If you’ve decided to do a kitchen remodeling project, you know the biggest part of the design will be the cabinets.
Not only the new cabinets need to be aesthetically pleasing, but they also need to be functional.
If you can find well-built cabinets made made of quality material, then you’ve hit the kitchen cabinet trifecta.
With all of the choices available today, it can be overwhelming to know where to start and what to choose. This guide will help you navigate the cabinet buying process.
Where to Begin
Before you start looking at anything for your new kitchen, pay attention to how you’re using your current kitchen.
- What do you like about it?
- What do you think needs to be improved?
- What’s your family’s lifestyle?
- Do you need more storage for pots and pans?
- Do you need a big island for your family to gather around and eat breakfast or do homework?
- Do you frequently host parties and need a beverage station?
- Do you mostly eat out and just want your kitchen to look amazing?
Knowing what will improve the quality of your family’s life, as well as, the resale value of your home, is an important factor many people fail to consider.
Begin by looking online and in magazines to find inspirational kitchen photos. Don’t eliminate cabinets or designs you love just because you think you can’t afford it. There may be a way to incorporate the things you love most and still stay within your budget.
Next, take measurements and photographs of your existing space.
Once you have an idea in your head of what your dream kitchen will be, determine your budget. As you’re crunching the numbers remember to set aside 10-20% as a cushion for unforeseen expenses.
Big Box Store vs. Local Cabinet Gallery
For most homeowners walking into their local Home Depot or Lowe’s is like walking into their second home. It’s familiar and easy. You may even think that you’ll save money, but that’s not always the case.
Depending on your area, local cabinet galleries can match or beat the prices of big box stores. Plus, you’re getting much more value for your money.
First of all, kitchen cabinet specialists in big box stores don’t come to your home, do a professional measure, see your home to make design suggestions and oversee that installation was done properly.
Secondly, the cabinetry isn’t always the same quality. Be aware that you may be comparing apples to oranges.
Lastly, designers go above and beyond to make sure you’re fully educated on your options, are happy with your choices and will help with the overall look of the kitchen, even if they’re only hired to do your cabinets.
Remember, these are people who love what they do so much that they opened their own business and are part of your community. Plus, the outcome of the project is more personal to them because their names and reputations will be attached to it.
Deciding on Quality
Knowing what to look for in quality cabinets, which areas you can save money and which areas you shouldn’t, will help you make an educated decision on what cabinets are best for you.
Most people have experience buying furniture, so it’s easier to know when to buy quality furniture and when it’s not as important. For example, if you’re purchasing items for a dorm room or college apartment, then quality isn’t a priority. Those items are temporary and don’t need to last.
However, once you’ve bought your own home, you buy quality furniture meant to be durable. Since replacing kitchen cabinets is considerably more difficult than replacing an old futon with a high-quality sofa, it’s something you want to do correctly the first time.
Sometimes that means putting off your remodeling project until your budget allows you to get higher quality cabinets.
- Framed, Inset and Frameless
- Stock, Semi-Custom and Custom cabinets
Framed cabinets have a face frame which is typically ¾” thick by 1-1/2” wide solid wood that’s attached to the front of the cabinet box. Cabinet doors and drawers are then attached to the cabinet frame.
- Easier to install
- Larger selection
- More design flexibility
- Less interior space than frameless cabinets
- Face frame is visible behind doors, even with full overlay
Framed Cabinet Types
- Overlay – Half Overlay and Full Overlay
Full Overlay vs. Half Overlay
A full or half overlay cabinet will have the same interior space, but the doors and drawer fronts are sized differently and change the appearance of the cabinet.
The door and drawer front overlap the face frame. There’s a very small reveal of the face frame behind it (about ¼”). It’s the most popular style of cabinetry.
The door and drawer front overlap the face frame ½”. It’s less expensive than full overlay.
Inset cabinets have the door set flush with the face frame.
- Very desirable look
- Made with precision
- Excellent way to show off fancy or unique hardware
- More expensive than overlay cabinets
- No wiggle room for error
- Humidity can affect performance
Frameless cabinets, also known as European, have a more modern look. Cabinet doors are attached directly to the box since there’s no frame. Often, but not always, frameless cabinets can be an indication of poorly built cabinets.
- More interior capacity
- Cleaner lines for a modern look
- Harder to install
- Can indicate a poor-quality cabinet
- Not as stable as a framed cabinet
- Limitations on design
Solid Wood vs. Engineered Wood
Different parts of the cabinet are made from different types of wood.
The face frame is typically made of solid wood. This allows for greater screw holding strength to attach the doors to the cabinet.
Door Frame: Typically made of solid wood
Center Panel: Can be made of several types of materials
Sides, Back, Bottom and Shelves: Can be made of several types of materials
Engineered Wood Types
Plywood is made from thin layers of wood veneer that are glued together. The alternating sheet layers are rotated 90 degrees to give strength.
If you choose plywood construction, be sure to look for:
- Several layers, at least 7-ply for ¾” thickness
- Quality edges with no gaps between the layers
- Low off gassing certifications such as, ULEF (Ultra-Law-Emitting formaldehyde), NAF (No added formaldehyde) and CARB (California Air Resource Board) compliant.
- Less sensitive to moisture
- Lighter weight than other engineered wood
- Beware of imported plywood. It’s used by several cabinet companies to save costs, but the binding agents used to produce them often times contain toxic chemicals, such as formaldehyde
- Good plywood is 10-20% costlier than engineered wood
- Plywood can warp
MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard)
A composite panel product typically consisting of cellulose fibers combined with a synthetic resin or other suitable bonding system, joined together under heat and pressure.
- Sometimes preferred for painted cabinetry
- The painted finish is smoother than solid wood or veneer
- Less costly than solid wood
- Can swell if exposed to moisture
A composite panel product consisting of cellulosic particles of various sizes that are bonded together with synthetic resin or binder under heat and pressure.
- Smoother and more consistent
- Less likely to warp than plywood
- Less expensive than plywood
- More susceptible to moisture damage
A thin layer of real wood that is applied to sub material
- Takes stain more consistently
- Less susceptible to swelling and shrinking with humidity
- Costs less than solid wood
- Susceptible to water damage
- Requires more maintenance
- Cannot be repaired
- Susceptible to cracks
Solid wood doors are considered the best. They’re generally ½” to ¾’’ thick.
- Stronger and more sturdy
- Higher quality
- A center door panel can consist of several pieces of wood which will each accept stain differently.
- Solid wood door will swell and shrink with humidity.
Which Wood is Best for Cabinets?
You may believe that using solid wood on all parts of your cabinetry is best, but it’s not.
Understand that water will damage any wood product, regardless if you use solid wood or engineered wood. However, some engineered wood has been created to withstand the damage from humidity.
Although plywood is the best engineered wood, it can de-laminate when wet and can warp. If your budget allows, it’s always better to have good quality plywood especially in rooms that will be constantly exposed to high humidity levels.
Save money by using a lower grade material on the cabinet box. They won’t show once countertops are installed.
Use the money you’re saving to invest in an accessory or detail that you’ll use every day. If your cabinet manufacturer provides a lifetime warranty, you’ll be covered.
Drawer Box Construction
Look for a solid wood drawer box with dovetail joints and undermount drawer glides with smooth operation. Blum is considered the best.
Stock vs. Semi-Custom vs. Custom
Stock cabinets are pre-made and ready to install. They’re most often associated with off-the-shelf products at big box retailers. There’s often little selection, but you can get it quickly.
Stock cabinets generally are smoke and mirrors. They may look pretty, but they generally don’t have good quality.
Semi-custom cabinets are base cabinets with extra detailing options. The options vary between manufacturers.
Some offer custom sizes, but only offer standard finishes and door styles. Others offer custom sizes and have a variety of wood types, finishes and styles.
Semi-custom cabinets are for mid-range to high-end budgets.
Custom means made to personal order.
A local cabinet maker or wood worker makes cabinets built exactly to specifications. While many think of these as the highest level of cabinets, they’re usually not.
Unless you’re remodeling an old home and wanting to maintain the era of the original home, local custom built cabinetry isn’t the best choice.
While the construction will most likely be amazing, you’ll lose exponentially on overall quality because of the finish and warranty. Local cabinet makers have an average warranty of two years, whereas high quality cabinet manufacturers have a lifetime warranty.
Warranties are an indication of how long a manufacturer expects their product to last. If there is no warranty or even a 1-5 year warranty, you’re purchasing temporary cabinets because they’ll need to be replaced very soon.
For mid-range to high-quality cabinetry, you should be getting a lifetime warranty.
Most, if not all, cabinet manufacturers in the U.S. have become green companies. Some even have tree planting programs to replace trees used in the manufacturing of their cabinets.
These companies were started by wood makers years ago and have grown into large cabinetry manufacturing companies. Many are still family owned and operated.
According to Barbara French of French’s Cabinet Gallery, “It’s always best to choose high quality cabinetry manufactured in the U.S. of materials made in the U.S. They’re safe to have in your home, they’re green and better for our environment.
Consumers should beware of cheaply built cabinetry coming from China. There is a history of toxic outgassing from these products due to no environmental control in China. Plus, the overall quality is very low. The cabinetry nor the finishes last. It’s all about cheap pricing.
If I may quote two very famous people:
‘Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.’ — Warren Buffet
‘The bitterness of poor quality ,remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.’ — Benjamin Franklin
I couldn’t have said it better, but I do believe you get what you pay.
To ensure you’re getting eco-friendly cabinetry look for these certifications:
- LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
- CARB: California Air Resource Board
- KCMA standards: Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association
Once you’ve decided to take the steps to buy kitchen cabinets, use this guide as a reference as you go through the process. Whether you decide to go with lower grade cabinetry or high-end, quality cabinets, it will be well worth your time to speak to a professional kitchen designer. You’ll at least know you’re heading in the right direction. Once your project is complete, host a party and enjoy your new space!