Tips on Choosing the Right
Kitchen Cabinets

Your kitchen cabinets are the most dominant element in the kitchen. They are the furniture of the room and set the mood more than any other element simply due to their mass. And because they occupy a lot of space, they are the single most expensive element of the kitchen as well. You must select the cabinets that are right for you because you will live with them and use them every day, and they will be the basis for the design and ambiance of your kitchen. Well-chosen cabinets will last a long time and will increase the value of your home.

What should you consider when you shop for kitchen cabinets? Quality construction, a good selection of optional features and finishes, adherence to green manufacturing practices, and a good warranty. Builders, as we know, do not always install the best quality cabinetry in the homes they build. They want to give you enough storage, and they want them to look nice, but they do not always have the construction features, full functionality or bells and whistles that are available today. Let's look at each of these elements individually.

Construction: Most kitchen cabinet lines (except the least expensive) will offer a choice of box construction. The cabinet box can be made of furniture board (chipboard), furniture board with plywood sides, or all plywood. All plywood (3/4" thick) is the best (and most expensive option). If the cabinets are made of furniture board, the finish on the ends will most likely be a laminate that matches the door color as closely as possible. With plywood construction (or at least plywood sides) the cabinet ends will be stained or painted in the same finish as the doors for a better color match.

Something else to consider is how the boxes are constructed. Kitchen cabinets can be either framed or frameless. Framed cabinets are the most common for American manufacturing. Simply put, the cabinet box has a frame (faceframe) around the front edge usually 1 1/2" wide. The doors and drawer fronts sit over this frame and are attached to it with hinges. Inset is a type of framed construction where the doors sit within the faceframe and are flush with it. In frameless construction, there is no faceframe and the doors and hinges are attached directly to the side panels of the cabinet. Frameless construction is typically used in European cabinetry and allows for slightly more usable drawer space.

To further complicate things, there are choices of door type for framed cabinets. Doors are called standard or partial overlay if most of the faceframe is visible around the outer edge of the doors and drawer fronts (about an inch or so will be visible). Full overlay doors cover most of the faceframe (there may be about 1/4" visible). Obviously, full overlay doors are larger, and thus more expensive. Take a look at your kitchen cabinets and you can easily see the type you have. With frameless construction, the doors will always be full overlay. Whether you choose partial or full overlay is more a budgetary consideration than a quality issue.

Cabinet construction types.

Next take a look at how the drawer boxes are made. For long life, the drawer boxes should made of solid maple (3/4" thick), with dovetailed joints for strength. Inexpensive drawer boxes will be made of laminated furniture board with doweled or rabbeted and glued joints, or even just stapled.

The drawer guides are very important for smooth operation of the drawers. We have all experienced drawers that stick or rub, or make loud protesting squeaks when opened. Good guides should give a smooth, effortless operation. The least expensive cabinetry will have runners on the sides of the drawers (sidemount) usually with a white epoxy coating. Better quality cabinets will have guides hidden under the drawers (undermount) made of steel. The best ones have a device that closes the drawers softly and quietly when pushed (no more banging!). Less expensive drawers also only open 3/4 of the way, while the better ones open fully (full extension).

When you are shopping for kitchen cabinets you will hear terms like stock, semi-custom and custom.

Stock cabinets are made in large manufacturing plants in assembly line fashion in standard sizes (they come in 3" increments), and are kept in stock ready for purchase. They usually have fewer choices of colors, styles and features and are the least expensive. Builders often use them.

Semi-custom cabinets also come in 3" increments, but may have more options for modifications, colors, wood types and accessories. There may be options for box construction and drawer type. They usually take a few weeks to order.

Custom cabinets are those that are made to order. They are not cut and assembled until an order is received. They are available in the standard sizes (it is not necessary to customize every piece as far as size is concerned), but a greater number of choices are offered, completely customized units can be made, and special finishes can be ordered. For instance, with custom cabinets you should be able to choose between framed and frameless construction, many door styles, many wood species, many finishes (or bring in a paint color to match), and many accessory options. All plywood construction and dovetailed drawer boxes with soft-closing, undermount, full-extension guides should be standard features. Custom factories usually employ more highly skilled craftsmen and thus have better quality finishes and construction. Custom kitchen cabinets can be made by a local cabinet or carpenter shop or in a large manufacturing facility, but because each order is individually built, the lead time is longer and the cost is greater.

Cabinet Types: Kitchen cabinets come in many different types--wall, base, tall, corner--and among those there are many special variations.

Click here for cabinet types to be aware of as you design your kitchen or work with a builder or kitchen designer.

Options: Most kitchen cabinet manufacturers will offer several options or choices to choose from. These could be part of the standard features, or at additional cost.


We have already talked about construction, but again, the options for could be framed or frameless; furniture board, or plywood (or a combination) carcasses; type of drawer boxes and guides.

Wood Species

There are many types of wood species commonly used for kitchen cabinets. Birch, oak (hard, heavy, strongly grained), maple (light, hard, clear, best for painted finishes), alder (clear or knotty), pine (yellow, usually also knotty), hickory (heavy, pronounced graining with strong lights and darks), quarter-sawn white oak (perfect for authentic Craftsman looks), cherry (pinkish, with lights and darks). Of these, quarter-sawn white oak and cherry will be more expensive. Some manufacturers may offer even more expensive woods such as walnut, teak, rosewood or mahogany. Environmentally friendly choices are bamboo, wheat straw, and eucalyptus.


There will be a number of finish options for your new kitchen cabinets depending on the type you choose. Stock cabinets will come in limited choice of finishes, semi-custom will offer more and custom will offer the most. There will be stained and painted options with or without glazing and/or distressing. Obviously, the more steps taken to produce the final finish, the more expensive it will be. Be aware that the same color finish will look different depending on the wood it is applied to. This is particularly important with transparent and semi-transparent finishes like stains and stains with glazes. Be sure to ask to see a sample of the color you want on a piece of the wood you choose. Also, be aware that sunlight will darken woods over time. This process will occur fairly quickly, but so gradually you probably won't be aware of it. It is more apparent on natural finishes. Cherry, for instance, which has a lot of light and dark tones in the natural wood, will darken to a richer, mellower, reddish color and lights and darks will become more evenly toned.

Finishes that give an aged, worn look, like rub-throughs and distressing, are popular now and are even available on some semi-custom lines. Glazed finishes, whether applied to stain or paint are extremely popular. The glazes add depth and emphasis to the door details. Creams and other colors are lovely, and combinations of colors continue to be popular. Often, the cabinets on the perimeter of the kitchen will be treated in one finish, and the island or another area will have a different finish to give the appearance of a separate piece of furniture.


Kitchen cabinets come in many door styles, and again, the more custom the line, the more choices there are. There are four basic types of door styles, and there are many variations in each type. They are:

  • Slab--This is a perfectly flat door with no embellishment. The detail may be subtle, such as edge type (sharp or rounded) or in the graining of the wood. These are typically seen in European cabinets, but many American lines have them, too, and they make for a clean contemporary look.
  • Shaker--A very simple, but popular style that lends itself to contemporary, transitional and casual looks. A flat frame with sharp edges surrounds a recessed center panel. A narrower frame is considered Shaker, while a wider frame is called Mission or Craftsman.
  • Flat Panel--These will have a picture frame look to them with a recessed panel in the center. The better ones will have a solid 1/2" center panel. They differ from the Shaker in having a more decorative outer edge detail and inner panel molding.
  • Raised Panel--A very popular and common type of door and the most traditional. The center panel is raised rather than flat and there are numerous degrees of elaborateness from fairly simple to embellished with heavy, ornate moldings. Depending on maker, there may be choices of outer edge and inner panel details. Some styles offer curved tops for the upper cabinet doors.

Modifications and Embellishments

Hooray for modifications! Kitchen cabinets can be modified in various ways by taking a plain, basic cabinet and customizing it for your specific needs or desires. Stock cabinets will probably offer few or no modifications--what you see is what you get. Semi-custom lines often offer certain size modifications and optional decorative features. With custom lines, you can do almost anything you want to. Consult your manufacturer for options. Some of the possibilities:

  • Appliance panels--Order panels for your refrigerator, freezer, wine storage, ice maker, warming drawer or dishwasher to match your cabinets. You must supply the size specifications to the manufacturer.
  • Custom hoods--Dreaming of a French chateau or a Tuscan villa style? Work with your designer to refine the look and submit to the cabinet maker with dimensions. Be sure to include the specifications for the ventilation liner you will use.
  • Size changes--Do you need a special width, depth or height to accommodate a special use?
  • Special ends--There are several options to finish the visible ends of a cabinet run. They can be simply finished to match the cabinets; they can have doors applied to them to match the cabinet doors, or they can have raised panel ends which are integrated into the side of the cabinet.
  • Curved fronts--Some makers can make curved or bowed fronts or use special heavy moldings to obtain a curved look.
  • Special top or bottom rails--Decorative rails can be applied to the top or bottom (or both) of a cabinet to give it a special look. The design will help you achieve the overall look you want whether Craftsman, French, Colonial or other.
  • Special fillers, pilasters, brackets, corbels, legs, valances, moldings--All of these elements are important in achieving your look.
  • Accessories-- Accessories page coming soon!

"Green" Cabinets: Choose a cabinet manufacturer who displays the seal of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA) Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP). This seal is your assurance that the manufacturer has adhered to environmental guidelines for material sustainability and manufacturing processes. Go to, to learn more about the ESP program and find out which manufacturers have earned the seal.

Warranties: Ask to see a copy of the manufacturer's warranty for your kitchen cabinets and what it covers. Look for a manufacturer that offers a lifetime limited warranty that covers defects of materials or workmanship for as long as the original buyer owns the cabinets. Warranties will not cover normal wear and tear, abuse or improper installation.

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