Cabinets 101

Choosing Kitchen Cabinets
Where To Start And What To Know

Choosing kitchen cabinets is one of the more involved decisions you'll make for your kitchen, but it doesn't have to be that difficult. There's a sort of 'technical nature' associated with choosing cabinetry because it involves more than just picking door styles and stain color.

Because cabinets generally consume about half of the typical kitchen budget you'll want to be sure you know what you're getting for your money. To do that it makes sense to understand the differences in cabinet construction and materials and how those elements impact their quality and durability.

But don't fret! We hope to demystify the process for you so that there's still some fun in choosing your new kitchen cabinets.

Choosing Kitchen Cabinets - Where Do I Begin?

The following questions are aimed at clarifying your goals for how you want your kitchen to look and function so that you'll ultimately be satisfied with the end result. Here are some things to consider

What don't you like about your current kitchen cabinets?

Pin down exactly what it is you dislike about your current cabinet situation so that you'll be specific when looking for solutions in your new cabinets.

Do you not have enough space or maybe it's poorly allocated space (like the 3-ft deep upper cabinet that you can only reach the first 12 inches of)? Maybe your current kitchen cabinets are just the wrong style or perhaps they don't have good organizational features.

The more specific you can be about what it is you want to have or change, the more focused you'll be about targeting the right options from the myriad that are available with new kitchen cabinets

How long do you plan on staying in the home - are you updating for the purpose of reselling or do you plan on staying long term?

The answer to this question may determine the price you're willing to pay as well as the level of customization and uniqueness and the quality of construction you want to build in. If you plan to stay in your current home indefinitely, you may want to spend more of your budget on durable construction and materials. On the other hand, if you're a real estate investor interested in house flipping for a quick resale, you may want to limit your investment to a functional but more cost-effective cabinet style and construction.

What is the style of your home and your kitchen?

Your existing decor and style of home plays a role in the type of cabinetry to choose. The converse is also true too
-- the style of cabinets you choose will influence the look and style of your kitchen.

Do you want to stay with the existing style or are you looking to change it? Period cabinets are appropriate for
classic antique homes where retaining the style of that era is desired. Updated European style cabinets work well in
a contemporary kitchen.

Regardless of which way you go, identifying the style you're looking for will help narrow the focus on cabinet
choices and also provide some guidance to kitchen designers or cabinets makers you might work with.

Are you looking for environmentally friendly cabinet choices?

Your cabinet choices can be green too, with options like bamboo, reclaimed wood or wheat board. As the green movement continues to grow so do the choices for home products, including cabinetry. Sources for bamboo cabinets and other renewable and sustainable cabinet materials are also growing with the demand, making it easier to find and purchase these types of cabinets.

Do you need cabinets for an outdoor kitchen?

Yes, there are cabinets for outdoor kitchens too. Because of their outside location you'll need to look at outdoor cabinet sources however. Although they serve the same purpose as their indoor counterparts outdoor kitchen cabinets need to be made from materials that can stand up to the elements.

What amount of storage space do you need? Is it greater than what you currently have?

Look at what you currently have on your countertops or in other places that you'd like to have storage space for inside the cabinets. Knowing how much "stuff" you need space for in your cabinets will help you get an understanding of the amount of cabinet space you'll need. Remember that the fewer items you permanently 'store' on your countertops (like a cake mixer) the more working space you'll have.

What is most important to you - aesthetic appeal or durability and quality construction?

Let's face it; all of the advertisements and magazine articles we see depicting kitchen cabinets are usually high-end, expensive designs with lots of up-charge options. Achieving your dream kitchen is a worthy goal but be realistic. When there's a limited budget it may not be possible to afford high quality materials and construction as well as exotic woods and finishes. Be wise about allocating your money between quality materials/construction and aesthetic items like door styles, finishes and ornamentation. Usually there's a happy medium somewhere in between.

Do you really need completely new cabinets or will a face-lift suffice?

If your current cabinets are in good condition, you don't need or want to change the current layout of your kitchen, and your not changing your counter top, then perhaps all you need is a refreshment of the current style.

Replacement cabinet doors and new cabinet hinges (Refacing) are available to provide a new look and style to your existing cabinets at a fraction of the cost of new cabinets.  This is a great option if you are not changing your counter top. If you are looking to change your counter top, we recommend getting quotes for Refacing as well as new cabinetry.  Most homeowners, who have gotten comparative quotes, have found it cost just as much, if not more, to Reface cabinetry versus new cabinetry. The overall cost savings is if the counter tops are not being changed out.

Replacing the cabinet knobs and pulls with new ones is another way to change the look of existing cabinets.

What Do I Need To Know?

You don't need to be a kitchen designer or a cabinet maker for that matter to be an informed cabinet buyer. But there are a few things you should know to be a more informed cabinet shopper.

Listed below are some important elements that you should become more familiar with --

•        Terminology
•        Stock / Semi-Custom / Custom
•        Construction and Quality
•        Different Ways to Buy

Cabinet Terminology

When shopping for kitchen cabinets it helps to acquaint yourself with the terminology. There's no need to make this a boring homework assignment but if you know a little bit about the language, it helps when doing your research or when talking with kitchen designers or cabinet makers.

Skim over our cabinet glossary page to get familiar with the typical terms (or when you're having trouble sleeping) and then amaze your friends with your command of cabinet-speak.

Stock, Semi-Custom and Custom Cabinets

Another part of kitchen cabinetry that tends to get misunderstood involves the terms stock, semi-custom and
custom. Contrary to what many people think, these terms are not related to the quality of cabinets but rather, how
they're manufactured. Here are the basic definitions:

•        Stock - Stock kitchen cabinets are pre-manufactured in specific sizes, typically 3" increments, with few if any options for "customization" other than some limited choices the manufacturer might offer. They are off-the-shelf products in a limited range of styles.

•        Semi-Custom - Semi-custom cabinets are like stock in that they're also pre-manufactured but come with a wider array of options and sizes than pure stock cabinets. With semi-custom you have some ability to pick and choose various details to tailor an otherwise pre-built stock cabinet. In other words, you have some 'customization' choices.

•        Custom - Custom cabinets are built to the customer's specifications, with no limitation on size, style choices, wood grade or finish. They are truly made-to-order. They may be fancy or they may be plain but the difference is that they're made to suit your specific design requirements, in whatever size, form, color and material you can get someone to produce for you.

If these definitions still don't clear things up for you, consider the following analogy:

Stock cabinets are like the car you buy right off the dealer's lot. You have to take it for what it is, with no ability to choose any options or upgrades.

Semi-custom cabinets are similar to the car that you factory-order through the dealer, with the ability to specify color, upholstery and other options. It's still a Ford or Chrysler and it's mass-produced, but you have a list of options to choose from and have some say in the makeup of the final product.

Custom cabinets are analogous to walking into the dealership and having them build a completely new car for you, per your design, from the ground up, with no boundaries whatsoever. And it doesn't have to look anything like a Ford or Chrysler.

If there's anything to take away from this discussion on stock/semi-custom/custom, remember that we're talking about how the cabinets are manufactured and not about quality or decorative style. Custom cabinets don't necessarily imply quality cabinets. Hand-built, made-to-order cabinets can still be poorly constructed. Conversely stock cabinets that are produced in mass quantities and limited sizes can also be manufactured with solid construction and quality materials.

Construction And Quality

The overall quality of kitchen cabinets is closely linked to their construction, meaning how they're put together and
the materials they're made from. You'll be wise to pay close attention to these key features, particularly if you
expect to live with your cabinets for a long time. Kitchen cabinets, particularly the drawers, take a lot of punishment
so paying for some durability is a wise investment.

Key points to be aware of include the following:

•        Materials - they include particle board, MDF (medium density fiberboard), plywood, solid wood, metal and laminate/melamine (the laminate or melamine is laid over the particle board or similar substrate).

•        Construction and Design - kitchen cabinets are constructed in one of two different design styles -- framed or frameless.

Framed cabinets employ a wood frame that outlines the front of the cabinet box.
Frameless cabinets do not have this feature. Also, the joinery and techniques used to assemble and support kitchen cabinets vary. Structural braces are made from plastic, wood or metal. Methods of joinery include hot-glue, staples and nails, or, more intricate woodworking techniques like dovetails and dadoes.

•        Hardware - drawer slides vary in level of quality (some use ball bearings whereas others use nylon wheels/rollers) and physical location on the drawer (sidemount or on the bottom) which affects available drawer space. Shelf mounting brackets can be either plastic or metal.

So Many Cabinet Brands - What's Different About Them?

There are literally hundreds of cabinet producers and probably thousands when you include all the local and small - business cabinet makers. While there is skill and craftsmanship necessary to produce quality results, making quality cabinets doesn't necessarily require highly complex machinery or factory conditions. In other words, you may find a talented carpenter or local cabinetmaker with the ability to produce fine cabinetry.

Given the number of cabinet producers, you're probably asking what the differences are, if any, among them all. In reality, the differences are really found in the same general categories that make them similar. It's back to the car analogy again: the auto manufacturers all make vehicles that do the same job; they're just variations on a theme.

How They're Similar

•        Materials - Cabinets are made from a finite range of materials and finishes so unless someone is making cabinets out of bricks, most if not all will use similar materials (predominantly wood and wood-based products, melamine, laminate and some metals).

•        Construction Style - Cabinets fall into two style categories - framed and frameless. Regardless of which manufacturer you choose, they'll produce either one or both of these styles.

•        Options - Just like with cars, cabinet makers offer a varied array of options and price points.

How They're Different

•        Stock / Semi-custom / Custom - How the cabinets are produced will vary among the manufacturers with some offering only custom pieces and others providing only stock or a combination of manufacturing

•        Quality - Not all manufacturers are created equal; there are those that offer more premium products in the way of materials, construction and options. Some manufacturers offer several product lines with graduated levels of what would be considered quality features (such as better materials and finishes).

•        Access to Market - some cabinet makes are available through big-box home retailers while others are through select dealers or designers. Other cabinet lines are available through the internet with direct delivery to your door. Smaller local cabinet makers may sell directly from their shop.

So what's the bottom line when it comes down to sorting through all the various cabinet makers? There's no right or wrong way to narrow down to a short list of candidates but here are some suggestions:

•        Start by saving some ads from magazines on various manufacturers that appeal to you. Using the internet is a good way to find out more about them since most brands provide fairly good information on product lines, materials and construction. Most manufacturer websites will also tell you where you can find their products.

•        Next, go out and look at some actual product. Even if the brands you like aren't available locally, still get out and view some cabinets. You can do this by visiting any home-improvement retailer or by visiting some kitchen design firms. This way you'll actually see the differences in methods of construction and quality.

•        Finally, narrow your field of brand/cabinet maker options based on your research and then focus on obtaining cost quotes for the cabinets and installation for comparison purposes

What Should I Know About Cabinet Warranties?

Virtually all kitchen cabinet makers offer a warranty with their product. If they don't, that should be a red flag. Cabinets are not a cheap expenditure and they get a lot of use so regardless of where you buy them, make sure you understand the warranty.

The warranties offered by cabinet manufacturers vary with regard to what's covered, the duration of the warranty
and the manufacturer. A good rule of thumb is that cabinet makers who build quality products are not afraid to
stand behind them with a solid warranty. The key points to consider are as follows:

•        Duration - How long is the product warranted? What you'll find here are different levels or tiers of cabinet warranty coverage, depending on the manufacturer. Typical durations are 1 year, 5 years or lifetime coverage.

Be aware of what the manufacturer considers "lifetime"; some warranties state that a kitchen cabinet's lifetime is considered to be 10 years. This may or may not be a long time depending on your perspective and how long you plan on staying in the same house or with the same style of kitchen.

Some manufacturers also vary the warranty coverage within their product lines. Lower-end product lines have the shortest or most limited warranty whereas the high-end line enjoys the longest warranty period.

Editor’s Comment

Personally, I think 10 years is on the low side of any range of cabinet life. I say this because I have cabinets in my home that are original to when the house was built in 1965 -- that's over 40 years. The drawer slides and fronts have worn out but the cabinet boxes, frames, shelves, doors and hinges are still solid.

If a kitchen cabinet manufacturer believes their product's working life is only 10 years, I am inclined to doubt the quality of that product. Call me old-fashioned but I think cabinets that are well made should last longer than 10 years under normal use.

•        Coverage - Find out specifically what's covered and what's not. Most if not all warranties will cover defects in workmanship and materials. They usually won't cover any damage that's inflicted once the cabinets are in place or the result of improper use or care. Some manufacturers also won't cover parts that do not have a finish (i.e. bare wood).

Some makers of kitchen cabinets provide warranty on separate parts of the cabinet like drawers, drawer slides, hinges and similar hardware. These items are covered separately from the more generic coverage on the cabinet boxes and may also have different levels of coverage. For example one cabinet maker offers a 5 year warranty on workmanship and materials and a limited lifetime warranty on the drawers and drawer guides.

•        Compensation - What's actually provided to you should you have a legitimate warranty claim? In most if not all cases cabinet warranties provide either repair or replacement of the defective component, at the discretion of the manufacturer. Some may offer reimbursement of the cost of the parts if they are no longer available.

One thing to keep in mind is that usually only the defective part or parts are covered by the cabinet warranty. There is typically no compensation for any labor or parts required to gain access to repair or replace the defective cabinet parts. Examples would be the requirement to remove countertops or appliances.

The point here is to highlight that while kitchen cabinet warranties are not complex, there are enough differencesand nuances between manufacturers and productlines to make it worthwhile to understand them clearly.

Cabinet Certification

There are a number of kitchen cabinet manufacturers whose products bear the certification seal of the KCMA, the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association. The KCMA is a trade organization dedicated to supporting the cabinet industry and its associated suppliers.

The KCMA certifies kitchen cabinets based on a series of tests performed in accordance with industry standards established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the KCMA. Cabinets that meet these standards carry the blue and white seal signifying KCMA certification.

One thing to note however is that not all producers of kitchen cabinets choose to become certified since it's a voluntary program. Cabinet makers whose products aren't certified shouldn't be judged to have inferior products either. What certification does for you is that it identifies cabinet products that have met a set of standards established by the cabinet industry to represent quality and durability. More information on the KCMA's certification can be found here at the KCMA Performance Testing & Certification Directory web page.

Helpful information on the KCMA website includes a list of KCMA members (cabinet makers and related industry suppliers) as well as a listing of manufacturers with products that are KCMA-certified. There's also a consumer information section but it's somewhat sparse. However the cabinet manufacturer directory is helpful particularly with regard to the list of certified cabinet makers and links to their websites.