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A guide to choosing kitchen cabinets

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Designer Keita Turner shares her tips for selecting the perfect kitchen cabinetry

Chris Mottalini

In any kitchen, the cabinetry is the most prominent and defining feature of the room, so choosing the right style is the key to a successful kitchen design. Finding a style that fits your needs, desires, and aesthetic preferences is not an easy task.

Do you need space to store a complete dinner set for 24, but need to stick to a tight budget? Do you want to display your grandmother’s cookbooks, but can’t stand the look of exposed shelves? Do you prefer the minimalist look of slab cabinets, or would you rather have a more traditional shaker-style?

To breakdown the basics, we turned to New York City-based interior designer Keita Turner. Here, she offers advice on everything from determining which type of cabinet construction is right for you to how to maximize storage and make open shelving look good.

Cabinet types

Start with the basics. First, determine if your kitchen will include all or some of the four basic types of cabinets: base (under the counter), wall-mounted, tall (often standalone, can be used as a pantry), and specialty units like corner cabinets, hutches, or bottle racks.

You’ll also need to choose a cabinet quality grade. Budget will be a determining factor here. There are four cabinet grades available, based on construction quality:

  • Ready-to-assemble (RTA) cabinets are found at big box retailers like Ikea. RTA cabinets can save you money, but they will be less durable. Building and installing cabinetry isn’t as simple as building a shelf or bed, so even skilled DIYers may need to hire professionals for the installation.
  • Stock cabinets are bought directly from the manufacturer. You have less flexibility with these since they are sold in specific sizes that can not be changed, but you can find stock cabinets in a wide range of materials. They are generally an affordable choice, with a higher quality than RTA.
  • Semi-custom cabinets hit in the middle in terms of price. These could be stock cabinets made with custom doors and shelving or made-to-order units from a manufacturer. You can specify size and choose from a broader selection of materials.
  • Custom cabinets are at the highest end of the spectrum and offer unlimited options. They are completely made-to-order, and you can dictate all of the materials, hardware, style, and construction.

Choose the construction

There are two types of cabinet construction. Framed cabinets have rails and stiles that form a 1.5-inch face frame at the front of the cabinet box that is attached to the door front to give extra strength and dimension to the finished cabinet. With this construction, you have more flexibility with door types; it allows for standard, full overlay, and inset cabinet doors (more on door types below).

Frameless construction is a European method of manufacturing cabinets that has become increasingly popular with American homeowners. It offers a more contemporary look and better interior access by excluding the face frame, relying on denser box construction for stability. "Only full overlay doors can be used, with hinges attached directly to the sides of the cabinet box," notes Turner.

The term overlay means how much the door overlays the face frame. Standard overlay doors (aka traditional or partial overlay) are less expensive and do not require hardware. Because they have more exposed face frame (roughly 1 1⁄4-inches on all sides of the doors and drawers), there is enough finger space to open doors or drawers without a knob or pull.

Full overlay cabinets have a more custom appearance, and the doors cover the entire face frame. Double door cabinets with full overlay come with an added advantage: They do not have a vertical face frame stile between the two doors, so you can easily fit large items like serving platters and pans.

"I love full overlay cabinets for contemporary, modern, or transitional kitchen designs because they offer a more custom appearance," says Turner. "Plus, full overlay frameless cabinets are perfect for the smaller kitchen footprint, as they provide the maximum amount of access and interior storage space."

Inset cabinets have the door set inside the face frame to be flush with the front of the cabinet instead of having the door on top of the cabinet box. Special hidden or decorative hinges are used to precisely fit the door inside the frame opening.

"Inset cabinets create an elegant look with clean lines. They are ideal for larger kitchens, since they take slightly more space away from the interior of your cabinets since the doors and drawers sit inside the frames," says Turner. "These are typically more expensive as construction is more challenging, but if your budget and space requirements will allow, they are a luxury worth the investment."

"Both can look updated and contemporary, but the flush inset appearance can undoubtedly give off a more traditional look and the frameless full overlay lends itself to a more contemporary style.

Style glossary

There are dozens of different cabinet styles, but choosing a construction and door type will help narrow the options. "I tend to prefer modern to transitional cabinet styles," says Turner. Transitional cabinets, like a transitional kitchen, are considered a blend of traditional and contemporary styles.

"Depending on the architectural style of the home and taste preferences of my clients, I typically will select from slab, flat panel, shaker, raised panel, or beaded door styles." Other popular styles include glass inset, mission, and arched cathedral.

A contemporary kitchen with cherry wood cabinets
In this kitchen, Turner’s client opted for slab cabinets paired with a couple glass inset doors for displaying dishware.
Courtesy Keita Turner

Arched cathedral: The door panel is shaped like an arched window. The shape can be recessed or raised within the door frame. This style is typically reserved for upper wall cabinets.

Beaded: The interior panel features stripes created by a single or double groove (these are known as beads in woodworking). Beaded panels can be combined with other styles.

Flat panel: Exactly what it sounds like—the door has a single flat panel surrounded by molding. It’s the preferred style for transitional kitchens.

Glass inset: The doors are essentially windows into the cabinet. Not recommended for the unorganized.

Mission: Mission cabinets are a type of flat panel doors. They have a square frame molding with simple, clean lines. They are typically made of oak and stained so the wood grain is highlighted.

Raised panel: Cabinets with raised panel doors are more traditional in style. The center panel is slightly raised by a contoured groove around the molding.

Shaker: These look similar to mission cabinets, but they have a narrower frame molding. The focus is on function and durability.

Slab: The most minimalist of options, slab cabinets feature no panels, molding, or ornamentation. They can have hardware pulls, but the ultimate minimalist will opt for a finger ledge or push-to-open mechanism to eliminate hardware altogether.

Doors versus drawers

"If you are trying to maximize your storage and provide easier access to your dishes, tools, and foodstuffs, I definitely recommend going with as many base cabinet drawers as possible," says Turner. "Drawers offer a much better use of space, particularly deep drawers, which are an optimal solution for storing pots, pans, dishes, and other cookware."

"If you prefer the look of doors, you can opt for a pullout shelving system hidden behind the cabinet doors. Retrofitting existing base cabinets with a functional and streamlined slide-out track system—I like the Shelf Genie’s products—will alleviate the need for bending down and trying to access hard to reach areas."

Open shelving

Exposed shelving is a good idea "if you are perfectly organized or want a storage system that is easily accessible and convenient," says Turner. It works well with a more casual style, and can be ideal for small spaces since it will open up the room and make it look bigger.

Additionally, Turner says, "since framed cabinet boxes have rails and stiles that take up space, open shelving can expand usable storage." She notes that exposed shelves are also one of the easier and more economical solutions for a quick kitchen upgrade since it costs much less than full cabinetry.

Open shelving can also be combined with traditional cabinets to create space for displaying your favorite dishes, vases, and cookbooks. Instead of lining your kitchen, "opt for only a few open shelves," says Turner. "Add one over the sink or place one high shelf for display pieces or rarely used items."