Kitchen Cabinets Buying Guide

Expert advice on cabinet specifics you should research before buying

By Lisa S. Kahn

Cabinets are the foundation of the kitchen. They define the room's overall appearance, anchor the layout, and organize the cooking and serving accouterments. The challenge of choosing the right cabinets can be more daunting by the abundance of features, options, and materials offered in nearly every price range. Good research is key. The experts at the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) recommend that you peruse everything from top-of-the-line custom designs to unfinished stock items. By seeing the range of quality and costs out there, you'll be able to budget for those handmade pulls you must have while avoiding pricey upgrades you can live without.

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Cabinet Options: From Custom to Reclaimed

Homey Country/Rustic Kitchen
Rose Marie Carr

Custom—Available through better manufacturers, interior designers, architects or cabinetmakers, custom cabinets are designed and built to your exact specifications and measurements. Doors and drawer fronts are typically constructed of solid wood. The result is a one-of-a-kind kitchen at a premium price.

Semi-custom—Less costly than custom, semi-custom cabinets offer a great variety of styles, finishes, interior options and accessories, but may be limited to standard sizes. Doors can be made of solid wood or MDF with a thermofoil or wood veneer.

Stock—These are mass-produced items available in standard sizes and a limited range of styles and finishes. Doors are usually made of MDF covered in thermofoil or wood veneer. Stock cabinets can be an economical choice if they are of good quality.

Unfinished—Another way to achieve a custom look for the price of stock is with unfinished cabinets or do-it-yourself cabinets available from a variety of manufacturers. You can finish these with your choice of paint, stains, or other surface treatments.

Resurfaced—If existing cabinets are solidly built, and the basic configuration meets your needs, you can give them a facelift for about half of what you would spend for new cabinets of comparable quality. Whether it's replacing the cabinet fronts or simply updating them with new paint or stain, there are a number of skilled service providers who can help you achieve great results.

Reclaimed cabinets—Provided that you're not too picky about the fit, finish, or style, there are ways to find custom cabinets for less than the price of stock. Keep your eye on Craigslist or visit stores that specialize in reclaimed home goods, such as Green Demolitions or Habitat for Humanity's national ReStore network.

TIP: If you're getting rid of old cabinets, programs such as Habitat for Humanity's ReStores will accept them as donations for resale; most groups will even pick them up.

What You Need to Know about Cabinet Construction

Elegant Contemporary Kitchen
Jamie Herzlinger

Whether your cabinets are labeled "custom," "stock," or something in between, how they are made is much more important than what they are called. The key elements you'll want to know about are box construction, drawers, doors, hardware, and finish.

The box, also known as the carcass, is the foundation of a cabinet. And while it may be hidden behind a gleaming bird's-eye maple exterior, everything depends upon its strength and quality. The boxes in budget cabinets are usually made of inexpensive particleboard or melamine. While these materials keep costs down, they can be prone to water damage or chipping. Plywood is costlier but it's also stronger, holds screws and hardware well, and can be repainted or refinished.

Depending upon the price range or style, you'll find drawers made of particleboard, wood or metal. Particleboard drawers are usually glued and stapled at the corners and don't hold up well over time. Wooden drawers with dovetail joints are far more durable. You'll want to make sure that there are no gaps in the interlocking parts and that the joint is carefully finished. Metal-sided drawer boxes tend to pair well with sleek, contemporary cabinetry designs.

The best-quality drawer glides for kitchen cabinets operate on nylon wheels or ball bearings. They also have built-in bumpers to cushion the impact of the drawer front closing against the kitchen cabinet. Top-of-the-line glides allow for full extension, although three-quarter extension glides can be a practical alternative. High-quality drawers are self-closing when they're within about an inch of being closed.

TIP: Framed-construction cabinets consist of a rectangular frame that outlines the cabinet box. This adds strength and provides a place to attach the door. With their panel doors and exposed hinges, these cabinets work well in traditional kitchens.

Frameless-construction cabinets—These European-style cabinets have a sleek, clean look, thanks to frameless doors and hidden hinges. They are considered de rigueur in contemporary kitchen design.

Eco-Friendly Cabinetry

Light Traditional Kitchen
Jessica Williamson

Many of us want to make sure that the materials and finishes we choose for our cabinets are not only healthy for our families, but also respectful of the environment. While manufacturers are responding to these concerns, ideal solutions remain a work in progress, says Marshall Farr, owner of Goodrich Works, LLC, a design/build firm in Brooklyn, New York.

One of the biggest challenges Farr has found as a high-end cabinetmaker is the effectiveness of waterborne finishes. "While it's true that they are less toxic than traditional lacquers, they can peel in the moisture-filled environment of a kitchen or bathroom."

Fortunately, notes Farr, improved products are in the pipeline. In the meantime, he focuses on other green measures, such as constructing interior boxes and drawers with plywood and using North American sustainable wood for veneers.

For more information on green issues, visit the Forest Stewardship Council website or the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association, which is more specifically concerned with residential cabinetry.

Types of Cabinet Finishes

Airy Contemporary Kitchen
Elizabeth Aurandt

Manufacturers aim to please the buying public by offering a plethora of cabinet finishes. These can range from a clear coat of polyurethane to more elaborate (and expensive) glazes, crackles, and distressed treatments. Whatever your choice, what matters most is the quality of the application. Whether the surface is matte or glossy, it should be smooth, unblemished, and free of sanding marks.

Veneers—Thin sheets of wood glued to the surface of the cabinetry. Veneers retain the natural look of wood and are available in a wide range of finishes.

Natural—Natural solid-wood cabinets have a light, transparent finish for protection.

Stain—Stain is applied to add color to cabinetry and also to protect the wood. It is available in light to very dark finishes.

Paint—Good-quality enamel paint in any color can be applied to wood cabinets.

Glaze—A glaze applied over paint or stain will adhere in the nooks and crevices of the wood, providing contrast.

Pickled finish—Achieved by rubbing white pigment into unfinished wood, a pickled finished lightens a cabinet's appearance, making traditional cabinets look equally at home in a contemporary or country setting.

Polyurethane finish—Forms a coating on the kitchen cabinet surface and can be applied over the wood, stain, or a paint wash. One advantage of a polyurethane finish is that it can seal in formaldehyde gases, cutting down on emissions in your home.

Polyester and lacquer finishes—Among the newer choices for giving cabinets a high-gloss appearance. Polyester is harder and more durable than lacquer but more difficult to repair. Polyester is solvent-resistant, but lacquer can be washed off with a solvent, recoated, and retouched.

Overview of Cabinet Design Styles

Elegant Traditional Kitchen
Lori Carroll

According to the NKBA, traditional cabinets continue to reign supreme among homeowners, although Shaker styles are making significant headway. Aren't sure of the difference? Here's a brief lexicon of the most popular cabinet styles.

Arts and Crafts—Typically crafted of oak, this cabinet style favors rectilinear angles over curvy, Victorian-style millwork. Other features include rustic hardware, open shelves, and the look of individual furniture pieces.

Contemporary—Sleek and minimalist are the bywords of contemporary style, which often features laminate, polyester, or metal surfaces and oversized chrome pulls. Contemporary style is often associated with European manufacturers and designers.

Shaker—Clean lines, unadorned fronts and simple hardware are the hallmarks of Shaker style. While original Shaker cabinets were usually painted, domestic woods such as cherry, oak and maple are also appropriate choices. Shaker cabinets work well with nearly any décor, depending upon your choice of finish and hardware.

Traditional—Traditional cabinetry is often a blend of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century English and American designs. Classic finishes include cherry or mahogany stains, although white or light-colored paint finishes are also popular. Look for arched door panels, corner blocks with rosettes, beaded trim, and dentil crown molding. Polished brass fittings pull the traditional look together.

Interior Cabinet Features We Love

Stately Contemporary Kitchen
Cheryl Kees Clendenon

The best cabinet designs pack in options that minimize unnecessary bending and lifting and maximize every square inch of usable space. Look for features like gentle-close drawers that operate with a light tap, built-in knife blocks, custom-designed spice drawers, cookbook holders, and wine racks that looks great even when they're empty. More ingenious cabinet features you might want to consider:

  • Drawers with fitted pegboards for keeping contents from shifting.
  • "Magic corner" shelving that features pivoting hardware and rotating baskets for creating storage in awkward corner cabinets.
  • Full extension rollout shelves, great for avoiding scraped knuckles as you reach for items buried in back.
  • Two-tiered drawers in base cabinets to maximize storage space. The bottom level is for storing pots and pans, the top level for the lids.

The most accessible storage compartments are positioned between eye level and knee height.

Cabinet Hardware

Sunny Country/Rustic Kitchen
James Howard

Many designers refer to cabinet hardware as "the jewelry of the kitchen." And, much like a signature ring or a trendy bracelet, decorative knobs and pulls should harmonize with the rest of the kitchen details and reflect your personal style.

Knobs—From simple mushroom shapes to pegs, squares and hexagonal motifs, you'll find knobs in metal, glass, crystal, ceramic, wood, gemstones, and just about any color you can imagine. Knobs work best on Shaker, Arts and Crafts, and mid-century cabinet styles, but even contemporary cabinets can benefit from their
diminutive proportions.

Bar Pulls—In elongated shapes and finishes such as shiny chrome or sleek brushed nickel, pulls work especially well on contemporary cabinets. You'll also find classic finishes like brass, antique copper, oil-rubbed bronze, and glass that pair perfectly with Victorian, Arts and Crafts, and Colonial cabinets. Because the entire hand is used, pulls are more comfortable to operate, especially for seniors and the disabled.

Bin pulls—Also known as crescent pulls or finger pulls, this half-moon shaped hardware style adds a nostalgic touch to traditional cabinetry.

Appliance pulls—Refrigerator and freezer pulls are available in several finishes to match your kitchen décor. Many lines feature a complete collection of matching knobs and pulls to create a seamless ensemble.

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