House Watch: In kitchens, beauty is costly in cabinet choices


With this Lazy Susan cabinet upgrade, you turn each shelf 90 degrees and pull it forward, so that the stored items are an easy reach. The design also makes more efficient use of space. (Courtesy of Merillat Cabinets/COURTESY OF MERILLAT CABINETS)
October 14, 2011

Function or beauty? Which do I want more in my kitchen?

More than likely you’ll opt for beauty, said Bart Bauer, who’s been designing kitchens in at Chelsea Lumber in Chelsea, Mich., for more than 25 years. In his experience, “about 80 percent of the time, the look wins.” But most homeowners do not realize how much the aesthetics add to the cost.

For example, Bauer took me through the cabinet choices for a modest 10-by-10-foot, eat-in kitchen, with cabinetry lining two walls of the space. He chose a brand that is widely available throughout the country, Merillat, and its stock line that is used by many home builders: the Classic.

Likening his choice to a line of cars, a distinction that is easier for most homeowners to remember, Bauer said Merillat’s Classic line is analogous to a Chevy Malibu or a Honda Civic.

When Bauer’s 10-by-10 kitchen is finished with the no-frills, basic cabinetry with a partial overlay, flat-paneled oak doors (with this door, some of the oak front of the cabinet box will be visible), the cabinets cost about $1,350. The same kitchen with a full overlay, raised panel, solid cherry doors and the top-of-the-line glaze finish (this door completely covers the front of the cabinet box) will run about $4,500.

How can there be a $3,150 price difference between the two kitchens when the only major differences are the cabinet doors, drawer fronts and box fronts?

Some of the cost difference can be attributed to the door size, wood materials, door and drawer style, and type of finishes used. But much is simply cachet, Bauer said.

Offering a brief tutorial, Bauer explained that the most common type of wooden cabinet doors for kitchens and bathrooms is “paneled.” That is, the middle of the door is a panel, surrounded by four solid pieces of wood that form the four sides of the door. The panel can be flat or raised. The flat panels are usually veneered plywood. The raised panels, which are costlier, can be veneered hardwood over particle board or solid hardwood (which makes them pricier still). To accentuate the paneling and give the door a more distinguished look, glazes can be applied in the finishing process, and this drives up the cost even further.

But the beautiful doors that cost thousands add nothing to the utility of your kitchen, he says. If you’re willing to scale down on the looks and get a simpler, less costly cherry door, you can add features that will make this kitchen more functional, easier to use and still come out ahead by $1,300.

The same trade-offs would be true of most other cabinet lines, including Merillat’s more upscale Masterpiece: When you opt for a simpler door, you’ll have the budget for features that will make your kitchen more functional and more fun.

Baur offered some “more convenient” features of Classic kitchen cabinetry that would cost about $3,200, excluding labor:

Wall cabinets. Standard wall cabinets are 30 inches high with two shelves. Extending the cabinets to the ceiling adds a third shelf and increases the storage capacity by 50 percent.

Base cabinets. The standard base cabinet has two fixed shelves, a full-depth one on the bottom (it’s 24 inches deep) and one half-shelf (with a 12-inch depth). Adding a second full-depth shelf increases the storage capacity of the cabinet by a third, and it’s nearly costless: about $8 for each cabinet.

But even when ample, fixed shelving has a downside. You have to remove everything in the front before you can remove anything stored in the back; then you have to replace everything you took out, a real pain if you have to do this on a regular basis. With a rollout tray upgrade, everything stored is easily accessible.

The tray sides can be two or four inches. The higher ones add to the convenience because they prevent things from falling overboard in the back of the cabinet box.

Base cabinet blind corner. When two counters intersect, as in this kitchen, the area in the corner under the counter and next to the walls is called a “blind corner” because it can’t be accessed with standard cabinetry. The base-price solution for this condition is a Lazy Susan cabinet with two ¾-circle-shaped shelves that rotate around a fixed pole. With this, you lose about one-third of the potential storage area under the corner, but every stored item is accessible. The upgrade is a “Wood Lazy Susan Kit.” It has two shelves in the shape of a half-ellipse that you swing out of the cabinet and pull forward, so that everything stored is an easier reach (see accompanying photograph). Because these oddly shaped shelves and cabinet box are more compact and occupy less area than the standard Lazy Susan, you get an additional nine-inch “tray” cabinet.

Drawers. The standard drawer is stapled particleboard with side-mounted glides (the glides hold the drawer in place when you open it). The upgrade is a more durable wood drawer with stronger dovetail joints and glides that are mounted under the drawers, adding about an inch to the interior drawer width. The under-mounted glides are “full extension,” so that the drawer can be pulled all the way out to reach things kept in the back, and “soft close,” which prevents the drawer from being slammed shut and pinching big and little fingers.

Door styles. Stick with cherry but opt for a lower-price full overlay, flat-paneled door that conceals the front of the cabinet box — giving a modern touch to a traditional look.

Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County and now lives in Michigan. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her by e-mail or at katherinesalant.com.

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