- What makes a cabinet "custom"?

Is there a specific standard that qualifies a cabinet as custom? June 24, 2002

I am a custom cabinetmaker. A customer questioned me on why my cabinet runs are not fabricated as one piece instead of individual boxes. I explained that I usually size my kitchen cabinets up to a certain width, typically 48". Anything over I break up into separate components. The cabinets become awkward to handle and harder to finish correctly. The customer felt he was being shortchanged and wasn't getting a custom kitchen. This job was designed with a full set of scaled drawings with individual number labels on each cabinet. Am I way off base? Is there a standard for "custom"?

Forum Responses
From contributor S:
Who's to say what "custom" is? It's in the eyes of the people doing the transaction. We build the whole run as one unit. Two guys can handle up to about 10' without much difficulty. "L" shaped runs with a L/S in the corner are built with a L/S that is half attached to one side and half attached to the other side. Then, it's screwed together on the job. Your cabinets sound like what I consider custom. You just choose to handle a detail differently than I do.

To me, a custom cabinet is designed to fit a specific area or made to a specific personal style and if it's made in a number of components and still comes out with the desired effects, it's a custom cabinet. How come when you buy a mass-produced cabinet that's too wide or too tall for a certain area and you cut it down to fit, it becomes "customized"? How you "customized" the cabinet shouldn't matter. You didn't make it any less customized, no matter what size it is or how many pieces you had to make it in. As long as it looks and works the way it shows in the specs, you fulfilled your end of the bargain.

From contributor C:
I don't know if there is a standard or not. I built the same way contributor S does up until a couple of years ago, and sometimes it was a pain, especially when runs went over eight feet, what with the splicing of floors and such. Plus, they could get pretty heavy.

Since then I've worked alone a lot more and started building the way it sounds like you do. I use 1 3/4" stiles and where two cabinets join, I use two 7/8" stiles. At first, I would make 1 7/8" stile and rip it in two and make sure it was oriented like it was originally when the cabinets were joined so the grain was continuous. After noticing how little of the stile was visible after hanging the doors, I stopped that practice and just use the same general color.

I think if you built the cabinets to fit that particular kitchen and did not build boxes on three inch increments with a bunch of fillers to make up the difference, they are custom.

My dictionary says this - custom: made or done to order or sometimes made extra fine as if to order.

In these parts, the customer would be correct. But if you provided him a complete set of drawings, he got what he paid for. I build big boxes in my shop, but if someone wanted a 30 foot run of lowers, you can bet they would get 3-10 footers. The term "custom" is relative.

This is a perplexing subject. It used to be that "custom" face frame shops regularly made 60", 66" and longer runs of cabinetry, every day. Then European construction became an issue and no box of more, or much more, than 1 meter or maybe 42" at the outside fit the program. There are a number of reasons, some very good, that boxes that exceed a meter in length should be used. At the same time, some very expensive cabinets with very custom features satisfy the European dimensions. Some companies command prices far in excess of locally made U.S. cabinets and here we often offer more and better (prettier) hardwoods and hardwood construction and finishes. Don't take a backseat because your boxes are narrow and easier to handle/install. Some of the most expensive cabinets in the world are not more than 39" wide and for good reason. Strength and carrying capacity are only a small reason.

Contributor C, What makes 3" boxes any less custom than boxes on 1" increments? I make my cabinets in 3" increments when possible (most of the time) and I do not use fillers. They fit the kitchen or anywhere else. I do this because it is faster, because the cuts and parts are in my head, drawer and door sizes, I don't need to double check sizes. Still, my cabinets are custom, built one at a time for the customer at hand.

I work alone and mostly do stuff for family. I make the boxes the size that I can handle, then put the face frame up so it spans the entire run. It looks like one cabinet in that space. Customers haven't complained much, but they don't pay much either.

There are many reasons not to make long runs of cabinets. If you have a wall to wall opening of 120" and built one run of cabinetry 120", those walls are not going to be perfectly plum and true. There is no way to utilize an oversized stile as a scribe stripe, which I think is one detail that makes cabinets "custom". How about a run that has a sink base and stovetop in it? If you get a plumber that likes to run his/her water lines out of the floor and the drain pipe out of the wall, it can be a problem just to get a simple sink base installed without over-cutting the holes. Many times I have to cut the PVC drain line back to a little stub just to get the cabinet in. If you have to compound this problem with gas lines for cook tops, etc., it can become a real problem. I think custom is in the details. Nothing wrong with making boxes in 3" increments. Just make custom boxes for the ends so no fillers are necessary or so you have the proper details on an open-ended box, for example. What's important from a customer relations point of view is to adopt a system that you like and be able to explain it.

To me, butting two face frame cabinets together is doing the unforgivable. However, there are ways around the problem. One trick is to vary the depths of the cabinets. For example, my last customer had a 16 foot wall to fill. I put two 13” deep wall cabinets on each end and an 11” deep plate rack/glass door unit in the middle. Varying the depths also adds a lot of visual interest as well.

Bases aren’t as tough to deal with since the appliances help break up the run, but “bumping out” the sink and/or range has a similar esthetic appeal. Here, you should use either turnings or fluted pilasters for the transition.

A lot of retail places in my area offer "custom cabinets, made to order for you", which essentially means they carry no inventory and order them just as a lumberyard does. I'd like to ring their neck. My basis for differentiation is this:

Can they be made 1" deeper or shorter for little or no additional charges?
Do you ever need to use filler strips?
Will you match stain colors exactly?
Do they have hot melt glue and staples or clamps and wood glue?

Other than that, I think everyone does what they do and if you aren't comfy, try the next one.

I design and build custom and all my cabinetry boxes are built as individual units. Some are single door uppers, some are double door, depending on the application and the design type.

99% of what we do is face frames with flush inset doors and fluted stiles. I have never had a client complain about the box's width. I do not design in 1" increments - more like 1/16" increments. We design and build to suit the space.

The single box method is better for us because we use a 32 mm boring machine to bore our panels. The stiles inside edges are set flush to the box inside edges so all hinges and hardware fits in the holes, no unsightly blocking or the time it takes to cut and install blocking. We miter our finished end stiles and miter an applied door to fit so the ends are nice and clean, no door just nailed or screwed on. We also wrap the face around at times and continue with the fluting. We vary the height and depth of our uppers and where they butt (when flush to one another), the stiles are only 7/8 each wide (no fluting). Anyway, it's my designs that sell the kitchens. The customer just wants it to look like what they approved and paid for.

All of our cabinet boxes are 3/4" tops, bottoms and sides, base, upper and tall with 1/4" backs. They are all glued, nailed and screwed together.