Are you planning a kitchen remodel? Before you start comparing quartz samples or swooning over backsplash tiles, you need to set the foundation for a functional, beautiful space — and that means understanding your cabinetry options. From finishes to wood types to red flags, we’re here to help guide you through the process, sans rookie mistakes. Consider this your remodel bible — a guidebook you can use to save time and money as you create the chef-friendly, design-forward kitchen of your dreams.
Kitchen Cabinetry Guidebook: 6 Things to Know
Quality & wood type
“In many ways, selecting quality custom cabinetry is like selecting fine furniture,” says Lana Zepponi of Kitchens Unlimited, an interior designer specializing in kitchen and bath design and a member of the National Kitchen and Bath Association. There are several key factors to consider, the first of which is quality of materials. For wooden cabinets, door and drawer fronts typically are solid wood. But good questions to ask are “How thick is the door?” and “What are the boxes made of?” A door less than three-quarters of an inch thick is more likely to warp. Also, Lana says you’ll want to ask about wood type. Is the door solid wood or engineered wood? Within those options, there’s a whole range of quality.
Take solid wood, for example. When selecting a solid wood door, look for the words “select hardwood.” This term literally means a craftsman has selected the boards by hand to ensure fewer imperfections, like knots or cracks. And don’t discount cabinetry just because it’s made with “engineered wood” — this doesn’t necessarily imply lower quality than solid hardwood. “The technology has developed so much that high-quality engineered wood resists warping better than solid wood,” Lana says. “It can really be a benefit to a project, because there are more design possibilities. For contemporary slab door cabinets or very tall cabinets, it’s great to have a material that doesn’t expand and contract like solid wood.”
A second factor to consider is construction. “Look inside the cabinets,” Lana says. “If you can see staples holding the box together, it’s not going to hold up for the long haul.” High-quality indicators to look for include joints that are corner-blocked and doweled, like a piece of fine furniture, as well as solid wood drawers with dovetail joints. Also check that drawers have undermount glides, which allow for more space and a sleeker look, as they are hidden below. Soft-close, mortised door hinges and dust tops on the cabinet boxes are also marks of high-quality cabinetry.
Finish is another major indicator of quality, and again, there’s more to consider than surface appearance. “Knowing how different woods will receive stains is important,” Lana says. “That’s why it’s good to see a sample in person.” A high-end cabinetry supplier will provide a sample for the customer to approve. This step is especially important when ordering cabinetry with a specialty finish like a lacquer, custom stain or custom paint color. And certain stains apply differently to different types of woods. For example, “woods like hickory or alder will show a lot more variation through the stain than a more uniform grain, like maple,” Lana says. Maple’s uniform grain and texture are what make it a preferred choice for painted cabinetry.
Custom vs. high-quality
“A common misperception is that the word ‘custom’ equals ‘high-quality’,” Lana says. “Anyone can build a custom cabinet, but ‘high-quality custom’ means a lot more,” she says. Cabinetry falls into one of three categories — stock, semi-custom and full custom. Typically made from lower quality materials, stock cabinetry is mass-produced in certain sizes and homeowners choose from those specific dimensions. Semi-custom cabinetry and full custom cabinetry, both considered higher quality options, are made to order piece-by-piece by experienced craftsmen. No parts are made until the design and details are specified in drawings by a designer.
Full custom, Lana says, “is when the sky’s the limit. We can design and submit shop drawings for anything, and our cabinetry lines will build it for us to the very fraction of an inch.” Full custom is perfect for homeowners seeking a design that is specialized to their space, style and usage without design constraints. “We design custom finishes, door styles and specialty cabinets, and our cabinet lines will fabricate these designs to last a lifetime,” says Lana. For many customers, semi-custom offers a great way to save money without sacrificing quality. This option doesn’t necessarily mean that lesser materials or construction methods are used, but just that you’re limited to a certain set of design parameters, such as cabinet height constraints or specific door styles. “For a simple design, clients can usually save quite a bit by working within the limitations of semi-custom and still have a high-quality product,” says Lana.
Another misperception is that factory-made custom cabinets are inferior to cabinets produced in small workshops. On the contrary, factories can offer advantages — and ones that are desirable to high-end projects. “A state-of-the-art factory can take customization possibilities and durability to the next level,” Lana says. In fine custom-cabinetry factories, cabinets are built one piece at a time by woodworkers, and the finishes are applied by hand just like in small shops. However, because they are larger, these manufacturers have access to premium materials at lower costs. On-site engineers ensure that custom designs are constructed to last, followed by multiple quality checks, so that nothing leaves the factory less than perfect. Between hand-finishing steps, multiple coats of catalyzed conversion varnish are applied and cured in multiple runs through large, high-powered ovens — all allowing factories to produce cabinets durable enough to offer lifetime warranties with confidence.
Talk to an expert
Finally, Lana advises, an important step when making cabinetry decisions is to talk with an expert. “Although we design and build turnkey remodels, we also often collaborate with our clients’ architects, builders and interior designers,” says Lana. Having a kitchen and bath specialist on the project team is a valuable component to both remodels and new construction projects, as they can deftly navigate the often overwhelming decision-making process that is rife with technical details.
Kitchens and baths are in a specialized category of design, and often the most expensive areas of the home to renovate. A certified kitchen and bath designer can help you prioritize your budget to get the most bang for your renovation buck. “A kitchen or bath remodel is a large investment in your home that can disrupt your routine for a couple of months during construction, so my advice is to invest in quality and good design to get it right,” says Lana. A professional knows how to properly and beautifully detail cabinetry that houses built-in appliances, as well as plan molding, trim, finished end panels and base solutions. Proper detailing is an important distinction in well-designed kitchens and baths that requires experience and knowledge.
So, take these six insider tips, and head to your local specialty kitchen and bath design studio where the people who greet you on the showroom floor are professional interior designers who specialize in kitchen and bath design. Talking to an expert gives you the upper hand when it comes to the trends and styles, technological advances, organizational features and functionality that will best fit your lifestyle, so you walk away from the process having all your kitchen and bath needs met.
If you’re interested in learning more about replacing your cabinets or remodeling your kitchen, call Kitchens Unlimited at (901) 458-2638. Hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, by appointment only. Kitchens Unlimited is located at 3550 Summer Ave., Memphis, TN, 38122.
Thank you to Lana for her insights, and thank you to Kitchens Unlimited for the gorgeous images!
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