Stock or Custom Kitchen Cabinets

The workhorse in your kitchen isn’t the stove, the fridge, or the countertop. It’s the cabinetry. It’s by far the largest furniture system in the house, and has the weighty responsibilities of housing, organizing and hiding – or displaying – all of the kitchen paraphernalia; the pots and pans, utensils, machines, plates, cups, and glasses. All this, and it has to look good, too.

When it’s time to plan for new cabinets, there’s a lot to consider. Not the least of these decisions is whether to buy stock cabinets or go the custom cabinet route. Let’s look at some of the factors to consider when choosing cabinets for your new kitchen.

More Choices Than Ever Before

Over the past 30 years, homes have increased in size by an average of nearly 40%. According to an ABC news report, the average American home in 2005 was measuring 2,349 square feet, up from 1,695 square feet in 1974. Kitchens make up a large percentage of that growth, nearly doubling in that time to an average of 300 square feet. As homes have become larger, it seems that the hearth is no longer the metaphorical heart of the home, but rather the kitchen.

Manufacturers of kitchen cabinetry, appliances, and hardware have responded to this trend by supplying thousands of new products, features and styles to feed the growing hunger for the new “uber-kitchen.” Home products mega-retailers also devote huge amounts of real estate within their stores to showcase kitchen cabinets, counters, and appliances. These dizzying displays provide the homeowner with unparalleled cabinet choices in terms of colors, materials, styles, and features.

When we redid our California rambler, we’d often grab a large coffee and spend the next two hours prowling up and down the aisles of our local home products retailers, collecting ideas. Overwhelmed and somewhat frazzled, we’d immediately repair to our local wine bar and compare notes in a more relaxed setting. Over the course of two months, we’d gathered all the information we needed to make our choices. My advice is to do your research and see what’s available before committing to a “cabinet-level” decision!

Alternatively, a trusted cabinet maker and installer can often help direct you in one or two consultations, and can make suggestions about storage and display solutions you hadn’t even considered. They’ll often then prepare a formal sketch or computer illustration of the finished kitchen to help you fully realize the look of your new kitchen. And while you pay for this service in the price, many feel it is worth the money to have a professional guiding the process.

Think Outside The Box

Perhaps it’s the most tired of all clichés, but in this case I also refer to the “box” as the cabinet itself. Thinking outside the box here means thinking about the face of your new cabinets. Remember that you’ll be looking at this “face” for many years, so you’ll want to be completely satisfied with your choice. Wild colors might look great today, but may grow tiresome as fashions change over time.

One of the more popular trends in kitchen cabinets, is to “resurface” them. Here, you keep the boxes in place, but redo the exteriors, either painting, staining, or veneering the exteriors, and replacing the doors and drawer fronts. Since the doors and drawers really determine the style (Country, Urban Chic, Mediterranean, etc.) of your cabinets, a simple swap-out can give your kitchen a facelift without the extensive work of replacing.

I’ve done two kitchen cabinet resurfacing projects and was delighted with the results. The first was a pre-war apartment in New York that had old-school birch plywood cabinets. As I stripped the layers of old paint and varnish, I could see the doorfronts were premium, clear, matched veneers that had aged to a beautiful mellow tone. I realized that was the rich wood look that I wanted, so I finished them with clear varnish to let that golden wood shine through. But I also wanted some style in this apartment, so I sanded the boxes and painted them glossy black. The contrast was powerful, but the overall impression was warm and inviting.

The next project was the California rambler that featured some of the cheapest cabinets on earth, stained a depressing dark brown. After some structural fixes, I sanded them down and painted them matte white (to hide fingerprints and scuffs), then refitted them with new pulls. I also replaced a few of the door fronts with clear glass windows, and took out a wall between the kitchen and dining room, I then put glass-paneled doors of the back of these cabinets to create pass-through cabinets and a fantastic flow of natural light between the rooms.

In both these cases, I had more time than money, so doing the work myself was really my only option. I did hire a professional to create the glass doors, refitting some of the old ones, and recreating matching doors for the backs. It was money well spent, as those skills are not in my portfolio! There are scores of specialists, cabinet makers, and companies that can reface or resurface your tired old cabinets, usually in only a few days. Bear in mind that renovations to the kitchen can be the most stressful when the kitchen is out of commission. A professional crew can cut that down time significantly, which is an important consideration in any home improvement project.

When You’ve Decided to Replace

There’s a lot to recommend modern cabinetry. The quality, style and functionality of today’s modern kitchen cabinets is SO much better than in years past. And these new styles reflect modern living at its best, with thoughtful accommodations for appliances, utensils, wine racks, and more. Once you’ve chosen the look, feel, and basic layout of your new cabinet suite, you’ve got to decide whether you can satisfy your new design with stock cabinets, or whether this job is better suited to a pro.

Remember that even though there are scores of cabinet choices in stock sizes, not all kitchens or spaces are standard-sized, so you may wind up with a few awkward “holes” in the layout of stock cabinets. A custom cabinet builder, however, isn’t restricted to stock sizes, and can create cabinets to fit any space.

One of the trends in cabinetry today is using a mixture of stock and custom pieces that help keep prices down but create a true custom kitchen. For example, the cabinetmaker may elect to make the boxes for unusual spaces, but fit them with stock doors, which are far less expensive than custom doors. Also, I’ve seen interesting examples of stock glass front doors being retrofit with either stained glass lights or old, wavy glass. It’s a great way to achieve a one-of-a-kind look in your kitchen.

Finally, remember that a professional will know how to measure correctly, size accordingly and install perfectly. Again, consider this when comparing prices. Remember to accurately assess your own skills honestly. Over the years, I’ve come up against the limits of my competency on a few projects, and now know what I can achieve and what I can’t. When it comes to kitchen cabinets, I’ll stick to sanding, staining and painting!



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