Kitchen Cabinets

Choosing Kitchen Cabinets

Where To Start & What To Know

Choosing kitchen cabinets is probably the biggest if not the most nerve-wracking decision you'll make for your kitchen. It's easy to understand since the cabinets have a big impact on your budget as well as how your kitchen looks. They're one of the first things you see when you walk in a kitchen and have a large influence on the whole "feel" of the room.

Looks aren't the whole story however and with cabinets there is an element of 'you-get-what-you-pay-for'. That's because they're made with a variety of construction techniques using several different materials in a "good", "better", "best" fashion. Besides that there are options to consider like full extension drawers, soft-close hinges and many others, and they can have a big impact on the overall cost.

If you're now thinking that you'll need to mortgage the farm to afford decent cabinets, don't worry. You can still find good products at an affordable price and it doesn't have to incorporate the absolute best materials or the latest organizer gizmos.

Just be aware however that cabinets generally consume about half of the typical kitchen budget so you'll want to be sure you know what you're getting for your money. The best way to do that is to understand the differences in construction and materials and how those elements impact their quality and durability.

Now before you run off and start choosing wood grains and door styles, stop and think about your lifestyle, how you use your kitchen and how much storage space you need. The best decisions start with good planning. The fun stuff like choosing colors, options and the like will come soon enough but you don't want to put the cart before the horse.

Choosing Kitchen Cabinets - Where Do I Begin?

kitchen cabinets

The first thing you want to do is get some clarity on your goals for how you want your kitchen to look and function so that you're ultimately satisfied with the end result. You should do this regardless of whether you're replacing your existing cupboards (essentially staying with the same layout) or starting with a completely new layout plan.

Here are some questions to help you with that effort:

What don't you like about your current cabinets?
Pin down exactly what it is you dislike so that you can look for solutions to those issues when it's time to buy new.

Maybe you don't have enough space or perhaps it's poorly allocated space (like that 3-ft deep upper cabinet where only the first 12 inches are accessible)? Maybe your current cupboards are just the wrong style or they don't have good organizational features.

The more specific you can be about what it is you want to have or change, the more focused you'll be about targeting the right options from the myriad of choices that are available.

How long do you plan on staying in the home - are you updating for the purpose of reselling or do you plan on staying long term?
The answer to this question may determine the price you're willing to pay as well as the level of customization, uniqueness and the quality of construction you want to build in. If you plan to stay in your current home indefinitely, you may want to spend more of your budget on durable construction and materials. On the other hand, if you're a real estate investor interested in house flipping for a quick resale, you may want to limit your investment to a functional but more cost-effective cabinet style and construction.

What is the style of your home and your kitchen?
Your existing decor and style of home plays a role in the type of cabinetry to choose. The converse is also true too -- the style you choose will influence the look and feel of your kitchen.

Do you want to stay with the existing style or do you want to change it? Period cabinets are appropriate for classic antique homes when retaining the style of that era is desired. Updated European style cabinets work well in a contemporary kitchen.

Regardless of which way you go, identifying the style you're looking for will help narrow your focus on the available choices and also provide some guidance to kitchen designers or cabinets makers you might work with.

light blond cabinets

Are you looking for environmentally friendly choices?
Going green is certainly possible with products made from bamboo, reclaimed wood or wheat board. As the green movement continues to grow so do the choices for home products, including cabinetry. Sources for bamboo cabinets and other renewable and sustainable materials are also growing with the demand, making it easier to find and purchase these types of products.

What amount of storage space do you need? Is it greater than what you currently have?
Look at what you currently have on your countertops or in other places where you put things that you'd rather store inside your cabinets. Knowing how much "stuff" you need to accommodate will help you understand the amount of space you'll need. Remember that the fewer items you permanently store on your countertops (like a cake mixer or the flower and sugar containers) the more working space you'll have.

What is most important to you - aesthetic appeal or durability and quality construction?
Let's face it; all of the advertisements and magazine articles we see depicting kitchen cabinets are usually high-end, expensive designs with lots of up-charge options. Achieving your dream kitchen is a worthy goal but be realistic. When there's a limited budget it may not be possible to afford high quality materials and construction as well as exotic woods and finishes. Be wise about allocating your money between quality materials/construction and aesthetic items like door styles, finishes and ornamentation. Usually there's a happy medium somewhere in between.

Do you really need completely new cabinets or will a face-lift suffice?
If your current cabinets are in good condition and you don't need or want to change the current layout of your kitchen, perhaps all you need is a refreshment of the current style.

Refacing is one way to put a fresh face on your existing cabinets. It involves re-skinning them with a new wood or laminate veneer and replacing the doors. There are other refurbishment options too. They're typically less expensive and take less time than replacing your existing cabinets.

Replacement doors and new hinges are available to provide a new look and style to your existing cabinets at a fraction of what it would cost to completely replace them.

Replacing the knobs and pulls with new ones is another way to change the look of existing cupboards. Don't think that entirely new cabinets are necessary if the only problem with your existing ones are some tired doors and/or a style that no longer appeals to you. Replacement doors, hardware and even refacing can provide a totally new look at a lower cost than new units.

Do you need cabinets for an outdoor kitchen, laundry room or garage?
Yes, there are cabinets for outdoor kitchens too. Because of their outside location you'll need to look at outdoor cabinet sources however. Although they serve the same purpose as their indoor counterparts they need to be made from materials that can stand up to the elements.

Laundry cabinets are also very similar to those used in the kitchen but there are some that are made with organizational features specific to the functions of a laundry room.

If you're looking for garage cabinets, you can recycle some old kitchen units and mount them on the garage walls. If that won't do, there are companies that specialize in cabinets made specifically for the garage.

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What Do I Need To Know?

You don't need to be a kitchen designer or a cabinet maker to be an informed buyer. But there are a few things you should be aware of.

Listed below are some important elements that you should become more familiar with:

  • Terminology
  • Stock / Semi-Custom / Custom
  • Construction and Quality
  • Different Ways to Buy


When shopping for cabinets it helps to acquaint yourself with the terminology. There's no need to make this a boring homework assignment but if you know a little bit about the language, it helps when doing your research or when talking with kitchen designers or cabinet makers.

Skim over the glossary page to get familiar with the typical terms (or when you're having trouble sleeping) and then amaze your friends with your command of cabinet-speak.

Stock, Semi-Custom and Custom

One area that tends to get misunderstood involves the terms stock, semi-custom and custom. Contrary to what many people think, these terms are not related to the quality of cabinets but rather, how they're manufactured. Here are the basic definitions:

  • Stock - Stock cabinets are pre-manufactured in specific sizes, typically 3" increments, with few if any options for customization other than some limited choices the manufacturer might offer. They are off-the-shelf products in a limited range of styles.
  • Semi-Custom - Semi-custom units are like stock in that they're also pre-manufactured but come with a wider array of options and in more sizes than pure stock cabinets. With semi-custom you have some ability to pick and choose various details to tailor an otherwise pre-built stock product. In other words, you have some customization choices.
  • Custom - Custom cabinets are built to the customer's specifications, with no limitation on size, style choices, wood grade or finish. They are truly made-to-order.

    They may be fancy or they may be plain but the difference is that they're made to suit your specific design requirements, in whatever size, form, color and material you can get someone to produce for you.

armstrong leighton cabsCourtesy of Armstrong Cabinets

If these definitions still don't clear things up for you, consider the following analogy:

Stock cabinets are like the car you buy right off the dealer's lot. You have to take it for what it is, with no ability to choose any options or upgrades.

Semi-custom is similar to the car that you factory-order through the dealer, with the ability to specify color, upholstery and other options. It's still a Ford or Chrysler and it's mass-produced, but you have a list of options to choose from and have some say in the makeup of the final product.

Custom cabinets are analogous to walking into the dealership and having them build a completely new car for you, per your design, from the ground up, with no boundaries whatsoever. And it doesn't have to look anything like a Ford or Chrysler.

If there's anything to take away from this discussion on stock/semi-custom/custom, remember that we're talking about how the products are manufactured and not about quality or decorative style.

Custom doesn't necessarily imply quality. Hand-built, made-to-order cabinets can still be poorly constructed. Conversely stock cabinets that are produced in mass quantities and limited sizes can also be manufactured with solid construction and quality materials.

Construction And Quality

The overall quality of kitchen cabinets is closely linked to their construction, meaning how they're put together and the materials they're made from. You'll be wise to pay close attention to these key features, particularly if you expect to live with them for a long time. Parts of your cabinets, particularly the drawers, take a lot of punishment so paying a bit extra for some added durability is a wise investment.

cabinet construction example

Key points to be aware of include the following:

  • Materials - they include particle board, MDF (medium density fiberboard), plywood, solid wood, metal and laminate/melamine (the laminate or melamine is laid over the particle board or similar substrate).
  • Construction and Design - cabinets are constructed in one of two different design styles -- framed or frameless. Framed cabinets employ a wood frame that outlines the front of the cabinet box. Frameless units don't have this feature. Also, the joinery and techniques used to assemble and support them. Structural braces are made from plastic, wood or metal. Methods of joinery include hot-glue, staples and nails, or, more intricate woodworking techniques like dovetails and dadoes.
  • Hardware - drawer slides vary in level of quality (some use ball bearings whereas others use nylon wheels/rollers) and physical location on the drawer (sidemount or on the bottom) which affects available drawer space. Shelf mounting brackets can be either plastic or metal.

Different Ways To Buy

There's really no limitation on where you can buy cabinets. You can purchase them from big-box home centers, lumberyards, local cabinet makers, kitchen design firms and you can even buy them online.

Buying through the internet has grown over the years and there are now plenty of online retailers to choose from. In most cases they offer lower costs for similar or even better quality than those you buy in home centers (many online cabinet retailers sell all-wood products).

Buying online also offers convenience because you make your choices on your own schedule, from the convenience of your computer. Bear in mind however that there are some differences between buying cabinets online and buying them at a home center, so it helps to learn about the process beforehand to determine if it's right for you.

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How Do I Determine How Much Cabinets Will Cost?

Determining the cost depends on a wide range of factors but the best place to start is by establishing a budget for your new or renovated kitchen. There are some general guidelines for budgeting items like cupboards, countertops and appliances so by starting with a budget, you'll be able to zero in on what you should expect to spend on cabinets.

Industry statistics show that on average, cabinets make up approximately 50% of the kitchen budget which is also the largest percentage of overall expenditures for the kitchen. Using this as a guideline you'll be able to determine what your allowance should be. There's nothing holding you back from spending more or less but this just means that the other parts of your kitchen will make up correspondingly higher or lower percentages of the overall budget. So, if your kitchen remodeling budget is $25,000, expect to pay roughly $12,500 for cabinets. Again, this assumes average statistics.

armstrong newbury cupboardsCourtesy Armstrong Cabinets

Once you have an idea of what you're willing to spend, you'll be better equipped to make choices on the wide range of options available to you.

One final note on costs: cabinets are priced based on how many you buy and quantity of bells and whistles that they incorporate. Options and upgrades abound and they increase the price. These options include everything from the materials used to construct them to the range of finishes to the organizing gadgets that go inside them. The key is to prioritize what it is you really want/need by asking and answering some questions and making sure those 'must-haves' fit into your budget.

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So Many Brands - What's Different About Them?

There are literally hundreds of cabinet producers and probably thousands when you include all the local and small-business cabinet makers. While there is skill and craftsmanship necessary to produce quality results, producing quality doesn't necessarily require highly complex machinery or factory conditions. In other words, you may find a talented carpenter or local cabinetmaker with the ability to produce fine cabinetry.

Given the number of cabinet producers, you're probably asking what the differences are, if any, among them all. In reality, the differences are really found in the same general categories that make them similar. It's back to the car analogy again: the auto manufacturers all make vehicles that do the same job; they're just variations on a theme.

How They're Similar

  • Materials - Cabinets are made from a finite range of materials and finishes so unless someone is making them out of bricks, most if not all will use similar materials (predominantly wood and wood-based products, melamine, laminate and some metals).
  • Construction Style - Cabinets fall into two style categories - framed and frameless. Regardless of which manufacturer you choose, they'll produce either one or both of these styles.
  • Options - Just like with cars, cabinet makers offer a varied array of options and price points.

How They're Different

  • Stock / Semi-custom / Custom - How they're produced will vary among the manufacturers with some offering only custom pieces and others providing only stock or a combination of manufacturing methods.
  • Quality - Not all manufacturers are created equal; there are those that offer more premium products in the way of materials, construction and options. Some manufacturers offer several product lines with graduated levels of what would be considered quality features (such as better materials and finishes).
  • Access to Market - Some cabinet makes are available through big-box home retailers while others are through select dealers or designers. Other product lines are available through the internet with direct delivery to your door. Smaller local manufacturers may sell directly from their shop.

modern cupboards

So what's the bottom line when it comes down to sorting through all the various cabinet makers? There's no right or wrong way to narrow down to a short list of candidates but here are some suggestions:

  • Start by saving some ads from magazines on various manufacturers that appeal to you. Using the internet is a good way to find out more about them since most brands provide fairly good information on product lines, materials and construction. Most manufacturer websites will also tell you where you can find their products.
  • Next, go out and look at some actual product. Even if the brands you like aren't available locally, still get out and view some products. You can do this by visiting any home-improvement retailer or by visiting some kitchen design firms. This way you'll actually see the differences in methods of construction and quality.
  • Find some local cabinet makers in your area and visit them as a comparison to the large commercial producers.
  • Finally, narrow your field of options based on your research and then focus on obtaining cost quotes for both the units and installation for comparison purposes.

Publisher's Comments

So who are the best kitchen cabinet manufacturers? I see this asked in online searches and while it's a legitimate question, the answer isn't as definitive as you might think. And here's why:

There are makers of cabinets almost too numerous to catalog, let alone do independent tests on to determine who's best. I'm sure Consumer Reports has their short list of brands that they rate as good/better/best. But how many do they test relative to what's available in the marketplace?

Second, the determination of "best" is somewhat subjective. Sure, there are definite indicators of good quality and poor quality but there isn't one gold standard. One person may think that anything other than plywood construction is "poor" quality. However cabinets made with medium density fiberboard may be just as durable and last just as long. Let common sense prevail here. "Better" products are those made with stronger construction techniques and more durable finishes. But there aren't only 5 or 10 of these manufacturers out there.

To some extent cabinets are a commodity. There are probably hundreds of producers that fall into the "best" category if you look across the spectrum of national and local manufacturers.

Your most effective way to find the best brands are to look at what is available to you locally (both from a 'national' brand perspective as well as local producers) and see how they compare. Then, determine how they match up with your budget. What you should be shooting for is a manufacturer that can give you the most of what you're looking for (quality -- as you judge it, options, quantity, etc.) for what you're willing to pay.

In my opinion, that's your "best" cabinet maker. Because at the end of the day, even if someone was able to say that Brands A, B & C are the best brands, they may not be the best fit for your budget. You need to take some responsibility for understanding what makes cabinets good/better/best and make an educated buying decision. I think that's a more rational approach than simply relying on an arbitrary list of "great" cabinet producers.

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What Should I Know About Cabinet Warranties?

Virtually all cabinet producers offer a warranty with their product. If they don't, that should be a red flag. Cabinets are not a cheap expenditure and they get a lot of use so regardless of where you buy them, make sure you understand the warranty.

Warranties vary with regard to what's covered, the duration and the manufacturer. A good rule of thumb is that manufacturers who build quality products are not afraid to stand behind them with a solid warranty. Here are some key points to consider:

  • Duration - How long is the product warranted? What you'll find here are different levels or tiers of coverage, depending on the manufacturer. Typical durations are 1 year, 5 years or lifetime coverage.

    Be aware of what the manufacturer considers "lifetime"; some warranties state that a kitchen cabinet's lifetime is considered to be 10 years. This may or may not be a long time depending on your perspective and how long you plan on staying in the same house or with the same style of kitchen.

    Some manufacturers also vary the warranty coverage within their product lines. Lower-end product lines have the shortest or most limited warranty whereas the high-end line enjoys the longest warranty period.

Publisher's Comments

Personally, I think 10 years is on the low side of any range of cabinet life. I say this because I had cabinets in my home that (before we remodeled) were original to when the house was built in 1965. They were over 40 years old. The drawer slides and fronts wore out but the boxes, frames, shelves, doors and hinges were still solid.

If a manufacturer believes their product's working life is only 10 years, I am inclined to doubt the quality of that product. Call me old-fashioned but I think cabinets that are well made should last longer than 10 years under normal use.

  • Coverage - Find out specifically what's covered and what's not. Most if not all warranties will cover defects in workmanship and materials. They usually won't cover any damage that's inflicted once the cabinets are in place or the result of improper use or care. Some manufacturers also won't cover parts that do not have a finish (like bare wood parts).

    Some manufacturers provide warranty on separate parts like drawers, drawer slides, hinges and similar hardware. These items are covered separately from the more generic coverage on the cabinet boxes and may also have different levels of coverage. For example one manufacturer offers a 5 year warranty on workmanship and materials and a limited lifetime warranty on the drawers and drawer guides.

  • Compensation - What's actually provided to you should you have a legitimate warranty claim? In most if not all cases cabinet warranties provide either repair or replacement of the defective component, at the discretion of the manufacturer. Some may offer reimbursement of the cost of the parts if they are no longer available.

    One thing to keep in mind is that usually only the defective part or parts are covered by the warranty. There is typically no compensation for any labor or parts required to gain access to repair or replace the defective cabinet parts. Examples would be the requirement to remove countertops or appliances.

The point here is to highlight that while these warranties are not complex, there are enough differences and nuances among manufacturers and product lines that understanding them before you buy is a worthwhile exercise.

glossy blue cabinetry

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Cabinet Certification

There are a number of manufacturers whose products bear the certification seal of the KCMA, the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association. The KCMA is a trade organization dedicated to supporting the cabinet industry and its associated suppliers.

The KCMA certifies products based on a series of tests performed in accordance with industry standards established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the KCMA. Products that meet these standards carry the blue and white seal signifying KCMA certification.

One thing to note however is that not all producers choose to become certified since it's a voluntary program. Manufacturers whose products aren't certified shouldn't be judged to have inferior products either. What certification does for you is that it identifies products that have met a set of standards established by the industry to represent quality and durability. More information on the KCMA's certification can be found here at the KCMA certification web page.

Helpful information on the KCMA website includes a list of KCMA members (producers and related industry suppliers) as well as a listing of manufacturers with products that are KCMA-certified. There's also a consumer information section but it's somewhat sparse. However the manufacturer directory is helpful particularly with regard to the list of certified makers and links to their websites.

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Publisher's Comments --
Where To Find Cabinets In Your Local Area

If you've read through this entire page you should probably win some sort of prize but more importantly, you now know that you can get new cabinets from a number of different sources. Kitchen designers, remodeling firms, home centers and local producers are all places where you can source these products.

My best advice after having done this myself with my own kitchen remodel is to get quotes from several of these sources. The benefit of this approach is that you can see just what it is you're getting for your money. You'll be able to compare the level of quality (provided you can actually see some product) and the range of options you get for a given payout.

If you'd like some help obtaining a quote (or several) from local cabinet suppliers in your area you can use the form below. partners with ReliableRemodeler, a matching service that offers homeowners access to local contractors and home improvement sources. You can get free quotes and there's no obligation. It's an easy way to identify some local sources and start the cabinet-investigation journey.

Some Additional Kitchen-Related Info You Don't Want To Miss. . .

When it comes to kitchen countertops the world is your oyster as there are plenty of options to choose from. Find out what's available and the pros and cons associated with each. Just click over to the countertops page.

Remodeling a kitchen means you'll probably be changing the fixtures too. Discover what there is to know about choosing the right sink and faucet.

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