Cabinets are the biggest part of a kitchen budget--usually about half--and define the room's look and function more than any other element. Deciding on cabinets often isn't easy, considering the wide array of materials, finishes, and configurations.
If you're just replacing cabinets, you can start at a small cab-inetry firm or a large retailer such as Ikea, Home Depot, or Lowe's, where you can get design help. But if the cabinets are part of a full-scale kitchen renovation, you might need moreassistance.
"When you're planning your kitchen," says Washington Consumers' Checkbook editor Robert Krughoff, "a professional is likely to give you suggestions as to ways to get a better look and more efficient use of space--and possibly even to save money."
But getting help doesn't mean you should hand the whole thing over to someone else. According to Consumer Reports, "Readers who chose cabinets based solely on the advice of contractors, designers, or architects were twice as likely to report a problem as those more involved."
The internet is the best place to start browsing products and mapping out floor plans. Many cabinet manufacturers' Web sites, such as Schrock (www.schrock.com) and Merillat (www.merillat.com), provide extensive design aids--just plug in specs and your virtual kitchen appears on the screen.
Kitchens.com, a site for the kitchen-and-bath trade, includes virtual tours from various manufacturers as well as design guides. A company that creates the software for manufacturers' virtual planning guides, 20-20 Technologies, offers its own design aid at idclic.net.
Consumers' Checkbook has the results of a customer survey about cabinet design and sales outlets--including smaller firms that may not appear in The Washingtonian's resource list on page 202--in the Neighbor-to-Neighbor section of checkbook.org. (While some parts of the site are accessible for a per-use fee, you must subscribe to access this section.)
The August 2004 Consumer Reports rated 14 cabinet lines carried by major outlets. Omega, a premium line soldat Expo, ranked highest; Thomasville, carried by Home Depot, received the highest score of midlevel brands, and Ikea was the top basic brand. The full results are at consumerreports.org (available to Web-site subscribers only).
Three services offer free referrals to local contractors and other home-improvement businesses, including cabinet sources and installers: Home Solutions Connection (homesolutionsconnection.com), Urban Referrals (urbanreferrals.com), and Home Connections (homeconnections.com).
Unless you're already working with a kitchen designer, the most common option is to buy design services from the showroom or retailer that sells the cabinetry. Some charge a separate fee, others waive it if cabinets are purchased from them, and some offer free design service as a marketing tactic in the hopes of a sale.
If two suppliers offer identical cabinets at different prices, it can be worth it to pay a little more to go with the firm that has done the better design job because such work indicates attention to detail in ordering and installation.
Off-the-shelf "stock" cabinets come in three-inch increments. The standard sizing and narrow range of finishes limit options, but these are fine for low-budget projects. They range from about $50 to $200 per linear foot and are available in an increasing number of styles.
Custom cabinets offer the biggest array of choices, but they can cost more than five times as much as stock and make it harder to comparison-shop.
Semicustom cabinets come in one-inch increments and are manufactured to buyer specifications. They're more adaptable to individual designs than stock and come in an increasing range of wood varieties and finish options.
The kitchen cabinet manufacturers Association awards a seal of approval on cabinets that meet its structure, construction, and finish requirements. The list can be found at kcma.org/cert_dir.htm. Here are other details to look for:
• Dovetail joints in the drawer boxes, where the "pin and tail" grooves join the corners, are the sturdiest, as they don't rely on glue alone to hold the wood together.
• Solid-wood drawer sides and furniture-grade (H- to I-inch) plywood bottoms indicate high quality; cheaper lines use metal sides and particleboard.
• Stops on the drawer slides minimize wear by keeping the front drawer panel from bumping against the frame. Self-closing "cushion" mechanisms put the brakes on just before the drawer shuts.
• Full-extension guides allow the best access. Integrated side rails and undermount rollers are a midlevel alternative, while metal rails on the outside of the drawer box are the most basic and less-durable hardware.
• Shelves should have a 50-pound weight-bearing capacity, drawers 75 pounds.
• Mounting strips in I-inch hardwood or metal provide the best support; H-inch pine, plywood, or fiber or particleboard are the midlevel alternative. Anything thinner should be reinforced.
Comparing prices is a challenge because dealers may give different names to the same lines. Retailers are also specializing more and carrying fewer brands, so it's harder to find the same products to compare among several stores. Further complicating matters, costs can be calculated either by linear foot or for a set number of cabinet-drawer combinations.
Comparison is still a wise practice, as markups can be substantial: Consumers' Checkbook priced identical sets of KraftMaid cherry cabinets from 16 area dealers and found more than a $2,000 difference. Prices even differed among Home Depot locations.
Although you probably won't find that many sources for every brand, Checkbook's Krughoff says it's still possible to find the same lines--particularly major ones--at at least two or three dealers, which is enough for some comparative pricing. "But once you're no longer looking at the exact same make and model," he cautions, "you need to know a lot about quality."
That means an in-person visit to the dealer, where features such as dovetail joints and cushion stops will help distinguish among cabinets with similar finishes and styles. Be sure the dealer knows you're asking other stores for their best prices.
"If you think that's rude," Krughoff says, "just do it really, really politely."
Consumer Reports also found that price doesn't guarantee performance. Ikea's ready-to-assemble cabinets start as low as $764 for a ten-by-ten-foot combination, but they outperformed much more expensive units in CR's quality tests.
Midrange dealers such as Bray & Scarff (several Maryland and Virginialocations; brayandscarff.com) abound with large showrooms featuring several lines.
Ikea--with stores in College Park and Virginia's Potomac Mills Mall (ikea-usa.com)--offers fewer choices in dimensions than other stock and semicustom lines, but the Swedish chain has a huge range in styles, particularly in contemporary European. That look has become so popular that a major US cabinetmaker, KraftMaid, is breaking away from its largely traditional lines with a new, edgier one called Venicia.
Meanwhile, European cabinet dealers such as Poggenpohl (www.poggenpohl.de), Poliform (poliformusa.com), and Snaidero (snaidero-usa.com) are setting up shop in DC's Cady's Alley (3318 M St., NW; cadysalley.com)--an area of Georgetown with a concentration of home-design businesses--and the Washington Design Center (300 D St., SW; 202-646-6118; merchandisemart.com/dcdesigncenter).
While those cabinets come in semicustom dimensions, they outprice many custom cabinetmakers, starting at about $1,000 a linear foot. Contemporaria, a store in Cady's Alley, offers the same flair at lower prices with its Elmar Cucine line (elmarcucine.com)--from $8,000 for a ten-by-ten-foot kitchen to $35,000 for a larger project.
Contemporary lacquered or stainless-steel and frosted-glass cabinets with stark contours are making inroads on those beveled-cherry numbers--even in traditional homes. A signature feature of European cabinetry is a "frameless" design, which offers a more uniform appearance. Doors and drawer panels fit flush together, and there are no exposed hinges. The "framed" style has gaps between the doors that show part of the box of the cabinet.
Europeans have also turned Americans on to space-stretching innovations with clever sliding shelves and pullout cabinets. Butcher blocks and small tables slide under counters, and drawers with cutouts in their bottom panels make way for under-sink plumbing.
Traditionalists still rule in Washington, home to a large number of high-end showrooms. Rutt Handcrafted Cabinetry (202-554-6190; www.ruttcabinetry.biz) offers styles like Shaker and Florentine at the Washington Design Center. It charges as much as $200,000 for a project but can outfit a smaller kitchen for as little as $20,000.
Masterbrand and Masco now make more than half of all cabinets sold in the United States, under brand names like Kitchen Classics and Mills Pride for the basic level and Diamond and Omega for the premium lines. Canac (canackitchens.com) is becoming a competitor. It updates the traditional look with contemporary touches like brushed-chrome knobs that can match all those stainless appliances.
Tiffany Keaton, marketing director of Bath & Kitchen Creations in Sterling, says that approach sells well locally: "Because of the style of homes here, people are reluctant to move toward really contemporary. And a lot of people trade up, so they have to think about resale."
Keaton says local homeowners are taking an incremental approach, moving away from door styles such as the ultratraditional cathedral arch toward simpler, square lines of the Shaker style. "Old European" designs, like Florentine, are overtaking the American Colonial looks.
Bath & Kitchen Creations offers mid- and upper-range cabinetry, with an average project costing about $80,000. But it also carries stock,semicustom, and custom options.
Boning up on all this information may take time, and the abundance of choices won't make the decisions easier. But it will make for a better-looking and better-working kitchen.