Wood kitchen cabinets in the 1950s and 1960s – “unitized” vs. “modular” construction

wood kitchen cabinets
If wood kitchen cabinets like Nancy's were built using "unitized" construction, they likely cannot be removed and re-arranged.

Over time, several readers have asked whether they can dis-assemble their mid-century wood kitchen cabinets, then re-assemble them in a different configuration. Well, the answer seems to be: Maybe, Maybe Not. Over on her blog, Kelly’s Kitchen Sync, Kelly Morisseau has a good explanation of “unitized” construction, which I am betting was used by a great many “merchant builders” with access to their own, local kitchen cabinet fabricators. If you have cabinets built this way, chances are you will not be able to remove and rearrange them successfully. Keep reading, though, because “modular” boxes were also available, you may have these. –>

What is “Unitized” construction? ‘A house of cards’

Kelly explains it also — and has a photo — but in short, ‘unitized’ means that everything is built as one complete to-size unit. There is a big long front — with all the pieces kind of attached behind it. If you start to dis-assemble one of these units, Kelly says, they may fall apart — kind of like a house of cards, I’d think. Kelly also says that banks of drawers were less common in this style of construction, because of the labor involved, I presume. I am guessing that local “merchant” builders used this type of cabinet because (1) they could have the cabinets made locally and take a mark-up on the sale (rather than giving the sale to a national cabinet-making company that sold and shipped modular boxes), (2) because this was a less expensive solution, and homeowners probably had no idea of the difference, and (3) because it was very easy, with this solution, to have odd-sized lengths or configurations made (although I am sure merchant builders avoided odd-sizes). Kelly points out that this style of construction was sold by “by the linear foot” — terminology that some people still refer to but which is, for all intents and purposes, apocryphal and irrelevant when buying kitchen cabinets today, which have too many gizmos and doodads involved.

Interestingly (to me, because I worked in the auto industry for 17 years), almost all cars are made using “unitized” construction today. It reduces weight. The old skool way is “framed” construction — still used on many if not most trucks, I believe. Frames add weight, and hurt fuel economy — hence, virtually the entire car industry has moved to unitized construction.

Modular construction — individual boxes


All this said, there were national kitchen cabinet companies making and selling modular units. The advertisement above is for Curtis Cabinets, from 1938. They sold many shapes and styles of modular kitchen units. Crikey, they must have been shipped using the Wells Fargo Wagon!

wood kitchen cabinets 1930s
Here are all the different modular units offered by Curtis in 1938

Thanks, Kelly, for the explanation!

  1. Dulcie says:

    My kitchen cabinets are built to fit my kitchen in more ways than one. While sitting on the (very sloped) kitchen floor one day discussing the option of jacking up the basement beams, we noticed that the floor had obviously been sloped for a long time. When they did the kitchen remodel sometime in the 1950’s, they cut the cabinet bases to fit along the sloped floor. If we leveled out the floor, our counters and cabinets are going to have about a 4 inch slope on them. We decided it’s easier to live with the uneven floors.

    I’m going to drill a hole in the northwest corner of the room and whenever the floor gets dirty, I’m just going to hose it down and the water will all run out the drain hole in the corner! :p

  2. Gavin Hastings says:

    One more version of “Unitized”

    Mrs Nicholson, a neighbor down the street-moved into her new home here in 1940.
    She says the the builder created the cupboards for each of the nine houses on our street …from scratch! His team built them all custom in the backyards of each home. Each kitchen layout is very unique.

    As the original owner; she specified the exact sizes and configuration she wanted!

  3. Cheryl Temple says:

    We have unitized cabinets which were painted white when we moved in. My husband stripped them to look just like the example picture of unitized cabinets above. And just a couple of weeks ago, we knocked down the wall behind the unitized cabinets. First my husband removed the cabinets, keeping as much of the structure intact as possible. Then he reassembled them on the opposite wall. It wasn’t easy, but we took pictures before he took them apart. He was able to do it, and they look great. So, it is possible!

  4. Jill says:

    I have these confounded cabinets. They were refaced with plastic “wood-grain” laminate in the 1970’s by the previous owners of my house. They were delaminating, with the veneers starting to fall off, and since I couldn’t afford a kitchen remodel, I decided to re-reface them myself. This project has taken me a long time, and of course at the time I bought the supplies, all that was available was “natural”, “harvest oak” and some dark wood…so I got the oak in a shaker-style, which I now loathe…but I’m stuck with it.

    The real issue is what to do about replacement drawers. The center slides would have to be knocked out but I’m not sure what we could do about putting new slides in. I hate, hate, hate these cabinets with a passion…but they are solid pine cabinets, and I’m not replacing them till I can replace them with something better than cheap particle board crap from Home Depot.

  5. Jayne Clowater says:

    Despite its good points, my 1959 ranch had too many too tiny rooms and not enough counter space. Last summer I decided to knock out the wall dividing the kitchen from the living room. Rather than destroy the knotty pine cabinets on that wall, I hired a good finish carpenter to move the china cabinet and others into a new configuration on another wall. Some new knotty pine, which I darkened carefully, was used to complete the new unit. Someone tells me that within 5 years it will be indistinguishable from the old pine. The old fake copper hinges and pulls were replaced with invisible hinges and concave chrome knobs–the cheapest Lowe’s had to offer. The results are very satisfying and period-appropriate. An island sits in the opening, finally offering enough counter space.

    1. Jessica Murphy says:

      Jayne you just gave me the answers I was looking for to my kitchen dilemma. I have a very large kitchen – it’s 10 by 16 feet and it’s all knotty pine – backless cabinets and the walls. It’s beautiful but I need more walls for appliances so I’m thinking of taking down the wall between the kitchen and living room. I also need more cabinets so I’ve been wondering how hard it would be to get new ones made to match. How did you darken your cabinets? thanks!

  6. Lisa says:

    I love this style of old cabinets. Stained or painted they are full of charm.

    We are currently remodeling our kitchen using modulars that we salvaged from a couple of other construction jobs we did. We were able to save the original upper built-ins (unitized) in our kitchen.

    It is a lot of work. Since the new cabinets came from two different homes, the location of hardware was different and minor delamination along with other repairs had to be made. I spent a great deal of time bondoing, sanding, cleaning, and repairing drawers before I could spray a new finish on them. The husband is still complaining about imperfections. He just doesn’t get it.

    Vintage is imperfect. It is not just the look because that can be replicated, It’s the personality of these originals manufactured 50 + years ago that grabs me.

  7. Liese says:

    Although this is an older post I’m hoping to get some help with our 1962 North Carolina ranch with original unitized cabinets, namely how to refurbish the drawers with bad center slides and it takes sitting on the floor to access the interiors of the cupboards. What are people doing about using their kitchens? With a room 11 1/2 feet wide new cabinets don’t line up with the plumbing and I hate to see the wood torn out.

  8. Jennifer says:

    I have the cabinets pictured above exactly. What type of wood are they do you think? I’m guessing mine are maple (1962) and in great condition. I’m a vintage sort of girl. Thx for cleaning, polishing info in posts.

    Trying to match new ceiling fans to the wood.


    1. pam kueber says:

      Hi Jennifer, I am not good at identifying wood species… And on cleaning and polishing, I am also not an expert; sometimes readers will offer suggestions or share their experience — but you should do your own research.

  9. Vicky Miller says:

    I am looking for this kind of kitchen cabinets for my mid century kitchen! they were made of birch I think. and just varnished – not stained. Had a rounded corner not straight edge. Any ideas where I can find them. Some even had a shelf that pulled out and up that had the mixer bolted to it!!

    Thanks for the info

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