Choosing Cabinetry: Custom vs. Modular

Cabinetry for residential use can be categorized into two basic groups: 

1. Custom (made in a cabinet shop shop and are sized to fit the space they are going into).  Most of the time, the cabinets are constructed in the cabinet shop in components that are large enough to fit in the door (and up the stairwell if there is one).  These components are then installed unfinished in the space.  It is very rare these days that the cabinets are built piece-by-piece at the jobsite as they were in the past.  This is due to modern computerized equipment such as CNC machines that are precise and timesaving devices.

2. Modular (individual cabinets are made in a factory in ‘modular’ increments in height, width and depth generally.)  Modular cabinets are sometimes called “semi-custom” because there are limitations in sizing and details that the different factories are tooled to accommodate. However, there are some higher-end modular manufactures that will completely customize designs both in terms of construction details and finish, thus consider their product completely custom.  At the other end of the spectrum, there are factory-made cabinets that are considered “stock” cabinets because the manufacturer will not modify anything.  This term falsely implies that the cabinets are already produced, sitting on a shelf somewhere waiting to be shipped.  Modular cabinets are usually “made to order” meaning the dealer places an order with the specifics of the design including the wood species, construction type, door styles, finishes and other details offered by the manufacturer in specific pieces that will fit into their client’s design and the factory produces it. 

Someone recently commented on a user’s forum I participate in:  “It’s (custom is) admittedly a little different from configuring semi-custom (modular)… I’ve been warned by the "big box" kitchen cabinet designers that the semi-custom (e.g. Kraft maid or similar) is very often delivered with missing or damaged parts, and that the schedule needs to account for re-order and delivery of missing/non-damaged parts. I have no experience to say whether or not that’s true, but I can’t see what their motive would be to say it if it weren’t true.”  I kind of wondered about these big-box designers making a comment like this as they ONLY sell modular cabinets. Maybe it’s just that, in this economy, the big boxers are about the only cabinet dealers (at least in my area) that are doing much business these days and feel they can afford to be careless about their remarks.  Anyway, the big box stores are the Wal-Marts of the the K&B industry.  Most of the ‘designers’ are poorly trained and under paid.  I was a project coordinator (QC) for one of them for about 10 months and all I did was put out fires.  Once one of their designers figures out how to do it right, they move on.  Big box stores are known as the training grounds for the K&B industry.  I would seriously recommend prospective clients check out the portfolio and references of any designer or cabinet shop –big box store or not.

Quality and methods of construction is not necessarily better for “saw-shop” –built cabinets over factory-built modulars.  Construction methods can very dramatically with custom shops just as they can with factories that make modulars.  This is also true of the material quality, types, sizes and fasteners that go into the construction.  It is quite true that shipping damage is an issue with modular cabinetry as well as ‘screwed-up’ orders (stuff missing, wrong size, wrong finish, wrong style, etc. –either caused by the factory or the drunken designer ).  While lead times are often faster for modular cabinets than most saw shops can produce the same apples-for-apples order initially and the cabinets less expensive, that advantage can easily be eaten up if items have to be reordered and the cost of additional shipping and parts added onto the bottom line. 

I have at times been in the position of designing showrooms and making recommendations to help modular cabinet dealers decide which cabinet lines to carry. One of the first things to consider is shipping:  How is it packaged? How far is it being delivered? Will it have to be loaded and off-loaded from a truck more than once before it gets to the jobsite or storage facility?  What’s the factory’s policy and turnaround time on replacement parts? Are the trucks owned by the cabinet manufacturer or are they using a common carrier –or are they leaving that up to the dealer?  All of these factors have an impact on the quality and timeframe of a project.  Homeowners and builders getting multiple quotes from different dealers should ask these questions too.

Another consideration for cabinet dealers to make is customer service –specifically their sales rep who will need to intervene at times to resolve manufacturing issues. There was a time when you could count on a manufacturer’s rep to serve a set number of dealerships in a relatively small region that was likely working for the factory and only representing their cabinet lines.  Due to the present economy, it is more common for the same rep’s service area to now include a whole geographic area, and they may be an independent contractor who will represent several manufacturers, products and lines in order to just make a living. The consequence to the cabinet dealer is that they will be lucky to see their rep at all unless there is a problem–and even that may be tough, and they can expect someone who’s likely less knowledgeable about (and certainly less focused on) the specifics of the particular product that dealer sells. 

On the surface, it may appear that using a saw shop creates an advantage by eliminating the the middle man in the process (a cabinet dealer) and gives the homeowner or remodeler easier access to the source when it comes to getting good customer service and resolving issues.  After all, it is likely that they (and all their equipment) are located near the jobsite.

So, is there (ever ) any advantage to using modular or semi-custom over saw shop cabinets? Absolutely! Most custom shops install the cabinetry in the residence unfinished and somebody has to come in and finish them.  So no matter how well constructed the cabinets are, there is no guarantee that the finish will be of equal or better quality.  Some saw shops only ‘recommend’ a finisher.  In many states, you can only use water-based finishes on the jobsite.  Unfortunately, it won’t hold up like a conversion varnish that is typical of even the cheapest modular cabinets that is ‘baked on’ in a controlled, dust-free environment.  You certainly would not want to deal with the environmental and air-quality issues of a solvent-based finish in a residence. Any money saved by having the cabinets custom-built over factory-made can quickly evaporate due to the finisher.  Suddenly there are two contractors the homeowner or builder has to contend with as well as figuring in the added lead time to finish the job.  Also be aware that not all parts going into custom-made cabinets are made in the cabinet shop.  Very often drawer and door fronts, and sometimes drawer boxes, hardware and other components, are ordered out pre-made by (that’s right) a factory.  So if something goes awry with one of these components, they will need to be reordered –just like the modular product!

Check out the warranty difference between a custom shop and a cabinet dealer’s product. Most custom shops only offer a 1-yr. builder’s warranty while higher end modular companies will offer a warranty of several years up to a lifetime.  What does the warranty cover?  A lifetime warranty may only apply to construction but not the finish.  Also see who the warranty applies to -is it transferrable to the homeowner or subsequent owners?

A final note to homeowners and builders:  Beyond the quality of the cabinetry itself, there are two key components to a successful cabinet project:  the design and execution (installation). 

Expect to pay for design services.  The amount that is charged may be a nonrefundable fee or applied to the purchase.  It will vary depending on location, current market conditions and quality of the cabinets.  There is no common means for charging for design and it may not be apparent that there is a charge at all as the cost may be rolled into the price of the cabinets –but you can be sure the cost of doing business is going to be passed onto the consumer in one way or another.  So when you are getting competing bids, be sure to take design costs into consideration.  If you receive design services and drawings without paying a deposit or signing an agreement, you are likely working with a company that is either inexperienced or desperate for business –this is a red flag that I would be cautious of.  A dealership or cabinetmaker that is confident in their ability and recognizes the value of it’s design service has experience and is likely to be around long after your project with them is completed.  If you retain an independent interior designer (even one that specializes in kitchen and bath design –like me) you will still have to pay for the design services of the dealership or cabinetmaker who will need to design the construction documents.

The second component is the quality and experience of the installers.  Some modular cabinet dealerships have installers on staff and others sub contract the work.  There are others who simply provide clients with recommendations for installers.  This is more commonplace nowadays as cabinets can now be purchased over the internet.  If you are stuck having to find your own installation contractor, be sure to ask the following questions:  How long have they been in business?  Are they licensed and bonded?  What are their processes? Do they haul away debris and/or provide a dumpster?  How long are they planning to occupy the space?  Ask for references and talk with past clients about how they are to work with.  How and when are they expecting to get paid?  Are they going to install appliances, plumbing, electrical, patch drywall and do minor construction –or are they strictly installing cabinets?  I’m a firm believer in getting things in writing.  The days of relying on goodwill and a handshake are history.  Good contractors know this.

So there are many considerations to make when deciding whether to go with custom-made or modular cabinets.  Getting ‘what you pay for’ depends largely on how willing you are to be involved in the process.  Ignorance is NOT bliss.  There is no “easy button”.  Once you’ve made your choice… you’ve taken the first step of a process which can render fabulous results.  As a designer, I’ve had no greater reward that hearing a client beam that their kitchen turned out beyond their wildest dreams… and it happens more often than not.  You’ll never know unless you take that first step…


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