Custom Cabinets: Are they the Best Choice for You?
Custom cabinets are the best choice for those who know what they want and have specific design requirements  that cannot be met with off-the-shelf or semi-custom kitchens. Sometimes custom cabinets are the appropriate choice because of unusually shaped rooms or due to the need to make maximum use of limited space. Some houses are built on too grand a scale for anything but custom cabinets to do justice to the large rooms and high ceilings.  More often than not, custom cabinets are the preferred option for people who want high quality construction and finishing techniques – cabinets that are built to withstand the use they are intended for and designed to look great.  For others, custom built-in cabinets, kitchens, and bathroom vanities are considered an investment that increases the value of their home as well as the quality of their time there.

What to Expect When you Choose Custom Cabinets
There are a few construction techniques that are becoming increasingly common in the manufacturing of cabinets that save on costs but compromise quality. When purchasing custom cabinets you shouldn’t have to endure any of these.

For example, drawers should be joined  properly with  biscuits, or traditional techniques such as dovetails, but not pinned together. Pinned drawers look good  enough at first, but they will fall apart.

Your cabinets should all have backs made from strong materials. Much of the strength that allows a cabinet to withstand a heavy load and maintain its shape and symmetry comes from its back. Unfortunately,  it is becoming increasingly common to see cabinets with thin hardboard backs or, worse, no backs at all – especially in lower cabinets.

There is also overuse of the ubiquitous, all-purpose infill strips or “trim.” Your custom cabinets shouldn’t have infill strips tacked onto them wherever they meet walls and other cabinets. This is done to cover over gaps and jogs that wouldn’t be there in the first place if the cabinets had been designed, constructed and installed with accuracy and precision.  It is painfully true that walls are not straight and floors are uneven, among other headaches that are beyond a cabinetmaker’s control, so some scribing fillets may be needed in worst case scenarios , but they should be tastefully executed as part of the overall design, not as an afterthought, and should be used as sparingly as possible.

As for hardware, you should be offered such features as full extension runners, and soft-close concealed hinges, a wide choice of knobs and handles, and whichever accessories you require to make best use of your space.

Above all, expect choice, that’s what customizing is all about. You should be given a vast choice of colours to choose from  for staining or painting your cabinets. All manner of storage solutions and accessories are available. Cabinets can be made in nonstandard sizes. Countertops can be curved,  elliptical or any other shape. Custom cabinetry is meant to meet particular needs not possible with off-the-shelf cabinetry, and to reflect your personal style and the character and uniqueness of  your home.

Things to Consider when Employing a Cabinetmaker
It is not necessary to have completed an apprenticeship  to call oneself a cabinetmaker, so it’s worth asking whether the contractor you’re considering has completed an apprenticeship and vocational training. This should ensure at least sufficient technical skills to execute the job,  the problem solving capabilities needed for design and installation, and basic drafting capabilities. The rest comes with experience and further education, so ask where they’ve worked and the scope of work they’ve been involved in over the years.

If your cabinetmaker intends to manufacture and install a solid surface countertop for you, ask if they are certified fabricators.   Staron and Corian will not honour warranties on countertops  not manufactured AND installed by certified fabricators .

Expect to see a written quotation complete with material and construction specifications and  drawings that are clear and understandable to you. Draftsmanship is as important an aspect of the cabinetmaker’s trade as any other.   Well drafted plans will save you on the overall cost of the job by minimizing material waste, and should ensure no nasty surprises or scrambling to correct overlooked details when the time comes to install the finished product on site. When you ask questions about construction details, your cabinetmaker should be able to answer them to your satisfaction; this gives an indication that the drawings presented have been properly thought out.

In general, you should be looking for a qualified tradesman with the education and experience to back up what they are  promising to deliver, who thinks things through, asks you a lot of questions about what you want, pays close attention to detail, and is obsessed with taking and retaking measurements.

Choosing Wood Species

The following is an outline of the characteristics, benefits and drawbacks of some of the  most popular wood species used in cabinetry :

In many ways, beech ticks all the boxes for an all round excellent cabinet wood. It is straight grained with a fine, even texture , having no sharp distinction between the heartwood and sapwood. It is a hard, heavy, strong wood that is durable and readily lends itself to machining. It stains beautifully and is perhaps the best choice of wood for stained and lacquered cabinets.

Cherry is a warm wood that is pinkish in colour when first milled but turns a rich, warm reddish-brown over time. It is an excellent, agreeable wood for cabinet construction and machining. Cherry does have a tendency to vary considerably and the contrast between the heartwood and sapwood can cause striking unevenness in colour when stained. Cherry also has a strong tendency to blotch when stained.  Cherry usually looks best when left unstained and allowed to mellow and richen over time, growing more beautiful with each passing year.

Oak is available plain sawn or quartersawn, most of us being more familiar with the plain sawn oak, which is less expensive. Plainsawn oak has a flowery, pronounced grain that is variable and becomes more exaggerated with staining and lacquering. Quartersawn oak has the same colouration but has tight, straight grain streaked with attractive rays that resist deep stain penetration and take on a luminosity when finished. Oak is a strong, stable, versatile and classic wood for cabinetry and furniture.

Maple is a very pale wood, usually with a very unpronounced, fine grain except in the case of bird’s-eye or curly maple, which is often used as a feature wood. It is hard, strong, stable,  durable and an excellent construction material. The one drawback to maple, because it is very hard and fine-grained, is that staining usually results in a blotchy finish.

Birch is similar to maple in many ways, but it has a more pronounced, colourful grain, which can be relatively subtle in plain birch, or strongly emphasized in what is called “birch with heart.” Like maple, it is a very dense wood and is prone to blotching when stained.  Fortunately, like maple, birch has considerable aesthetic merit when left unstained.

A light, yellow wood, pine is one of the least expensive woods and is appreciated by those who like a rustic look with plenty of variation and knots. It is soft, porous, highly variable and quite unstable, which can create difficulties in cabinet construction and cause  stain to blotch and take unevenly. Pine often looks best unstained. The natural colour will richen with age, taking on an attractive amber hue over time.