When it comes to cabinets, the options only seem limitless. There are distinct choices you need to make. Here, we take them on one by one to help you pick the right cabinets for your home.
Where to Start
One common reason for a cabinet project is to create a distinctive look or style. Many of you have a specific picture in mind, and the cabinet selection process begins by carefully studying that picture and breaking down the details so they can be replicated. For others, the purpose is more utilitarian — you simply need new cabinets to store your things.
In either case, to make an informed choice, you must thoroughly understand the options.
Custom cabinets allow the greatest design flexibility and typically offer the highest quality of construction. They’re also usually the most expensive option.
With custom cabinets, the quality of the designer and cabinetmaker makes the difference between a successful project and an unsatisfactory one. In most cases, custom cabinet construction uses joints constructed with dovetails, dowels or mortise-and-tenon techniques. These are more sound than the screwed, glued and even nailed joints you may find in a semicustom or stock cabinet.
Custom cabinets usually eschew particleboard (often found in less expensive cabinets). This means that well-designed custom cabinets have the potential to last the life of your home.
Semicustom cabinets are more widely used than any other cabinet type. Companies such as Ikea, Home Depot, Lowe’s and many others offer various cabinet lines with numerous options. This semicustomizable nature simplifies both the design and manufacturing processes, providing sound function and acceptable versatility for many homeowners.
Semicustom cabinets probably won’t last as long as custom cabinets. On the flip side, I’ve seen older custom cabinets removed to make way for semicustom cabinets in a newly remodeled kitchen. Sometimes the style of the cabinet becomes obsolete (or at least out of favour) before the functional capacity fails.
This is perhaps the most obvious advantage of semicustom cabinets. If a future owner is likely to remodel the kitchen 20 years from now, why pay extra for cabinets built to last longer than that?
I will say from a personal perspective that the sturdier, more substantial characteristics of custom cabinets can be felt when living in the space and using the cabinets every day. However, the difference sometimes isn’t apparent upon a cursory observation.
Sure, stock cabinets are often used in garages, but you’ve probably seen them in bathrooms and kitchens without even knowing it. Yes, there are a bunch of plain, cheap and mass-produced cabinet boxes at your local big-box store, but other companies offer well-crafted, more luxurious options too. So don’t discount stock cabinets entirely.
The best thing about them? They are available now — as in today, off the shelf — and are less expensive than custom-manufactured pieces. The downside is the quality of construction, which can sometimes (but not always) be terrible, and the limited size options.
This isn’t always a big deal. If you’re picking a vanity cabinet for your powder bath, you should be able to find a stylish stock cabinet in a size that works for you. But if you’re designing a kitchen around stock cabinets, concessions will need to be made. This relates to both design originality and how perfectly the stock cabinets fill your specific kitchen’s space and shape.
Framed cabinets use a face frame consisting of stiles (running vertically) and rails (running horizontally) to cover the cabinet box. This is the most traditional construction type. Standard overlay doors, inset doors and full overlay doors are the typical methods of setting the cabinet doors, and each method impacts the look and style of your cabinets. Standard overlay is usually the least expensive method, but the technique has become somewhat dated. Full overlay doors provide a clean look similar to that offered in frameless construction.
The doors on the face-framed cabinets above are inset, meaning the door face is set to sit flush with the face frame. This is a premium style that takes more careful planning and execution, and costs more than most other styles. The authentic look is clean-lined, fitting modern aesthetics as well as more traditional sensibilities with its visible face-frame construction.
Frameless Construction (Euro Style)
The kitchen cabinets above are constructed with frameless construction. There’s no face frame, and the modern look and clean lines work with a variety of styles. This construction method also maximizes the usable space for drawers, but only by a small degree.
There are too many standard door styles to name here, available from a variety of large manufacturers. If you’re having your cabinets custom-built, you can consider them all. For semicustom cabinets, there are fewer door styles available but still plenty of options. With stock cabinet doors, what you see is obviously what you get.
When you begin looking at door styles, you’ll likely see popular styles with names like Shaker (pictured above), Windsor, Revere and Mission. These are widely recognizable, but sometimes different manufacturers call the same door style by different names.
Still, most door option characteristics are universal. Raised panels refer to middle panels that stick out from the door frame (not to be confused with the cabinet face frame), usually with a profile shape of some sort. With recessed panel doors, the middle panel is set well inside the door frame. Mitered construction refers to doors with a mitered corner at the door frame corner connections. Flat panel doors refer to doors with no profile (they are totally smooth-faced). Some doors make use of applied moldings, providing added detail.
It’s a lot to think about, and it’s important. The cabinet door style makes a huge impact on the overall look of your cabinets. You can use a very modern, Euro-style cabinet construction style, but ornate doors and drawers with a distressed finish will create a traditional, old-world look.
If you’re planning to stain your cabinets, think carefully about your material. Everyone was doing cherry 15 years ago, and 25 years ago, it was oak. More recently, alder was in vogue, and maple remains a popular choice today.
Any of these materials (and many more) may be right for you, but be sure you see a sample of the finished product and, preferably, an entire kitchen. Once your cabinet construction begins, there’s no going back.
With stained cabinets, different wood species have different grain patterns, offer varying colour hues and take stains differently. With alder cabinets, for instance, knotty alder will look much more rustic than clear alder, and quarter-sawn oak offers a more uniform grain pattern than standard oak. If you’re painting your cabinets, the wood species has little impact on style.
Whether it’s stain or paint, the final finish can make the cabinets or ruin them. Most paint-grade cabinets are finished in some variation of a semigloss coat. There are even special automotive-quality finishes available at a premium, which provide an incredibly durable, uniform sheen perfect for contemporary designs.
Like the wood material selection, the finish can be very impactful. If your cabinets match the color of your crown moldings, baseboard and casings, the cabinets will tend to blend in, while bolder finishes make your cabinets stand out in the space.
Specialty finishes include glazes that offer a hint of a secondary colour, often wiped into grooves and corners of the door panel, and levels of distress in which the doors are professionally damaged on purpose to create the illusion of age.
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