You’ve saved up, you’ve waited patiently, and now you’re finally ready for that dream kitchen renovation, from the new flooring to the countertops to functional, beautiful cabinets. However, as you begin with selections, you may have quickly found yourself feeling confused by all of the different choices. This is especially true for cabinetry.
I know cabinetry looks simple, but there are actually many decisions you’ll need to make to get them right. For example... How many wood options are there, and which is right for you? Do you want custom or semi-custom cabinets? What’s the difference? Even worse, what if you end up making the wrong decision?! (Because they’re not cheap, I can tell you that.)
This is exactly how a recent client, Sara, felt during her kitchen remodel, and because of a lack of detailed information, she did end up making a choice she didn’t love in the end. Yes, I ended up losing some sleep over this (I can’t help it — I care!), but spoiler alert: we turned a stressful situation into a beautiful kitchen remodel.
Today I’m sharing Sara’s real-life story, as well as the importance of the internal makings of kitchen cabinet materials. (We’ll talk about style selections next month). By sharing this story, I hope you gain the necessary information and feel armed with the proper knowledge to make the best decision for your lifestyle and budget.
Are you ready?? Go ahead and pour yourself a glass of wine (my vote is for a Malbec), and let’s dive into all things cabinets…
It has been said that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and I might go as far as to say the cabinets are the heart of the kitchen. They usually take up the most amount of space, and even if you notice the pendants or the island first, I guarantee, the cabinets are helping your standout features shine. Not to mention that cabinets hold down the functionality of the kitchen! Can you imagine storing your serving, utensils, cookware, etc. in a kitchen without them? Me neither.
Choosing the right materials for your cabinets is one of the most essential investments in your kitchen’s future. Naturally, you want to spend wisely and be sure you’re choosing something made from quality materials and craftsmanship that will last. But of course, it’s also important to stay within your budget. Thankfully, there are several options to choose from. I’ll help break it down for you.
Custom cabinets are the way to go if you have a large budget and prefer solid wood throughout. In this scenario, every inch of the cabinet is constructed with beautiful natural wood. The bottom, sides, shelves, back, and top of the cabinet (often referred to as the box), and the drawers and doors will all be constructed in durable, solid wood.
Some of the most popular and highest quality woods used include hard maple, cherry, or red oak. Compared to bottom-of-the-line options (like particle board), these natural hardwoods last many years longer. If you choose to go the custom route, the next step will be reaching out to a highly qualified carpenter to start your build. Interview at least a couple of craftsmen to find the right fit for your needs.
Lastly, it’s important to know that solid wood cabinets are typically not the kind you’re going to paint. You want the natural wood grain to shine through on these beauties, so generally, you will opt for a stained finish. However, if you are looking for those classic white cabinets or another stand-out color, this might be the better choice for you...
Plywood, which consists of layers of thin wood, is technically considered a solid wood option. If you choose to go with all custom wood cabinets, it will likely be constructed of plywood boxes and solid wood drawers and fronts. They are stainable and paintable, cost less to construct, and can withstand some exposure to moisture.
If you’re longing for a timeless, painted cabinet, the most affordable option would be pre-fabricated cabinets made from Medium-Density Fiberboard or MDF for short. (Not to be confused with particle board, which is less dense, weaker, and more likely to chip.) This is one of the most popular types of engineered wood for kitchen cabinets.
MDF consists of a combination of very small wood fibers held together with adhesive. It is quite dense, so not only is this option much more cost-effective in the long run, but the quality is very durable and able to withstand daily use.
Another one of the significant benefits of choosing semi-custom cabinets includes getting to use your kitchen immediately. Once the cabinets are delivered and installed, you are ready to cook up a storm! There is virtually no wait time for craftsmanship and assembly.
After deciding on the materials for the box of the cabinet, next up is choosing the door and drawer fronts...
Doors and drawer fronts are some of the most prominent parts of a kitchen cabinet. This is the part that we see on an everyday basis, and it also gets the most wear and tear. Material options vary and ultimately depend on the lifestyle of the client and the budget of the project.
Here are the 6 most common materials used for door and drawer fronts:
I know I mentioned earlier that you generally don’t paint solid wood cabinets, but an option is available if you’d like painted solid wood doors and drawers. Paint-grade hard maple is a very smooth and high-quality wood, making it perfect for painting. The end result will be high-quality painted cabinets with a beautiful smooth finish. What could be better?
If you love the idea of solid wood, but your budget doesn’t allow it, there is always the option to use a combination of maple wood and MDF. In this scenario, the frame of the doors and drawers will be constructed with maple, and the cabinet will be complete with MDF in the center.
For example, these Shaker-style cabinets are constructed with the combination of MDF and maple. It’s beautiful, durable, and budget-friendly.
As mentioned earlier, MDF is a durable option when it comes to everyday-use cabinets. As far as looks go, you won’t want to stain these. Since it’s manufactured wood, there isn’t any wood grain to show, although the top layer (also referred to as the skin) may simulate the look of wood.
This material is relatively new in the cabinet world. It’s basically PVC vinyl coating that is applied on top of MDF for added protection. The end product is very durable and looks very much like natural wood. In addition, this material can be easily painted over, provided they aren’t peeling.
As I mentioned above, plywood is more expensive than MDF, and if you choose to go with all custom wood cabinets, it will likely be constructed of plywood boxes and solid wood drawers and fronts. These are paintable, stainable, fairly moisture resistant, and look great.
This will be the least expensive option that will generally come along with quality to match the price tag… both of which will be low. Of course, there is a time and a place for laminate cabinets, but we won’t dive deep into that today, since our clients are typically looking for something that increases their property value — whether they’re staying or selling.
One final word on materials... In addition to the semi-custom, pre-fabricated route being more cost-effective in the long run, you will get to use your kitchen immediately. Once the cabinets are delivered and they are installed, you are ready to cook up a storm.
By contrast, if you decide you want to have someone build the kitchen cabinets from scratch, it's most likely that they will use plywood. Once the cabinets are installed, then they need to be sanded really well, so the plywood is really, really smooth… now think of all the dusting that sanding causes. Then you will have to prime them, then paint them a couple of coats of paint. Once the painting is done, you cannot touch that kitchen for about 30 days. You need to let the paint sit and curate for at least 30 days before that kitchen is ready to be cooked. This timeline may be no big deal, or it may be a deal-breaker — you get to decide.
This step alone has MANY nuances that are simply too much to include here. I’ll dedicate next month’s blog post to taking you through all the style considerations for cabinets. For now, just know that after selecting materials, style is the next thing to cross off your list.
But… let’s get back to Sara’s story, shall we?
So, after reading all of these details, you may be wondering, what was our client’s final choice? Of course I will tell you! We went with all maple wood doors and drawers, complete with a cabinet box constructed of MDF. It gave our clients the ability to check all the boxes for their design and budget needs. In my mind, this was a perfect choice.
Until it wasn’t...
The cabinets showed up two days late (which was a miracle during our current global supply shortage!), but as I’m sure you’ve already guessed… our client didn’t love the MDF box. She decided she would rather have the cabinet boxes constructed of solid wood. But after some investigative work, in the end, having boxes made of real wood and given their budget and the pricepoint of their home was not a wise financial decision so my clients decided to go with Plywood boxes instead.
I was totally fine with that.
Shoulda...woulda...coulda… nothing good comes out of stewing over a simple mistake, right? You learn, you fix it, and you do it better next time! Which is exactly what we did. We ordered new plywood boxes to be used with the existing painted maple wood doors and drawers, and in the end, we were all happy and very relieved… thank God!
My next step? Writing this blog post to help you understand the makings behind cabinets. I’m hopeful that you will find this educational and informative, and if it helps you create a kitchen you love, my mission is accomplished. 😉
Sometimes when working with different renovation and/or design clients, once I know what their budget is, my job then is to find the best product for that budget. Turns out - although a very good start - that's not enough. The next step would be to educate the client on what they get for the budget, and never assume that the client is aware of the plethora of options out there.
Whether you’re renovating a kitchen or designing a brand new home, let’s chat! I’d love to help you make the right decision the first time around. See you next month for Part 2...