Guide To Choosing Kitchen Cabinets

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When choosing kitchen cabinets, know your options. From materials to cost, style and more, here's everything you need to know.

Kitchen cabinets are often the dominating decorative feature in a kitchen, showcasing the homeowner’s design aesthetic and providing a backdrop for gatherings with family and friends.

Whether you’re starting from scratch or giving your existing kitchen an upgrade, consider the range of kitchen cabinet options to find one that matches your taste, budget and DIY skills.

What To Consider When Choosing Kitchen Cabinets

Here are the six major factors to keep in mind as you decide which kitchen cabinets are best for your home.

Kitchen cabinet materials

These vary greatly. “The box of a cabinet is usually made with plywood or particleboard, or sometimes MDF [medium density fiberboard] or solid wood,”  Jay-K Lumber Kitchen Design Manager Rachael Reczenski says. “However, the doors and face frames are made by combining solid wood, plywood and/or MDF.”

From solid wood to plastic laminate, the makeup of your kitchen cabinets impacts their cost, durability and appearance.

Kitchen cabinet construction

According to the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturer’s Association (KCMA), all cabinets derive from four types of construction.

Traditional face frame construction consists of horizontal rails and vertical stiles that provide reinforcement and mounting support. Overlay cabinets feature doors and drawers that cover the frames, while inset cabinet doors and drawers fit flush into frames. European frameless-style cabinets don’t contain face frames; doors are drawers mounted on the sides of the cabinets using hidden hinges and slides.

Note: Homeowners can order ready-to-assemble (RTA) cabinets shipped to their residence complete with components, fasteners, parts and instructions. (Think IKEA and other flat-packaged brands.) But RTA cabinets are only available in one style. Manufacturers hone in on the most popular cabinet style on the market at the time, says Reczenski.

“Right now, they’re focusing on shaker style,”  Reczenski says. “Give it a few years and they’ll offer RTA cabinets in whatever style is in demand at the time.”

Kitchen cabinet styles

Framed cabinets feature patterns and elements that display a traditional, classic or contemporary aesthetic, while the simple design of frameless cabinets defines a minimalist style. But whatever your design aesthetic, you can customize your cabinets by switching out hardware.

For design cohesiveness, select a style that complements the rest of your home. Carlos Coronado, lead designer of Muretti, says, “If you’re indecisive, take a walk around your home and see what feels best.”

These are the six styles of kitchen cabinets:

  • Shaker: Simple lines and flat-panel doors make these cabinets easy to clean and personalize to your style.
  • Craftsman (Mission): A simple cabinet style with tongue-and-groove joinery, featuring three vertical stiles on the door.
  • Flat-Front (Slab): These have single-board doors without frames, panels, ornamentation or beveling.
  • Beadboard: These feature vertical panels with uniform beads and recessed lines.
  • Handle-Free: Cabinets operate using groove, channel, lip or finger-pull functions, or by installing a push or tap latch system.
  • Raised-Panel (Traditional): As the name implies, these offer raised center panels rather than the flat center panels you’ll find on other styles.

Note: Homeowners worry that cabinet styles may not stand the test of time. Reczenski recommends choosing what you like best. “Unless you live in a very urban market, chances are, what’s popular today will still be acceptable in five years,” she says.

However, if you’re planning on selling the house in the next five years, consider a neutral take on what’s on-trend now in your area.

Kitchen cabinet maintenance and upkeep

Cabinet styles with deep crevices and details like beadboard are harder to clean and maintain than a style with flat panels. Finish also determines ease of cleaning. A satin finish hides fingerprints much better than a matte finish, in the same way a paint sheen does on walls.

“But painted cabinets are notorious for showing dirt, fingerprints, coffee drips and spaghetti sauce,” says Reczenski. And scratches and chips in paint are harder to repair.

Harder woods with more visible wood grain hold up better to daily wear and tear and hide any dirt and dust, says Reczenski. “So hickory and oak will wear much better than maple or birch,” she says.

Kitchen cabinet cost

Retailers and manufacturers base minimum pricing on a 10-ft. x 10-ft. kitchen (20 linear feet). Standard kitchen cabinets from a home improvement store for that size kitchen range from $1,500 to $7,000. On the lower end, you’ll find preassembled stock cabinets; in the middle, semi-custom cabinets; and on the higher end, custom cabinets made by designers partnering with home improvement stores.

Expect to pay $30,000 or more at a custom cabinet shop or high-end custom kitchen designer not associated with a home improvement store. Installation typically costs $1,500 to $3,000. Keep in mind that frameless and inset cabinet styles cost more to install because it takes more time and precision.

RTA cabinets start at $2,000 shipped to you to install yourself. If you build your cabinets, your costs are simply the materials you choose.

Kitchen cabinet installation/DIY friendliness

While most beginner DIYers can reface and refinish cabinets, or install dowels and pocket screws, other cabinet projects require woodworking skills such as fitting mortise-and-tenon joints. That’s according to Bruce Hogan, a veteran cabinetmaker and founder of The Wood Joint School.

Cabinetmakers often use mortise-and-tenon joints on all stiles and rails for cabinet doors because they’re the strongest way to join the wood. Slab doors are the easiest style to build because they’re made from a single piece of wood.

Don’t rule out Shaker style. It’s fairly simply to add faux stiles and rails to a slab door to get a Shaker door, says Reczenski. However, consider how wood expands and contracts with heat and humidity changes. For this reason, Reczenski recommends plywood for a slab door or the center panel of a Shaker-style door to help prevent the wood from splitting.

Pro tip: Mulling over refacing your existing cabinets? Refacing is a doable DIY project, says remodeling expert and writer Phillip Schmidt. Cabinet box construction varies in material and build quality. But beyond that, Schmidt says, a cabinet box is a cabinet box.

“If your old cabinets are in decent shape, you can cover the boxes with a new skin of hardwood, and replace doors, drawer fronts and, if desired, hardware,” Schmidt says. “Done properly, the cabinets look entirely new, and no one’s the wiser that you saved up to 75 percent by keeping the old boxes.”

Stacy Sare Cohen
Stacy Sare Cohen is a seasoned writer covering interior design, home improvement and real estate. You can read her work on Apartment Therapy.com, Angie's List, HomeLight, HomeAdvisor, Family Handyman and elsewhere. Stacy holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from UCLA and a Master of Teaching English from Monmouth University.