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Selecting Kitchen Countertops & Cabinets Wisely

Now that you’ve defined your budget, let’s take a few minutes and talk about what materials and material quality you get for your money. Don’t know the difference between Granite and Quartz? How about the difference between semi-custom or custom cabinets? If you want to know if you are getting a fair price for a kitchen product, it’s important to know some of the basic characteristics of the items you may purchase.

In this section, we’ll take the three major material items from a kitchen remodel; the cabinets, countertops, and appliances, and discuss them in depth.

custom wood cabinets that create warmth in a kitchen

Cabinets Selection Guide

As mentioned in the previous section, cabinet costs are likely to end up being around 33% of your material budget. Here is what you need to know about kitchen cabinets.

Cabinet Styles

There are two basic looks, or styles, to kitchen cabinets that are immediately apparent when you look at a cabinet. There are American style cabinets, and there are European style cabinets. American style cabinets have a face frame; European style cabinets do not. A face frame is a wooden frame that is attached to the front of the cabinet. The doors and drawers will rest against the face frame when they are closed.

European cabinets are often referred to as frameless. The doors and drawers rest against the cabinet box when closed. Frameless cabinets will have a look that is all doors and drawers. If you can’t see any bare wooden spots between the doors and drawers when they are closed, you’re looking at a frameless cabinet. Ikea cabinets are frameless. There is no real difference in the quality, if you are considering one or the other, however, you should be aware of the style differences.

Relying on Stock Cabinets

Stock cabinets are going to be some of the lowest priced cabinets you will encounter. They tend to come in either a stained oak or white laminate variety. They are widely available, and can be bought at your local home improvement centers. If they’re made from oak, the face frame, doorframes, and drawer fronts are likely to be made from real hardwood as well.

The white, laminated cabinets however, are almost all particleboard with a laminate veneer. Even the oak cabinets will commonly have particleboard for the box components of the cabinet, which includes the bottom, sides, back panel, shelves, and drawer boxes. Particleboard is also used extensively in European style cabinets. Particleboard is adequate for most applications, but over time it will show wear. If exposed to water, the particleboard will absorb the moisture, expand, and break apart.

Cabinets are often priced per linear foot. If you have a twenty-four inch wide cabinet, that’s two linear feet. Stock cabinets will run from around $50-$150 per linear foot, which are the prices at my home improvement center. You can also buy some versions of these cabinets unfinished but assembled. This allows you to save some money if you are willing to stain and apply the polyurethane yourself.

Turn it Up a Notch with Semi-Custom Cabinets

If you have a little more money to spend on cabinets, you may want to consider semi-custom cabinets. With semi-custom cabinets, you get more quality components, and considerably more style and color options. Semi-custom cabinets will typically have an all-plywood construction method for the boxes, which is a substantial improvement over particleboard. They’ll look better and last longer than stock cabinets. Some will also have better drawer box construction like dovetail joints instead of nails or staples. Aside from looking pretty, dovetails on the fronts of cabinet drawer boxes are stronger joints.

Semi-custom cabinets will also offer a wider range of accessories including pullout drawers, crown and valance molding, cutting boards, and other convenience upgrades. Those kitchen cabinet displays at your local home improvement center are typically semi-custom cabinet lines. They’re semi-custom, because they have the ability to modify and build them to your taste, within reason. In terms of cost, you’re looking at around $150 to $250 dollars per linear foot. It’s going to vary from cabinet line to cabinet line, but they are all generally in that range.

Custom Kitchen Cabinets

If you have a sizeable kitchen renovation budget, you may want to consider custom cabinetry. Custom cabinets are designed and built to your exacting requirements. You can make them any dimension or configuration you’d like. You can have whatever features you want. Custom cabinets can give a kitchen a truly high-end look. If you pickup a kitchen design magazine from the drug store, the better-looking cabinets in that magazine are going to be custom cabinets. They’ll often have inset doors, instead of doors that rest on the outside of the face frame.

Custom European style cabinets, on the other hand, may have mirror-like gloss finishes on their doors and drawers. Custom cabinets can range in price from a few hundred dollars per linear foot to a thousand dollars or more per linear foot depending upon the manufacturer and the features. You pay for quality and customization when you buy custom cabinets.

Other Cabinet Options

When you are evaluating your kitchen cabinet options, don’t limit your choices to the big stores and the cabinet wholesalers. In many cities and towns there are smaller, mom and pop cabinet shops that do quality work at reasonable prices. Those shops may specialize in custom projects, but they may also be open to your smaller kitchen remodel while they are between jobs. You might be able to get a great price on semi-custom cabinets made just for you if you call around to these shops and see what they offer. It might also be wise to investigate the refacing vs. replacement argument.

A lot of these smaller shops won’t have a glossy, color catalog or a website for you to browse. You might have to visit some of their previous projects to get a sense of their work quality. If you can visit their workshop in person, you may get to see a project they are currently building. Since their business is probably more word of mouth, ask to see previous work from their available references. It’s more legwork on your end, compared to a cabinet store, but you might get exactly what you want for a lower price.

kitchen countertops can create a beautiful contrast with the wood in your cabinets

Countertop Selection Guide

In this section, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about choosing a countertop for your new kitchen: What materials to consider, where to shop for one, and how much you can expect to spend.

Laminate Countertops are Still Budget-Friendly

Laminate countertops have gotten a bad rap over the years, but it’s a bit unfair. Laminate counters clean up easy, they don’t need sealing, and they are very inexpensive. Despite all that, laminate is still considered a low-grade option compared to the higher-end choices. Laminate is sometimes referred to as Formica, but that’s a brand name.

A laminate countertop consists of a particleboard base covered with a thin layer of a designer veneer. When you shop for laminate, you’re really only picking the design and quality of the finished veneer. Since it’s not the same material throughout, the seams tend to be a little more obvious than the solid countertop options. Over time, or through heat and moisture, the outer veneer can de-laminate and peel up from the particleboard. The good news is replacement laminate isn’t that expensive.

Laminate costs will vary, but they typically range anywhere from $15 per square foot on the low end to $25 per square foot on the more expensive, higher quality end of the scale. Be aware, that price doesn’t include upgraded edge profiles or installation costs. Laminate is also available for purchase in prefabricated sections available at your local hardware store. When you hire a contractor to install it, they will measure your cabinets, install the particleboard, and then glue the laminate to the particleboard with contact cement.

Laminate is a great option if you are trying to keep your kitchen remodel costs low. Even if you have your heart set on granite or another stone for your counters, you can always remove the laminate, and install granite at a later point. It’s better to buy high quality cabinets, and throw on a lower cost countertop with the intent to replace it down the road, then to buy cheap cabinets, and install high-end granite. You’ll have a harder time removing granite countertops and trying to reinstall them, than you will removing the laminate counters and replacing them with granite.

Old Reliable:  Everyone Loves Granite Countertops

Granite countertops are enormously popular and for good reason. Granite is beautiful, it’s heat and moisture resistant, and it’ll last longer than anything else in your house. However, it does require annual or semi-annual sealing to prevent stains from getting absorbed into the stone.

What will ruin a granite finish? Acidic fluids like vinegar or lemon juice can actually etch the granite’s finish, so even though it’s a tough piece of rock, you can still damage it. Since granite is a natural product that is taken out of the earth and cut into slabs, every piece is unique with its own coloring and characteristics. That’s why if you are considering purchasing granite for your kitchen, be sure to visit the supplier or stone yard to pick out your own piece. We wrote about how to care for your granite countertops recently.

Don’t buy a granite slab unseen. Samples are helpful, but you’ll want to pick out your own slab, so you know exactly what you are getting. In terms of cost, granite runs anywhere from around $50 per square foot to over $100 per square foot. There are options for edge detailing, which will add some style to the countertop, but will also raise the price.

That Uniform Look Comes from Quartz Countertops

Similar to granite in terms of the overall look, quartz is an excellent option for kitchen countertops. Unlike granite, which is a naturally occurring product, quartz is manufactured from crushed quartz stone, and formed into a countertop using a resin. Quartz is therefore going to be much more uniform in terms of color and consistency than granite and can look manufactured. Quartz is also stain resistant and never needs sealing, which makes it extremely low maintenance. It’s slightly higher in price per square foot compared to granite, but cheaper to maintain.

Is Butcher-Block a Good Long-term Countertop Material?

Butcher-block is another great option for kitchen countertops. It’s attractive, it has a timeless look and it’s a functional work surface, so you can chop fruits and vegetables right on it. I would still use a dedicated, washable cutting board for meats and fish, but you can use butcher-block counters if you’re so inclined. This type of countertop typically come in a species of wood called Rock Maple depending upon where you buy it. Rock maple is a harder variation of maple (the other common version is Soft Maple), which is why it’s the best choice for butcher-block counters and cutting boards.

Not all butcher-blocks are created equal, however. Ikea offers a wooden countertop that looks like a maple counter, but it’s a composite with a top layer of hardwood over a particleboard core. The Ikea version is less expensive than a solid hardwood counter, but it may not hold up as long as the solid wood variety.

In terms of pricing, it’s is fairly inexpensive compared to granite or other solid surface options. Its price varies depending upon the supplier, but you can expect to pay around half the cost compared to a similar sized granite slab.

It’s also lightweight enough that it can be carried by one or two people. Large granite slabs will require a greater team effort. Because it’s so lightweight, it will also need to be fastened to the cabinets in more spots than a heavier stone counter. You can throw a small section of butcher-block into the back seat of a sedan. Try doing that with granite!

Installing it can either be performed by a contractor or a handy homeowner. It’s a simple process requiring no special tools.

What About Hopping on the Concrete Countertop Trend?

A recent trend, over the past decade or so, is concrete for kitchen counters. The allure of concrete counters is that you can make them as thick as you’d like (within reason). While granite, quartz, and butcher block will almost always come in 1.5” thick, concrete counters can be made 2”, 3”, or 4” thick. While it may be harder to find a place that carries concrete, a handy homeowner can also make them for very little cost. To have concrete counters made for you by a specialist, the cost will run up around $75 to $100 per square foot. However, if you decide to make them yourself, you can do so for only a few hundred dollars for the entire kitchen!

Concrete counters, for the most part, are made in one of two basic approaches. They either get poured into forms that are built-in-place over the cabinets, or they get poured into upside down forms away from the kitchen. The concrete cures in the forms in both instances, and can be made to varying thicknesses.

The difference between these two approaches is substantial only in terms of the look of the finished product. If the concrete gets poured into an upside down form to cure, when it’s removed from the form and flipped over, the top and sides of the counters will be very smooth. It takes on that smooth finish because it cured against the smooth walls of the form.

Alternatively, if the concrete is poured in place over the cabinets, only the bottom and sides will be in contact with the form. The top surface, therefore, won’t be nearly as smooth. It will still be somewhat smooth, but not nearly as smooth as if you used the upside-down form method.

The upside-down form method also allows you to build the forms, pour the concrete, and polish the counters with a wet grinder in a place that isn’t your kitchen. You can do the work in a garage, driveway, or even in a backyard. Making concrete counters is an extremely messy process mostly because of the grinding. With the upside-down form method, once the counters are removed from the forms, they can be grinded and polished to a near-mirror-like finish.

You shouldn’t do wet grinding on the concrete that’s poured directly over your cabinets. Grinding and polishing throws around a lot of dirty water. You can’t do that much wet grinding inside your kitchen with the other approach, unless you’re okay with hanging plastic tarps absolutely everywhere and soaking down your kitchen.

There are some major drawbacks to using concrete as a countertop option. Concrete tends to have a more urban, industrial, or modern look to it as opposed to granite, marble, or butcher block, which are more versatile in their appearance. While concrete can be colored to almost any hue you prefer, it’s most commonly seen in a darker shade, and can give a space a cooler look.

It will develop some minor cracking over time, which is fairly typical for any slab of concrete. The cracks are usually minor and superficial, but be aware that they will occur. The financial savings from building your own concrete counters is very attractive, but keep in mind that you will need access to a table saw and a wet grinder to build the forms and polish the pieces. If you don’t own those tools, you’ll need to purchase or rent them, which will add to the cost.

You’ll also need to perform some basic weight calculations before you run out and build a 3” thick concrete slab that’s 60” long. Concrete gets very heavy very quickly, and you’ll need to design it so that you can lift it, carry it, and install it with a few people helping you. Your cabinets may also need to be reinforced if the pieces weigh more than a comparably sized slab of granite. If you decide to make your counter thicker, it’s best to make the sections shorter in length.

Several years ago, I built a set of concrete counters from scratch for my parent’s vacation home. While my folks love it, it didn’t come out as nice as I’d like. It has some issues, but it’s still an attractive piece. I don’t want to talk you out of concrete counters as an option. I just want you to know they are a challenge to build. You can read more about my personal experience with this project on my blog. You’ll find a link to this project in the Resources section of this book.

Other Countertop Options

In this last section, I want to give you a quick rundown on some of the other options out there for countertops. Frankly, there are enough countertop possibilities to fill up an entire book, so I’ll just stick to a few I didn’t mention in detail.

Marble Kitchen Countertops that WOW Your Visitors

Pros: Absolutely stunning and can give a kitchen a high-end look.

Cons: It’s expensive and stains easily

Using Ceramic Tile Countertops

Pros: Inexpensive and easy to install

Cons: Looks dated, and grout lines can stain and discolor

Granite Tile Countertops On a Budget

Pros: Get the overall look of granite without buying a slab. Lower cost.

Cons: Looks like you are trying to save money.

Something Different: Soapstone Countertops

Pros: Beautiful dark stone that’s uncommon in most kitchens. Great for farmhouse or country kitchens

Cons: Expensive, harder to find, and softer than granite. Needs regular oiling.

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