What’s the Difference Between Architectural Woodwork and Casework?

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For interior architectural woodworkers, recognizing and understanding the wide range of woodworking terminology soon becomes second nature. But for the architects, general contractors, and new recruits who work with them, it can be tough to discern the difference between certain terms.

Take cabinetry, for example. To refer to this as either interior architectural woodwork or as casework would be correct. The same is true for bookcases or cupboards. So why are shelves, paneling, and trim considered woodwork, but not casework?

To make sure you and the woodworking firms you partner with truly understand each other, you need to use the same language. That means it’s vital to explore the difference between architectural woodwork and casework, including how they relate to compliance standards.

What is architectural woodwork?

The term “architectural woodwork” is perhaps one of the broadest in the woodworking industry. It refers to almost any wood products built into or attached to a building. Architectural woodwork can be prefabricated or custom made, simple or ornate, found in residential or commercial buildings, and installed in interior or exterior areas.

Examples of architectural woodwork include:

  • Doors
  • Paneling
  • Trim
  • Shelving
  • Moldings
  • Staircases
  • Ceilings
  • And, as it happens, casework

What is architectural casework?

Architectural casework is one specific group of products that falls under the umbrella of architectural woodwork. It specifically refers to wood or boxes used for storage. This includes:

  • Cabinetry
  • Cupboards
  • Drawers
  • Bookcases

Just like architectural woodwork, casework has a range of uses and characteristics. However, since it generally carries a simple geometric shape regardless of aesthetic flourishes, it can be much easier to install and remove. Similarly, the fact that casework is common to almost all buildings means much of it is mass produced with a relatively low price point.

Meeting compliance standards with architectural woodwork and casework

Once the difference between architectural woodwork and casework has been clearly laid out, it’s easy to see when it’s appropriate to use each term. But when it comes to meeting compliance standards, things get a bit more complex.

Compliance standards for architectural woodwork

While meeting compliance standards isn’t a legal obligation, most clients are unlikely to accept architectural woodwork products that fail to do so. So, woodworkers typically use AWI Standards as a definitive reference manual for ensuring industry best practices for fabrication, finishing, and installation.

There are 12 standards covering all aspects of architectural woodworking. These include everything from processes like submittals and finishing, to materials used, to specific products like countertops and casework. Each standard goes into great detail regarding purpose, scope, requirements, and more to provide clear instructions for meeting compliance and exceeding client expectations.

Compliance standards for architectural casework

As a single part of architectural woodwork, casework standards can be found within ANSI/AWI 0641 – Architectural Wood Casework. This Standard includes information on the parts and materials necessary for compliant casework, as well as finishing requirements for the different types of surface.

What sets casework apart, however, is that the compliance standards are divided into two categories. These are structural performance and aesthetics.

Structural performance refers to the stability and safety of the joining method used in a particular casework piece. Casework can be tested against one of four Duty Levels:

  • Duty Level 1: for casework with light commercial applications
  • Duty Level 2: for casework with regular commercial applications
  • Duty Level 3: for casework with institutional applications (this is the default performance standard)
  • Duty Level 4: for casework with laboratory applications (this is the highest level of performance standard)

When a woodworker submits their casework for Duty Level testing, they specify their desired testing level in their shop drawings. If the piece passes testing, it’s awarded the Duty Level. If it fails, the woodworker must either make adjustments to bring their casework up to par, or resubmit it for testing against a different level. This formalized testing system gives clients confidence that a casework piece has sufficient structural integrity, and will perform as intended.

The second aspect of casework standards is aesthetics, or the visual appearance of casework following installation. 

Casework can fall into one of three aesthetics categories:

  • Economy grade: defines the minimum degree of control over materials, workmanship, and manufacture. As the most basic grade of aesthetics, economy grade casework is usually used in utility or back room areas. Here, visual aspects like matching colors or smooth grains are less important. (Please note that AWI’s Quality Certification Program doesn’t certify projects that use economy grade casework.)
  • Custom grade: defines a high degree of control over materials, workmanship, and manufacture. While this grade allows for some leeway materials quality, it still ensures excellence in materials and installation. Custom grade casework is generally found in public areas with lower visibility, or in large projects where minimizing costs is a concern, such as in classrooms.
  • Premium grade: defines the highest degree of control over materials, workmanship, and manufacture. Any premium grade casework demonstrates the highest quality of materials. It’s typically used for highly visible exposed surfaces in public areas, such as lobbies or courtrooms.

Ensure compliance in architectural woodwork and casework with AWI Standards

Not all woodwork and casework projects have to meet the highest standards. After all, a small drawer in a broom closet is unlikely to need premium materials or to be suitable for laboratory applications. But this variation in quality requirements means accessing and understanding woodwork and casework standards is vital for communicating your project specifications.

Visit our AWI Standards Overview today, and make sure you’re prepared to discuss the standards your woodworking project should meet.


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