Enter the cabinets

When we left off, our kitchen looked like this:

2014-02-18 12.12.16

It’s painted in the areas that actually had textured drywall, but it was still looking a little naked.  We are pleased that we took the time to paint before the cabinets though because we did not want to spill paint on our lovely new cabinets.  After two days, our cabinets are installed and now the kitchen is really looking like a kitchen:

photo 2

Here’s the side with the pass through.  We sprung for some glass cabinet doors.  We had a crummier version of these in our last house and I really liked them.  We can show off our Fiestaware while still having the dishes contained in a cabinet this way.

photo 1

And here is where the stove and refrigerator will go.  The door is just to the right.

We are now waiting for our granite countertops to show up.  After cabinet installation, the cabinet fellow measured out plywood in the shape of our counter.  This is where you get to think about how the edges will look.

When we (ok, let’s be honest: when I picked the cabinets), I found that I had to consider a number of factors I’d never though of in rentals before.

First lesson: Think about your storage style and what cabinet layout best suits it.  I knew I wanted:

  • Pot/pan storage easily accessible near the stove
  • Pull-out trash (our Aussie can defeat any trashcan that an be knocked over.  Honestly, I’m kind of expecting her to be able to pull this out with her paws eventually)
  • A tall cabinet for food (that’s on the far end near the window)
  • Pan storage
  • Glass fronts on some cabinets (for colorful dish display and variety)
  • Spice drawer near the stove

Second lesson (timing): Even though the cabinets will have the longest lead time of any part of a kitchen remodel (8 weeks for us, which is not long actually), you actually do not want to order them until you have picked all of the appliances.  Obviously, the cabinets need to fit around the appliances and neither the cabinets nor the appliances can be adjusted after the fact (unless you want a hole in your kitchen somewhere – there is a saw for every purpose under heaven).  This is one reason kitchen remodels are cited to take a long time from the onset of the process to the point when you’re eating in your new kitchen again.  There are a number of intertwined decisions that one should not pull triggers on entirely serially…although measuring once and cutting twice is ALWAYS tempting to me.

Third lesson (picking a brand): There are several different ‘levels’ of cabinets one can buy and there is some overlap between levels.  It is difficult to truly compare prices within levels because the cost depends highly on the style, number and design of the cabinets that you select.  For example, semi-custom (or custom) cabinets are laid out for each space.  Since a lot of cabinet shopping includes a design fee (since it is actual work for someone to undertake the design), there is often a non-zero fee for shopping around.  This is a similar problem when choosing a contractor – different contractors may report slightly different scopes of work.  A cursory glance at the cliqstudios link above and chatting with my cousins (who went the Home Depot route) suggests that the prices for similar criteria aren’t all that different for smallish kitchens, probably within $1-2K for what is usually a $10K project.  I don’t know for sure that this is a fact, mind you, but it is what I have seen in my first hand experiences.  Furthermore, even within semi-custom brands there are tiers of prices depending on the final look (finish, carving, glass, wood type etc) that you choose.

OK, so, the least expensive level of cabinets (1) are probably those pre-made at a big box store.  There’s no reason why these should or shouldn’t fit your space – think typical prom dress from Marshall Fields.  Cabinet installers can and do use spacers to make the space look filled but these are difficult to customize. Honestly, I didn’t shop them so I can’t comment on pricing, but there doesn’t seem to be as many features available.

The next level up (2) is something called “semi-custom”, which seems to be a common choice for many folks.  As far as I can tell, this is sort of a wedding dress of cabinets.  In both cases, the cabinet (or dress) comes in pre-fixed sizes, but you order the ones that fit and then the cabinet tailor makes the exact set you need.  In some sense, this is custom for your needs.  Generally, it seems to be assumed that if you buy these cabinets you won’t be installing them yourselves.

Within this level, there are different brands and places/ways to buy them.  Home Depot sells a variety of semi-custom cabinets.  In that case, you walk into Home Depot and shop cabinets, then Home Depot measures and installs them.  There are also many, many kitchen design companies that work with various cabinet makers to produce semi-custom cabinets.  Ours are from the Brookhaven line which is made by a larger company, Woodmode.  We choose this brand because our contractor often works with a kitchen designer who is a dealer of this brand.  Because we were actually removing part of a wall, we wanted to make sure that the wall measurements and the cabinet measurements were done by effectively the same entity.  This way, I figured it wasn’t our problem if someone measured wrong.  Julie took care of laying out cabinets and we simply gave inputs as to what we wanted.  We had several iterations of designs that she laid out using the cabinet software, although know there are places you can do this online yourself and still have some interaction with real people.  She actually didn’t take a fee, just the commission of the cabinet sale but was super helpful and friendly.  She also made sure we didn’t do something that was stupid for our space, which is important if one is justifying their kitchen remodel as adding resale value to the house.  The downside is that, well, it may (or may not) have been a little cheaper if we had invested our own time to design rather than a professional’s time.

The third level of cabinet pricing is truly custom cabinets.  This is like a one-of-a-kind wedding dress designed especially for you.  I did not shop this end of the spectrum either, but the idea is not unlike the semi-custom idea.  The only difference is that instead of mixing and matching a huge variety of predefined cabinet sizes, each and every cabinet is laid out exactly for your space.  I think these would be a bigger benefit for a house with a larger, custom-laid-out kitchen than for a small galley kitchen like ours.  Plus, the kitchen project with the semi-custom cabinets brought so many decisions that I can’t imagine wanting any more!  I had never considered what type of design on like on the front of cabinet doors until I was forced to pick one (and I picked the cheapest one 🙂  ).

Fourth lesson (materials): Another interesting consideration is that the cabinets are made differently from different materials.  Cabinetry is an interesting business because it can range from truly an art to something that can be entirely at home to anywhere in between.  It is important to me that our large purchases are made in the USA (and preferably locally) and are sustainable when possible.  Many cabinet companies (and big box store brands) are able to lower their prices by having the cabinets made in China, which did not fit well with my criteria.  Brookhaven cabinets are made in Pennsylvania, but the sustainability question came into play –  I have no idea what they used on the finish of our lovely white cabinets.

During this process, I learned that many (although definitely not all) cabinet makers actually do not make cabinets in California, even if they deal primarily in California.  Why you ask, is California experiencing a cabinet drought?  It turns out that the finishes on cabinets are very specialized and chemicals in the paint/stains/varnishes, perhaps combined with the desired application methods are not legal in California, which is has higher restrictions on VOCs and general toxicity than most states.  Going into this process again, I would’ve taken the time to investigate this and decide if the inconvenience of choosing our own cabinet company that used known low-VOC finishes was low enough to veer away from the kitchen designer who had a portfolio with our contractor.  I’ll be posting more on this topic later…

Finally, cabinets are made out of a variety of wood types.  Our cabinets are painted white but are actually made of maple not MDF.  Maple is pretty typical, but one can always spend more to get a variety of woods.  One advantage of hardwood over MDF is that hard wood can refinished by sanding and staining down the line.  MDF, aka, medium density fiberboard, is wood fiber mixed with resin, wax and who knows what.  Although sturdy, it looks ridiculous without paint.  Also, cabinets will come with different hardware styles – ours came with luxurious soft-close drawers and cabinets (although, as a friend pointed out, there’s no fun in slamming any doors shut if you’re angry).  Even the door knob hardware can be purchase separately from a huge variety of stores and ranges dramatically in price!

One more look at the old cabinets vs the new.


2013-12-23 08.23.45


photo 3

Although these photos were taken 2 months apart and at different times of day, they are both during the day AND the before photo has the kitchen light on.  Despite this, even in crummy photos taken with my phone, there is a definite brightness/cheeriness in the after photo.  This will likely be somewhat reduced once our (black) countertop, dark walnut stained floors and stainless steel appliances show up, but it is definitely looking a lot lighter in there!


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