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Question: We’re remodeling our kitchen. Our cabinetmaker says he can build anything we want but ...

Updated: Feb 11

suggests we talk to a designer to zero in on details. Since we will also be changing other things in our house, he does not want to just copy the type of cabinets we already have. Can you give us some guidance?


(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)


One of the first decisions to make is whether you want overlay or inset cabinetry. Overlay means that the door and drawer fronts rest on the frames of the cabinets. Inlay means that they sit flush with the frames.


Overlay cabinetry is more forgiving than inset because the fronts cover the frame openings and can withstand a slightly imperfect fit. There are standard overlay and full overlay dimensions. Standard overlay means that the size of the frame around the doors and drawers is one and one-quarter inches or more. Full overlay means that only one-quarter of an inch or less of the frame is exposed.


If you’re having as much trouble visualizing these overlays as I am describing them, think of it this way – do you want to see a lot of the face frame around your doors and drawers (probably not) or do you want to see just a tiny gap? The latter is a more popular choice as it more attractive and looks more custom.


Inlay cabinetry has a quality-furniture aesthetic. It is harder to build because, even though wood is naturally imperfect, the frames, doors and drawers have to fit each other perfectly. Because of this added effort, inlay cabinets are more expensive than overlays.


Inlay and overlay cabinetry are suitable for traditional and transitional style kitchens. If you’re going for a strictly modern or sleek kitchen, then choose overlay. There’s also European construction. This is sometimes called “frameless” or “full-access” construction because there are no stiles or rails. Stability is compensated by using thicker boxes. In this case, overlay fronts are your only option.


Because terms can be confusing, I always draw my cabinets and write a legend of specifications so that my cabinetmaker knows exactly what I’m envisioning.


Your next decision is to choose the style of your door and drawer fronts. Some cabinetmakers order these fronts from a company such as Decore-ative Specialties rather than making them in his shop. (This is fine; he’s not cheating). You will see terms like “flat”, “recessed panel” and “raised panel”. They come in different wood species and finishes. There are also optional moldings and flourishes available. Choose based on the style you want to create.


I sometimes mix styles where the doors may have a center panel but the drawers are flat. Flat, also known as “slab”, allows me to choose from a wider range of pulls and knobs. Sometimes, shallow drawers with center panels are too skinny to accommodate certain hardware styles.


Two last tips. In honor of my beloved Nancy Drew books, I like to incorporate a secret compartment in my cabinets. And, lastly, think outside the box. Since you’re ordering custom cabinets, you might as well make them look custom and suit your every need.

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