Buying Kitchen Cabinets

The basics of construction and a checklist of what to look for

Kitchen cabinetry

Kitchen cabinets are arguably the most important—and expensive—purchase you’ll make when remodeling your kitchen. They can account for between 50–70% of your kitchen budget, which is why it’s important to put in time researching and planning this aspect of your project. Not only will you prevent headaches during the remodeling process, but a few years down the line you won’t look at your cabinets in dismay as they start to look the worse for wear.

Start with a budget

Though cabinets can be more, chances are they will be in the 50% range of your remodel's total cost. Therefore, calculating your total budget figure is an important first step. Consider the value of your home, and the homes in your neighborhood before setting a remodeling budget. Depending on where you live, you may recoup between 60–100% of the total cost of the remodel.

If you are completely replacing cabinets, plan your workflow and storage needs, then figure out what type of cabinets will work best for your needs. Measure the area, using the standard base height for upper cabinets of 34 inches and for counters of about 36 inches. Adjust heights to accommodate the tasks and needs of the worker. It's a good idea to vary heights somewhat depending on what you're doing. If you are 6'-2" tall, you may want counters higher so you don't have to stoop. And if you break a leg and can't walk or are confined to a wheelchair, will you even be able to reach the counter? (Consider Universal Design standards to make your kitchen functional if aging in place or handicap-accessibility is one of your goals.)

For small and medium size kitchens less than 150 square feet, the average cabinetry is about 12 feet of wall cabinets and 13 feet for base cabinets. If you’ve a larger kitchen, you may need more cabinetry for additional work space and storage.

It’s best if you take the first measurements yourself, so when you look at cabinets at the store or in a magazine you have a better idea of which are available for the designated space.

Choosing a Cabinet Type

There are three types of cabinets to choose from, stock, semi-custom, and custom, each with their own perks and downfalls. Below is a table outlining these to make it easier to decide which is the most appropriate for your particular kitchen.

Cabinet Type Pros Cons
  • Most economically priced – can leave room in your budget for other upgrades elsewhere
  • Fully assembled
  • Available immediately or in a couple of days after purchase
  • Limited choices of wood types, styles, and finishes beyond drawers and cupboards
  • Can’t be adjusted to specific measurements – constructed in standard sizes such as 3” increments
Semi-Custom/ Built-to-Order
  • Larger variety of designs, storage options, standard sizes, finishes, and styles
  • Can include optional modifications and factory-installed accessories
  • Made-to-order, but with set widths that could possibly require inserts for non-standard dimensions
  • Can be built to specifically requested measurements and dimensions
  • Designed to fit exact tastes and styles of specific kitchens
  • Most expensive
  • Often not factory constructed, meaning less assurance of construction standards/uniformity
  • Can take a long while, even weeks, to get the final product

Choosing a Material

After you choose among cabinet types, it’s time for the most interesting (and sometimes difficult) decision: which material and finish you’d like your cabinets to be. Cabinets come in three materials, and like wood furniture, are often not made completely of solid wood, but of wood-based materials. This is because solid wood can absorb moisture easily and is prone to warping and cracking if it isn't adequately sealed, whereas wood-based materials such as plywood, MDF, and particle board are not. Therefore, cabinets that advertise “solid wood” are usually an engineered wood material covered with a popular veneer such as maple, oak, or cherry. So what exactly are these base materials made of?

A few facts about materials:

Material Description and characteristics
Particle Board
  • Composed of wood shavings, sawdust, wood by-products, glued together by pressure
  • Most commonly used material
  • Good screw-holding ability
  • Depending on composition may or may not be a sustainable material
  • Engineered wood made of layers of wood plies layered to make it dimensionally stable
  • Each ply is positioned to give this material equal strength in all directions
  • Good quality especially when covered with wood veneer (this is referred to as a solid-wood cabinet)
Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)
  • Made of better components than particle board
  • Can be shaped, unlike particle board
  • Denser material with smoother and cleaner surface that can be painted
Solid wood
  • Wood is much stronger than other wood products and is best suited for cabinet fronts, doors, drawer fronts, and shelves.
  • Attractive and can be refinished.
  • Appropriately sealed and finished, wood is impervious to most types of damage.

Finishing up

Finishes nowadays require much less care and upkeep than those of the past, but there are certain things you want to know about when deciding on your perfect cabinets. Some good questions are whether the cabinets have “heat-catalyzed” conversion varnish, hand-rubbed stains, ultraviolet inhibitors to minimize sun damage, and high solids sealers to protect the wood. Many good-quality factory finishes last longer than many older finishes that may not resist moisture very well. Obviously, you probably won't be able to tell if your cabinets have good ultraviolet inhibitors unless you can distinctly smell sunscreen emanating from the general area, so you’ll have to ask about these.

Do you need new cabinets?

It might seem obvious if you are reading this, that of course you need new cabinets, right? But let's rethink this. Half the current US housing stock is more than 50 years old. That means that if the kitchen hasn't been remuddled, you could be sitting on some very nice quality—albeit old—cabinetry. Before tearing it out, consider refinishing and painting or refacing the cabinets. For a fraction of the cost of new cabinets, you could add new organizers and maintain the integrity of your home's character. (If you must remodel, consider hiring a deconstruction service and selling the cabinets intact to someone who wants to restore their kitchen.)

Once you’ve got the type, material and finish in mind, it’s time to start thinking styles. The style of cabinet you decide on is going to affect how your kitchen ultimately looks, but it’s not usually a gauge of high or poor quality. Look through home decorating magazines, check out friends' and neighbors' cabinetry, and browse through your local home improvement store to get ideas on the perfect style for your living space.

Are they quality cabinets?

Once you’ve decided on the type of cabinet most suited to your needs, and you’ve also picked the material, style, and finish, you’re going to want to check out a few more things to make sure everything is in order and your cabinet won’t fall apart as soon as someone puts a Costco-sized bag of flour on the top shelf. Here is a list of things to check for when making your final decision.

Money Saving Tips

  • Plan your project
  • Work with what you have when possible. Reface or refinish dated, but solid, cabinets
  • Don't move plumbing or electrical unless necessary
  • Buy the best quality cabinets you can afford to improve functionality as well as appearance

For the money you are spending, it's important to spend time being picky and choosy about your cabinets. Since a lot of your budget for your kitchen is going to be spent on them, take time to shop around and investigate which types and materials are going to give you the most bang for your buck. It may seem a little intimidating at first, but once you get an idea of what will suit your needs the best, it will make selecting the right cabinets a whole lot easier.

Want help installing those cool new cabinets that you got a deal on? Hire a reputable carpenter to make sure they're square. Find a pro at ContractorNexus .

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