Why Custom Cabinets for a Kitchen No Longer Make Sense

It is easy to idealize the past.

I remember watching the “Secret Wedding” scene of Braveheart, where the couple is wed by a priest under the moonlight, afterwards retiring to a mossy rock with a valley or waterfall, etc spread below them. They're naked, of course. They're having a grand old time, as you might imagine.

But what about the mosquitoes?

Sometimes it can be easy to think that older techniques and methods are better merely because they're older, when in reality those older methods had shortcomings that we don't remember or understand. Now, this doesn't mean that all new things are good or that some ancient method won't always be the best way of doing things. It just means that we have to stay open to seeing how something new really may offer us the best value.

Custom cabinet kitchens are still around, but they are increasingly associated with a bygone era. I'm betting that most people who think about custom cabinets are imagining their grandfather back in the 50's or 60's, making something timeless. Now, remember, I'm just talking about kitchens here. Custom cabinets for electronics and decor (like home office, home theater, or a clever cabinet built under a stairway, for example) are alive and well. That market will be much harder for manufacturers to access.

Just so we're clear on this, I define a custom cabinet as something made to fit into specific dimensions in a house. The sizing of it is totally dependent on the spot where it needs to fit. The cabinetmaker measures the space, creates a design, and builds the cabinet.

(As an aside, a “site-built cabinet” is also a type of custom cabinet, but since it is built there at the jobsite rather than being built in a shop nearby, it is generally considered to be of lower quality — structurally and in terms of the finish — than this “custom cabinet” I'm describing. Trade-off: It is usually quite a bit cheaper. Most cabinetmakers will only do site-built cabinets for certain types of projects, like a very large cabinet or one with modest structural requirements.)

Thirty years ago, a new kitchen in a custom home would have been made with custom cabinets. But around that time, someone spawned the idea of instead building cabinets in standard sizes, styles, and finishes; making thousands of them at a time so as to lower the overhead costs (like planning and setup of equipment), and planning kitchens with these new modular cabinet dimensions in mind. So the age of manufactured cabinetry began.

At this point, I can tell you that manufactured cabinetry is the way to go. I would even go so far as to say that for 99% of the people/kitchens out there, custom cabinets for a kitchen just don't make sense. Here's a brief roundup of the reasons:

First, for a person wanting their new kitchen to cost less than $50,000 (the vast majority of us), it allows for greater complexity and uniqueness. I know that sounds like a contradiction:”Use factory-made cabinets so you can be unique”, but it's really true. Many brands of manufactured cabinets now come in a dazzling array of shapes and angles. So, for very little cost, your kitchen's “footprint” (or, layout shape) can be one-of-a-kind.

Second, the joinery (that is, the method of joining the parts together) is as good or better. I won't go into lots of details here, but suffice it to say that you don't need to worry about the structural strength of quality manufactured cabinets.

Third, the finish is usually superior and more consistent across the whole job, compared to what a local shop can produce.

Fourth, the cost is significantly lower. Exception: you may be able to do better if you can find a cabinetmaker with no self-esteem and/or no understanding of how to run a profitable business (which sadly, is still not extremely difficult if you have a strong social network). A normal cabinetmaker knows better than to try to compete with manufacturers in the kitchen market.

Now the danger is that you will take what I've said above and apply it to ALL manufactured cabinets. That would be a grave mistake. Having installed well above 100 kitchens, I can tell you that going with the high-end of the manufactured options is best. If you want more specific advice about this, feel free to contact me.