Ready, Set, Remodel?
You are ready to begin your kitchen remodeling odyssey. You have saved idea books, Pinterest boards and scoured Instagram for inspiration. Before the moment of truth, choosing your cabinets, let’s start with understanding the different levels of cabinet quality. In my opinion, there are 3 categories of kitchen cabinets: Good, Better and Best.
How do you know what to look for in a cabinet? What makes a good cabinet and what makes a better cabinet? Why is there such a difference in the cost? Television shows unveil the big reveal but how did those cabinets make the cut?
Grab a cup of coffee, find a pencil, yes, a pencil, and a notebook and let’s dive into some kitchen cabinet knowledge. This may get technical, but don’t worry, I will be with you every step of the way.
Kitchen Cabinets: The Basic Categories.
Custom Cabinets: Custom cabinets are built specifically for you. This can be from a small local cabinet shop or a larger manufacturer. “You dream it we build it is the motto”. Furthermore, they are built all together so the wood, the finishes and materials are all completed as a unit. Insuring consistency in your new kitchen cabinets.
Semi Custom Cabinets: Semi custom cabinets are similar to custom but there are limitations to finishes and door styles. Equally important is that, even though, they are also built for you, they may be produced separately in the factory. This means there could be a lack of consistency in the finishes.
Stock Cabinets: Stock cabinets are produced on a mass scale. Cabinets are not made as a “unit” so consistency in finish or materials is not part of the process. These cabinets are built, boxed and stored until shipped to you, the client. I do sell very high quality stock cabinets which I call “ready to wear” but only as single vanity cabinets which can stand alone.
RTA Cabinets: RTA or Ready To Assemble are like stock cabinets but you build and assemble them onsite as they are delivered in pieces. This will add to the installation time and costs of an installer if you are using one.
Kitchen Cabinet Construction: Understanding the Difference Between Framed and Frameless.
Framed kitchen cabinets are made with a front frame. This is the way kitchen cabinets and furniture have been built for centuries. There is literally a 1-1/4″ front around the cabinet box. You can have a very traditional look where the door sits inside that frame (aptly named inset) or the door can sit on top of that frame (overlay). You may see some of the frame and you might not, it depends on the cabinet. The less expensive the cabinet, the more frame will be visible. Inset is a more expensive type of construction, overlay not as costly to produce.
Frameless cabinets originated in Europe and have been popular there for many years. They started to catch on here in the USA more than 30 years ago but really took off when IKEA introduced their kitchen line in 2012.
The benefits of the frameless or 32mm system (the space between the drilling on the inside for hinges, runners and shelf pins) are that they can be can be more contemporary in style and allow more space in the cabinet (no front frame). However, what really makes a difference is in the drawers. Without the front frame, the drawers are taller and wider giving you more storage space.
Kitchen Cabinets: Materials Make A Difference
Solid construction equals quality and longevity.
Understanding What materials your kitchen cabinets are made of are at the heart of understanding good-better-best. In my opinion your kitchen cabinet boxes should be constructed of 3/4″ plywood which is the Best cabinet box material.
Equally important is that your drawer boxes are constructed of 1/2″ – 3/4″ solid material as the drawer runners will be attached to them. Dovetailed drawer boxes or upgraded molded metal drawer boxes are the Best because they are the best for durability. Look at the finish on the interior of the cabinet. Is it a clear coated wood interior or a thin layer of plastic? Daily use can take its toll on a fragile interior finish. Next are strong sturdy backs where the cabinets will be attached to the walls. No one wants cabinets crashing down with all of your dishes and glasses inside.
Best: Plywood. If you have picked up a stack of dishes to put into a cabinet, you know how heavy they are. There are other options but in my experience plywood really is the best bet. You want strong, stable cabinets which will last for as long as you and your family are in the house.
Better: This could be controversial but I do feel that an MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) which is used in many “high end” cabinets is not as good as a plywood construction. You can argue forever over this debate but I have sold both and I feel confident that plywood is tops.
Good: A good rating will go to a cabinet which is not using one of the above named materials. Particle board will not be a long term material and anything less than 1/2″ thick will show signs of wear and tear faster. Similarly, these cabinets often have 1/4″ backs which is really not sturdy even if the part where the screws attach the box to the wall is thicker.
Kitchen Cabinets: Doors & Drawer Fronts
Best: Look for solid construction. Most doors are built of 5 pieces, the 4 pieces that make up the door frame plus the center panel. Flat panel doors may be solid panels but are usually a veneer. MDF center panels are a good choice for painted finishes. The solid MDF panel will not show cracks like a pieced together wood panel will.
Better: In some cases, drawer fronts are used as part of the drawer box. Some manufacturers use vinyl tape instead of real wood on the edges.
Good: Might have mismatched grain patterns and less than 1/4″ center panels.
Best: Made with 3/4″ material in maple but metal boxes are available. Strong bottoms and dovetailed sides will be standard. Walnut is becoming a luxury option for drawers and roll outs. Runners are self closing bottom mounted.
Better: Often made with 5/8″ material in maple with dovetail construction. Most use self closing bottom mount runners.
Good: Made with 3/8″ to 1//2″ material in hardwood. May or may not use dovetail construction. Runners may or may not be self closing.
In addition, always check the hardware. The internal hardware, consisting of drawer runners and hinges, are the hardest working components. They are used every time you open and close a door or drawer.
Kitchen Cabinets: The Finishes
Best: Look for a low VOC high quality “baked on finish”. This catalyzed finish will withstand the rigors of a kitchen. In addition, the consistency of the finish matters. Cabinets which are all finished together will have a consistency in the finish. Hand applied and rubbed finishes are the most expensive and are beautiful.
Better: Sprayed on finishes which use a catalyzed finish may be in this category. Hand applied finishes may not be offered.
Good: Painted and stained finishes will have a clear top coat which is commonly sprayed on.
Although all kitchen cabinets are basically made the same way not all are created equally. There is a budget for every kitchen and it is important to know what you are purchasing. Moreover, don’t be fooled by labels. Generally speaking, custom cabinets have been the gold standard. The definition of “custom” varies depending who is defining it. Think about how you use your kitchen. The kitchen is one of the most used rooms in your home. Today’s kitchen is used for much more than just cooking. Even if you are not planning on staying forever, a good kitchen brings value to your home. Click here to read my blog post about how kitchens & bathrooms sell homes. Wondering if you need a full remodel or just a re-do?, I have a blog post, click here to help you with that question too.
Sharon L Sherman ASID CID CKD is the founder of Thyme & Place Design, Thymeless Home Decor and Thymeless Well Being. Ms Sherman is a business owner, designer and Reiki Master located in New Jersey. Her award-winning designs and editorial comments have been featured in Kitchen & Bath Design News, Woman’s Day, Country Decorating, Design NJ, New Jersey Home Magazine, 201 Magazine, The Best of Bergen, Savvy Living, The Vue, The Record, The Star Ledger, Bergen Magazine and Aspire as well as several books. Her Blog “Tips for the Trade” appears in digital form on Sivanaspirit.com,DesignNJ.com and KBBonline.com, She has also appeared on HGTV’s My Big Amazing Renovation and episodes of House Smarts with Lou Manfredini.
This post contains affiliate links for products I have used. I may be compensated if you purchase any of these items at no additional cost to you.