I have been in the cabinetmaking field for over twenty years. I have sold stock cabinets, semi-custom cabinets and custom cabinets. What do you consider a custom cabinet? Let's say I'm referring to a kitchen cabinet - does the cabinet have to be a special size to be custom? Does the cabinet have to have a 1/2" or 3/4" back to be custom? Does the cabinet have to be one large cabinet rather than three standard size cabinets screwed together? Does the cabinet need to have an extended style? Could a frameless cabinet be considered a custom cabinet? I thought I knew, but now my customers are testing me. Do you consider Woodmode cabinets custom? How about Brakur? Would a true cabinetmaker really face nail his frames on?
From contributor A:
To me, custom means that the cabinet is built to the clients specifications. If they have an opening for a cabinet that is 41-1/2" then a 41-1/2" cabinet would be built. If the client wants dovetailed drawers instead of butt joints, knife hinges instead of euro hinges, 42" height instead of 36" height, etc. then that would be considered custom. I think of cabinets that are 16", 24", 32", etc. with a filler panel to make up the difference as stock cabinets.
"Custom" means "built to project-specific dimensions, standards and specifications". All of our work would be an example of "custom" cabinetry.
This has always worked, and it clearly demonstrates the difference between us and the big-box designers.
Besides, if we discontinue using semi-custom, there will only be 2 grades of cabinetry - custom and modular. I prefer to have 2 levels beneath me rather than one, it just sounds better.
As soon as anyone puts a limit on what the customer can buy, it becomes a semi-custom cabinet. If you normally build 2 types of drawers, melamine and birch plywood, then you are a semi-custom cabinet maker. If the customer wants all dovetail maple drawers, that’s what you need to build for them if you want to maintain your fully custom cabinet status. As another example, if the customer wants you to build all the cabinet parts and flat doors with fire rated particle board, you can't steer them into buying something the cabinet shop prefers to use. You would no longer be a custom cabinet shop charging custom prices.
Economy cabinets are what we all know we can buy at any home store. The most cabinet money can buy. The door quality is just basic stuff. Offer a customer a choice in fine hardwood door styles and finishes, and you have bumped it up to semi-custom cabinet, even though the cabinet boxes are pretty much the same thing. Liberal use of wide fillers is accepted practice for semi-custom stuff, but not for custom.
If the bid is accepted, I present drawings and have the client sign a copy of each saying that they accept what is drawn. I don’t think your client has any grounds about your back thicknesses unless you specified or agreed to a thickness other than what was used.
Although my personal style is to build my cabinets as long as I can make them and still get them into the house, the above applies as well. As long as you aren’t using fillers and building only certain sized cabinets they are custom.
Super sport agent to the baseball stars, Scott Boras, has a knack of coming up with words to market his clients with. “Icon Player” is one of them. He uses it to differentiate his clients from your run-of-the-mill “Franchise Player” or “Special Player”. Maybe his thesaurus will run out one day and he will have to start branching out - maybe “Surf and Turf Player” or “Rolls Royce Player”, although that last one is a lawsuit waiting to happen.
But that makes me think, you say Rolls Royce and you know exactly what caliber of product you are dealing with. I guess my goal would be then, to create a brand identity that is strong enough that whether you call yourself custom or not, people know what to expect.
You do not need to be a member of AWI, but I see this as very a valuable resource determining some kind of standard for construction methods, materials, and responsibility. And to answer your question, "Could a frameless cabinet be considered a custom cabinet?" I would say yes, it can, and can even be built to 'Premium' standards.
Here is an example of a type of woodworking business:
Fireplace mantel business
Generally, there would be 2 approaches - Stock mantles and custom mantels. It is not very practical to have a semi-custom mantle business, as there are endless variables to deal with.
It’s the same thing in the furniture business. Custom, semi-custom, stock or economy, are not terms for quality of product. There are descriptions for the type of business you are in.
Another thing is to sit down and write your own set of cabinet standards - how you build, what you build with, what slides, back thickness, finishes, etc. You can reference Quality Standards if need be in your own specs so that everyone knows what the level is. "AAA Woodwork builds its cabinets to AWI Quality Standards Custom quality standards." for example. Present this to every client every time with your proposal and there will be no confusion about what you are building for them. Then if they want or are expecting something different, you have the chance to deal with it before you build it.
One other thing I'd like to add. To the originalquestioner: Where are you doing this work? If I was asked to do cabinets for a $3M home, the cabinets would be more than $60K. If that was their budget or price point, then it seems they have unrealistic expectations of what $60k of cabinets gets them. But that's another topic.
"Semi-Custom" (as is generally understood in the design trade) is cabinets that are manufactured to order, can be ordered in any size you want, but there are limitations on specifications (limited choices of woods, finishes, and construction). They still can be provided in custom sizes. Therefore, the "semi" part of the custom. Custom sizes, not custom specifications.
"Stock" refers to what most perceive as "modular" cabinets. There is a catalog of sizes, you can't change anything, and they are typically not made to order but warehoused.
Lowe's, Home Depot, etc. typically have both available. Within each segment, there are different quality levels. "Custom cabinets" is not a determination of quality. I've seen many custom cabinets that are total junk, and vise versa. "Semi-custom" is a designation of selection, not quality.
Direct from Quality Standards:
Custom Grade - The Grade specified for most high quality architectural woodwork. This Grade provides a well defined degree of control over the quality of materials, workmanship and installation of a project.
Economy Grade - The Grade defining the minimum expectation of quality, workmanship, materials and installation.
We decided to pick up one of the "semi-custom" lines, and we can order any size we want, down to the 1/16". The array of available cabinets, options, and modifications is wide. There are multiple finishes, and styles - Blum tandems with the Blumotion closer, and solid wood dovetailed boxes, plywood interiors. They are very nice quality.
We found it really opens up some areas of our market that we were missing. We still produce custom cabinets, but for that next step below that can't or won't afford custom, we can offer something to them. The margins are very good, and I'm comfortable that we're offering a good solution. Keep an open mind. The term “custom cabinets” doesn't indicate quality. Neither does "semi-custom". There's good and bad in both.
Comment from contributor O:
I would have to disagree with the point that there are only three grades of cabinetry (premium or custom, semi-custom and economy). While these are legitimate grades of cabinetry, there is a much wider spectrum available. I recently moved my custom design center and showroom from the San Francisco area to south Houston and the local small developers utilize what is known as a job cabinet. These are partially built in a shop and completed on site. They are all plywood construction including face frames. They are hung on a ledger with no cabinet backs and utilize fixed shelves. They often have plywood doors with a panel mold to create an overlay/inset door application with simple butt hinges or a knife hinge.
I do not consider this to be a custom cabinet. I suppose, in the true sense of the word, this could be considered custom but not in the true spirit of the term. Just because I built it does not make it custom, just because if it is made out of wood and you can build it, does not make it custom. My 10 year old son can build a box and hang it on the wall, but this does not make it a custom cabinet. There are without a doubt many defining specifications (at least minimum standards) before a cabinet can be considered truly a custom cabinet.
In addition to running a complete custom shop which is very difficult in this area, I also carry several lines of manufactured or modular cabinetry. Two of the nine lines that I carry here give me the option to alter almost any cabinet to any width, depth or height, thus making it possible to fit any given space without need of a filler strip. This virtue alone would make these manufactured products fall into the custom category by this line of thinking.
Lastly, face frames can indeed be nailed to casework in a custom application. This is not ideal, and there are several alternatives (all more time consuming and therefore more costly) to face nailing a frame and filling the nail holes. A rabbet joint or groove can be cut into the face frame (a dado is cut perpendicular or across the wood grain and is not applicable to face frame joinery) to accept the casework and there are a number of different types of mechanical fasteners available to be used in addition to adhesive. Obviously this type of casework joinery is more time consuming and more costly but just because a face frame has been face nailed onto casework would not necessarily exclude it from the category of custom. Now if that face frame had been hacked out with a hatchet and nailed into place with box nails, I would consider this a deal breaker. But if it is made out of wood, I can make it.