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The cabinetry conundrum: stock cabinets, custom or somewhere in between?

The options are almost endless when it comes to buying new cabinets. It’s all a matter of nailing down what is most important to you. (Dayna Smith for The Washington Post)

The most influential factor in the aesthetic design of a kitchen is its cabinetry. In bathrooms, vanities (which are just slightly shallower than kitchen cabinetry) do not play as vital a role in the aesthetics but become vitally important for their role with storage. (If you don’t believe me, try moving into a bathroom with no drawers and see how long you last.)

Whether leading in form or function, cabinetry is essential in the rooms most essential to us. The options for cabinetry, however, can be overwhelming — where to even start?

Among the first questions I ask my clients are their motivations for the renovation or refresh and how long they plan to live in this house. These are important questions, because if you are remodeling your space for resale but do not plan to move for at least five or 10 more years, the design priorities shift slightly — architects and designers cannot predict popular home trends a half-decade down the road as accurately as we can gauge what will function best for you and your lifestyle, interpreted into a timeless design.

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This question also helps gauge how generic the cabinetry can be. For instance, if you plan to put your two- or three-bedroom house on the market in the next 12 months and are updating explicitly for resale, stock cabinetry often will fit the bill.

Stock cabinets have limited selections. This often translates to as few as one style (when it comes to wood species, stain/paint color, and door style) to five or 10 styles. As with many things, there is a spectrum to stock cabinetry: the kind you literally pick up off the shelves of a big-box store and take home with you the same day, and the kind that are prefabricated but shipped to you from afar (the latter usually gives a little more flexibility). But with either option, customizations are limited, if offered at all, and it is not possible to mix and match the styles that are offered.

In true off-the-shelf stock cabinetry, there are three or four types of storage (this speaks to how many drawers and/or doors the cabinet box will have). The great advantages of stock cabinetry are time and money: If they are not immediately available, they are quick to ship, and they are unbeatable on cost. However, the disadvantages are limited style and storage options, as well as lower quality than their competition (which may be revealed straight out of the box or after a few months or years of use). Many projects will be a fantastic fit for stock cabinetry, but homeowners must manage their expectations.

On the other end of the spectrum lies custom cabinetry, and if you can dream it, they can build it. Often there will already be a cabinet offered as standard to fit into that uneven corner run, rhombus of a nook or sliver next to your stove. Custom cabinetry includes storage options to maximize every possible square inch of space.

Though custom cabinetry is built specifically for a space, manufacturers have a spec book containing all of their “standard” cabinets with the unique option of fully customizing almost anything that is already available — or creating something completely new. This ability is one of the factors that sets custom cabinetry apart from the rest.

Another differentiation is the abundant options for styles and finishes: exotic woods (think beyond oak or cherry to birdseye maple and zebra wood), specialty finishes (such as hand-brushed washes), and among the most elegant door styles (eclipse mullions, seeded glass doors and inset construction). Though every manufacturer is different, the options are close to endless.

Custom cabinetry also is where your dream closet might live: underlit LED closet rods, above pullout shoe racks surrounded by touch-to-open sock drawers and jewelry trays.

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Given the breadth of specifications, options and requisite industry insight, you will need to work with a knowledgeable interior designer or architect fluent in cabinetry for any kind of custom cabinetry design/order.

As one might have guessed, custom cabinetry does come with the kind of price tag one might expect. But the quality and options are unbeatable with custom cabinetry.

If you find yourself a Goldilocks with stock cabinets not giving you what you want, but you also don’t have the stomach for custom pricing, there is a middle ground.

Semi-custom cabinetry is the best of both worlds. Some manufacturers started with a stock line of cabinets and expanded and increased options, allowing for limited customizations; others started as a custom cabinetry company that offered a more limited selection of their full line for a lower price point. (The latter can be especially helpful, as some of these custom cabinet companies can accommodate a full kitchen in their semi-custom line, and will allow for just one or two individual cabinets to be upgraded to their fully custom line as needed.) Though there can be a great discrepancy between the quality and offerings of these two different lineages, the result is a happy medium: good quality cabinetry in a wide variety of options to placate most typical design and storage needs and wants. Semi-custom cabinetry also is excellent for achieving a beautiful, custom look at a less-than-custom price.

If you are flipping a house for resale, outfitting your “forever” home, or just trying to update to a more functional and appealing space, there is a cabinetry solution help to suit your needs and priorities.

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