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The cabinet choice; it's the biggest decision for most kitchen remodelers.

The least understood part of your kitchen is also the most expensive. You can read comparison reports on appliances, counters, flooring. But what about those pretty boxes-your cabinets? Whether you're building a new kitchen or remodeling an old one, they typically eat up more than 60 percent of your budget.

On these six pages, we show you the three ways you can buy cabinets and the two ways all cabinets are constructed. We also describe the basic cabinet units and how they're modified and organized into a functional kitchen.

Stock cabinets: buy your kitchen "off the shelf" and save-if you're careful

Mass-produced standard-size cabinets are descending in record numbers on the West-the last great untapped market (they've been available elsewhere for years). They're the least expensive option, but, as the name implies, their range of sizes is limited.

Even so, you can always specify door styles, which direction they swing, and whether side panels are finished. And you can often get options and add-ons such as breadboards, sliding shelves, wine racks, and special corner units. Most also have cabinets that can be ordered for peninsulas or islands-with doors or drawers on both sides, and appropriate toespaces, trim, and finishes.

You often find stock lines heavily discounted at some home centers. But buying such cabinets can be a lot like doing your own taxes: no one really volunteers much information that will save you money or clarify your options-and, if you

make a mistake or someone (even a salesman) gives you bad advice, you're still the one who's liable. Knowledgeable people who can help you select stock cabinets tend to be the exception, not the rule.

Custom modular: an industry hybrid offers the best of both worlds

Between stock and custom-made are custom modular cabinets or custom systems. These are manufactured cabinets of generally higher grade with more design flexibisity-albeit at higher cost.

Custom systems offer a wide range of sizes and man options within each size. Roger Steffen of Design Works in Torrance, California, explains: "A good modular shop can do all but truly custom work. We use our own components, building the kitchen from finished units. Modifying modular is sort of the same thing as custom these days."

You can change practically everything on these basic modules: add sliding shelves, replace doors with drawers, set a matching hood unit over the stove, add wire baskets, flour bins, appliance garages. The examples shown on pages 72 and 73 are but a sampling of the wonderfully engineered hardware available. Key to the versatility of these systems is that, if necessary, basic dimensions can be modified to fit virtually any kitchen configuration. Heights, widths, and depths can be narrowed or enlarged so that you can adjust to practically any size.

Though frameless cabinets (see the boxon pages 72 and 73) are sized metrically (standard cabinets are 60 centimeters-about 24 inches), virtually all lines are now sized for American appliances. And they still break into about 3- inch increments, with custom dimensions available. Perhaps more options exist for corners than for any other kitchen space. If you don't use a specially designed cabinet, you'll lose a lot of valuable space. The simplest corner butts one cabinet against another, providing inconvenient access to the corner. Better options include diagonal units with a larger door, double-door units that provide full access to the Lshaped space, and lazy Susans or other slide-out accessories that bring items from the back up to the front.

Handmade cabinets, custom craftsmen: endangered species? Unlikely

"System cabinets are a new world for the West Coast. It's timber country-traditionally the territory of wood butchers," one kitchen designer told us. Look up Cabinets in the yellow pages and you'll see that the industry is still dominated by small custom shops.

Most Westerners got kitchen cabinets by having a cabinetmaker come to the house and measure, then go away and build custom frame carcasses, drawers, and doors-almost an image, one manufacturer told us, "of Gepetto in his workshop." For many years, that's the way things were-with smallish two- or threeperson shops building kitchens one by one. There are still cases in which going to a custom shop may make sense-to match old cabinets or size truly oddball configurations like the curving cabinets on page 69. "The custom shop can do the tricks, the nonstandard, the true custom, the super-complex jobs," says Rob Boynton of Midland Cabinets, in Redwood City, California. His kitchen, on page 73, illustrates the point-with crown molding, and trim sized around appliances, island, and range hood.

But the custom cabinet shop "isn't as custom as you might think," says one "Wood butcher." Many shops buy door and drawer fronts from the same people who make them for stock manufacturers (companies that will reface your existing cabinets also often buy these massproduced parts for the job).

And cabinetmakers are using the same fine hardware (usually German) and tools (multiple-bit "system 32" drills, metric hinge setters, and precise panel saws) developed for modular systems.

"Standardization means the custom cabinetmaker isn't needed as much; some custom shops may be dying," says former cabinetmaker Francis Paone, who now represents several modular systems at Fine Lines in Redondo Beach, California. One thing agreed upon by custom shops and American face-frame cabinet retailers alike is that frameless cabinets will replace face-frame ones as the dominant style (see box on following pages). "At this point, face-frame is largely a look; it can be duplicated in frameless," one cabinetmaker told us.

Figuring out how well a cabinet is built To determine the quality of a cabinet, look closely at the drawers. They take more of a beating than any other part of your cabinets. "Drawers are a cabinet within a cabinet," says one maker. "They tell all." Compare drawers in several lines, examining the joinery of each, and you'll begin to see differences.

Drawer guides and cabinet hinges are the critical hardware elements. Check for adjustability of both; they should be able to be reset and fine-tuned with the cabinets in place. Some frameless cabinets also have adjustable mounting hardware, so you can relevel them even after they're hanging on the wall.

Make sure laminate and edge banding are thick enough not to peel at corners and edges. "Once they start peeling on a cheap cabinet, that's it," one shop warned.

Figuring out what you need

"The cabinets themselves are only one part of the puzzle," Chris Christianson of Poggenpohl Los Angeles told us. Others are modifying them, then designing the kitchen they go into. When you buy cabinets, part of what you're paying for is varying degrees of help with the design.

A kitchen designer will help you figure out how you'll use the kitchen. Some retailers will give you a questionnaire to help find out what's wrong with your current kitchen, how often you do any kind of specialty cooking, whether your guests always end up in the kitchen, whether you buy food in bulk, and other clues to the final design solution.

A showroom with many lines will give you a better idea of what you want-and the designer a sense of what you're after. "Pick a 'look', then shop for it; compare features, craftsmanship, budget, and the like," recommends Glen Ferguson of The Kitchen Warehouse in Los Angeles.

If you're serious about buying, make an appointment with a showroom (and make it for a time when the place won't be too busy). Some will also carry the other items you'll need, such as counters, appli

ances, sinks, and fixtures.

Almost every designer represents a particular line, so once you get serious, you should be sure that you like that particular line of cabinets.

Your current floor plan is the best aid you can offer a designer. Include dimensions of walls, windows, and doors; and placement of existing cabinets, appliances, and lights. Some designers will do the plan for you, applying the charge against the purchase price.

Some showrooms now use computer renderings. This makes it easier to visualize the finished kitchen and prices for different cabinets are just a keystroke away. Your budget will affect more than your choice of cabinets. You can often pay less for lower-priced lines by shopping where design services aren't necessarily included. But "as you step down in price," one designer warned, "you are forced to take more and more responsibility; you have to guarantee the accuracy of every step in the process."

. . . and all this will cost what? Under "Cost range" in our chart, you don't see any numbers. Why? Because so many factors influence the final price. The kitchens you see on these pages have cabinets that range from $1,300 to more than $80,000.

The range of styles-and prices-makes buying cabinets much like buying a car. Like car makers, every manufacturer or cabinetmaker picks a slot of the market, then offers various styles and options that jack up or bring down the basic price. If you're looking for'the cabinet equivalent of "transportation," you can pay a lot less than someone looking for something sportier.

Know your budget. You'll quickly find out what kinds of cabinets you can afford. With your plan in hand, you can get a base price for standard cabinets relatively easily But options will drastically alter the quote-so the same basic cabinet can end up costing a lot of different prices. Bids should be full quotes based on a fully specified room sketch listing the options desired in each cabinet. Within each line, basic costs are determined by the style of the doors and drawers. Remember, the basic frame carcass will be the same within a line no matter what door style you choose. Wood species can also affect price.

In many showrooms, you can get an idea of general costs by asking dealers for the prices of components in sample kitchens. A good showroom has an advantage over most custom shops: you can see many of the possibilities set up in one place.

Even if you're buying manufactured cabinets, consider including a bid from a custom shop for comparison. A shop can match practically any style, or can come up with a pattern or finish not available in a modular or stock line.

As with stock and custom modular bids, make sure your plan is specific enough to get a reliable quote. Ask for complete shop drawings, so there's no misunderstanding as to what you're ordering.

Two construction types: American face European frameless

Traditional American cabinets mask the raw front edges of each box with a 1-by-2 "face fram." Doors and drawers then fit in one of three ways: flush; partially inset, with a notch; or completely overlaying the fram.

Face-frame cabinets offer somewhat more flexibility in irregular spaces than modular ones do; the outer edges of the frame can be planed and shaped to conform to unique discrepancies. Since the frame covers it up, thinner or lower-quality wood can be used in the sides (thus reducing price). But the frame takes up spaces; it reduces the size of the door opening, so drawers or slide-out accessories must be significantly smaller than the width of the cabinet.

Europeans, whose kitchens are so tiny that all space counts, came up with "frameless" cabinets. A simple narrow trim strip covers raw edges, which butt directly against each other. All hardware (for doors, drawers, or accessories) mounts directly to the sides of the boxes. Doors and drawers fit usually to within 1/4 inch of each other, revealing little of the trim. Interior components such as drawers-can be sized larger, practically to the full interior dimension of the box.

Thanks to absolute standardization of every component, frameless cabinets are unsurpassed in versatility. Precise columns of holes are drilled on the inside faces. These holes are generally in the same places, no matter whose cabinets you buy, and components just plug right into them.

The term "system 32" refers to the basic matrix of all these cabinets: all the holes, hinge fittings, cabinet joints, and mounts are set 32 millimeters apart.

Another big difference: frameless cabinets typically have a separate toespace pedestal, or plinth. This allows you to set counter heights specifically to your liking, stack base units, or make use of space at floor level.

Custom kitchen contains features you won't find in a catalog. Cabinet faces have raised beaded panels, large-radius corners. Everything is paneled, including appliance faces, cabinet sides, sink soffit, and flared hood. Crown molding wraps wall cabinets, while matching molding frames over-island light. Design: Rob Boynton, Midland Cabinets, Redwood City, California

Some cabinet options to consider

Swing-out half-moon bins are one of a dozen ways to turn a corner, depending on space-and budget

Tabletop is tamboured, it rolls closed behind drawers for no lost space

Pantry with two-panel door is fitted with a series of Pull-out wire bins to use all of tall, deep space

Side access to roll-out pantry with wire bins makes narrow space completely usable

Surpirse drawer pulls out of recessed toespace in German cabinet installation.

Three ways to buy kitchen cabinets....and their differences

Where to buy


Lumberyards, home improvement centers, appliance stores, some showrooms (most stock is made in this country).

Custom Modular

If you know a brand name, check the yellowpages. These cabinets are mainly showroom items, but some are found in stock locations, department stores.


Few shops have showrooms; most show pictures of completed jobs. Be safe; visit not only the shop but some installations, too.

Who designs


You should, because the clerk helping you order may know less about cabinet options than you do. Don't order if you're at all unsure.

Custom Modular

The better (and more expensive) the line, the more help you get. Top-of-the-line suppliers design your whole kitchen; you just pick the style and write the cheeck.


You; your architect, builder, or kitchen designer; or the maker (but be careful; cabinetmakers aren't necessarily designers).

Cost range


Less than other two choices, but you'll still swallow hard when you see the total. Look for heavy discounts at home centers, but pay attention to quality and craftsmanship.

Cutom Modular

A basic box can cost about what stock does, but each desirable modification or upgrade in door and drawer finishes boosts the cost considerably.


Very wide; depends, as with factory-made boxes, on materials, finishes, craftsmanship, and options you choose.

Options available


Only ones may be door styles, hardware, and which way doors swing--but check the catalog; some lines offer a surprising range.

Custom Modular

Most lines offer choices galore--including variations on basic sizes (also check options for corner spaces). Check showrooms and study catalogs.


You can often--but not always--get the same options and European-made hardware that go in custom modualar cabinets.

Materials used


Cheaper lines may use doors of mismatched or lower-quality woods, composites, or thinner laminates that photo-simulate woode.

Custom Modular

Factory-applied laminates and catalyzed varnishes are usually high quality and durable. Medium-density fiberboard is superior alternative for nonshowing wood.


Anything you specify, but see samples. Methods vary by cabinetmaker; look at door and drawer hardware in a finished kitchen.

Delivery time


You may be able to pick up cabinets at a warehouse the same day you order. lWait is generally (but not always) shorter than for other types.

Custom Modular

Five to eith weeks is typical, whether cabinets are American or imported, but don't be surprised if they take up to six months. Order as soon as you know what you want.


Figure five weeks or longer, depending on job complexity, material and hardware availability, number of drawers, finishes.

Installation & service


Depends on where you buy; supplier may recommend a contractor. Otherwise, you install yourself. Service is virtually nonexistent.

Custom Modular

Better lines are sold at a price that includes installation and warranty (one of the reasons price is higher). Some cabinets are virtually guaranteed for life.


In most cases, the maker installs. Buy from an established shop and you should have no trouble getting service if anything doesn't work right.

Other considerations


You often pay in full up front, giving you little recourse if they're shipped worng. Be sure order is absolutely correct and complete.

Custom Modular

Wilth some manufacturers, if cabinets are worng, you'll wait as long for the right part to arrive as you did in the first place. Check.


Make sure the bid you accept is complete--not just a basic cost-per-foot or cost-per-box charge.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jan 1, 1989
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