Most homeowners want custom cabinetry for their kitchen. With endless available options, and the ability to tailor the look, size, and shape exactly to your specifications, custom cabinetry is indeed an appealing choice if budget allows.
Not all custom cabinets are created equal, however, and “custom” means different things to different cabinetmakers. The capabilities and sizes of cabinet shops and the characteristics of their products vary widely. Choosing whose product is best for your needs is more difficult than with semi-custom and stock cabinets because the variables with custom are much broader. Construction materials, joinery techniques, styling, functional and decorative accessories, and finish types should all be carefully scrutinized and compared. What constitutes a good value in custom cabinetry can be very subjective, as sought-after aesthetics don’t always relate to the quality of materials or the durability of the finished product. Some custom cabinets are very expensive and also poorly built—but are seen as high-end choices with a lot of prestige, based on their styling and good marketing campaigns.
Since custom cabinetry does cost more than semi-custom or stock cabinetry, it’s important to know what you are willing to pay more for and that the cabinetmaker you select will live up to your expectations. The need for special configurations that are only available from custom shops is an automatic qualifier, but don’t stop there. If the project calls for a special color or finish, be sure that you’re satisfied with the appropriateness of the material to which the finish is being applied and look at approval samples under similar light to that of your kitchen. In the case of stained wood, the best makers build their own doors and drawer fronts and strive for harmonious color and grain throughout. With veneers, not only are there are various types of grain and matching, but the thickness and application of the face veneer and edge materials are also important. With solid wood fronts, look carefully at the way that frame joints are detailed and how well they are fitted. Look at the difference between face-framed cabinets (in which there’s a framed front on which cabinet doors attach) and frameless (often used in modern styles for a seamless look), and consider using doors that are one inch or thicker for a more substantial look and feel.
Be sure that you like the proportions of the framing, moldings, and other elements. Specify exactly how the knobs or pulls are to be placed, and insist on seeing these things at least in accurate elevation drawings. Find out if moldings are produced with the individual projects, as “fresh” moldings can be better matched with the cabinetry, and will usually fit better. Be sure they come in adequate lengths to ensure the fewest possible face joints. Consider thicker shelves, or at least thicker front edges, both for strength and appearance.
It is always worth it to work with a designer who is not only experienced but has a good eye and knowledge of a cabinetmaker’s capabilities—as well as a healthy respect for your budget—to deliver a finished product that is really worth the extra cost. Custom kitchens often become needlessly complex, overdone, and expensive when creative touches or special features and accessories are added indiscriminately.
Finally, make sure that the team that manages and installs everything has the skills and takes the additional care that a beautifully made custom set of cabinetry demands. Designed to your specifications and with a careful eye to quality, your tailor-made set of cabinets should be a pleasure to use for years to come.