Cabinetry: The Backbone of a Hardworking Kitchen

As kitchens have become rooms for doing more than just cooking, the need to maximize space has become paramount. That’s where cabinets come in handy. Learn about home owners’ options in using these to creative aesthetically pleasing storage solutions.

January 31, 2013

As the number of kitchen accessories has increased, cabinetry has become both a major necessity and a challenge. That’s because kitchens have become a place for additional tasks besides cooking — entertaining, bill paying, and homework, for example. Also, the cost of cabinetry can be staggering, sometimes as much as 50 to 60 percent of a total kitchen redo.

When it comes to working with buyers or sellers on improving a kitchen, your goal should be to help them understand the pros and cons of overhauling cabinet storage — or whether they should do anything dramatic, as there are ways they can improve cabinetry without replacing it. The key questions home owners should ask are:

  • Do the kitchen and its existing cabinetry appeal visually?
  • How well does the cabinetry work to sufficiently store pots and pans, dishes, glassware, cutlery, spices, cookbooks, and other cooking and entertaining accessories?

Based on those responses, they can decide whether to undertake a limited redo or embark on an extensive transformation. Here’s how they can proceed:

Partial Tweak

If a layout works and home owners like their current appliances and surfaces, sometimes they can just reface cabinet fronts with newer materials such as popular cherry, maple, or bamboo. Other times, still less is needed and the fronts can be retained and the knobs or pulls changed out to a more stylish brushed or satin nickel. If space has been wasted in the room, they also might be able to find a place to construct a walk-in pantry that has easy-to-access shelves with specialized inserts to keep everything accessible but out of sight behind a full-height wood or obscured glass door. The latter can provide visual information about what’s inside without home owners having to keep contents meticulously ordered, says Chicago designer Tom Segal of Kaufman Segal Design.

Pantries can vary in size from a basic 2-by-2-foot space to a more generous 4-by-4 with room for shelves on three sides and space to maneuver, or an even bigger 4 by 8 feet with outlets for extra appliances and a secondary sink, says architect David Barbour, whose eponymous firm is based in Bridgeport, Conn. Partial redos may cost just half of what a total overhaul would, he says.

Total Gut

When it comes to replacing cabinets completely because they’re worn or inefficient, home owners have a choice of three major options. They can go for the crème de la crème of custom at the top, semicustom in the middle, and stock at the budget end. The choice depends in part on the level of quality of other items in the room — appliances, countertops, flooring, backsplashes, and lighting — as well as the home’s overall valueand how long home owners plan to remain. There’s little point in putting an $115,000 kitchen in a $350,000 home or going through the expense and hassle if home owners will stay put for only a few years, says Segal, who’s redone both clients’ and his own kitchens. He and other design experts recommend not spending more than 15 percent of a home’s value on a kitchen redo. So for that $350,000 home, he advises keeping the budget limited to a maximum of $52,500.

The best way to start is for home owners to add up the linear feet of their existing cabinetry to be sure they’ll gain as much or more storage and then decide, probably with professional expertise, where to locate each type of storage — for example, spices and knives adjacent to an oven, Segal says. Tall, deep cabinets with pull-out shelves make efficient use of space and can be an alternative to a walk-in pantry, if the area of the kitchen is limited. Home owners should also decide whether they want drawers or cabinets — depending on how they like to store their belongings — and if they have enough room to include an island with base cabinetry. The best-designed islands allow 42 inches all around to navigate, measure 36 inches long and 24 inches wide, and have a 12-inch overhang on at least one side to make it work as an eating,  bill paying, or homework center, says building contractor and licensed remodeling expert Philip A. Beaubien, whose Beaubien Construction is based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

With all this information in hand, home owners should be able to decide which of the following three levels to go with:

▪ Custom cabinets are constructed from scratch to a room’s specific layout for a seamless built-in look with no gaps between boxes. Most custom manufacturers such as Wood-Mode, Fine Custom Cabinetry and Rutt Handcrafted Cabinetry offer an extensive array of woods, finishes, and custom paint colors; door styles, such as flat or with some type of raised paneling or perhaps glass; cabinet or drawer depths; varied styles and materials for the pulls or knobs; and a large number of specialized cabinet organizers to keep specific items in place. Custom cabinets also come with better exposed hinges for a tighter fit and smoother draw glides, some of which may retract on their own. Beaubien prefers custom cabinets for their handmade appearance.

Semicustom cabinets are manufactured in a large range of sizes based on 3-inch increments, and numerous materials and finishes are available — just not as many as for the custom option, says Segal. While they typically present a seamless look and fit together well, adjustments sometimes are needed for a specific layout, which may bring additional costs. Hinges also are typically concealed, which means a less-tight fit, he says. Home owners should verify specifics so they don’t end up spending so much to adjust them that the final price is close to a custom cabinet. Segal went with a semicustom design to save funds when he remodeled his kitchen. He found that with careful planning he gave up little and gained a quality product that should last years.

Stock cabinets are the equivalent of off-the rack — or shelf — choices made in ready-made sizes, with fewer possibilities to pick among. They’re widely available at big-box stores like Lowe’s (a REALTOR Benefits® Partner), Home Depot, and IKEA. In kitchens with an uncomplicated layout or for home owners who are content with basics that will function well and help lower their budget, stock cabinets can be a good solution. Barbour likes to look first at these options, then have a carpenter add moldings to conceal gaps and lighting. He recommends carefully choosing the best stock boxes available—those from well-crafted wood versus composition or pressed board, which won’t wear as well. It’s also important to have sturdy shelves within — at least three-quarters of an inch thick — that don’t extend longer than 30 to 48 inches to avoid sagging. While Beaubien doesn’t use stock in most kitchen projects, he finds them acceptable for garage storage. They also can be a wise choice for a vacation home where home owners spend less time indoors, Segal says.

Another way to cut costs when going with any of the three choices is to incorporate some open shelves above countertops, which can sometimes accomplish what a closed cabinet could at a quarter of the cost, Barbour says. They also allow home owners to see everything stored at a glance and add instant color and pattern. Of course, the downside is a continual need to keep the contents neat. 

The bottom line: Home owners should make their decision based on their home’s price, how long they plan to stay in it, how complicated or simple their kitchen layout is, what they’re storing, and their overall kitchen priorities. If having an expensive restaurant-style range and marble countertops are at the top of their wish list, they may want to scale back their cabinet budget. The decision should suit them rather than the next buyer.

Update: The Lowe’s Program for REALTORS® is no longer available through the REALTOR Benefits® Program. For questions, please call NAR’s REALTOR Benefits® Help Line at 800-627-5233.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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