The Backbone of the Kitchen

Men laying new hardwood flooring

If youre remodeling your kitchen, the cabinets you choose will set the tone for the project. No single item in a new kitchen will cost as much as the cabinetry or contribute as much to the overall look. Thats why its critical to choose the most attractive and durable cabinets that will last for years to come.

Whats my style?

The first step in selecting your cabinets is to choose the style you prefer. While two general styles (traditional and contemporary) are predominant, there are countless combinations of woods, stains and glazes. Various door designs, including full and partial overlay, cathedral, square, Shaker and V-groove, also are available, making your choices virtually endless.

Its best to choose a cabinet style that complements the overall design of your house. If your home is contemporary, you probably dont want dark cherry cabinets topped with fussy crown molding. On the other hand, if your house boasts rich period flavor, youll probably want cabinets that match or mimic the style.

Most of the cabinets were doing in a standard home are transitional, meaning they are designed to look like they were built with the home, says Pam Sanchez, CKD, CBD, Allied ASID, of Pam Sanchez Designs Inc. (a member of Fusion Design Group LLC). However, the designs are not so intensely personalized that others couldnt visualize enjoying them. You want the cabinets to fit the home and blend in, not stand out because the color or details chosen are too extreme.

The best ways to define your style are browsing through cabinet showrooms, flipping through design magazines and visiting builders model homes. The type of research you should do depends on the project, says Peter Bourget, president of Bourget Innovations. If its a remodeling project, the Internet, design/build firms and consumer home shows are good places to get ideas.

The right woods
And speaking of style, the wood you choose is extremely important to the overall look of the room. All woods exhibit color changes over time, and every species has a specific grain, color and density, all of which affect the look of decorative finishes. The following outlines the characteristics of some of the more popular woods for cabinetry.

Maple has a tight, smooth, even grain that is predominantly off-white, making it popular for contemporary d??cor. It shows the least amount of variation of color with a natural finish, which is why it is one of the most popular choices for cabinetry, Bourget says.

Cherry is an elegant, multi-colored hardwood. In its raw state, it has a pinkish-brown hue with occasional shades of white, green, pink or gray. Cherry will darken or mellow over time, which is one of its attractions. It is good for traditional and formal d??cors.

Birch is a medium-density hardwood with a distinct, moderate grain pattern that ranges from straight to wavy or curly. The predominant sapwood color is white to creamy yellow, while the heartwood varies in color from medium or dark brown to reddish-brown. This range in color makes a distinctive statement in cabinets.

Hickory is a strong, open-grained wood and is known for its flowing grain pattern and dramatic color variation. Darker stains will mildly tone these color variations, but these characteristics make hickory a good choice for natural and country d??cors.

Pine is a close, straight-grained softwood with shades of white, yellow and pink. Pine contains numerous solid knots of varying sizes that contribute to color changes within the wood and make it ideal for country d??cors.

Oak has a prominent open grain with colors from white to yellow to reddish-brown. Oak is great with casual or country d??cor, and it mellows as it ages for a soft, seasoned look.

Quality counts
You can be assured that your cabinets will suffer a lot of wear and tear, so quality is critical. The weight of your dishes alone can cause poorly made shelves and doors to warp and sag, so to avoid this type of damage, thoroughly inspect your cabinets by the following guidelines before you buy.

The cabinet box: Look for a 3/4-inch or thicker face frame of solid wood, and plywood cabinet sides, which generally are stiffer, lighter and stronger than particleboard. Thicker sides (1/2- to 3/4-inch) are best, and a box with finished sides will help prevent warping and water damage. The best base cabinets also will have full dust tops or corner gussets, which are triangular pieces of wood that brace the uppermost corners of the box.

Drawers: Insist on having drawers with full extension hidden, under-mounted metal ball-bearing glides with a 100-pound rating. Three-quarters extension, side-mounted metal glides running on nylon rollers with a 75-pound load rating also are acceptable. To test the drawer, open it about an inch; it should close on its own. The drawer also should open smoothly without excessive side play. A solid wood face, 5/8-inch or thicker sides, a plywood bottom panel and strong corner joints that are either doweled or dovetailed also are signs of quality drawer construction. Avoid sides that are simply stapled and glued together. The rule of thumb for drawers today is that they have full-extension glides, which allow the drawer to come all the way out from the face of the cabinet, rather than staying inside, Bourget says. This makes it easier to reach in and get utensils.

Doors: If the door has frame-and-panel construction, look for a solid frame with doweled or close-fitting tongue-and-groove joinery. The center panel should float inside grooves in the doorframe and be tightly braced by rubber balls or cylinders ensuring the panel cant shift or rattle. Panels that are stapled to the back wont accommodate the natural expansion and contraction of the wood and are more prone to splitting.

The finish
: The door finish should look and feel smooth and even, without any chips or scratches. (If its not a specially distressed finish, but shows dings in the showroom, it probably will show wear in your home.) Controlled storage, a properly ventilated finishing environment and the human touch all dictate a cabinets long term durability and value more than a cabinets box construction, Sanchez says. Its best to choose cabinets that are built in the controlled environment of the manufacturers factory, and ones that are protected with a catalyzed finishing processes.

Depending on the finishing materials and techniques used, custom cabinetry can be the least or most durable product.

Custom vs. semi-custom vs. stock
Custom cabinetry is designed and made specifically for your kitchen, giving you an endless array of sizes, shapes and finishes. Representing the higher end of kitchen quality and cost, luxury manufacturers feature any number of wood species and door styles.

Because custom cabinet companies make their own doors and boxes at the same place, they have greater flexibility to combine colors, glazes and wood species because they dont have to order from a door manufacturer, Bourget says. Not only can you pick the wood species, you can also choose the inside edge, the outside edge and the inside panel. And if their stock colors dont meet your tastes, many can custom match a color to your sample.

On the other hand, semi-custom cabinets are factory-produced in common sizesusually in increments of 3 inchesbut often accommodate requests for common modifications, such as custom depths, heights and glass inserts for additional cost. However, manufacturers of semi-custom cabinets generally purchase cabinet doors from separate manufacturers, meaning you can purchase cabinetry only in the door styles, wood species and finish options offered.

With semi-custom cabinets, unusual sizes, shapes and accessories must be custom ordered. A good kitchen cabinetry designer working with an adventurous installation specialist can invent creative solutions that work within the restraints of semi-custom cabinets, Sanchez says. Many people choose semi-custom because they cant justify the time and cost necessary to have luxury [custom] cabinetry.

Finally, stock cabinetry is factory made in standard sizes and shapes. It often is held in inventory until purchased, which keeps choices down to a few common sizes and wood species. Although stock cabinets are the least expensive of the three options, that segment of the market has decreased in recent years because of the improved affordability of semi-custom cabinets.

Reface or replace?

If youre happy with the overall layout of your kitchen, then refacing might be an option to consider. Refacing gives your existing cabinet fronts a facelift by removing existing doors and drawer fronts and replacing them with new ones.

However, refacing is an option only if the basic cabinetry and drawer boxes are in good shape. Also look at the hinges and drawer glides for wear and tear. In cases where permanent water or physical damage is substantial and repairs become costly, gutting the space and starting from scratch probably is the best solution.

Available options
Finally, when choosing your cabinetry, be sure to review the features available. Many manufacturers offer rollout shelves, clever storage units, pull-down cookbook racks, in-drawer knife blocks, hidden trash and recycling bins, corner cabinet lazy Susans, concealed soap trays and glass-front doors and drawers to name a few. The key is to be able to choose the options and features that suit your lifestyle.

And thats what todays cabinets are all aboutdesigning your space to suit your specific lifestyle. You have an endless amount of options available, so do your research and find the right cabinets for you.

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