Kitchen Cabinetry

Your kitchen cabinets are generally the outstanding characteristic of the kitchen. They are always the most visible part of the room, although they can blend into the wall to such a degree that they seem invisible. Cabinets are usually the biggest investment in the kitchen. Typically, contractors and cabinet makers want you to decide on the cabinets first and then design the kitchen around them. The majority of kitchens are designed that way because it is easier for the contractor and the most cost effective for the home owner. There are alternatives but they are somewhat rare in the United States.

The rule of thumb is choose your cabinet style and construction features carefully to match the type of kitchen you want and then plan your kitchen layout to make the best use of the available space.

Choosing your cabinet style

There are four basic types of kitchen cabinets:  stock, semi-custom, custom and built in place at the job-site. Let’s consider each:
  • Stock cabinets are mass produced and shipped either pre-assembled or ready-to-assemble. They are available ‘off-the-shelf’ at major home centers and usually come in a limited range of standard styles and sizes with limited finishing and accessory options. Stock kitchen cabinets are usually made in 3-inch width increments. The manufacturer generally offers matching spacers, or filler boards which are used to fill in gaps at the end of cabinet runs. Standard base cabinets are 34-1/2 inches high, whereas base cabinets designed for desks or eating surfaces are 28-1/2 inches high.  Wall cabinets typically come in 30 inch, 36 inch, and 42 inch heights.
  • Semi-custom cabinets offer better quality and a greater selection of features, styles, and finishes but they cost more than stock cabinets and delivery lead times are longer. Semi-custom cabinets are also offered in 3-inch width increments, using filler strips as spacers.  However, these cabinets are made to the homeowner's specifications, and they may include various interior organizers and other enhancements
  • Custom cabinets are built to your entirely to your specifications. You may select from a wide range of hardwoods, laminates, and veneers. At the high end, finishes are multi-step and hand-rubbed, with a baked-on conversion varnish finish. Heights, widths and depths are all readily customizable to meet your exact specifications. Your design options are virtually unlimited.  Sliding shelves, pull-out pantries, lazy susans and appliance garages are just a few of the many storage features available. You can also expect to work with trained kitchen designers who will help you through the selection process.
  • In the distant past, kitchen cabinets were built at the job site by skilled finish carpenters or specialty cabinet makers. Fine woods were easily acquired. Today, the woods used are typically medium grade hardwoods, such as birch or ash, rather than furniture grade woods such as oak, maple, or cherry. The style was often selected by the builder or general contractor. The final result depended almost entirely on the skill of the craftsmen involved. Some specialty site-built cabinets are still made today but most kitchen cabinets are made in cabinet shops where jigging, specialized tools and clean finishing rooms produce superior products using less skilled labor. Kitchen cabinets should be of comparable quality and style to your furniture. Therefore, this choice is not usually beneficial to either the craftsman or the home owner. There are exceptions though. Some homes are designed to be art from the ground up. These home becomes a fairly well equipped wood shop for the duration of the construction project. They are more expensive to build but usually well worth the price and aggravation. Typically these are built by artists that can be difficult to work with and often unreliable.

Kitchen cabinets are made with either face-frame or frameless construction methods.

  • Face-frame cabinets have a frame that runs across the cabinet box face. The frame may or may not show when the doors are closed. Most older style cabinetry is made like this. Doors vary greatly depending on whether they are custom built or bought prebuilt. These cabinets are stronger, heavier and more expensive to build. This style is often produced by smaller shops and artists.
  • Frameless cabinets, or European style cabinets, are made without a face frame. They are the state-of-the-art in cabinetry which focuses on high production, low cost per unit and minimal labor skill. These are almost always pre-built at large factories that have large investments in tooling and automation. Doors cover the entire front of the cabinet box and are typically constructed without molding or trim and have hidden hinges. The majority of cabinets installed today are this style.

Always choose fully-adjustable door hinges. This ensures that the cabinets can be adjusted to fit together well as the building ages and begins to change shape. Specify full-extension, ball bearing runner drawer guides, which allow access to the full depth of the drawer and soft-close drawer-closing mechanisms that gently pull the drawers closed. Those two features make a kitchen seem luxurious.

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