When most people choose the cabinets for their new house, they focus on -- and frequently obsess about -- the door style. Contemporary? Traditional? Which wood? What stain? Light or dark? Faux blue?

There's a surfeit of choices, but the first step is deciding on a price range and a cabinet grade.

The three main grades of cabinets are "stock," "semi-custom" and "custom." There is much overlap among them; the only hard and fast distinction is price. Custom cabinets are the most expensive, stock cabinets are the least expensive and semi-custom cabinets are in between.

With custom cabinets, the cabinet boxes are made with higher-grade materials, the finishes are applied by hand, there is more choice of wood types and stains, and the detailing is more refined. Most of the higher cost, however, is due to the custom factor: Custom cabinets are made to order in any size requested.

With stock cabinets, there are fewer choices of wood species for the doors, but they can be stained to mimic other woods. Less expensive materials are used for the cabinet boxes. There are fewer coats of finish, and they are applied by machine.

But some stock cabinet lines, such as Merrilat, now include features that were once the hallmark of custom cabinetmakers, such as base cabinets with rollout trays, and solid wood drawers with dovetail joints and under-mounted drawer glides. These are stronger drawers with a tonier look.

The critical distinction between stock and custom cabinets, however, is the size. Stock cabinets come only in fixed sizes, so there is less flexibility in designing a kitchen. So if your new kitchen will be oddly shaped, or it's small and you want to maximize storage space, custom cabinets may be the way to go.

Semi-custom cabinets occupy an ill-defined area between the other two grades. Most of them are made by either a custom cabinetmaker or a stock cabinetmaker that wants to increase its market share, so the features offered depend on the company. If it is a stock cabinetmaker, the semi-custom line will offer more wood species and finishes and more sizes. If the company is a custom cabinetmaker, its semi-custom line will have fewer features and finishes, and there will be some limits on the sizing.

A few high-end production builders use semi-custom cabinets, but these are more often specified by semi-custom and custom house builders.

Nearly all production house builders use stock cabinets. Price is certainly a factor in this preference, but almost as important is the easy availability of stock cabinets. They can be delivered within three weeks of placing an order, whereas a custom or a semi-custom cabinet order generally takes at least eight to 12 weeks. For a house builder on a very tight construction schedule, as all production builders are, this is critical. If the wrong size or cabinet style is inadvertently ordered or delivered, the problem can be quickly rectified.

If you end up with stock cabinets, either because you are working with a production builder or your budget dictates it, don't fret that you are compromising. Over the past 15 years, stock cabinets have vastly improved in appearance, detailing and durability.

In fact, stock cabinets may be the most sensible choice for you, even if you can afford more expensive ones. Do you really care about the costlier, hand-applied finishes or ball-bearing drawer glides that are standard with any custom line?

Once you've dealt with the preliminaries -- the difference between cabinet grades and which one is the right choice for you -- and you've narrowed the field to one or two cabinet lines, then you can start obsessing about door styles.

Custom and semi-custom lines offer the most choices in the doors, but stock lines also offer enough to keep you awake at night.

Most cabinet doors are wood, and broadly speaking there are two types. The door will be either completely flat, which gives it a contemporary look, or have a panel that can be raised or flat, which gives the door a traditional look.

With stock cabinets, the least expensive wood door will have a single panel of veneered plywood. (This is the standard cabinet door for many production builders.) A medium-priced stock cabinet door will have a raised panel that is veneered wood over particle board. The most expensive stock cabinet door will have a solid wood panel. (It looks and wears the same as the other one, but you will know the difference.)

A flat-paneled stock cabinet door is fine for a bathroom. But in a high-use area such as a kitchen, try to upgrade to a raised panel type if possible. The increased thickness gives the door more strength and rigidity.

The type of hinge can also affect door strength. A concealed European-type hinge that is commonly used on a full-overlay door is generally stronger than a standard hinge, which is partially exposed.

Although children hanging on the cabinet doors can weaken the hinges and cause them to break, Debby Saling, a certified kitchen designer in Beltsville, observed that a more common problem is adults who bend down to get something out of a base cabinet and then lean on the door to boost themselves up.

With semi-custom and custom cabinet lines, the doors will be solid wood. The flat paneled doors can have more panels, as well as more refinements that give it a Shaker look. This type of flat-paneled door is usually stronger than the stock cabinet type and it should work in any room in the house.

With all three cabinet grades, the size of the cabinet doors will affect both price and appearance. Larger doors and drawers that cover the front of the cabinet box when they're closed (the "full overlay" type) are more expensive. The difference is subtle, but it can give a contemporary feel. With standard door and drawer sizes, the front of the cabinet box is partially exposed when the doors are closed.

Nearly all stock cabinet lines offer oak, maple, hickory, cherry and vinyl-wrapped white doors. At the semi-custom level, birch and poplar doors are also available and white doors are lacquered, a more expensive process that gives a more refined look. The number of stains, which can affect appearance dramatically, increases.

At the custom level, tropical hardwoods such as teak and mahogany are also possible. Nearly all cabinet lines, in all grades, offer wall cabinets with glass doors, which add an upscale look if your dishes, cups and glassware are a matched set. (If you have a hodgepodge, this type of cabinet will look terrible.)

Some of the semi-custom and custom lines offer colored stains such as "Sherwood green" and "Nantucket blue." These may look intriguing, but they're trendy and will soon look as dated as the purplish "pickled maple" finish that was popular in the early 1990s. You're better off staying with a natural wood look; a perennial favorite such as red oak is always a good bet.

Before you make your final decision on the doors, try to see an entire kitchen with the style you have selected, even if this requires some doing. Ask the cabinet dealer if you can see a completed job of a former client, or ask the builder if you can see the finished house of someone who got them.

This is especially important if you want a dark wood or stain, because dark cabinets will make a kitchen appear darker and smaller than you expect.

Katherine Salant can be contacted at Salantques@aol.com.

Distributed by Inman News Features