Choosing Cabinetry Part 3: Cabinetry Classifications

When choosing cabinetry, the terms custom, semi-custom, stock, and builder grade are often used. Find out what these classifications really mean and how they can help you narrow down your choices.

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So far in our quest to understand cabinets, and your options when choosing them, we have discussed the differences between framed and frameless cabinetry , their construction, and the construction of the cabinet components, such as doors and drawers. This week we will discuss the classification terms used in cabinetry and how it can help you to narrow down your search.

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So you have a cabinetry budget in mind, but aren’t sure where to go beyond that? This is where the classifications of cabinetry will help you to narrow down your search. To start with, you will usually find three different classes of cabinetry:

  • Builder grade
  • Semi-custom
  • Custom

Each type will have different construction options, with a couple of overlaps. These overlaps can make a big difference in budget, so it is important to pay attention to the construction of the cabinet to get the biggest bang for your buck.

Please make sure to review our previous posts in this series so that you understand the terms and construction differences we will refer to in today’s post:

Choosing Cabinetry Part 1: Cabinetry Box Construction, Framed Vs. Frameless

Choosing Cabinetry Part 2: Cabinet Component Construction

Builder Grade Cabinetry

You will often find builder grade cabinetry off the shelf of your local big box home improvement store or stored in a warehouse of a building supply company. This will also be referred to as “Stock Cabinetry”. You will usually have three or four different colors or finishes to choose from, each with their own door style. It is usually not an option to mix and match finishes and door styles, so if you like the style, but not the color, you usually are not able to change and must settle. Sometimes different combinations are available through special order.

Box sizes and configurations will also be limited here. Typically you will find cabinets in 3″ increments from 9″ to 36″ wide. Your upper cabinets will typically be 30″ tall (made to be mounted at eight feet) with a few shorter cabinets available for over the fridge and range. They may offer a stack of drawers in a couple of sizes and one or two options for corner cabinets and pantries. It is likely that you will find the most common sizes available on the shelf, with a few additional sizes available to order in from another warehouse. Since these items are pre-built, you should only have to wait the shipping time. Framed cabinets will be pre-constructed, while frameless will often be RTA or Ready-To-Assemble. Make sure to ask so that assembly labor can be included in your budget if needed.

As far as construction, you builder grade cabinets will usually meet the minimums of ANSI/KCMA Certifications that we spoke about during cabinetry construction. You will typically see, thinner, furniture board (particle board) boxes with wood-look laminate sides, fixed shelves, and drawers with, stapled, furniture board drawer boxes and side-mount roller glides.

Builder grade cabinetry is your starting point. It’s use is in the name. It will give you a basic cabinet that will pass basic requirements as a cabinet, but not much more. We see these being used in apartments, lower value homes, and basic new construction builds. You can expect them, with normal wear and tear, to last 5-10 years before you start seeing issues. This is, of course, as long as they are not holding more excessive weight and are installed correctly. It is typical to see a one to five year warranty for builder grade cabinets. This is a good solution for very low budget projects or those instances where you need cabinets right away.


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Semi-custom Cabinetry

This is the category in which you will find the most cabinet options, for the most ranges of budgets. These cabinets will be built to suit starting with basic sizes and box types. They will then allow you to customize by selecting your door style, color, and adding features, such as roll-out trays or glass doors from a list of options. They will come pre-assembled, even in the frameless lines. They will be available in the 3″ increments previously discussed, but with more size, type, and construction upgrades available. Some lines will even offer customized size increments.

You will see better construction here as well. Semi-custom cabinets will often start at a, mid-weight, furniture board box, better quality drawer boxes (though they still might be stapled), and adjustable shelves, all the way up to a full-plywood box with dovetail wood drawers and full-extension, anti-slam glides. Here the consumer gets to pick what options are most important to them so that they have a better control over cost, although most manufactures will bundle upgrades to simplify ordering. For example, if you order full-plywood construction, it will then have the upgraded full-extension, anti-slam drawers as standard. Since these cabinets are made to your specific choices, you will have to wait a little longer for the cabinets to be built and delivered, often four to six weeks.

To simplify, or confuse, things further, most manufacturers will have different product lines within their semi-custom offerings. For example, a manufacturer may have product lines A, B, and C. A will have about 10 door styles, 20 colors, and a hand full of accessories to choose from, but won’t offer much in the way of customized sizes or fancy cabinets for specific storage needs. C will be their most customizable cabinets with 30 door styles, 50 finishes, offer custom width and height options, as well as a bunch specialized cabinets and fancy accessories. B will fall somewhere in-between.

Because the semi-custom lines are so all-encompassing, you will find them in most homes, even custom. Yes, you will not usually be supporting local cabinet builders, but this is usually where you will find the best warranties and quality control. Maybe the local industry might be better supported here through your designer, as they can often be found independent or working for a locally owned cabinet design center, who then orders from the larger manufacturers.


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Custom Cabinetry

This term is often used to refer to high end cabinets, but can really be used for anything that is built to your exact specifications. Because of this, quality is not guaranteed. You could have someone building a custom cabinet out of their garage that doesn’t even meet ANSI/KCMA Certification construction standards and it can still be called custom. Because of this, if you are considering independent, custom cabinets, make sure you are paying attention to the construction of the cabinet being made and the warranties being offered, if any.

Because custom can mean any range of quality of cabinet, we will focus on what most people think of when they hear custom. Most of the time, they are referring to a true artisan or a manufacturer that has a custom line of cabinetry.

Most “custom” cabinet lines by large manufacturers are really just a semi-custom line with more options and the added ability to submit a design for a custom piece to be made. The cabinets can be made to almost any dimension, typically within 1/4″ or 1/2″ increments. You will also have the ability to truly customize your door by picking routing, trim, and panel combinations from a good number of options. You may also find additional wood species offered and customized paint options. Because these are made in a factory setting, you might find better quality control as well as a oven-hardened finish, like you find on many semi-custom lines, to make your cabinets really last. You might give up an unlimited customized option, but you will gain these features, as well as a manufacturer-backed warranty.

When working with an artisan, the sky is the limit. While a knowledgeable cabinet maker might refuse if something is not recommended, such as a certain wood being too soft to make cabinetry, you really should be able to otherwise get whatever you want. Want a funky-shaped door, a specific color paint, or need to match an antique built-in in your home, you got it. Just make sure to do your homework on the cabinet maker. See examples of their work and try to talk to homeowners who have had their cabinets in their home for at least five years. Be very clear as to your construction and aesthetic choices, as well as the price quote and what it includes so there are no surprises. Be aware that any warranties will only be valid as long as this person is in business, and can be reached.


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How Not to Blow Your Budget on Cabinets Part 2

So how does knowing the difference in cabinet classifications help you to make a decision within your budget and get the best cabinet for your money? You take the knowledge you have gained here and in our construction posts to take advantage of those overlaps that we discussed earlier.

When working with the large cabinet manufacturers, most of them produce at least one, and sometimes several, different lines in each category. They are often trying to compete against one another to make the best cabinet at a given price point so that you will choose them over the other vendor. This is especially true in a big box store, where manufacturers display their offerings side-by-side.

Because of this competition, you might find a cabinet on the shelf, or stock cabinet, with more semi-custom features and construction, such as a wood dovetail drawer box, upgraded hinges and 3/4″ thick adjustable shelves. If the sizes that you need for your project are more basic and you like one of the door and finish combinations, you may not need to move into a semi-custom line to get a decent quality cabinet. Look for the warranty information as well, as some of them may be for 10, 15 years, or more.

You may even find a matching finish in their semi-custom line and may be able to order glass doors, different trim options, decorative legs, etc., to make your space look a little more custom. You can even add after market accessories from companies like Rev-A-Shelf. We do not, however, recommend mixing cabinets unless they are completely separate from the others, like an island, and a different door and finish. This is because most of these lines will be made in different factories, so slight inconsistencies may occur.

Need more flexibility with your sizes, finishes, and/or style? Look for semi-custom. Remember when we discussed lines A, B, and C? Within these lines, price will follow options. This is why we recommend having an idea of the look you want and your basic needs before you start shopping. If you are dead set on a specialty cabinet to hold your humongous stand mixer and it is only available in Line C, then that is your starting point. But if you find the door, color, and storage options that you need in line A, by going to more expensive line B, you will only be paying for options that you are not using. By following this plan, you will take advantage of those overlaps in product offerings without paying more for what you don’t need.

One good thing to point out, in most cases, construction upgrades can often be found in all lines. So if you want full-plywood construction, but don’t need a lot of fancy accessories, then usually you can still get that quality-built cabinet in Line A without blowing your budget.

It might even be a good idea to request a quote in two lines, within the same manufacturer, to see how much price difference there really is and what design differences there may be. Be fair to your designer, though, and limit your comparisons to only a couple within the same manufacturer. It is, usually, fairly easy to make changes and price within these lines, but making a jump to another manufacturer usually requires a whole new design and a lot of extra work. Narrow your choices down ahead of time using standard linear foot estimates and must-have item offerings. Once you have a more finalized plan in place, your designer can give you a good idea of what you will be sacrificing if you need to get your budget in check.

Do you have a weird nook or space that you think might require custom cabinetry? Speak to your cabinet designer. You might be surprised at the magic they can work with semi-custom lines.


We hope that you have learned even more about how to select cabinets for your next project. Make sure to join us next week when we end this series by reviewing cabinet finishes as well as finish up our discussion on How Not to Blow Your Budget on Cabinets. Please don’t forget to like and subscribe so you don’t miss a thing.

Related Reading:

Starting Your Project Part 1: Budget

Hiring the Right Contractor

Trends: Cabinet Hardware


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