Custom Cabinets without the Cost

When we were building our house, one of the favorite topics of conversation was who was going to build our cabinets. These discussions turned into a who’s who session where people complained about or complimented the guy(s) who built their kitchen cabinets. They threw around phrases like crown molding, custom height, european hinges, plate rack, and work surface, all followed by another word – expensive. Some of the folks I talked to spent as much as $10,000 on nothing but kitchen cabinetry, not counting the counter tops. One lady told me that if it came down to choosing between custom kitchen cabinets and my son’s UT tuition, to pick the cabinets.

I don’t want to make enemies of custom cabinet builders all over the country but I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. I have a 14’X16’ kitchen full of custom cabinets that cost about $2300, not counting the Corian counter top. I got exactly the layout I wanted, exactly the color I wanted, exactly the positioning I wanted and I didn’t have to wait on a list for some custom cabinet builder to have time to get to me — and I saved a ton of money. How? Three letters – DIY.

With periodic assistance from my son, who was 17 at the time, I assembled and installed every cabinet in the kitchen and all three bathrooms. We also installed the wine racks, the plate rack, the light fixtures, the floor, the sinks, and the appliances. The only thing in the kitchen we didn’t do ourselves was install the counter top. When people ask who did our kitchen and I tell them I did it, they look at me kind of funny . . . but you should see the expression when I tell them that I got the cabinetry at Home Depot, the appliances at a locally-owned appliance dealer and ordered the flooring sight-unseen over the internet! Yeah, that “Home Depot” cabinetry gets a good laugh from folks who haven’t ever been in my kitchen.

I don’t want to sound like I’m endorsing any particular suppliers or merchants, but I will tell you that if my Home Depot cabinet experience is indicative of what you can expect when you hit the DIY superstores, I think this is the only way to go for a remodel or new construction. There are several “levels” you can buy into – we chose the next-to-bottom level (price-wise) that Home Depot carried at that time – a brand called Mill’s Pride, because they carried the finish I wanted with the “decoration” I wanted. What I got were better cabinets and more versatile arrangement choices than I have ever had in a “home bulder’s” house. For you wood purists out there, most of the DIY superstores carry at least one line of solid wood cabinets if you prefer solids to MDF with veneer.

I was able to customize my layout very easily because the literature offered at the store was very comprehensive. The sizes and dimensions of everything they carry is well-documented. And if you don’t happen to have a background in architecture or floorplans like me, you can have someone at the store design a layout for you to inspect on their computer before you make your final choices. All you need are accurate room measurements.

You can also be creative. You don’t have to choose traditional cabinet designs or layouts. Use your imagination. By using plain shelves or cabinets without doors in combination with the various types of trim, molding, and millwork offered, you can create pieces in your kitchen that look more like furniture than cabinetry. I was questioned by several people – the assistant at the store, my husband, my father-in-law, etc, about my choice of corner cabinetry because the components I chose for one corner wall cabinet set wasn’t the same as the store’s model kitchen. They all thought I had made a mistake but I had seen this “other” use of multi-height cabinets in the Mill’s Pride brochure and liked it, so that’s what I shot for, with a few minor adjustments. In the above photo, that unit on the left by itself is “custom made” by me from four separate pieces. The small trinket shelves on the left edge are one unit attached to one standard cabinet unit stacked on top of a wine rack unit. The plate rack is a module that you can insert into any cabinet of compatible size. Another tall and narrow cabinet that matches the cabinet on the right of the gap was installed to complete this custom wall unit.

We also hung our wall cabinets at a non-standard height to accommodate some misplaced wall switches that we didn’t catch until after it was way too late to do much about them. The additional inch or two actually makes very little difference in the overall scheme of things. It’s easier to use under-the-counter appliances (more space) and everyone else in my family is six feet tall anyway so they don’t really care how high the glasses are . . .

For “work space,” I designed a huge kitchen island built from five separate lower cabinet units. Most of the island is counter-top. We installed a small vegetable sink and left an area to accomodate a short stool. The cabinet units that make up the base of the island offer tons of storage. In fact, we’ve lived in this house for a year and a half now and I still have four empty cabinets. I started collecting kitchen gadgets so I could fill up some of the storage space. Most pre-fab cabinet manufacturer’s offer a selection of narrow cabinets (seen in the center of the island in the above photo) that you can build around for custom units. In this instance, we added two curved shelving units on either side of the center unit. The “torture chamber” light fixtures came from Lowe’s, bought right off the sales floor.

One of the major characteristics of this kitchen is the broken top line – cabinets of varying heights. It provide visual interest and makes it easy to display “mixed” collections atop the cabinets. This look was easy to create because Mill’s Pride, and most other pre-fab cabinet makers, offer wall cabinets in at least two heights. The “black thing” on top of the standard-height corner cabinet is an aged copper pot that I stuck a plastic ivy plant in. Yeah, like I’m gonna get out a ladder to water a real plant every two days. We didn’t like any of the vent hood treatments that any of the pre-fab manufacturers carried so we built our own, which allowed us to include both cabinet and shelving space, and allowed us to leave the pipe exposed for the look we wanted (seen below).

There are still a few finishing touches that we need to add like the top crown molding and the light rails under the cabinets, but for the most part, the kitchen is finished. Because we only spent about a third of what we had estimated for cabinetry throughout the entire house (yeah, the bathrooms got the pre-fab cabs too), we were able to splurge on the counter top and appliances.

We got last-forever Corian counter top and top-of-the-line stainless steel appliances to complete what has to be one of the most unique rooms in our home, at least as far as style goes. Even though we bought most of what’s in there off the floor from the major home improvement retailers, our choices and combinations were rare enough that we ended up with something I know I’ve never seen in anyone else’s house before. When it’s clean, folks who see it say, “wow, you did all this?” which is what I wanted.

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Some helpful links for planning your kitchen design or remodel:

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