Kitchen Cabinet
Buying Guide

Photo of kitchen cabinets.
Photo: Dacor
Kitchen Cabinet Buying Guide

Getting Started

Cabinets can be your biggest expense when remodeling and may account for up to 40 percent of your budget. Not only that, they set the stage for your kitchen and you'll have them for years. That's why choosing cabinets is so daunting.

White cabinets are popular again and so are cabinet styles that are less fussy, more streamlined, such as the clean lines and square corners of Shaker cabinetry.

Use this buying guide to help you choose, and note that Consumer Reports does not test cabinets at this time.


What We Found

The Basics
It used to be that dovetail joints inside the drawers were practically all you needed to distinguish high-end cabinets. That distinction has blurred as more manufacturers offer premium features even on low-end lines. Indeed, past tests found you can have these and other once-exclusive features and still wind up with shoddy construction.

A little research beforehand can save you time at the store and money. Check manufacturers and retail sites and catalogs and then take a good look at store displays; you'll be able to tell the quality cabinets from the polished pretenders once you know where to look. And trust your taste. The kitchen should complement the rest of your home, so choose what you love.

Consider Your Budget
Choose from three cabinet types: stock, semi-custom, and custom. Stock cabinets start around $70 per linear foot (a typical kitchen has 25 to 30 linear feet of cabinets). Home centers sell them assembled while Ikea and other stores sell ones that require assembly. Stock cabinets are usually limited in colors and styles. Semi-custom cabinets cost $150 to $250 per linear foot and are available in more configurations,allowing a more precise fit for your kitchen. Custom cabinets can easily cost $500 and up per linear foot and can include many added features you've chosen, and of course, your exact specs.

Pick a Style
Framed or frameless? Framed are made of a box and face frame, to which the doors and drawers attach. Frameless cabinets, also known as European-style, skip the face frame, and the doors and drawers attach directly to the cabinet box. The look is more contemporary and access is easier. But the lack of a face frame can compromise rigidity. Better manufacturers compensate by using a thicker box (3/4-inch plywood instead of 1/2-inch particleboard, for example). If you want the European look but also want a framed cabinet, choose a full-overlay door. It covers all or most of the face frame.

Inspect Construction
Well-built cabinets have solid wood drawers with dovetail joinery instead of stapled particleboard; full-extension drawer guides rather than an integrated rail; and doors with solid wood frames surrounding a solid wood or plywood panel, instead of veneered particleboard or a medium density fiberboard (MDF) panel.

Focus on Features
They can make life easier but increase cost by 20 percent or more. Useful features include a pull-out trash can and built-in charging station. A lift cabinet, with a spring-loaded shelf that swings up and out, offers easy access to your stand mixer or food processor.

Consider Renewing Your Old Cabinets
If your current cabinets are plumb, square, and sturdy, consider repainting them. To do it right remove doors and drawers, clean them with a degreasing agent, sand, and apply a primer and multiple top coats (or pay a pro about $50 per door). And then there's cabinet refacing. It's ideal for framed units and involves replacing the doors and drawers and applying new veneers to the face frames and ends. Cost is about $150 per cabinet.

You can also make old cabinets easier to use by adding pull-out shelves, lazy Susans, and other inexpensive upgrades. The final touch: Install undercabinet LED task lights.


Kitchen Cabinet Types

Cabinets can vary greatly in price. Here's an overview of the three types of cabinets in broad price segments that you'll find at stores.

Basic Cabinets
Often called stock, these are inexpensive, off-the-shelf cabinets. Some are fully assembled while others will need to be assembled onsite. Many use frameless construction where the door has no lip or "reveal" around it.
Pros: These are a money-saving choice if you aren't too picky about style options or don't demand a perfect fit. More have better drawers, solid-wood doors, and other once-pricey features. And past tests found basic models that perform better in our wear tests than some more-expensive models.
Cons: Many basic boxes are thinly veneered particleboard, rather than higher-quality plywood. Style and trim options, sizes, and accessories are still limited. And figure on an hour or more of assembly time for each set of base and wall cabinets.

Midlevel Cabinets
These semi-custom models are a sound choice for most kitchens. Many use face-frame construction, where the solid-wood frame shows around the door and drawers.
Pros: Midlevel models offer many made-to-order custom options, including size, materials, finish, elaborate crown moldings and other trim, and accessories such as range hood covers. That can make them the best-value option overall.
Cons: As with basic cabinets, features and quality can vary considerably. Boxes may be veneered particleboard rather than higher-quality plywood.

Premium Cabinets
Short of custom made-to-order cabinets, these semi-custom models offer the most style and storage options.
Pros: They generally come with plywood boxes and other premium materials and hardware. Widths may come in 1/4-inch increments, rather than the typical 3 inches.
Cons: While generally less expensive than fully made-to-order custom units, models with the most features and highest quality can cost as much as some full-custom units.


Kitchen Cabinet Features

What separates a well-made cabinet from a cheap imitation? Here are the cabinet features to look for—and what to avoid.

Most manufacturers offer a similar range of door-style options for all their price levels. Look for a solid-wood frame surrounding solid-wood or plywood panels.

Well-built drawers are critical, because they get the most use. The best ones have solid-wood sides, dovetail joinery, and a plywood bottom that fits grooves on four sides. Avoid stapled particleboard.

Full-extension drawer guides are better than integrated side rails or under-mounted double-roller designs. Some premium models have a "soft close" feature that stops drawers from slamming shut. Many cabinet models allow you to upgrade the drawer guides.

As for door hinges, in past tests we didn't find any significant differences among the different types.

Look for 3/4-inch plywood. Lesser-quality 5/8- or 1/2-inch particleboard shelves may sag.

Mounting Strips
Ask the contractor to use 3/4-inch hardwood strips or metal strips with bolt holes. Thinner wood, MDF, or particleboard can be a concern with heavily loaded wall cabinets.