Kitchen cabinets play a leading role in determining the look, feel, and functionality of your kitchen. If you're thinking of remodeling or are building a house from the ground up, no doubt you've got kitchen storage on your mind. As an architect who's navigated the process for clients and my own family, I always begin by asking these five questions:
1. Are you after a Ford Escort or a Rolls Royce?
Purchasing kitchen cabinets is something like buying a car: when it comes down to it, an economy sedan does the same job as a limo. In other words, there's a big world of good options. Start by thinking about the job you want your cabinets to perform, what you envision them looking like, and how much of your budget you're willing to spend on storage (maybe professional-grade appliances are more important to you, for instance). From readymade to custom, all kitchen cabinet begin as boxes kitted out with shelves or drawers and fronts. It’s the craftsmanship, materials, hardware, design details, and level of customization that accounts for all the differences.
Above: The Rolls Royce of cabinetry: In this Manhattan kitchen, Platt Dana Architecture (members of the Remodelista Architect/Designer Directory) used semi-customized kitchen cabinets from high-end German company Bulthaup. Photograph by Ty Cole.
2. What are the basic cabinet types?
There are three basic cabinet types: in-stock, semi-custom, and custom. While in-stock and semi-custom cabinets are pre-fabricated, custom cabinets are entirely built to your specifications.
The most economical choice, and the Ford Escort of the cabinet world, in-stock cabinets average $75 to $400 per linear foot. Pre-made (and often pre-finished), they're sold off the shelf in standardized sizes at home centers like Home Depot and Lowes and by online suppliers. Most require little more than installation (by you or someone you hire)—though some, such as Ikea's popular options, come flat packed and need to be assembled. Pre-made cabinet measurements range from 12 to 36 inches wide (changing in 3-inch increments) and make use of infill panels to cover up gaps. Counter heights are the industry standard 36 inches tall.
Averaging $150 to $900 per linear foot, semi-custom cabinets are selected from existing designs and pre-fabricated off-site in standardized sizes, but with many more options in terms of sizing, styles, materials, and finishes. Outfits that offer customizable designs generally provide crucial assistance from in-house kitchen designers and installers. This level of services comes at a price, however: the fabrication of your kitchen doesn't begin until plans are finalized and drawings are approved, meaning a long lead time (and longer still if you're working with an overseas manufacturer). From approval of shop drawings to delivery, it can take up to 12 to 14 weeks. Manufacturers worth exploring: Henrybuilt of Seattle and UK-based Plain English, luxury kitchen makers who have developed lower-priced lines. And, at the highly engineered, luxury end, check out Bulthaup, a German company with US showrooms, and Boffi, an Italian line with a highly refined aesthetic.
Above: Semi-custom cabinets from UK kitchen designer Plain English's British Standard line: cabinets are pre-made and delivered primed and ready to be painted any color. For more on British Standard, see A Kitchen for the People, Courtesy of Prince Charles.
Like having a suit tailored to your measurements, working with a local cabinet fabricator has many advantages (you can spec odd-sized cabinets to work with your room dimensions, for instance). The finished results average $500 to $1,400 per linear foot. Depending on the materials, finishes, and hardware you choose, costs need not be prohibitive, and average lead times of 6 to 8 weeks are considerably less than the wait for semi-custom cabinets. Plus, you can check on progress and make minor adjustments along the way.
Above: Customized cabinets run along the length of the kitchen area, and make the most of the room's available height, in a New York townhouse designed by O'Neill Rose Architects. Photograph by Michael Moran.
3. How do I calculate the costs?
With cabinet prices ranging from $75 to $1,400 per linear foot, it's imperative that you scope your project wisely. Determine your guideline budget by measuring how many linear feet of cabinets you need (both above and below the counter). If you're remodeling an existing kitchen, you can do this to scale with a tape measure. If you're working on a new design, you'll need to use a scale ruler—and will probably want to enlist the help of an architect or kitchen designer. Multiply your number of linear feet by the quoted cost per linear foot, and you'll quickly arrive at your answer.
Above: London photographer Abi Campbell was on a limited budget when she designed her kitchen but knew she wanted Plain English's top-of-the-line, semi-customizable cabinets. See how she managed her budget in Reader Reahab: A Photographer's Kitchen in London. Photograph by Matt Clayton.
4. When do custom cabinets make sense?
The bespoke approach is ideal for kitchens with specific requirements (in a room with an irregular floor plan, for instance, or with counter heights that differ from the standard). For my family's own recent kitchen remodel, which involved general contracting work to remove walls and rewire, my architect husband and I went with custom kitchen cabinets for reasons that came down to design, cost, and coordination. After researching various options, our builder found a cabinet maker who could give us exactly what we wanted at much less than semi-custom prices (for more, see Sleuthing for Space in My Kitchen).
Above: I opted for customized cabinets in my own recently remodeled London kitchen. Because the room is open to our dining area, I wanted cabinets that don't shout "kitchen!" Photograph by Kristin Perers.
5. Built-in cabinets or open shelves?
Now that open-plan living and multi-functional rooms are becoming the norm, the kitchen with cabinets that run from wall to wall is no longer the gold standard. Like me, many people want their kitchens to blend into the surrounding decor. But while it may be tempting to do away with fitted cabinets altogether, they're valuable and efficient for storage, particularly if you have a small kitchen and a lot to pack into it. Instead of clearing the decks, find the balance that works for your needs. A popular compromise is to use fitted cabinets below the counter and open shelving above. But remember that what's in the open is on display—unlike what you tuck behind closed doors.
Above: A combination of premade fitted cabinets below the counter and open shelving above the counter keeps this small kitchen by Brooklyn-based Loading Dock 5 Architecture from looking hemmed in, while still providing ample storage. See more in Architect Visit: Broome Street Loft. Photograph by Sophie Munro.
Ready to tackle more kitchen decisions? See Five Questions to Ask When Choosing Your Kitchen Countertops. And for more specifics on the subjects, check out our Remodeling 101 posts: Butcher Block Countertops, The Intel on Black Marble Countertops, and A Marble Countertop Lookalike, Minus the Maintenance.