Best Kitchen Cabinet Buying Guide

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. Past cabinet tests at Consumer Reports proved that you can have these and other once exclusive features yet still wind up with shoddy construction.

A little research beforehand can save you time and money. Research manufacturer and retail websites, 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. Trust your taste. The kitchen should complement the rest of your home, so choose what you love.

Consider Your Budget
There are three cabinet types: stock, semi-custom, and custom. (See a side-by-side comparison below.) Stock cabinets are sometimes sold at home centers pre-assembled, while Ikea and other stores sell versions that require assembly. Stock cabinets are usually limited in colors and styles. Semi-custom cabinets offer more style options and configurations, allowing a more precise fit for your kitchen. Custom cabinets are the most expensive option, but 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 interior 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 the 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
Although they can increase cost by more than 20 percent, useful features include a pullout 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 Revitalizing Your old Cabinets
If your current cabinets are plumb, square, and sturdy, consider repainting or refinishing them. To do it right, remove doors and drawers, clean them with a degreasing agent, sandpaper, and apply a primer and multiple top coats (or pay a pro about $50 per door). Cabinet refacing is also an option. 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 under-cabinet LED task lights.

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