Helping Your Client Select Kitchen Cabinets

December 2, 2021

A guest post by Liz Walton

As interior designers, we pride ourselves on being a jack of all trades. We handle rooms large and small, and are required to know a lot of information about almost every aspect involved in making a house a home. From the initial design to the last piece of trim, clients lean on their designers as the tour guide that leads to a fabulous home. Your client hired you as the expert and now it is up to you and your team to deliver the goods. I pride myself on knowing a little bit about everything, and have learned over the years that there are a thousand decisions that go into completing a home renovation, many of which have costly consequences. I have also learned that there are dozens of different avenues in which designers specialize within the interior design industry, from window treatments, tile, countertops, furniture, to name a few.

Kitchens are a highly specialized trade requiring a keen eye for detail, space planning, and knowledge of surfaces and materials. You must also have a good understanding of your client’s goals, aesthetic, and budget. Once you have established how the kitchen should function and feel, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and dig into the details. As you walk your client through the cabinetry drawings, you highlight that the new pantry cabinet is deep enough to fit their KitchenAid mixer, but not too deep where soup cans live far past their expiration date. A narrow pullout cabinet to the left of the range keeps spices close at hand while another mirrored on the right clears cooking utensils and oils off the counter. A concealed coffee bar/command center with bi-fold doors helps their family stay organized. One whole drawer is dedicated as a charging station and the pile of unsightly mail and school papers is hidden behind a cabinet door. Everything is accounted for, and the design looks beautiful.

At this point in the planning process, you’re feeling confident about your design and specifications. You’re feeling confident until your contractor shows you the price of your perfectly planned kitchen, and you start feeling the pain of sticker shock.

As an NKBA Certified Kitchen Designer, this is quite common. Clients and designers work together for months pouring over detailed drawings for a kitchen or bathroom remodel, only to suffer from severe sticker shock when you receive the cabinetry quote. You start questioning the selections: countertops, tile, flooring, window locations.… Suddenly, the project is temporarily put on hold. Where can I help my client save money? How can I design my client’s dream kitchen to meet their budget?

At Liz Walton Home, we believe in educating our clients in the early stages of the project so they can make an informed decision about what is right for their home. Like most things, all cabinets are not created equal. “Custom cabinetry” and “semi-custom cabinetry” are often mislabeled as synonymous. As a kitchen and bath professional who specifies cabinets on a daily basis, I would like to share my expertise in case you ever need to find creative ways to stay on budget or up the wow factor and define the benefits of each type of cabinetry.

Shabby Chic Kitchen

Custom Cabinets

Custom cabinets are handcrafted using solid wood construction. The advantage of custom is you drive the details, including choosing the wood species and size (down to a 1/16”) to door styles, colors, interior organizational components, and hardware. Intricate cabinetry details can also be designed, such as curvilinear mullion details on glass panel doors, leather clad drawer heads, magnetic glass front cabinets. Custom cabinets are ideal for odd shaped spaces or tight spaces in need of the greatest optimization. Custom cabinets are perfect for a specific aesthetic because they provide the most flexibility with the highest quality materials and craftsmanship. Unlimited options are available and warrant the highest price tag. They also incur longer lead times and require a highly skilled and imaginative designer (that’s you!). Due to their long-lasting quality, limitless options and elegance, it’s a worthwhile client investment.

Pros: You get exactly what you want with the best quality craftsmanship and materials

Cons: Expensive and long lead times

Warm kitchen

Semi-Custom Cabinets

Semi-custom cabinets are pre-manufactured cabinet boxes available in various finishes and door styles. Construction varies, but they’re usually made of a high quality wood or composite material. Sizes are predetermined. They come in increments of 3” in width and height; but in-between sizes, like 25-½” wide, are not available. They also have limited choices for interior customization. For example, you may not be able to get a mahogany cabinet interior or a bifold door for the cocktail bar. Semi-custom cabinets also have fewer door style and finish options and custom colors are not available. However, semi-custom cabinets are still a solid, budget-friendly choice. They also have shorter lead times.

Pros: Lower price point with some customization options

Cons: Less flexibility in sizes, colors, and interior components

Stock Cabinets

Stock cabinets are ready-made and available at your local home improvement store. They come in standard sizes with predetermined door styles and finishes. Typically, they’re constructed using a wood imposter or composite material like particle board. No modifications are available. What you see is what you get. Don’t be surprised if they arrive damaged or doors come apart in a few years.

Pros: Readily available and very cost effective

Cons: Poor quality, no customization, shorter lifespan

Blue island in kitchen
Well designed kitchen

Which cabinets are right for your project?

If your client is completely redesigning their kitchen and searching for the latest in storage solutions, styles, finishes, and efficiencies, custom cabinets are ideal. Custom cabinets are also a great fit for high-end homes. Semi-custom cabinets are a solid option if your client wants to replace existing cabinets within the same footprint, and transform the overall look of the kitchen on a budget. (We do not recommend stock cabinets. It is still money spent on an inferior product that your client will need to shell out again for a replacement.)

Things to consider:

Whether you and your client choose custom or semi-custom, there are other factors at play that will drive the cost of new cabinets, such as:

  • Full Overlay vs. Framed Inset Construction. Read our most popular blog post for more details.

  • Door Style. An intricate door style normally costs more than a flat panel or shaker door style. For a quick reference guide, refer to your cabinetry catalog for the price per door. Some doors are offered at no charge, while others command up to $250 per door. Those charges add up quickly when designing an entire kitchen.

  • Finish. Painted finishes are typically less expensive than stains because the manufacturer uses paint grade material rather than a hardwood with noteworthy grain. To extend the life of your finish, the cabinetry manufacturer can advise on maintenance practices, such as cleaning with warm water and mild soap.

  • Molding Details. A three piece crown molding is a beautiful design feature but can be a budget buster in terms of material cost and installation. Other moldings that can increase the price include light rails (installed at the bottom of the wall cabinet to conceal under cabinet lighting) and decorative baseboard moldings.

  • Interior Components. Plate racks, stainless steel inserts, and two-tiered drawer systems are really cool and may add value to your client’s life, but they also add hundreds of dollars to the bill. Your client will rely on you for guidance regarding which components are worth the extra money and which accessories are not worth the investment.Talk with your cabinetry manufacturer for best practices on specifying interior cabinetry components.

Pull out spice drawer in kitchen

With so many options available, it’s worth the time investing in some cabinetry training so you can feel confident when discussing the choices with your clients. The National Kitchen and Bath Association is dedicated to equipping designers with the resources and tools necessary to plan and execute a kitchen renovation. Oftentimes, your cabinetry manufacturer has training sessions and facility tours to help educate you on the specifics of their products so you can sell confidently. The more you know about kitchens, the more your clients will view you as the ultimate jack of all trades.

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Written by Liz Walton

Liz Walton is the founder and proud owner of Liz Walton Home. As a certified kitchen designer, Liz and her team work seamlessly with clients and custom home builders to deliver one-of-a kind kitchens, tailored to suit their needs. Liz’s pragmatic and function based approach paired with humor and humility put clients minds at ease and ensure an exceptional experience.

Liz Walton Headshot

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