rather, a notch or step that’s cut into the edge of a board to accept the edge of another board to form a 90-degree angle. It’s similar to a dada cut except one side is left “open”.
Doweled joint – this joinery technique uses round wood dowels (pegs) that are pressed and/or glued half way into holes drilled into one piece of wood. The protruding part of the dowel is then fit into holes drilled into the mating piece of wood. This method is another way to join the sides of drawers or cabinet boxes together.
Butt joint – on a butt joint, the ends of two pieces of material are brought or “butted” together, edge to edge. Some form of mechanical retention like nails, screws or glue is needed to hold this joint together.
Nails, screws, staples, glue – while these aren’t classified as true wood ‘joinery’ techniques, they’re included because they’re also used in a lot of cabinet assemblies. They either reinforce the wood joinery techniques or they’re used alone which makes for less-sturdy construction.
The bottom line on cabinet construction methods is that good joinery techniques where the parts ‘lock’ together or where one piece is captured in the other makes for the strongest joints. Supplemental fastening methods on these joints (such as a mortise and tenon joint plus screws) makes an even stronger connection. Stronger joints equate to more durable cabinets.