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  • Writer's pictureGita Jacobson

Cabinet Basics

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

cabinet basics

It's the largest ticket item in your kitchen remodel and something that will get used daily - cabinets! Here's a quick guide to the basics of cabinetry.

Custom cabinets are made by local cabinet makers to the exact specifications of each space. The beauty in custom cabinets is that the design options are endless and you can fit cabinets into just about any space - perfectly - without fillers. Some custom cabinet shops build and install cabinets unfinished. After installation, the cabinets are sprayed or stained in place by a specialized painter. This gives the cabinet maker the opportunity to make adjustments on site without ruining the finish. It also means you can select any paint color or stain from any paint brand on the market - giving you the ultimate control over design.

large kitchen with white and navy cabinets

Semi-custom cabinets are made in a factory and can be modified by the inch to fit the space. These prefab cabinets can be of high quality, you just have less customization available, thus making them faster to produce and less pricey. For some clients, semi-custom cabinetry offers enough design options, colors, finishes, and door styles to satisfy their cabinetry needs.

kitchen with white and beige cabinets

So what are the noticeable differences between custom and semi-custom cabinets?

1. Doors!

In many cases, custom cabinet makers build all of the cabinet boxes and frames in their shops and purchase the cabinet doors from a high-quality, cabinet door company called Cal-Door. Cal-Door has been around since 1989. All they do is make doors, so cabinet makers have smartly relied on them to perfect the cabinet door. Semi-custom cabinet lines typically make their own doors to save on cost and production time. And each semi-custom brand will have their own door styles to choose from. A shaker door from one brand will look slightly different than a shaker door from another. In my experience, doors made by semi-custom factories tend to show cracks where two pieces of wood come together (like the 45 degree mitered edges on the corners of the cabinet door front). Some cabinet doors also use a much thinner central panel to reduce costs. Is this a deal breaker? Probably not, but if you care about the details the quality may bug you as the door ages and cracks more. 2. Getting that much-desired built-in look

Custom cabinets look perfectly built-in on a long span of wall. This is a bit more difficult to explain in writing, but beautiful to see in person. Because custom cabinets are built specifically for each space, when a cabinet maker builds upper cabinets for example, you won't see sets of 36" wide upper cabinets butted next to each other to fill a wall. Instead, there is one long cabinet that is built for the entire wall. It's a super clean, built-in look that looks very high end.

custom blue cabinet bar
The upper and lower cabinets each came on site as one piece in this beautiful built-in bar. The vivid blue color was painted on-site allowing the crown to have a perfect transition in color.

3. Overall quality

Custom cabinets are built to last, one cabinet at a time. Cabinet makers are meticulous and care about the construction and quality of what they are building. Therefore, you get a very high quality product that is reflective of the price. On top of that, many custom cabinet makers will install their cabinets themselves, ensuring ultimate perfection. Semi-custom cabinets are typically built quickly in a warehouse in mass quantities. The quality control isn't nearly where it should be so you will notice quality degradation in the details such as dovetail joints and chipped paint. You also need to worry about proper installation. Because contractors install different cabinets at almost every semi-custom job site they aren't experts in one particular brand of semi-custom cabinets. And because construction isn't challenging enough, each semi-custom cabinet brand has its own quirks. So inevitably mistakes get made during installation. TIP: Sometimes the cost of installing semi-custom cabinets amounts to almost the same price as custom cabinets (that includes installation). Make sure to get a custom cabinet price so you can compare once you get your contractor labor price for semi-custom cabinet installation.

Cabinet Types Frameless cabinets are European-style cabinets that have no frame on the front of the cabinets. The doors are attached to the cabinet box, as opposed to a frame on the cabinet face. These cabinets look sleek and modern and give you the most amount of space inside the cabinets.

TIP: Use this type of cabinet if you have a small kitchen or you want to achieve a modern look.

frameless cabinet kitchen

Face-frame cabinets are American-style cabinets that have a frame attached to the front of the cabinet box. The frame provides stability and a place to attach cabinet doors and drawers. In older cabinets you will notice that the doors have a gap in between them when they are closed, revealing the face frame. In newer face-frame cabinets the cabinet doors do not have a gap in between them when closed, covering the face frame entirely. That's a quick way to tell if cabinets are old or new.

TIP: Use this type of cabinet if you have a large kitchen where you don't mind losing a few inches to the face frame. This type of cabinet is great for any traditional, transitional, farmhouse, and even contemporary style of kitchen.

gray and white kitchen

Inset cabinets have doors and drawers that sit flush inside the cabinet frame with minimal gaps creating a stylized look. Inset cabinets many times are custom but some semi-custom brands do offer this look. It's typically the most expensive cabinet style as it requires extreme precision to make sure the cabinet doors are perfectly flush and inset with the face frames.

TIP: Use this cabinet in larger kitchens where space is not at a premium. Style-wise it lends itself well to more traditional and transitional kitchens.

white inset cabinets in a kitchen

Happy remodeling!

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