Buying new kitchen cabinets? What you need to know

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Longtime New Yorkers Angela Tiffin and Andrew Nichols bought their first brownstone in South Park Slope in May 2012, and have spent two years renovating—first, their own duplex apartment and in recent months, a third-floor rental unit—much of it with their own hands. You can read more about the project at their blog,Brownstone Cyclone.

We recently purchased new kitchen cabinets for the rental unit in our brownstone, after buying them last year for our duplex, which may seem like an easy decision. In truth, however, there are a dizzying array of choices when it comes to picking the style, the substance and the construction methods, not to mention where to shop in the first place. Below, what we learned in the process: 


When it comes to what your cabinet boxes are made out of, you'll want to spring for durability, since you may wind up replacing the doors to keep up with evolving kitchen styles, but you'll want the inside of your cabinets to last. There are four basic materials to choose from:

●      Plywood: Made from engineered wood composed of layers stacked and glued together, plywood is stronger and more durable than particleboard or MDF (see below), and tends to be more expensive. Also, it can warp, causing the cabinet box to slightly pull "out of square."

●      ParticleboardThis is made of wood chips or shavings bonded together with resin and compressed into sheets, then covered with a melamine, wood veneer or vinyl laminate layer.  What does this mean?  It won’t warp, shrink or swell in humidity. It's also less expensive than plywood. The drawbacks are that it's not as strong and is vulnerable to water damage.

●      Medium Density Fiberboard: MDF is an engineered wood made from fine wood particles and glue formed into sheets. It's strong, resists warping and has a smooth surface for veneers, laminates and paint. Unfortunately, it’s also prone to water damage if exposed for too long. This material is also heavier than particleboard, so if you're installing the cabinets yourself, as we intend to do, and you have lots of upper cabinets it may be something to consider.

●      Wood: Solid wood is also an option but it's expensive and the most susceptible to warping in humidity, so it's not as practical as the other materials that are now available.


If you've opted to go for boxes made from engineered wood, they'll have a surface layer of either:

  • laminate: a plastic product available in different textures and colors, the main downside is that it's impossible to repair if it gets chipped
  • wood veneer: an environmentally friendly option, since it uses only thin slices of wood glued onto the surface, and is about a third of the price of real wood
  • thermofoil: made from a plastic material, with a smooth painted finish and a third the price of wood veneer

And if you've picked solid wood, you've got four options: stained, painted, varnished or lacquered. Your choice will mostly depend on your aesthetic, since the finishes are all similar in terms of how they protect the wood. 


Meanwhile, cabinet faces come in three basic styles:

Above, an example of a framed cabinet with an overlay door

  • framed with overlay doors: Both framed styles require the cabinet to have a frame of finished material around the front of the cabinet that is usually made of solid wood that matches the doors. The frame protrudes about a quarter inch on the left and right side of the cabinet, which means you give up half an inch of space. Overlay doors sit on the outside of the frames, and the space between the cabinets exposing the frame can vary in size, depending on what look you like. Overlay doors hide the hinges completely and are less expensive.

Above, a framed cabinet with an inset door

  • framed with inset doors: Inset doors are mounted into the frames, and require more precise manufacturing and thus are more expensive. With these doors you have the option to display the hinges, if you like that.

Above, an example of a framed cabinet with a full overlay door

  • frameless: It's what the name implies: there's no face frame and the cabinet doors attach directly to the sides of the cabinet box which allows for the maximum use of space inside.


For our duplex, we went for frameless cabinets with white laminated particleboard boxes and white painted maple doors (see main photo above).  We liked the clean lines that the frameless construction offered, and the brand we chose, Craft-Design, had a good selection of upper cabinets that would reach as close to our nine-foot ceilings as possible. Aesthetics played a large role; we wanted a grey painted island and Craft-Design was the only brand that offered the color we wanted.

For the rental unit, we chose framed plywood cabinets with birch full overlay doors because they were durable, and the wood doors would be easy to touch up if scratched.  We thought about white cabinets because they might look more modern but based on how difficult it is to keep ours clean, we went with the wood finish.  Since they are brand new and have a clean Shaker style design, we think the future tenants will be happy with them. 


For both kitchens in our brownstone we went with a local design business, Park Slope Kitchen Gallery, for several reasons. First, they are half a block away, so super convenient.  We liked the personal attention of a small shop, and when there was an issue the designer was able to pop over and have a look or order a new part that we could pick up ourselves at no cost. Finally, the prices were comparable to other stores. 

Of course, big box retailers like Home Depot, Lowe's and IKEA are popular because they're conveniently located, especially for city dwellers without cars, and have large showrooms and a wide selection of products. In our experience, mainly from renovating the kitchen in our last apartment, we found the service at the chain stores lacking. The designers are generally 9 to 5-ers with little interest in helping you creatively, and we had to deal with different employees at each step of the process (including a subcontractor who bungled the installation at the previous apartment). 

Stay tuned: in our next post we’ll cover how to install the cabinets.


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