Kitchen Cabinets: A Myriad of Choices—From Prefab to Custom

kitchen_1Cabinetry is the most important aspect of a kitchen; it aesthetically sets the tone of the room and creates functionality. Most importantly, it accounts for nearly half the price of a kitchen design or remodel. Forty-eight percent of a homeowner’s kitchen budget goes towards cabinets, according to a survey conducted by the National Kitchen Bath Association. (Countertops follow behind, accounting for 18 percent of the budget, and appliances for 15 percent.) Essentially, your choice
in cabinets is the most crucial decision you must make when designing your kitchen.

Prior to purchase
The building industry uses a 5 to 15 percent rule, which gives you a sense of what amount is reasonable for you to spend on your kitchen project, according to Henrybuilt Corporation, a kitchen system builder. This means that your kitchen project should cost no less than 5 percent and no more than 15 percent of the current value of your home. For example, if your home is valued at $500,000 and you are getting a middle-of-the-line kitchen, you’ll use 8 percent of your estimated home value on your kitchen. This means that you’ll be spending $40,000 on your kitchen. As noted before, 48 percent of that cost typically goes to cabinets, so you’ll spend $19,200 on cabinets alone.

The measuring and planning stage is a crucial part of putting together your kitchen. One wrong measurement can throw off your entire kitchen. If you are taking the stock cabinet route and aren’t savvy with numbers, you should consult a professional to measure your kitchen. If you are purchasing custom or semi-custom cabinets, your kitchen designer will come to your home and take measurements.

With stock cabinets, if you have confidence in your measurements, be sure to draw out a wall plan allowing a few extra inches of space for your appliances. Determine if you want to build a soffit—a partial wall that comes down from the ceiling and meets the top of the cabinet. Look into the plumbing and electrical system in your kitchen. Do you want to add more outlets, under-cabinet lighting, another sink, or perhaps a dishwasher hook-up? All these decisions will influence the arrangement of your cabinets.

Just like with measurements, the installation process comes down to the capabilities and skills of the homeowner as well. If you plan on having your cabinets installed by a professional, the general rule is to spend 18 percent of the cabinet’s initial cost on installation. (Refer back to the 5 to 15 percent rule: This means you’ll spend $3,456 on installation for your $19,200 cabinets in your $40,000 kitchen in your $500,000 home.)

kitchen_3Is prefab fabulous?
I love perusing the kitchen showroom section of Home Depot and Expo Design Center, picking out the kitchen that I’d like in my future house. All the kitchens are built as if they are for small homes, ready for shoppers to cart them home that day. Oh, the instant gratification of stock cabinets! You can see what they look like right then and there in your big-box store and decide if it matches your taste. And then, with the swipe of your credit card, the kitchen is yours.

Stock cabinets are the quickest route to creating your kitchen. They are available in standard sizes and finishes, with filler pieces taking up the awkward in-between spaces you need to fill. Stock cabinets do offer most of the interior fittings—the lazy Susan, special pull-out shelving, etc. to help you organize your kitchen—but they are usually tacked on as additional costs, which will add up when you’re ready to check out. Stock cabinet widths range from 9 to 48 inches, typically increasing in 3-inch increments. Stock cabinets are the way to go if you don’t want to invest much in your kitchen and don’t have much time to spare.

A few things to note if you are purchasing stock cabinets: Focus on the price and quality of construction. As noted earlier, minor changes like cabinet upgrades and accessories can add up. Some big-box stores price cabinets per square foot and upgrades can cost you an extra dollar per square foot. The initial price of the cabinets may seem within reason to you, but these little add-ons may cost you more than you originally anticipated.

Big-box stores tend to have elaborate kitchen showrooms that make you marvel at the cabinet’s finish and hardware and the entire setup of the kitchen. Don’t get swept away by the presentation. Open the cabinets and give them a good look. See if the cabinet box is made of particleboard, fiberboard or plywood. Particle and fiberboards aren’t as strong as plywood, and don’t hold up well against moisture.

How is the cabinet held together? Cabinets can be held together by staples, nails and/or glue. Well-made drawers are held together by dovetail joints, which interlock the perpendicular pieces of the drawer. These joints are known for their strength and resistance.

Cabinet boxes that are made from particleboard and that are glued or stapled together won’t hold up well against daily use or heavy countertops, according to “Kitchens: A Sunset Design Guide.” The book also notes that shelves less than 5/8 of an inch thick will give way to gravity and curve downward over time, and so will drawer bottoms made from thin particleboard.

Ready-to-assemble (RTA) cabinets are the most affordable kind of stock cabinets. Most RTA cabinets come with plywood boxes, a solid wood door and frame, and latches, according to RTA Cabinet Store. These cabinets are sold flat and are easy
to assemble.

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Semi-custom: The middle road
Semi-custom cabinets are the middle way between stock and custom cabinets. Semi-custom cabinets range from stock cabinets with custom-built doors or built-to-order cabinets—cabinets that you can choose from a catalog with many material and style options. Semi-custom cabinets can be of the same quality as custom but limited in size, color and styles.

Tiffany Griggs, owner of Signature Cabinets in Lynchburg, says that she orders from a few semi-custom cabinet manufacturers who can also do custom work, building a wall cabinet or tall hutch along with semi-custom cabinets.

“I have manufacturers I can go to and get those custom cabinets for an area… for not a steep price point,” says Griggs. “It would just be that area that needs to be filled, not the entire kitchen. They have a catalog with custom-sized boxes. I can call out custom sizes for a cabinet and they will make it. You will still get the consistent finish. I can make it work without spending a fortune.”

One of the biggest differences between semi-custom and custom cabinets is the quality of finish. Semi-custom cabinets are painted in a paint room with a sprayer, so that the finish is uniform on all cabinets.

“The stains and paints that are applied to the cabinets are done in a consistent manner, so every cabinet that comes off that order will be consistently the same,” Griggs says. “With custom, it can vary.” Custom cabinets are painted individually.

This quick finishing method makes ordering semi-custom cabinets more convenient than custom. Griggs says that she can get semi-custom cabinets ordered and made in three weeks because of the stock finishes and sizes.

Some semi-custom manufacturers are taking custom cabinet trends and applying them to their semi-custom lines. For instance, a few are starting to do custom-finishing techniques without a big upcharge, according to Griggs. These glazes and paints are applied by hand, which will add on more time to production. Also, some semi-custom manufacturers are offering reasonably priced inset doors, which are typically done by the custom cabinet company.

Semi-custom cabinets range in price depending on the extent of modifications, the type of wood, and the finish used. A superior wood like cherry, a distorted finish or change in dimensions will raise the price. Basic semi-custom oak or maple cabinets for a smaller kitchen start at around $2,000. For a moderate quality wood in a moderately sized kitchen, plan to spend $10,000 to $15,000 on semi-custom cabinets, says Griggs.

“When you are looking, if resale is an option down the road, the kitchen is the number-one selling factor when the decision is made to purchase a home,” Griggs says. “Ninety percent of my time personally is spent in the kitchen. Nowadays kitchens are made around gathering and just spending quality family and friend time. Lots of islands and desk areas and wine areas. The kitchen is just a great focal point and gathering area. The number-one selling factor is how functional and what the kitchen looks like.”

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Custom cabinets: All the bells and whistles
Custom cabinets are a big commitment. You must consider three things—property value, budget and kitchen use. You don’t want to invest in customized cabinets if you know that you won’t get your investment back when you sell your house. Make sure your kitchen investment is proportional to the value of your home.

Custom cabinetmakers price by the job. With custom cabinetry, every kitchen is unique and price depends on detail. If the homeowner wants an elaborate island or desk/workspace built in the kitchen, then it’s going to cost more. An elaborate finish, a superior quality of wood or very detailed cabinets will drive the price up. Generally, custom cabinets are more expensive than stock and semi-custom cabinets.

With custom cabinets, the finish can be as much as a third of the price of the cabinets, according to Grayson Ferguson, owner of Grayson Ferguson Woodworking in Lynchburg. A specialty finish like a crackle or glaze finish will cost more. Typically, if the cabinets are stained, the finish accounts for 10 to 15 percent of
the cost.

A major difference between custom and stock cabinets is the way they are hung, Ferguson says. Custom cabinets are made with a half-inch plywood backing, allowing them to be hung by screws anywhere on the back. Stock cabinets are typically made with a quarter-inch fiberboard backing and a hanging rail on the back. This is a cheaper approach and limits where you can put the screws.

Custom cabinets are constructed using a plywood box and then using a solid wood overlay, like oak, cherry or maple. Ferguson says that maple is typically used because it is a strong wood and it is easy to paint.

Custom cabinets are designed specifically for your space. Custom-built cabinets are more functional than stock cabinets and the design uses your kitchen space optimally. Unlike stock and semi-custom cabinets, custom cabinets aren’t built modularly. Stock and semi-custom cabinets are built as boxes that you put together to fit your space. For instance, with stock cabinets, if you have an 8-foot wall space to fill, you will find a combination of boxes to fill that wall. With custom cabinets, your carpenter will build an 8-foot cabinet specifically for that wall, according to Ferguson.

Time span is another factor to consider with your kitchen cabinets. Custom cabinets have a longer production time than stock and semi-custom cabinets. Ferguson says custom cabinets can take from four to ten weeks. An $80,000 will take around eight weeks, and a $30,000 kitchen around four weeks. Custom cabinets don’t have the instant gratification of being installed right away like RTA or stock cabinets, but they do leave an impression, lasting for decades.

How often do you use your kitchen? If you host dinner parties, bake regularly and find yourself always preparing a dish in your kitchen, then you will get your money’s worth with custom cabinets. If a high-end kitchen fits your lifestyle, then it’s an investment that will give back. If you don’t use your kitchen often, then it’s wise to purchase stock or semi-custom cabinets.

Built-to-order kitchens: The one-stop shop
Kitchen systems are the new hot thing, a trend that the U.S. cabinet market has snagged from its European counterparts. A kitchen system is a set of well-made cabinets, countertops, backsplash and lighting. Basically, you are purchasing your entire kitchen, rather than buying the bits and pieces. The kitchen system company Henrybuilt Corporation uses architects, designers and engineers to tailor each system to the buyer.

“One of the reasons it is so difficult to put a great kitchen together is because, in this industry, everything is sold in parts,” says Scott Hudson, Henrybuilt Corporation’s founder and CEO. “Particularly cabinets: pick a box, pick a door style, pick a pull …Then you have to lay it all out, deal with appliance requirements, plumbing and electrical locations. It gets really complicated. Imagine trying to buy a car like this.”

Kitchen systems focus on the “big picture,” selling you all the quality kitchen parts with an aesthetic and functional layout.

Henrybuilt has recently launched a built-to-order kitchen line, Viola Park, with a median price point, for those who want a high-quality kitchen but can’t afford custom cabinet work. Viola Park doesn’t offer the range of customization that Henrybuilt’s original line has, but is still stylish and can work with various architectural styles.

“For years there has been a lot of talk and online back-and-forth among design-oriented homeowners about how there is very little out there that is well-designed, well-made and priced between IKEA and custom—or between IKEA and the very high end,” says Hudson.

Because the kitchen is where you cook and entertain, a great deal of deliberation should go into the planning stages so that you can create a functional and aesthetic space. Your choice in kitchen cabinets—whether that be stock, semi-custom, custom or a kitchen system—is dependent on your lifestyle and cooking habits. And after all, everyone cooks differently.


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