Choosing Kitchen Cabinets – A Cabinet is a Cabinet, Right? Wrong!

Choosing Kitchen Cabinets – A Cabinet is a Cabinet, Right? Wrong!


Choosing new kitchen cabinets can be a difficult decision for many homeowners. Stock cabinetry, semi-custom, full custom, local custom – what does it all mean? And where to start? Some of the following information can help you sort through the terminology and give you a good idea of what’s right for you.

Let’s start with the terminology that we kitchen professionals are likely to throw at you the first time we meet. Cabinetry is commonly graded on the basis of how flexible the manufacturer is in their willingness or ability to make modifications to their standard product offerings. In ascending order of both the flexibility to make changes, and the cost of the final product, the list looks like this: stock cabinetry, semi-custom and full custom. Yet another option is local custom, a separate category which although is custom-made, does not fall neatly into this hierarchy due to wide variations in cost and quality.

Stock Cabinetry-

Don’t be misled by the name. Stock cabinetry is not sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting for you to buy. In fact, in my experience all cabinet manufacturers build product to order and do not warehouse finished product. Imagine the enormous warehouse it would take to inventory every size cabinet in every finish and door style. For this particular type of cabinet – what you see in the catalog is what you get. The manufacturer will not make modifications to the size, shape or finish of the product. Door styles tend to be limited, finishes can be rough and are sometimes referred to in the business as a “production finish”. In fact, stock cabinetry is often referred to as “production cabinetry” because that’s exactly how it is manufactured – mass-produced in assembly line fashion. Builders of subdivision homes and multi-tenant apartments and condos usually provide this type of kitchen. If you have a tight budget and need cabinetry in a few weeks, this is the way to go. But take caution! I’ve seen many homeowners replacing stock kitchens after as little as five to seven years. As with everything else… you get what you pay for.

Semi-Custom Cabinetry-

This is the middle ground between stock cabinetry and full custom. Semi-Custom manufacturers usually have a specific list of modifications to the standard offerings which the designer can select, including changes in height, width or depth in certain increments. More door styles and finishes are available than with stock cabinetry, as well as more interior accessory options. Most manufacturers will offer glazing and even certain forms of distressing as possible finish options. A wider variety of looks can be achieved through the use of an increased number of crown molding profiles, and some carvings and wood on-lay accents are available to the designer too. The construction and quality of materials is generally a step up from stock cabinetry as well. If you can stretch your budget a bit and afford to wait a few more weeks for cabinetry, I would recommend seriously considering semi-custom cabinetry. You’ll be amazed at how much nicer the finished project looks and you’ll enjoy it’s durability and appearance for years to come.


Full Custom Cabinetry-

“Custom” is probably the most over-used term in the kitchen cabinet business. Almost as clich√© as the word “sale” in the car business. Nevertheless, it has a legitimate place here. Often considered the ultimate and most expensive way to go for a new kitchen – remember, you get what you pay for – when properly designed these kitchens are at the top of the heap. Manufacturers of custom cabinetry have plenty of door styles to choose from. Some will even build doors to your designer’s specifications if need be. Plan on looking at lots of finish samples too. And if you don’t see one you like, a custom finish can be created just for your kitchen. Stain and paint matching, glazing and distressing are common finish options as well. Sizing is no problem; good custom manufacturers subscribe to the philosophy “if you can design it, we can build it”. In addition to expanded molding offerings beyond Semi-Custom, most Custom manufacturers will allow the kitchen designer to specify moldings and carvings provided by third-party suppliers, and then finish them to match the cabinetry making the design possibilities even broader. The fabrication process for products at this level can be time consuming due to the fact that many of the critical operations such as sanding, finishing and assembly involve plenty of skilled manual labor for which there is no substitute. Finer quality materials, superior construction methods, and hand-crafting techniques all add up to an exceptional finished product.

Local Custom-

Product in the local custom category can go far beyond kitchen cabinetry into the area of architectural millwork including such items as fireplace surrounds, built-in library bookcases, custom bars, built-in wall units and even some furniture pieces. Local interior designers and architects frequently use Local Custom shops when projects require them to work more closely with the fabricators to achieve desired results. Local shops provide the ability to work with exotic woods and veneers and offer specifiers the potential to coordinate materials throughout the home. Most local shops will work directly with homeowners. If you are considering this option it’s important to do your homework. Local shops will vary dramatically– anything from one person in a garage with a table saw to large professional facilities with the latest equipment and dozens employees. Pricing can be all over the map as well. The bottom line here is, do your homework, check references and know whom you’re dealing with.


No doubt, there are many things to consider when planning your new kitchen: countertops, appliances, flooring, lighting and of course cabinetry. An outstanding layout and design along with a mastery of all technical aspects regarding how the many parts and pieces of the kitchen come together are critical to a successful project. Unquestionably the most important decision you will make is which kitchen designer to work with. Most new kitchen and remodel projects take several weeks or even months to complete and cost several thousand dollars no matter how much you shop. Once you are committed to investing the money in your home, doesn’t it make sense to choose a professional kitchen designer you know you can trust and who will have your best interest in mind? Believe me, you will require expert and patient help with the numerous decisions throughout the many weeks it will take to complete your project. For that reason, the first thing you should shop for is the right kitchen designer. Plenty of experience, great references and an excellent reputation are all prerequisites you should insist upon. You must also make certain that your personality “clicks” with that of your kitchen professional so you will both feel comfortable working closely as a team in making the heart of your home a truly special place.

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