Cabinets are a major part of the kitchen and probably deserve the most consideration, since they are the hardest element to replace. Along with countertops, they will also be the first thing to be noticed and the most expensive component.
There are so many cabinet options, but your decision can be dramatically narrowed when you consider style, design, color, quality and budget. Consider first how you want them to look. You can choose from laminates, wood veneer or solid wood.
If you opt for Laminate Cabinets there are high-pressure laminates, such as Formica®, Wilsonart® or Nevamar® which are widely available. They offer a wide range of color options, and are very durable and stain-resistant.
Low-pressure laminates, such as Melamine are also available in a wide range of colors, and are fairly durable, although they are more prone to chipping or cracking than high-pressure laminates.
Vinyl Film or Thermofoil Film is a good choice if you need something impervious to water. These cabinets are often white or off-white. There are also resin-impregnated foils or heat-stamped transfer foils, which come in solid colors or are made to simulate wood grains. Although not stain-resistant, the heavier weight ones are scratch-resistant. They offer invisible seams and are especially suited for contoured or rounded surfaces.
Wood Veneers are available on higher end laminate cabinets. A thin layer of wood is applied on top of particle board or plywood, but you see the "wood" layer. They are durable and give the warmth and texture of solid wood, but are more affordable.
If you opt for Solid Wood Cabinets in your kitchen, as most people do, there are a few things to consider about the different types of wood. Color is important, but keep in mind that any wood can be stained to make it look richer or darker, so if you want cherry, but can only afford maple, it can be stained to look like cherry.
There is also wood grain to consider.
- Oak is a durable hardwood with a fairly uniform, open-grain that ranges in color from white or yellow to red.
- Maple is a very stable, durable, dense hardwood with a straight fine-grain.
- Pine is a soft wood which has swirling grain with occasional small knots or lots of big knots. Although it is much less expensive than harder wood, pine tends to dent and warp easily and is not the best choice for areas with wide humidity fluctuation. If you do install pine cabinets make sure they are well finished on all sides before installation.
- Yellow birch is a heavy, strong wood with a fine smooth grain.
- Cherry is a very durable, beautiful hardwood with a close grain pattern. Keep in mind though that the color varies tremendously from white to reddish brown and it's one of the most expensive woods.
- Hickory is another strong hardwood which has either straight or wavy heavy grain.
Once you choose your wood try to bring a sample home and see how it looks with your other design elements and in the light of your kitchen before choosing your cabinets. When you place your order, make sure that the cabinets are guaranteed to look like the sample in the showroom, and that all the cabinets you order will match each other in grain and color.
Cabinets are essentially boxes and you will need to choose from framed or frameless. Framed Cabinets have frames on the front of the “box”, which adds stability to the cabinets. The doors and drawers are attached to the face of the cabinets, which makes them look like separate elements. They are the most popular option in the U.S. and lend themselves to more traditional looks. They are more sturdy than frameless cabinets and come in widths up to 48 inches (and wider in custom orders).
Frameless Cabinets are more common in Canada and Europe. The doors and drawers are attached to the inside of the “box”. This creates a more contemporary look with clean, smooth lines. However, until installed they are not as sturdy as framed cabinets. They are usually only available in widths up to 36 inches.
Door and Drawer Style are also important elements in determining how the cabinets will look. Slab Doors are flat and generally made of plywood or particle board for stability, with a hardwood veneer attached to the face. They can be plain, have a detailed design, or applied border trim. Usually they are plain and they fully cover the cabinet facing.
There are also frame and panel doors. Flat Panels Doors, such as Shaker Style, often have a frame along the border. Raised panels are more traditional. They can have a square or an arched panel. In both frame and panel doors, the panels are set in grooves around the inside of the frame. They are not glued, which allows for shrinkage and expansion from changing humidity.
Also consider Clear Glass Panel Doors for an open airy look, and to highlight beautiful dishes. Colored or stained glass doors add an element of luxury and elegance. However, glass doors will add to the price of your cabinets.
Doors and drawers can be inset so that they are flush with the cabinet face or overlaid, so they sit on the outside of the cabinets.
Drawers get lots of wear and tear so buy the best you can afford. Signs of quality include dovetailed (strongest, but most expensive), dowel or dado joints. Butt joints held together with staples, nails or glue will not last as long.
The Drawer Front – the part that is visible when the drawer is closed – can also be inset or overlaid. An overlaid drawer will be more forgiving, since the drawer front will hide any small gaps. It will also distract from slightly off level drawers. Whereas inset drawers must be very precise. All door and drawer styles can be attached to framed or frameless cabinets and should close solidly and be perfectly aligned.
Hardware is another design element that can dramatically affect the look of your cabinets. It can help define your style and design by blending in with your cabinets, or by highlighting other elements in the room. There are many handle styles, such as knob, D-ring, or bin pulls, and a wide range of materials, including wood, metal, ceramic or glass.
Hinges can be totally or partially visible as a design element, or hidden altogether for a cleaner look. You can also opt for push-in closures instead of handles and avoid seeing the hardware altogether.
Once you decide on the look you want, next consider whether your budget allows for stock, semi-custom (built-to-order) or custom made cabinets.
Stock Cabinets are mass produced and can be bought at any home center. They can be assembled and installed on site by contractors or do-it-yourselfers. Stock is the most inexpensive option, is readily available (or within a few weeks for some items), and there are some fairly well-made and durable brands. Most are made from particle board covered with veneer or laminate.
Semi-Custom, Built to Order, Cabinets are a little more expensive. They are also mass-produced, but can be adapted for specific layouts. There are also customizable options, which add more design flexibility than stock cabinets, though these will cost you more.
Semi-custom cabinets also have a wider variety of woods, finishes, and door styles than stock. They offer many extra options, such as glass shelves or door panels. They are generally made from better materials, such as medium density particle board, with an option to upgrade to plywood. They offer better quality laminates and more durable finishes. Figure on a longer wait time for these though – from 4 to 12 weeks depending on how much custom work is involved.
Custom Cabinets are generally made by cabinetmakers. Although sometimes, they are factory-made. They are built to fit your specific needs and design, so you can get exactly what you want. They are the most expensive choice, and usually require some waiting time. They're a great option if you are adding on and need to match existing cabinets. They're also a good option when you have an unusual kitchen layout, or have special needs, such as height requirements. They can be made of any material you choose, and your imagination is the limit.
Once you’ve decided on a budget for your project, it is important to look for the best quality you can afford within the three types of cabinets mentioned.
Look for an overall warrantee – this will tell you whether the manufacturer stands behind their product. Also look for solid construction – ¾” shelving and cabinet components, solid wood doors and drawer faces, dove-tailed, dado or dowel joints and quality materials. Check for uniformity of color and grain in wood cabinets. Corner bracing is another sign of well made cabinets.
Whatever type you choose, be sure to inspect your cabinets carefully before they are installed, and get replacements for any parts that are missing, damaged or that don’t match properly. Keep in mind that the “box” part of the best cabinets, those considered “solid wood”, are made with plywood, covered with a hardwood veneer. Plywood is inexpensive, doesn’t warp, will last longer and remain square, whereas solid wood will not. Solid wood is used for doors and drawers and will be more expensive than those made of veneers.
Cabinets certified by the Kitchen Cabinets Manufacturers Association will have a blue and white seal on the inside door rating them, in which they must meet a long list of construction requirements.
The non-decorative hardware won’t affect the look of your cabinets, but will greatly affect the function. Good drawer sliders will allow for a smooth, quiet slide-out drawer and won’t allow the drawer to sag when pulled all the way out. Full-extension sliders, which allow for complete access to the drawer are the best. Bottom-mounted have better access and are stronger than under-mounted, which are least expensive, but allow for the least access to drawer contents. Look for drawers with a thicker bottom, such as ¼”, since 1/8” may buckle under the weight of heavy loads.
Another popular cabinet option is to Reface your existing cabinets. This option can give you a whole new look, while saving a bundle of money. It’s a lot easier than tearing your kitchen apart and eating out for 2 months. As long as you are happy with your kitchen layout, have an adequate number of cabinets, and they are in good shape (check them for good quality), then refacing may be the best choice.
You can choose to repaint, reface with wood veneer, or put on new doors and hardware. There is a certain amount of skill required and, if the cabinets or house is older, things may have settled and you will end up working with corners that are not square, etc. Make sure you are up to the task or hire someone who is.
A Note for Do-It-Yourselfers
Since the cabinets will usually go in before the flooring, it is important to remember to shim all the base cabinets to the height of your finished floor, otherwise your countertop may be too low and your appliances may not fit under the counter. Most importantly make sure that your cabinets are level and plumb and at the right height, and that all the cabinet faces line up. A level countertop depends on level cabinets, and doors and drawers won’t operate properly if they are out whack. Install wall cabinets first so you don’t have to bend over base cabinets to reach them. When installing base cabinets work from the corners out, checking at each step that all drawers and doors will open properly.
A Note on Bathroom Cabinets
Bathroom cabinets, also called vanities, can be stock, semi-custom, custom or refurbished. They are generally made of the same types of materials and have the same quality and cost considerations as kitchen cabinets. One major difference however is in the planning and design.
Bathroom cabinets usually consist of one or more base cabinets with one or two sinks, and often more cabinets are added for storage. Since bathrooms usually offer limited space it is important to decide whether you want an open feeling, with no cabinets (i.e., just a pedestal sink), or if you need to stock up on storage space and put in as many cabinets as you have space for.
One very important consideration is elbow room. You should have at least 15 inches of clearance from the sink centerline to the closest side wall. For bathrooms with two sinks, leave at least 30 inches of clearance between the centerline of each sink for ample elbow room. If your sinks are wider than 30 inches, you must increase the distance. Since bathrooms are generally narrow, it’s a good idea to get two doors on a cabinet that is 24 inches or wider, so opening the door is not awkward.