How to save on kitchen cabinets

Pricing out a kitchen renovation: budget 40% of material costs on cabinets

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Remodelling an old, outdated kitchen can be one of the smartest reno jobs a homeowner can undertake. A kitchen renovation can conform to your family’s unique needs, provide a focal point for gatherings, while adding to your home’s market value.

But planning a kitchen renovation is more than just deciding where the stove goes. You need to consider workflow and traffic patterns that includes room to room and within the kitchen itself. You’ll also need to consider material and select fixtures, based on both form and function.

But costing out a kitchen renovation can be daunting and with the multitude of choices it’s hard to know what decisions will work best for both your family’s needs, and your budget. To help you make smarter choices, I’ve put together the Ultimate Kitchen Renovation Guide. In this five-part post, I’ll break down the components that go into a kitchen remodel—components that include: cabinets, appliances, counters & backsplash, sink/faucet/hardware and floors. I’ll start with cabinets, because that will be your biggest expense when it comes to material costs.

Your biggest cost: Cabinets

Cabinets can be your biggest expense, according to Houzz.com, accounting for up to 40% of your kitchen renovation budget (the next two costly contributors are appliances and countertops). Yet, the cost is justifiable. Cabinets set the stage for your kitchen remodel and cabinet quality and construction not only dictates price, but longevity and enjoyment. 

Still, it’s daunting picking new cabinets. At one point in time, it was easy to tell the well-made from the cheap by examining how the cabinet drawers were constructed. A dovetail joint—where a portion of one side of the drawer is carved out and the other side is carved to fit the space exactly—used to be the distinguishing mark of high-end cabinetry, but not any more. These days mass-produced cabinetry can also use dovetail joints and some of these factory-produced options use shoddy construction, explains Consumerreports.org.

The key is to match your budget with the best product you can afford. To do this you’ll need to do a bit of research. Find out who manufactures the product and determine whether or not they’re known for good quality products (a quick Internet search should give you a clue). Also, consider if the cabinets come with a warranty and check to see what the warranty actually covers.

Keep in mind, though, that the new cabinets are more than a fresh face for your kitchen. Your cabinetry also serves an integral function. Cabinets create the frame of your kitchen and establish the overall structure of this overused, highly-loved room.

Prices range based on size of kitchen, type of wood (or other material) used to make the cabinet, and whether or not the cabinetry is off-the-shelf (aka: stock), semi-custom or custom. You will also pay different prices depending on the door material and style and the finish of your cabinets and doors.

To price out your ideal kitchen cabinets, let’s examine each facet:


Cabinet Material

Particleboard:

(Getty / Justin Horrocks)

(Getty / Justin Horrocks)

Particleboard is a relatively inexpensive waste-wood product made by combining and heat pressing sawdust and resin (a glue-like substance that is heat and moisture resistant). Particleboard is most commonly used in lower-end furniture, sub-floor construction (the floor you put down before you install your finished floor product) and as a substrate for kitchen and bathroom countertops.

The advantage of particleboard is that it is relatively cheap, compared to other material options and can be milled with all power tools. However, particleboard does chip and break easily and it does not adapt well to moisture or humidity. If you buy cabinets made from particleboard you may want to verify that a layer of laminate or melamine has been added (to improve both the appearance and moisture resistance).

Medium-density fibreboard (MDF):

(Getty / Bruce Turner)

(Getty / Bruce Turner)

MDF is made using resin and small wood fibers, rather than wood dust. MDF is preferred by manufacturers of higher-end furniture, cabinetry and shelving because this panel-board is easier to mill than particleboard (because it resists chipping and tearing) and it can be shaped and molded by all power tools. Another advantage is that MDF does not warp or have adherence issues, like particleboard, making it easier to paint and repaint.

In fact, most custom kitchen manufacturers agree: MDF performs better than solid wood when it comes to cabinetry. It’s more stable than wood and stands up better to changes in heat and humidity. It’s more water-resistant than particleboard, making it a superior produce for kitchen and bathroom use.

A study conducted by D.C. Wong and R.A. Kozak, published in the “Forest Products Journal” in March 2008, revealed that furniture and cabinet producers across Canada considered MDF superior to particleboard in several respects.

Wood:
Solid wood has many benefits: it’s strong, sturdy and beautiful in its grain. However, solid wood contracts when subjected to changes in heat and humidity. If these conditions aren’t carefully controlled, all-wood cabinets and doors will shrink, crack and even warp.


Cabinet Construction

When you decide on cabinets you’ll need to choose between framed or frameless cabinets.

(Greatlakeskitchenandbathinc.com)

(Great Lakes Kitchens)

Framed cabinets have a box and a face frame, where doors and hinges are attached. Frameless—also known as European-style—skip the face frame and doors and drawers attach directly to the cabinet box. Frameless cabinets look more contemporary and many homeowners report that access to this cupboards is easier. However, the lack of a face frame can compromise the box rigidity. According to Consumer Reports, better manufacturers will compensate by using a thicker box (3/4-inch plywood instead of 1/2-inch particleboard, for example).

For a compromise, you can get the sleekier European look with framed cabinets by choosing a full-overlay door that covers all or most of the face frame.

(Flickr/Michael Fogg)

(Flickr/Michael Fogg)

Well-built cabinets have solid wood drawers with dovetail joinery. They’ll also have  full-extension drawer guides not an integrated rail and the doors will have solid wood frames surrounding a solid wood or plywood panel.

Factory-made cabinets and lower-quality cabinets will have integrated rails (notches in the drawer, rather than a separate guide) and will use veneered particleboard or a medium density fiberboard (MDF) panel on the doors. These lower-quality cabinets will also glue and staple (known as pinning) drawer pieces together because it’s the least expensive method of assembling the pieces.


Cabinet Finishes

After you’ve selected the cabinet material, you’ll need to turn your attention to the finish. The finish is the design element that helps make your kitchen remodel your own creation and expression.

The materials used and the complexity involved in the application of the colour and finish has an impact on both the quality of the cabinet as well as the final price. To get the most for your money, consider the following:


Top coat

(Flickr/Chris RubberDragon)

(Flickr/Chris RubberDragon)

Most cabinets will have a top or finish coat applied to them. Typically this is a lacquer or urethane, although factory-made semi-custom or off-the-shelf wood cabinets can also have a baked-on finish, called a catalytic conversion varnish. The key is to determine what type of finish is included, and how well this finish stands up to spill damage from acids, such as vinegar, or oils, such as Canola oil. Typically, factory finishes excel in their resistance of food spillage damage, while all other top coats range from good to excellent in resisting stains. For a great breakdown on the difference between top-coat options, go to the DIYNetwork.com.

 


Natural

(Flickr/Intensified Wood Restoration)

(Flickr/Intensified Wood Restoration)

Used on wood cabinets, the natural part of this finish refers to the fact that no toners, stains or paints have been applied to the wood. Instead, a simple top coat is applied to protect the wood’s natural beauty. A key to this type of finish is to remember that the lighter the stain, the more uniformity the final cabinet appearance will be; the darker the stain, the more inconsistencies and patterns will appear.  

 


Stained

(Flickr/S Mogel)

(Flickr/S Mogel)

Stains range from light to dark and from opaque to almost transparent. The staining process involves applying the stain uniformly to the cabinet surface and wiping off the excess so that the desired colour saturation is achieved.

When choosing kitchen cabinets, remember that different materials and even different woods stain differently. For example, although medium-to-dark stains tend to look blotchy on maple-wood cabinets they get deeper, tend to shine more and have more consistent colour on cherry-wood cabinets.

 


Painted

(Flickr/Dona Dora)

(Flickr/Dona Dora)

The most common colours for painted kitchen cabinets are white and off-white. In fact, you can buy off-the-shelf, semi-custom and even custom kitchen cabinets in a white that matches white kitchen appliances.

If painting cabinets, be aware of how the material will accept the paint—particleboard absorbs a great deal so more paint is required, MDF is an excellent product to paint, as is wood, although the panels and doors will expand and contract with humidity and temperature changes.

 


Specialty techniques
As either a stand-alone or combined with natural, painted or stained finishes, speciality finishes have grown in variety and popularity over the years. Expect to pay more for these finishes, however, because of the additional labour involved.


1. Glaze finish

(Flickr/Ginny Vincz)

(Flickr/Ginny Vincz)

Glazes are great for adding accent colours to a primary finish. They are often used to highlight cabinet details, such as grooves and edges. A glaze finish comes in both a wet and dry look: The wet glaze is applied when the primary finish is still wet to alter the overall colour, while a dry glaze is applied after it is dried and is used to add a separate layer and dimension from the primary finish. You will also need to decide on what type of application technique you like: a brushed appearance, a pencil thin line of glaze, a heavy application, or a wiped look with rag marks.

 


2. Crackled or speckled finish

(Flickr/cbiiidesigns)

(Flickr/cbiiidesigns)

To get the crackled effect a chemical is applied to the paint finish before it dries. The result is a painted finish with an aged, worn appearance.  To get a speckled effect, a different colour paint is splattered on the surface of the cabinet door in a random, speckled pattern.

 


4. Distressed finish

(Flickr/danielle_blue)

(Flickr/danielle_blue)

Distressing consists of adding imperfections to cabinet doors, such as worm holes, dings and dents, and uneven sanding (to give it the look of age). This can be done in isolation or it can be combined with other specialty finishes. The intended result is to give the cabinets an aged, antique look.


Cabinet costs: Putting it all together

To appreciate how each element impacts the cost of new kitchen cabinets let’s create an imaginary kitchen that we want to remodel. According to Consumer Reports, a  typical kitchen has 25 to 30 linear feet of cabinets, so we’ll assume an L-shaped space that includes 12-feet of cabinets on one wall and 8-feet of cabinets on another wall, as well as a 6-foot island. Based on these measurements we will need 26 linear feet of cabinetry.

BASIC STOCK ($59/LF +)

(www.ikea.com)

(www.ikea.com)

If you’re on a very tight budget, you’ll be limited to the very basic of kitchen cabinets. Found in big box hardware stores or at mass-market kitchen suppliers, such as Ikea, these off-the-shelf cabinets typically come in white, although you may find common darker finishes, such as Espresso-brown, for a tad more per linear foot.

At this price point, the cabinets and doors are made from particleboard and melamine—materials that tend to have a shorter lifespan than MDF or wood. The cabinet boxes and drawers will be glued and pinned and there will be few, if any, embellishments on the door.

A good example of this type of basic cabinetry is Ikea’s Haggeby line. Priced at $59/linear foot, the front is flat and featureless and the cabinets are constructed from particleboard and melamine. (Although Ikea does offer a 25-year limited warranty on their cabinets, just be sure to read the fine print.) For our 26LF kitchen you’d only pay $1,525 (before tax).

STOCK / OFF-THE-SHELF ($125/LF – $360+/LF)

(Flickr/Leif Harboe)

(Flickr/Leif Harboe)

This is bare-bones, simple cabinet that can be found in most big-box hardware stores and at mass-market kitchen supplies. It doesn’t include trim mouldings, customizable interiors or built-in features (such as waste baskets or pull-out pantries). Typically, the cheaper end of these cabinets will be constructed from a combination of wood and particleboard, while the pricier options will be a mix of MDF and wood. For 26LF at $125/LF, expect to pay $3,250 (before taxes). According FineHomeBuilding.com, you’ll pay $360 or more per linear foot for better quality stock cabinetry, meaning we’ll pay closer to $9,360 for the cabinets in our kitchen remodel.

SEMI-CUSTOM ($200/LF – $450+/LF)

(Flickr/Eric Spehr)

(Flickr/Eric Spehr)

These cabinets use dovetail construction with hardwood and MDF throughout. Included are a few more decorative accents, such as crown mouldings and light rail moulding. The cabinets will also feature more customizable features, such as roll-out trays, built-in waste baskets, soft-close drawers and cabinets, tray dividers, and wine racks.

The cheapest semi-custom will cost about $200/SF (for a total cabinet cost of $5,200 for our kitchen remodel), but don’t be surprised if the price climbs to $450/LF (putting our kitchen cabinets at $11,700). Every customized cabinet—such as pull-out pantry drawers, or tray dividers—will add to the overall cost. The more detail you want, the more you will pay. According to Consumer Reports you’ll pay 20% more for specialty features. That said, there are useful features that can be worth this extra cost. These include: pull-out trash cans and built-in charging stations. Also appliance garages—a lift cabinet, with a spring-loaded shelf that swings up and out and offers easy access to your stand mixer or food processor—are also useful additions to remodelled kitchens.

CUSTOM ($500/LF – $1,200+/LF)

(Flickr/Fieldstone Cabinetry)

(Flickr/Fieldstone Cabinetry)

Want the ultimate in kitchens? Then go custom. In this price range you get glass door cabinets, in-cabinet lighting, large pull-out storage (often used as a built-in pantry or as a small appliance garage), customized corner cabinets (that maximize space), microwave cabinets as well as more elaborate customized storage (think display wine racks or more decorative range hood cabinets). For the cheapest custom you’ll pay out $13,000 for 26LF of cabinetry. For more specialized orders expect to pay $31,200 and up. And for the ultimate in customization—such as automatic cabinet door openers and drawer warmers—expect to pay $50,000 or more for your kitchen cabinets.

(For more information on how quality impacts cabinets, read the Kitchen-compare.com blog.) 

Now, unless you have an unlimited budget, custom kitchen cabinets are probably a bit unnecessary. That doens’t mean you shouldn’t splurge, it just means you need to consider the overall cost based on your needs. For instance, if you live in a Heritage home, where space is limited, custom cabinets would be integral to getting you a kitchen that fits the space and decor, but offers more modern amenities. If, however, you’re renovating your inner-suburban 1970s home kitchen, you may be able to get away with stock or semi-custom and get the look you want at a fraction of the price. To get some inspiration, here’s an excellent example of how Ikea kitchens are used to create a custom look from stock shelving.

More on the Ultimate Kitchen Renovation Guide:

Picking the perfect kitchen appliances »
How to save on countertops »
Kitchen sink and faucet 101 »

Read more from Romana King at Home Owner on Facebook »

3 comments on “How to save on kitchen cabinets

  1. Thanks for the money-saving cabinet tips you shared. I didn’t know that there were so many options when it came to custom cabinets. Thanks for listing the different materials and finishes, this will come in handy.

    Reply

  2. Love your kitchen!!We are starting our kitchen-project next week.At first I will test the chalk paint with an old, black IKEA bedside table.Will see how it works and if I’m able to get a acceptable result.Actually I’m not the DIY’er typ. Btw, my question: … Did you use “Minwax Satin Polycrylic finish”, GLOSS or SATIN?I’m not sure if GLOSS will be to much shiny for the matt chalk paint.

    hlkitchens.com

    Reply

  3. Fantastic guide, I got cheap kitchen cabinets from: KitchenDoorHub

    Reply

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