Tuesday, June 23, 2015

SEKTION Ultimate Review* - AND - how to make it look like a million bucks.

[WARNING] this post is very long, very technical, and could be very boring. Enjoy it.

Cleo from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, writes - 

'Hi. I just finished reading your review on Ikea's new kitchen cabinetry and wonder why you think it's value for the money. I'm in the process of designing my "retirement" home and having lived in our current home for over 20+ years, well I got sticker shock when the builder told me how much it was going to cost for custom cabinetry for my kitchen, never mind the ensuite. From what I've read on Ikea's website the Sektion cabinetry is just particleboard, fiberboard and melamine foil. Doesn't sound like quality to me. What am I missing in that you think it's such good value? Please enlighten me.'

What an excellent question!  This post was long time coming. Virtually everyone I talked to, who is considering renovating their kitchens, has at some point considered an IKEA kitchen. Most people hesitate as they cannot believe that IKEA kitchens are so cheap - read 'affordable' - but I use the word on purpose. Yea, they are really affordable. And then I hear about people buying their kitchens from Home Depot - and I am like why would they do that? IKEA makes best kitchens. They are quality kitchens. They offer an incredibly friendly self-install system. If you read around - like my blog - you can find out so much to improve on that system and open great design flexibility.

This is going to be a long post, because such is required to answer Cleo’s question. Some of it is going to get perhaps a bit philosophical - but you know what, I think a lot about the work that I do. I think a lot about the field of design and how I would like to contribute to it - it is high on my priority list. My entire business model hinges around a very successful, very ethical corporation - a corporate goodnik - those are rare - I have no qualms supporting them. Just like IKEA is smart with all that they do - they are light years ahead of everyone - they force me to keep up with them - that constant chase, or a voyage of discovery, is quite enjoyable. Every time I pick up a product that I thought I knew well, I discover that IKEA made small changes to it - improved it. So you can imagine that how shaken up the woodworking/design/renovation sectors were when the SEKTION was announced. The good old AKURUMs were already a best-seller - 7.7 million kitchens that will need refacing one day? Who is going to make those doors? - and first choice for the do-it yourselfer renovator. I am certain that IKEA invested tons of money into designing this line - SEKTION is a well designed, well made kitchen system that offers incredible design flexibility and very cost effective productivity features.

This is also the post that you should read if you want to solidly make up your mind that IKEA kitchen is not the right match for you. Yep, you will learn everything that you need to know to learn how much there is to kitchen design, and maybe make a decision that you want a lot more. 

QUALITY - The greatest Snake Oil that is sold by cabinet shops is that IKEA kitchens are poor quality.

This is a picture that I took in my shop. It illustrates virtually all major [and one obscure] types of sheet good materials that are used in cabinet construction - all those sheets exhibit specific properties that make them more attractive for specific applications. As far as I know every cabinet shop, regardless of how low-end [‘Fly-By-Night' Cabinetry] or high-end [Herman Miller, Nienkamper] use those sheets. All sheet good materials have 2 parts - the core and the decorative part. When woodworkers, designers, snake oil salesman talk about ‘melamine’, ‘maple or walnut sheets’, ‘zebrano or wenge sheets’, ‘thermofoil finish’, etc., they talk about the decorative part of the sheet good - what’s on the surface. 

Particlecore is essentially finely milled wood chips, tiny wood flakes - I am certain that there are some hard manufacturing numbers/specs on the sizing of those wood flakes, but to me more important is how it cuts, for example - mixed in with resin glue, spread into flat sheets, cured/dried and cut to size. Depending on the glue used you can have the same sheets made into exterior grade - cost effective vs. solid wood - on decorative painted elements.  Virtually every aspect of its production can be controlled - uniformity, density, thickness, size - the sheets are made to order for industries. This is an example of 3/4" sheet thick, 4x10 particle core sheets - this is our sheet-good rack - I confess to having strong architectural feelings for it - it's practical size, the right strength and cost effectiveness that make the particle core work in this project This is an old photo, it looks even better now that we put on some trim on it. 

It is dimensionally very stable and it is my first choice when building large surfaces - it will take adhesives, nails and screws very well - always pre-drill for screws. All these characteristics make it ideal as the 'anchor of the industry' - it is everywhere - everyone is using it - from the cheapest Chinese imports, to the Swedish Wonder - IKEA; to the industry captains - Nienkamper. You cannot get away from particle core, and I believe that anyone who is trying to convince you away from it is trying to profit from your lack of knowledge.

Melamine is what happens when particlecore is covered in a thin, plastic, hard finish. When I look closely at a melamine finish I can see 'banding' - it's a spray pattern that is produced  by the mechanical spray arm - but that is only because I've been a 'chief gunner' [aka. 'chief finisher'] in my past life. Melamine can be designer too. It is manufactured in variety of colours - whites, off-whites, at least 50 shades of grey, and funky colours. It comes in variety of patterns as well - mostly mimicking wood grain, in any colour - hundreds of choices. Here is the harsh reality though - the interiors of the boxes are not often seen, or exposed for that matter - especially in kitchens - so I would argue that unless you are designer aficionado who likes his/hers kitchen box in cool grey or smokin' hot red [interior red goes well with flat-sawn teak doors... I've done that combination....just sayin'...] it's perfectly reasonable to settle for a white box - it looks clean. 

Look - this is a cross section of a SEKTION gable - 

It's nice density throughout, 3/4" thick. The melamine is very smooth and it's got nice edging - the edging is better than I would say your typical PVC edging, nicely beveled and buffed - definitely a clean operation.  IKEA must have their own facility where they produce the white melamine sheets - I have not seen melamine sheets that smooth [and by smooth, I mean 'smooth to me' - I've handled countless melamine sheets - melamine is a sprayed on plastic finish that is then cured - the IKEA melamine has a 'smaller flake', that's how I would describe it]. IKEA SEKTION boxes come in two [2] colours - white and dark - the dark mimics wood grain. 

The choice of only 2 SEKTION box colours is the first thing that I hear people grumbling about - and one of the 'snake oil reasons' cited by professionals who claim the quality of the product - more colour choice - especially the 'light maple look'. And I agree - there are only two interior colour choices to pick from. 

So the first question you should ask your Snake Oil salesman - are the boxes particlecore melamine - feel free to show them my picture to jog their memory.

However: I was scouting 'the enemy' once, and the designer told me that they use 'marine grade plywood' for their cabinetry boxes, and he showed me a sample - which it was not - it was regular poplar ply with mahogany veneer. Now, dear reader, I was once a foolish young rebelious man and wanted to build a wooden sailboat that I was going to sail around the world - I bought tons-of-expensive marine grade plywood - because that is what you use for building wooden sailboats [I know, there are many ways to build a wooden sailboat]. Marine grade plywood is a regulated wooden product that is manufactured to very stringent specs - I believe is is an organization called LLoyds of London [Great Britain, London -  not London, Ontario, Canada] that puts their stamps on true 'marine grade plywood' - and unless you are building a wooden sailboat -  no one uses it - it is just too expensive. 

The closest you can come to marine grade plywood is called Baltic Birch plywood. Look - that is a 5/8" sheet - This is 'B' from my first post. 

Out of nostalgia I use it for building drawers on closets. It is very nice hardwood plywood - birch. It is very strong. The number of laminations - layers - ensure that it remains fairly stable - warps very little - but it does warp. And this is the number one reason why not use plywood in box constructions - don't use it for large surfaces. Yes, lacquered birch looks very nice and clean and high-end - but it warps and you don't want that 'warpage' to start affecting your doors and drawers - that's why things 'rub' or are 'sticky'. The only acceptable place to use plywood in cabinet construction is for stretchers [I will get into the box construction later in this entry] - small, structural elements.

Now occasionally I do use plywood in constructing boxes - however it is never a decision I take lightly, I think about which way it is likely to warp and what other elements the warping may affect and I compensate for the anticipated warpage. Always.  

Most often I use Baltic Birch plywood in construction of drawers - I use 1/2" or 5/8" for sides and 1/4" for bottoms. This is an example of how I always build my drawers - my professor showed it me - all the parts of the drawer - sides and slide-in bottom contribute to the rigidity of the box - it is also super easy to finish. I consider Baltic Birch drawers as sort of 'classics'. If you want a nice drawer than there is nothing wrong with having it made out of Baltic Birch

IKEA drawers are made by BLUM, in Austria. Here - 

BLUM sets the standard when it comes to hardware, they make their stuff in Austria - enough said. IKEA being BLUM's largest customer is able to negotiate awesome deals on their hardware. Remember people, hardware - inner fittings - 'the guts' - is what makes your kitchen functional. Large, deep pantries are useless when dry goods expire without being used, buried deep behind piles and piles of other things, because you can't quite get to the back end of your pantry...

Drawers are another favourite of Snake Oil salesman - it's my favourite when they open the drawers to flash that iconic dovetail joint, clearly visible on the side of the drawer box. People melt thinking that there was a craftsperson who spent hours cutting those lovingly, by hand, while standing at a massive workbench. I've done dovetails joints - several times in my career - they are very difficult - you first have to lay them out so they look nice and you have to be super accurate - all sorts of things about dovetail joints, they write books about them - I would say that's the best way to educate yourself about that type of joinery. I can't make a living cutting dovetail joints - very few people can. So you can imagine the conflict that I experience when I see kitchens filled with dovetailed drawers - and heralded as 'the pinnacle of craftsmanship'. I agree, the dovetail joint is an excellent joint, it is visually beautiful and requires skill and expertise to execute. But kitchens? Well, I would say that there is a bit of a 'mislead' there....Look - 

We live in the age of mass production - being efficient is necessary to stay competitive and thrive - that's what IKEA is doing, they are being efficient. That skid is filled with a custom order for dovetailed drawers. 

Essentially, kitchen cabinet places figured out that people really link dovetail drawers with quality. There was a demand for large number of dovetail drawers - which are very labour intensive - and a solution was created. There are woodworking companies - and we are talking about fully automated CNC production - that only make thousands of dovetailed drawers to order. They buy solid maple by the truckloads. They will not make you one or two, but they will make you 40 or a 100 - and send you skid like that. Nothing wrong with that - those are well made, Canadian, white hard maple solid drawers - they retail for anywhere between $40 to a $100, depending on the size - fully finished! That, in my opinion, is an awesome deal! Add to that a set of quality Blum slides with soft close and you got yourself an amazing drawer - not the cheapest - but now you can charge an arm-and-a-leg for that bank of drawers, while telling your client that IKEA drawer boxes are 'cheap' at $60 or $80 dollars [and that price includes quality slides /w softlcose!]. Be honest people!

NEXT Update - 'The tale of two kitchens'.....Boffi and IKEA! This is a true story. 

It was a dark and stormy night, the sea was angry my friends... I was young and beautiful and we were installing a beautiful piece of millwork - zebrawood media unit - slip matched veneers on particlecore - very large. I was fresh out of design school, a bit naive, a bit ignorant. It was a large, freshly gutted house owned by two lawyers - they spared on nothing. The floors, I remember were rift-sawn wenge - to showcase that black beautiful pinstripe. There was another TV on the main floor that had a sliding slip matched ebony veneer door covering it.  This one** - this was custom lay-up, slip matched ebony on a torsion box. We were very concerned that it laminate properly so it does not warp. 

The main floor - showcase - had a Boffi kitchen installed. Downstairs, in the basement - very nice basement - there was going to be a another kitchen installed - the real kitchen where the meals would be cooked by the housekeeper [or whomever] - an IKEA kitchen. Both kitchens were white and high-gloss. Both kitchens were all slab doors and the boxes were full of great organizers and hardware. And, I, in my ignorant ways, did not realize that they were two different kitchens! To my inexperienced, fresh out of school eye - it was all the same - white, high gloss slabs, yea, they had drawers....

But that is precisely the point! - to an untrained eye, that was not particularly into kitchens at that singularity in time - I did not spot the difference! 

I can spot the difference now - I know exactly what the manufacturing differences are, as well as I can appreciate the design features of different manufacturers. 

To be continued...

*What a click-bait title. Shameful.

**hey! if you are curious as to my previous life - visit this awkward blog - it's a proof that nothing on the internet dies - it's my 'the old man  & de stijl ' blog....

I worked then with Derek McLeod - it was so much fun, great work dynamic at Builtwork Design. People this is humour - I am chuckling just thinking about it - we were such silly hipsters - dressing accordingly. I remember on that job, there was another crew installing also some really fancy stuff and we were both 'competing for the hipster awards'. Listen, we were so hip that we would travel to job sites with our own espresso machine! No drinking out of paper, portable, enviro-cups for us - scoff!! - we only did these silly small stainless steel espresso cups...I can't stop chuckling, we were so silly! Silly young man! Cut your hair, be more serious!

Remember - at the end of this post I will show you how to design a kitchen that looks like a 'million dollars' and is still based on the IKEA's SEKTION box. Thanks Cleo!