DEAR TIM: My husband and I just got back from looking for new kitchen cabinets. We are so confused! We know what stock cabinets are, however, there doesn't seem to be a big difference between semi-custom and custom cabinets. What is the difference? Can you offer any suggestions regarding current trends? Also, is there a standard of quality that manufacturers must meet? J. T.
DEAR J.T.: Your confusion is very understandable. Many of my customers have returned from a day of cabinet shopping dazed and confused as well! A large part of the problem lies in the huge variety of styles, types of cabinet construction (frame vs. frameless), finishes, and accessory trim pieces. Do not underestimate the time it will take you to view all of the options that are available to you. Often it can take 2 - three days to visit different cabinet shops.
Semi-custom kitchen cabinets are factory-produced on assembly lines. Manufactures of these cabinets often allow you to select specific door styles, wood species, and stain finish types. These cabinets usually offer a wide variety of interior options such as cutlery trays, drawer dividers, towel racks, cookie sheet holders, trash can holders, etc. Often these cabinets are built using stock cabinet sizes. Separate cabinets are butted against one another in a typical installation. Some manufactures offer custom size possibilities.
Custom kitchen cabinets are made solely for your kitchen. They result from extremely specific measurements and detailed design criteria. They can be very personalized, down to exact drawer sizes for specific items. Often these cabinets are made by local fabricators who can produce furniture grade quality.
Custom cabinets offer a unique feature. A fabricator can assemble a single base cabinet or wall cabinet that is 6 - 8 feet long without seams. This cabinet can have a variety of doors, drawers, etc. depending upon your wants. Because it is one piece, installation time is minimal.
Current design trends appear to be leaning toward making kitchen cabinets look as close to furniture as possible. Some manufacturers offer a wide variety of accessory trim pieces such as crown molding, valances, cabinet legs, and highly customized appliance panels. These items, when professionally installed, can produce dramatic effects.
There is a minimum standard of quality which you should look for. This quality standard has been developed by the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA, www.kcma.org). The quality standard covers virtually every aspect of the cabinet's construction. Joint tightness, hinge, doors, rigidity, corner bracing, finishing details, and other details are checked in a series of more than 60 specific tests. These tests are conducted by independent testing laboratories approved by the KCMA.
Cabinets which pass these tests are eligible for the KCMA certification seal. Manufacturers must regularly provide cabinets for testing in order to continue to bear the KCMA certification seal.
You should pay particular attention to the finishing process and types of finish that your cabinets will receive. Remember that the KCMA standards, just like many standards, are minimum quality standards. Many normal foodstuffs, such as vinegar, fruit juices, olive oil, and mustard can possibly damage cabinet finishes that do not meet KCMA standards. Some detergents, alcohol, and water can also harm finishes. Ask detailed, specific questions regarding the number and types of finish coats that your cabinets will receive. Ask how thick the combined layers of finish are. Ask if the finish will dull or yellow with age. Remember, the finish takes the abuse, not the wood.