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Selecting a kitchen cabinetry design that will endure

Whether you choose knobs or pulls, the hardware you add will protect your cabinetry’s finish from the natural oils on your hands. While this has no impact on the structural integrity of cabinetry, it will certainly keep it looking newer for many more years to come. (iStock)
4 min

Cabinetry rules the kitchen. Everything relies on it: You can independently replace almost any other part of your kitchen, but only when the cabinetry is changed is it considered a “remodel.”

There is no greater testament to the power of cabinets than a kitchen from the 1980s (or earlier) whose small fridge, tucked neatly into a “built-in” enclosure, dies and needs to be replaced. But no modern-day fridge will fit into the cabinetry enclosure anymore!

I have seen this drive full kitchen remodels countless times because cabinetry is the most permanent material element in a kitchen design. It is also among the most expensive — so it is in your best interest to prolong the life of the cabinets and the universality of your design as much as possible. This can be accomplished by properly sizing appliance cavities, adding hardware and maintaining good seasonal care.

Let us start with that big, probably stainless-steel elephant in the room: designing cabinetry around your refrigerator. In design, unless there is a specialty appliance that you want to show off, we try to minimize the interruption of appliances across a kitchen, so it is still desirable to “contain” fridges as much as possible. (Sometimes, with certain appliance/cabinetry manufacturers, even to the extent of paneling the front of the appliance to match the cabinetry for a remarkably seamless integration.) However, it is now recognized that your cabinetry will outlast your appliances, so the industry — kitchen design as well as appliance manufacturers — shifted to learn from past mistakes.

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As a result, there is now a standard “cavity” size — this refers to the empty space between cabinets where an appliance will be installed. For refrigerators, for many years now, the standard cavity is 36 inches wide by 72 inches high. Since this is an industry-accepted standard cavity dimension to accommodate the overwhelmingly most popular fridge size, it is extremely likely there will continue to be a variety of fridges available to fit in this cavity for a long time to come.

So you can breathe easy with a kitchen design that helps diminish your fridge and outlasts the life of your appliance. (Every once in a while, a rogue appliance manufacturer deviates from this cavity size, though, so it is imperative to double-check before an appliance purchase.)

The industry standard is to refer to appliances by their nominal widths, which also corresponds to standard cavity widths: 36 inches for a refrigerator (or 30 inches wide in a small kitchen or apartment), 30 inches for a stove (range or cooktop), and 24 inches for a dishwasher. Designing to these standards is extremely low risk: Over the lifetime of your cabinetry, there will likely always be replacement appliances available to fit these associated cavities.

Upgrading to a 36-inch stove or a 42-inch refrigerator is not necessarily high-risk, but your options for replacement will probably be more limited. Always pay attention to the manufacturer’s requirements, but designing for standard cavity sizes — say, 36 inches wide — rather than customizing to a precise appliance’s minimum cavity requirement — say, 35¾ inches — can save a lot of grief down the road. (One-fourth of an inch will never feel bigger than when a cavity is a quarter-inch too small!)

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Another strategy of enduring cabinetry design is adding door and drawer hardware. Never in kitchens has there been such a little detail with such a big purpose. Whether you choose knobs or pulls, the hardware you add will protect your cabinetry’s finish from the natural oils on your hands. While this has no impact on the structural integrity of cabinetry, it will certainly keep it looking newer for many more years to come.

Cabinetry hardware is also an easy, and relatively inexpensive, way to change the look of your kitchen: Replacing once-popular brass with brushed nickel hardware in your white kitchen, or adding oil-rubbed bronze hardware in your golden oak kitchen, is a little bling that goes a surprisingly long way.

Finally, check on seasonal maintenance — such as adjusting hinges — and cleaning recommendations from your cabinetry manufacturer. (You can often find the manufacturer label on the side of a pulled out drawer, or inside the sink cabinet door, if the cabinets predate your homeownership.) Different manufacturers have different care recommendations: Some advise a slightly damp, soapy towel while others recommend specific cleaning products. Always trust the manufacturer’s advice over the advice on the back of a cleaning product, though: The manufacturer wants your investment in them to last, whereas cleaning products are just trying to convince you to buy them.

Cabinetry is the biggest investment you can make in your kitchen. Sizing appliance cavities to outlast the appliances themselves, applying cabinetry hardware and caring for your cabinets per manufacturer instructions will help maximize a kitchen remodel to last a lifetime.

Stephanie Brick is the owner of Stephanie Brick Design in Baltimore.

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