In tandem with Sheri Mercadante at German Kitchen Center, we’ve put together a guide to everything you need to know about shopping for and selecting your kitchen cabinetry. Here’s part one of our interview. Check back soon for part two!
A lot of things, for better or for worse, happen in the kitchen. There’s everything from spilled pancake batter and simmering stews to pots of coffee and a spread of Sunday newspapers. But kitchens weren’t always a gathering place for families to break bread and hang out–in most pre-war apartments, in fact, the kitchens were smaller and stuffed toward the back.
Why? Well, many families employed domestic help and dared not step foot in their own kitchens. Grander space was given over to formal dining rooms and living areas while kitchens were modest and often cramped–ie, a place for maids and servants.
These days, of course, the kitchen is often the crown jewel of any home, and most families do their own cooking and entertaining. More contemporary apartments dedicate a larger square footage to kitchen spaces, and many families who buy or inherit pre-war apartments often choose to re-design the layout to accommodate much larger, centrally located kitchens.
Someone once said that if you were at a party, you could always find the cool people in the kitchen–because there was plenty of space to hang out, chat, and get to know people over food and drink. And suffice to say, kitchens are important–and how you design and construct this space should fit your lifestyle. And while there are a lot of elements that go into a thoughtful kitchen, one subject stands out: the humble kitchen cabinet.
In the mind of the homeowner, what questions should they be asking themselves when they are in the market to renovate a kitchen that includes new cabinetry?
“Cabinetry has two roles in a kitchen,” says Sheri. “The first is, obviously, storage. Consider what kinds of things need to be stored and how often they're used. For example, a slow cooker is a large item that needs to be stored in a relatively deep cabinet. If it gets used a lot, then it needs to be on hand. If it gets used rarely, it can go in the back of a deep cabinet, in a bottom drawer, or I've even seen rarely used items stored outside the kitchen.” Then, there’s the question of smaller and more everyday items, like spoons or glasses. “Those items which we constantly are touching need to be stored front and center and highly organized,” says Sheri.
In kitchen storage, that the bottom shelf of your upper cabinets and the top drawer of your lower cabinets is known as ‘convenience storage,’ because these spaces are the most accessible areas when you’re moving on the fly.
“Keep things in these two places that you use all the time and keep them more organized than any other area in your home. If you can't find something in your closet you may run a little late, but if you can't find something while you're cooking, like a measuring spoon, you'll burn your food and have to start all over again,” Sheri says. “Most people already have it set up this way, with cutlery and cooking tools right in the top drawers and dinnerware and glassware on the bottom shelf of the wall cabinet.”
Beyond function, cabinets are the primary dictator of the kitchen’s aesthetic. “Think of an all white kitchen… white floors, white walls, white counters, but stainless steel appliances of course,” says Sheri. “Now, let's make that a super traditional kitchen. You can keep everything in there exactly the same: same floor, walls, counters and appliances, but the cabinets will look different. Now let's make that kitchen the total opposite and go super contemporary. Same floor, walls, counters and appliances, even the exact same kitchen layout. The cabinets look totally different in your imagination. This is because the cabinetry ‘door style’ sets the tone for the style of the kitchen.”
Once your kitchen is laid out in a way that makes sense for your lifestyle and needs, swapping cabinet door styles can totally transform the space. “Venture into any kitchen showroom and one of the first things you'll see are sample doors,” says Sheri. “Your kitchen probably has only one perfect layout, but every different door style will bring a completely different feeling to the space.”
Can you talk about the cost differential? Why is the price range for cabinetry so vast? Some kitchen cabinetry sets cost $2,400 while others cost $200k. Help us understand this.
As with all things that are built, the cost of a product comes from the cost of the materials plus the cost of labor. Cost of materials are pretty obvious.
First you have functional hardware like door hinges and drawer glides. “Some door hinges cost less than a dollar and some, from the same manufacturer, cost upwards of a hundred dollars. Are they they same hinge? Pretty good chance that expensive hinge is worth every penny ten, twenty years down the road,” says Sheri.
“It probably was built using thicker metal, a denser metal, and the moving parts are all highly engineered. It also more than likely surpassed the 80,000-uses benchmark, which means that the manufacturer tested that hinge by hanging a 5-pound weight on it it and opening and closing it until it failed.”
“Think of how many squats you could do with a 5-pound weight until you fail. A good hinge will go well beyond 80,000 cycles, which means you can open and close a cabinet door a dozen times a day for the next 20 years and your hinge will still be going strong. High-quality materials always cost more than their low-quality counterparts.”
Labor, of course, is a cost to be considered. “Something that's handmade by an artisan or master craftsman will always cost more than something that was assembled by a machine operator. Along those same lines, a hand painted finish will always cost more than a laminate finish simply because the painted finish is more labor-intensive. Even when it comes to painting, sometimes you have only a couple layers of paint and sometimes you may have a dozen layers of paint,” says Sheri.
“The more labor intensive a finish is the more it will cost. Keep in mind that a costly labor-intensive finish does not necessarily mean that you are getting a more durable finish, but it does generally mean that you are getting a more beautiful finish. Even the level of customizability affects the price. Stock cabinets will always cost less than something that is made to order just for you, simply because it is more labor intensive to do so.”
So what’s the secret to the cost differential? Materials plus labor, just like anything else. “A $2,400 kitchen will have less expensive like materials, hinges, drawer glides, storage inserts, thinner side and back panels, and they will be less labor intensive to make by only coming in certain sizes and a handful of colors and door styles. And usually at this price you're talking RTA, or Ready To Assemble cabinets, which greatly reduces your labor cost because you are putting it together yourself!” says Sheri. “For more than $200,000 you can expect something artisanal, handmade just for you by a master craftsman with a lifetime of training, in any size, style and color and utilizing luxury materials.”
What is the mark of a well constructed kitchen cabinet system?
“There are so many ways to answer this and a large part of this answer depends on your budget,” says Sheri. “Obviously, like we were just discussing, a $200,000 kitchen will be beautifully constructed, whereas something you're putting together yourself might not be so… perfect. Or beautiful.”
The short answer here is, of course, it’s complicated. “The other part of the problem with this answer is people will just spit things out like ‘it must be plywood!’ or ‘only dovetailed drawers!’ It's the 21st century. Neither plywood nor dovetailed drawers have the market cornered on quality,” says Sheri.
The real danger here is that for the casual consumer, as long as the cabinet they're buying matches certain criteria they've heard tossed about, they think they’re getting high quality. “There is so much more that goes into a cabinet than the basic specifications,” says Sheri. “So forget everything you've heard because these are my two rules.”
1. Limit the amount of plastic being used.
Plastic isn't the strongest material when you're trying to hold a cabinet together. “The same goes for plastic laminate drawers,” says Sheri. “Really inexpensive cabinets (and occasionally some more upscale ones) will use plastic corner fasteners or clips to hold a cabinet together. While they're decent cabinets if you're flipping a house and just want a pretty kitchen, this is not a cabinet that will make the kitchen of your dreams a reality.” The takeaway here is that even if you have a small, precious budget, don't waste your money on cabinets that use lots of plastic parts. It’s not a material that’s built to last.
2. Throw out what you know regarding the debate between plywood boxes or particle board boxes
“Each side has their own reasons and data for why they're better and the other one is terrible,” says Sheri. “The truth is that both materials come in high quality and both come in cheap quality. Depending on how the box is held together (see #1), either one could potentially fail.”
“Here's what I want to know: Give me a standard base (lower) cabinet. Make it with 3 drawers. Make it standard 2’ deep and 3’ high. And here's the clincher… how wide can I get that cabinet? A well constructed cabinet can easily be 4’ wide, and I could stand in the drawer,” says Sheri, laughing. “Lower quality cabinets will only be available up to two and a half or three feet wide. That's tells me more than just specifications. It tells me how it's built.”
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