The Kitchen Designer

Thanks for stopping by! I'm Susan Serra, certified kitchen designer, and my mission is to take kitchen design style, function and analysis to a higher level. Here's why the kitchen has the most honored place in the home - all five senses reside in the kitchen.  Best...Susan  Contact: susan@susanserraassociates.com

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Custom kitchen design by Susan Serra, CKD, CAPS

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Custom Kitchen Cabinets - What You Need To Know, Part 1

custom%20cabinets.jpgChoosing your cabinetry is a huge decision. It's so permanent, isn't it? So many choices too! Since the cabinetry is often one of the largest parts of the kitchen remodeling budget, I'll be doing a series of informational posts on selecting your cabinetry. Today's post will be a simple explanation of custom cabinetry. Is it right for you? We'll see.

The phrase "custom cabinets," or "custom cabinetry" can be quite confusing. In fact, it means different things to different people! Do you want custom kitchen cabinets? Will they last longer? Will you pay much more? Is it worth the money? Here is some insight, and answers to common questions, to help make your decision making a little bit easier. These questions and more will be addressed in future posts. For now, let's begin at the beginning with a description of custom cabinetry and what makes it appealing to some.

What is this image?? It's an image of custom cabinetry integrating seamlessly with surrounding millwork.

What is custom cabinetry?

Custom cabinetry can be defined as cabinets which are made to order, first and foremost. Whether by an individual at a shop or a factory, the cabinetry is not pre made, taken off a shelf, and delivered. They are not manufactured until an order is placed. This is one definition.

How else is custom cabinetry defined? 

Custom cabinetry can also be defined as cabinetry which allows customizations, such as changes in cabinet sizes, wood species, and finish. True custom factories will also produce anything that can be built! The designer draws it, and the factory builds it, end of story.   

Why should I consider custom cabinetry? 

You should consider custom cabinetry if:


  • in the course of the kitchen design process, you discover that you want specific, and customized, design solutions that may not be widely available in the less costly, more middle quality cabinet lines
  • you want to make the most of every fraction of an inch, engineering your cabinetry to fit as opposed to working with standard sizes
  • you'd like to create a cabinet finish that is yours alone, or you feel you need to tweak an existing standard finish sample to get the look you want
  • you appreciate, desire to own, and can justify the extra expense of a high quality product, the construction and useful features of which will be enjoyable to use and experience every day
  • you appreciate the more distinctive wood species and fiishes that come with custom cabinetry, you want something special and/or innovative
  • you will remain in this home for the very long term and desire a product that has top quality construction and a top quality finish


From my experience as a professional kitchen designer, any or all of these points noted above, are the compelling reasons why my clients choose custom cabinetry. My job, as I see it, is to point out the differences among the cabinet lines that I represent, and let the appropriate product "speak to" my clients and then we go from there.

In future posts, I will cover middle quality cabinetry, also known as semi-custom, sellers of cabinetry, differences between types of cabientry, cost issues, and much more. Stay tuned! So much more to come.


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Reader Comments (16)


I am a fine furniture and cabinet maker in NH. I am always baffled to see ads for homes that boast "custom cabinets... blah blah blah." As a craftsman that makes true custom cabinets as well as fine furniture, I can tell you first hand what the definition is. I try to educate my customers on this very point: By definition, "custom" anything does not exist until it is ordered, requested, or comissioned. Also, it is important to stress this fact: it is not something that can be found elsewhere; in a different color, different species of wood, etc... I use the example of an automobile: If you buy even a high priced, luxury car and you pick the color and the power features and this and that, the next person to walk through the dealer's door can combine the exact same features and come out with the exact same car. In both cases, the cars have been "CUSTOMIZED" to your liking, but they are not true custom products. Now, if you were to present a design to the auto manufacturer and said "I want you to build THIS car for me, then that would be true custom work.

Once I describe the difference between "customizing" an already existing line of products and building something where it does not exist in any form and from an original design, most people get it. Far too often the word custom is erroneously substituted for the correct term: Customized. I look forward to more of your posts. Cheers.

PHilippe J. R. Fortin

July 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPhilippe Fortin

Just as I told you, there ARE varying definitions of "custom" in terms of cabinetry! Me, I think it is very safe to say that if a kitchen is custom designed, engineered to fit at fractions of an inch, which by itself is a lengthy process, perhaps with some other customizations, maybe not, in my definition the order can be considered custom cabinetry. To me, the minimum criteria of custom means that the cabinetry is truly engineered to fit without regard to standard sizes. After all, first and foremost, "custom" cabinetry is about a perfect, specialized "fit" for an individual situation, going beyond standard sizes and configurations as needed and as desired.

I do not think every element of the cabinetry needs to be 100% customized in order to be considered custom cabinetry. I don't think it is an erroneous use of the word if a client loves a particular standard finish, chooses not to change/embellish it, or create a new one, but their cabinetry is engineered to the 1/8" of an inch. I don't think that they then cannot use the word "custom" for their cabinetry.

Thank you for writing, it is good to have these points of view.

July 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD


One cabinet line about which I'm curious is: ikea cabinets.

Nothing about ikea inspires confidence in me, the warehouses are sloppy and understaffed by under-trained people; yet they started as a kitchen cabinet maker, and some swear by them, for their adaptability. Their design is clever, too, with their wall-hanging brackets and adjustable feet.

Moreoever, I have read that many architects and designers use them in their own homes, because as a group they remodel more often than most people, and ikea cabinets are cheap enough to allow one to justify frequent changes.

All that stated, my questions about ikea concern durability and usability.

Do they last a long time, with "normal" (non-abusive) use? Can they take a beating, such as young children deliver? (ikea furniture sure can't.)

Compared to what, you ask. Well, how about something fairly common in New England/Mid-Atlantic, like KraftMaid; or the less than luxe Canadian lines that many CKD's offer; or Plain & Fancy. I'm using these brands as bases for reference, because they're so common

I have seen real Custom Cabinets, too. But their durability obviously depends on materials and workmanship, like anything else. But the variables in real custom work render comparison impossible.

July 15, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMark


As a cabinetmaker, I am flattered to hear you say: Nothing compares to custom work. (tongue in cheek). I actually have some Kraftmaid and other mid/lower-end, mass produced, cabinets I use as visual aids when I talk to my customers about the very issues you are asking about; durability, usability, and value. Typically, value is often the deciding factor for investing in custom work.

SS, what are your experiences? Cheers!

July 15, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPhilippe Fortin

Mark, there are variables in stock cabinetry as well. Some of the brands you mention are semi custom and some are stock, which makes a difference in designing a kitchen as well as its durability. With stock, such as IKEA, you make the cabinet sizes fit your space, not the other way around. That's the first thing to be aware of. But, that's not what you are asking!

Will IKEA cabinets last over the long term (15-20 years or more) under normal use? My gut feeling based on my (long) experience tells me that the first thing to fail might be the finish in every part of the cabinet, the outside, the inside, the components on the interior.

I can make that assumption, and others, based on several things.

First, every IKEA product I have ever owned, and I own some now that were recently purchased, and meant to be temporary, unlike a kitchen, has a very very VERY delicate finish. That's not potentially a small problem, that's a big one. If it's better than the finish on their other products, then, ok, maybe it will not begin to fail for 5 years rather than 6 months or less. Five years is way too short a time to expect a kitchen's finish to last...under normal use. This is the actual term used in the kitchen and bath industry: "finish failure." Chances are you won't hear that from them.

Second, to me, it's just common sense that given their price point, many short cuts have to be taken in terms of the materials for construction and inner components. You get what you pay for. You really do. You're not paying for confidence and security here and longevity, that's not part of the purchase. I put stock American cabinets in the same category of these concerns as IKEA., no question about that.

As long as people understand that and do not try to position the product into a quality of cabinetry that it cannot be, then I wish them good luck and hope it works out (for the short term). Just do not be in denial about the product, that's my fear. Compare and become educated. If one cannot afford custom, OR semi custom (light years better than stock) then either wait, or buy what you can afford, understanding the products' limitations. Product awareness is very important for a project many people do once in their lives!

July 16, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

We are beginning to research kitchen cabinets to replace our existing cabinets. Where do we find information about cabinet makers? Would a company such as Showplace Woods be considered "semi-custom"?

July 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie

Susan, you mentioned the finish life. What do you think about repainting 2 year old cherry cabinets? I can have them spray laquered or hand painted with an oil based paint. Also, can you recommend a BM or P&L white paint color like the one you pictured above, that is neither yellow nor too "cool"?

Thank you.

July 25, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterennistbp

Debbie, sorry I'm a bit late in answering, I hope you return! You should allow ample time to do your research, and it is probably most convenient to begin locally. Look at the products, talk to the showroom people, look closely at the cabinetry. I would spend some time doing that so you can touch and feel the cabinetry. I am unfamiliar with Showplace Woods, so I cannot really comment. You will hear a variety of things as to what's "best," but eventually you will have enough information to determine what is best for you. You just need to put time into the front end!

ennistbp, oh, why do you want to paint 2 year old cherry cabinets? They must still be in near perfect shape! I cannot recommend a method of painting, as that is a very technical endeavor to take on. I would also be hesitant to recommend a paint color, and I'll tell you why. Whites have a variety of underlying colors within them. Not knowing your home and its surrounding colors, your trim color around windows and doors, etc. it's too risky! Just take care to see undertones in the whites of either yellow or blue, or green for that matter. Most whites have some color within them, although it may be difficult to see. The way you see it is to put whites next to one another so you can see them within "context." Hope that helps!

July 25, 2007 | Registered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

Thank you for your tips. I want to paint the cabinets because I'm rearranging a poor builder's layout, and I can't match the cherry color exactly to a couple of new base cabinets and trim I need. Do you see any other way around painting? Also, I really prefer white to cherry cabinets (only the faces are solid cherry--the cabinets are chipboard, cabinet brand Wellborn). BTW, it's such fun to get your blog in my inbox. I feel as if I'm conversing with a friend, as my local friends usually don't enjoy chatting about kitchens quite as much!

July 26, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterennistbp


I spent this morning speaking at a business and trade breakfast. I shared a story with my audience about a customer who was taken in by the "wow" factor at a cabinet distributor,s showroom a few years ago. she ended up going for the so-called top of the line cabinets. (Forgive me if my tone is skeptical.) The short version is I ended up working with her on a different design she herself created and the uniquely brilliant part of the project is the cabinets and other furniture pieces I will eventually make for her will be from three old trees on her property that are in need of coming down anyway. One of the trees has her grandparents initials carved into it from when they were courting umpteen years ago.

I realize this may not be a realistic option for everyone, but the point is two-fold: SS is absolutely correct- Do your homework! Find out what is available locally. Tap into the talents of area professionals. Ask tons of questions. Secondly, what sort of connection do you want with the project? The customer I referrenced in the story started off having little to no connection with the project other than being the financier. My thought on that is: It doesn't take skill to spend money, it just takes money. Now, with her original design, she will soon have incredible stories to tell and a tangible connection with her home (kitchen, at least). In my opinion, that is what makes a house a home . All my best and good luck!

-Philippe Fortin , The Whole Tree LLC

July 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterPhilippe Fortin

In this post from last July, you indicated that you would be following up with a post about middle quality, semi-custom cabinetry. I haven't been able to find it in the archives, so am I correct that that is a future note? We will be redoing our kitchen in a year or so and I'd like good quality cabinets without going the custom route, so I can splurge on the countertops!

By the way, I've followed your posts on the NYTimes blog and have loved your suggestions.

November 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMargaret M.

Thanks Margaret! Yes, it's on the list (there is no list!) But, it's a great idea, and I'm glad you reminded me. Sure, I can get something together, just not sure exactly when, but I'll keep it in mind, hopefully for the short term!

December 2, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Serra, CKD

I'm currently planning a kitchen remodel and have found the commentary very interesting. I saw the post that there would be a follow-up on middle quality semi custom cabinets. Can you direct me to that information. I'm trying to identify the brands I should and should not be considering. I've visited a couple of showrooms but have a hard time comparing one line to another. Are there specific "quality" cues I should be focusing on? Any help would be appreciated.

April 23, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKim H

Kim, great question. No, I have not ventured into the mid range territory. You know, it depends on the level of detail that you want to go into. The logical thing for analytical purposes would be to ask for a sheet of construction details for a cabinet. Every manufacturer, nearly every one provides such a sheet, or it is within the spec book for the manufacturer. That will tell a little bit of the story. Many brands ARE made in nearly identical methods one to another. Check out the type of finish that is used as well. And, eco friendly issues/methods, too, if that is important to you. It can be daunting.

And, then you must rememeber that all that is well and good, but your cabinetry will only look as good as the person who designs it, so you must put as much or more of your energies into finding a good designer as you do in investigating the product. This is not an easy task, but it can be done with time and attention to detail. I'm not sure I helped you in the way you were hoping.

April 23, 2008 | Unregistered Commentersusan

Hi Susan, Very much enjoy your blog. I found myself here looking for an answer to a perplexing question. I thought I wanted inset cabinets for the uppers and full overlay for the lowers in my traditional/country kitchen remodel. The 3 builders I've interviewed so far all seem to think I'm nuts.
I can find 'some' photos on the internet to back up my idea but not an overwhelming number by any means.
What do you think? Is this certifiable or 'forward thinking'? ;-) Thanks!

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter- A

Great Post!We will provide Discount Kitchen Cabinets & Bathroom Vanity by Cabinet Giant - All Wood Cabinets at Wholesale Prices.

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