Considering Cabinets

Advice on choosing the right options for your kitchen lifestyle

Whether you’re renovating your kitchen or building a new home, take plenty of time to consider your options for cabinets. You’ll be looking at hardware, wood, style and finishes. Consider the architecture of your home, how much cooking you do and how much mess you and your helpers make.

Hardware—pulls, hinges, drawer sliders and knobs—is a critical cabinet decision. If you cook a lot, choose hardware that can stand up to lots of use.

“A home chef is going to be relatively rough on cabinets,” says Tracy Yarborough, vice president of the national Cabinet Makers Association, the trade association for custom cabinetmakers. “The hardware needs to be more durable because it will take more wear and tear over time.”

Oak. Walnut. Pine. Maple. Cherry. Everyone has one special wood. Keep in mind that some woods can be finished to resemble your favorite too.

“My personal favorite wood is walnut,” says Yarborough of Maple River Woodworks in Coward, S.C. “I just love the deep grain, the deep color.”

But walnut is expensive compared to other woods, and its natural color is a deep brown, Yarborough says. So if your budget isn’t generous or you’d rather not have dark cabinets, keep looking.

One of the most popular choices is soft maple, Yarborough says. Maple’s natural color is a creamy ivory, which makes it easy to stain to resemble other woods, such as cherry, he says.

Many people in the South like the look of pine cabinets, but Yarborough seeks to educate those who want pine to make sure they understand the drawbacks.

Pine lasts as long as any other hardwood, he says. “Pine gives a very distinctive, Colonial look to your home,” Yarborough says. “But pine comes with a lot of maintenance.”

The problem with pine is—it never dries out, Yarborough says. That resin makes the wood hard to work with too. “It gums up our saws, and it burns up sandpaper,” Yarborough says. That boosts the price for pine.

In your home, the cabinets will continue to expand, contract and drain pinesap, he says. “Pine always has a little warpage,” Yarborough explains. “We have to allow wider gaps to make sure there is room for that wood to move.”

You may have seen sap running down a pine tree. “The same thing can happen on pine cabinets,” Yarborough says.

If you’re considering cherry, Yarborough wants you to know it’s very light sensitive. Cherry’s natural color is a light pink or light red, he says. “Once exposed to sunlight, cherry quickly darkens to deep red or burgundy,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to stop that from happening.”

So if you fall in love with that light, natural cherry color, don’t get too attached. Some people even choose a darker stain to begin with for cherry, which reduces the amount of ultraviolet rays that reach the cabinet and slows down the sun’s darkening. Raised panel doors add an elegant look.

But if your cooks and cook helpers are messy and not strong on quick cleanup, “Try to steer away from traditional raised panel, and get something flatter so there aren’t crevices for food to get into,” Yarborough says.

If the kitchen is unusually dirty, he might advise an institutional style plastic finish so the cabinets can easily be wiped clean. You might not appreciate that look, however.

“Homeowners want to have a little bit of charm in the cabinets,” Yarborough says. “It’s a compromise between how much detail you put in a cabinet versus how much time you can spend cleaning.”

The finish you choose also is important to how your cabinets will look over time. Yarborough uses a lacquer finish that can either remain clear or be tinted to match paint colors or resemble different woods.

Just like with paint, you can choose among flat, satin, semi gloss and gloss finishes.

Yarborough opts for satin as a good compromise to capture the advantages of both a flat finish and glossy finish with fewer disadvantages.

Although a flat finish doesn’t show scratches, it does nothing to enhance the look of the wood, he says. “A flat finish doesn’t have luster,” he says.

“It doesn’t reflect any light.” Meantime, a semi-gloss and glossy finishes reflect light well, but they also show scratches, he says. You’ll see fingernail marks around knobs or pulls, and the area around the sink that is frequently wiped will begin to lose its sheen, he says.

A satin finish offers the best of both worlds, he says. Finally, if you’re considering upgrading from a budget countertop to a high-end counter such as granite down the road, specify how you want your economical countertop installed, Yarborough recommends.

In some parts of the country, laminate countertops are made onsite and then screwed down to the top of the cabinets, he says. Those counters are tough to remove later if you decide on granite or another high-end counter when your budget allows.

The laminate countertops should be made offsite and then screwed on from underneath the cabinet for easy removal later, he says.

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