Tips for Buying Kitchen and Pantry Cabinets

There are many sources where you can buy kitchen and pantry cabinets. From home centers to lumberyards, your perfect cabinet is waiting for you. This article gives pointers for what to look for when examining quality and construction of cabinetry. You will feel confident that you can make a wise investment into your future kitchen and pantry!

If you’re working out your kitchen floor plan, check out the article “Sizing Up Pantry Cabinets.” This covers basic sizes that pantry cabinets come in and will help guide you when incorporating pantry cabinets into your design.

Buying pantry cabinets

Reusing kitchen cabinets

Reusing kitchen cabinets is a valid alternative to buying new. Kitchen remodels and new builds, after all, are a pricey endeavor. Reusing kitchen cabinets is a good budget option.

Can I put new doors on old cabinets? New kitchen cabinet doors can be put over old cabinet boxes. This is an economical way to update the look of a kitchen. New cabinet doors cost significantly less than purchasing all-new cabinetry. There are cabinet companies that specialize in selling doors only and the process is referred to as “kitchen cabinet refacing.”

Can I buy and install used cabinets? Yes, used cabinets are a great option if you are on a budget. High-end houses, especially, invest in quality cabinets for their kitchens. When the looks is outdated, the owners resell them, or even toss them in the dump! I know a person who renovates apartment buildings and gets good deals on used cabinets from larger metro areas. She is willing to drive a trailer to pick them up, with the help of a few friends.

It takes a little creativity to incorporate used cabinets into a kitchen layout. In a short run of cabinets, like an apartment, you can get two, even three small kitchen solutions. With an eye for design, some styles of cabinets can even be mixed or matched, or one paint color can unify different styles.

My first kitchen was used, and I was able to have the fun of painting them a bold red color. After a second remodel, I kept the same cabinets, but added more. The design of the door was very simple and easily duplicated. One more can of red paint, and my new and bigger kitchen was finished!

Man assembles kitchen cabinets.
Installer assembles kitchen cabinets

Online kitchen cabinets

What are RTA cabinets? RTA cabinet stands for “ready-to-assemble.” Ready-to-assemble cabinets are cabinets that are not assembled, the buyer must assemble upon delivery. RTA cabinets answer the problem of shipping cabinets out to customers. Large, bulky and fully-assembled cabinets take up greater space and therefore result in higher shipping charges.

RTA cabinets tend to be an online option. This can be scary, but RTA cabinet manufacturers’ make every effort to help you feel good about your online purchase. You can buy door samples so you can really feel and examine what you are considering buying. RTA cabinet companies have lots of help documents and support is only a phone call away.

RTA cabinets are not for everyone. Sites like cabinets ship both ready-to-assemble cabinets as well as fully-assembled cabinets. The RTA Store also have designers on staff to help with layouts. Their FAQ is extensive – they have years of experience in customer satisfaction, so they answer all of your questions ahead of time.

Home improvement stores

Big box home improvement stores like Home Depot, Lowes, Menards, and IKEA all have kitchen centers. Kitchen designers quickly create floor plans and perspectives with design software, helping users to visualize what their future kitchen will look like. With the power of bulk purchasing, home improvement stores are able to offer competitive pricing.

Lumber yards

In the early days, there were not home improvement stores, but mom and pop hardware stores and the local lumber yards. Lumber yards still serve a purpose today, and are similar to home improvement stores. Paint, flooring, and cabinets are all available, as well as hardware and lumber for projects. Cabinets will have to be ordered, but it is no different than other sources.

Spahn & Rose Lumber Co. is one such example that started in Dubuque, Iowa. Today, Spahn & Rose has 23 retail lumber and building-material stores in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, along with a lumber-distribution facility in Independence, Iowa.

The advantage of a local lumber yard is that it just may be your friend, family, or neighbor who works there. Employees are often do-it-yourself experts and give excellent first-hand experience. This can be especially helpful to your specific project.

Kitchen and pantry cabinet materials

Cabinet doors

The most fun of any kitchen remodeling project is picking out the doors! Cabinet door design, color, and material set the tone for your kitchen. Here are a few pointers to consider when making your kitchen or pantry cabinet door choice:

Woman shopping for kitchen cabinets, looking at cabinet door fronts.
Consumer shopping for kitchen cabinets, looking at cabinet door fronts


  • will the design “age” quickly, or is it a simple or timeless design?
  • will the color hide dirt and grime, or show everything?
  • will the door be easy to to clean, or is a complicated design with crevices that will collect dust and dirt?
  • do I want a traditional framed cabinet, or a European “frameless style”?
  • will the door scratch easily (shiny or gloss finish)?

The last tip, when examining the quality of a finish, look for any peeling or denting of surface materials, surface imperfections, or other hints of subpar materials.

Cabinet box construction

Kitchen cabinets are made from many different materials, not just wood. Not all materials are equal, but many are close and good substitutes to keep cost down while still serving a functioning kitchen.

What is MDF kitchen cabinets? Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) is similar to plywood in that it is a manufactured product of compressed wood fibers and resin. Kitchen cabinet boxes are usually made from MDF, and the cabinet doors are made from solid wood.

Melamine cabinets and swatches.
Melamine cabinets and swatches

What wood do you use for cabinets? Oak, cherry, hickory, and maple are popular wood species for kitchen cabinets because they are durable and beautiful. Woods like mahogany and walnut scratch and dent easily. Pine also scratches and dents easily, but it is the cheapest.

What are Thermofoil cabinets? Thermofoil cabinets are cabinets that have been fed into a machine where a thin malleable layer of foil-like material is heated and then vacuum sealed onto the surface. Thermofoil works the best for simple flat-panel designs. The downside is that the Thermofoil can peel off. The benefit to Thermofoil is that it is an economical choice.

What is the difference between melamine kitchen cabinets and laminate? Both melamine and laminate use resin coated paper to achieve the finished look. The manufacturing process and materials differs slightly between each. Laminate is thicker than melamine and costs much more, making melamine the popular and economical choice for kitchen and pantry cabinets.

According to The Bledsoe Group, “Although plastic laminate does have very strong qualities, the printed paper layer in plastic laminate is similar in thickness to melamine and therefore can be compromised with the same amount of wear.”

Is thermofoil better than laminate? Laminate is a superior product to thermofoil. Thermofoil can peel off cabinets, where laminate, especially a higher quality, will not peel or chip.

Which is better melamine or laminate? Laminate is a superior product to melamine. There are different quality grades to each product, which are similar in feel and look, but laminate has the durability advantage, which is a thicker product. However, there is no difference between the printed paper thickness that both products use, and therefore both are compromised with the same wear.

Which is better engineered wood or plywood? Engineered wood (solid wood) is superior to plywood. Both solid wood and plywood fall into the category of engineered wood.

Cost of the wood product needs to be weighed in the purpose of the wood. MDF is another type of engineered wood, but is adequate for kitchen cabinet boxes. Solid wood is not the best economical use for box carcass construction – that money is best spent elsewhere. Instead, put that money towards cabinet door fronts and frames that can be enjoyed visually (rather than the parts of the cabinet thar are never seen, such as the cabinet box).

Kitchen and pantry cabinet construction

Examining hardware quality is a critical step in evaluating kitchen and pantry cabinet construction. Some poorer quality details will be obvious. For some of these details, it isn’t necessary to always have the top of the line cabinet.

In the end, the consumer will decide the compromise between cost and quality. A landlord looking to replace cabinets in a rental situation is not going to replace cabinets with premium lines. A young company updating their first kitchen may have a tight budget to fit in. For some “forever homes” a greater emphasis may be placed on investing in higher-end kitchen cabinets.

Lucky for everyone, kitchen cabinet companies offer a wide selection of design choices and price levels to choose from. Below are key elements to look for when shopping for kitchen cabinets.

Kitchen cabinet drawer and hardware

The picture below features poor quality kitchen cabinet construction. Depending on the quality, kitchen cabinets could fall apart sooner, hinges can break off, and drawers can warp. Avoid cabinets with these features:

  • wide drawers with inadequate slide support
  • weak corner joinery
  • hinges not strong enough to support doors
Poor quality kitchen cabinet features.
Poor quality kitchen cabinet features

The picture below models high-quality kitchen cabinet craftsmanship:

  • heavy-duty ball bearing drawer slides
  • heavy-duty door hinges
  • high-quality corner joinery

Although the “gold standard” of kitchen cabinetry construction is featured below, it isn’t always necessary. All of these fine features add to the overall cost of kitchen and pantry cabinets. There are many satisfactory construction techniques and materials that do the job well and keep costs down.

When touring home centers and model kitchens, compare these details between displays. Open and shut doors and “wiggle” them. You will quickly get a feel for the very cheapest versions that deliver an instant gratification “pretty kitchen hit” but into the first year falls apart, gouges and indents easily.

Quality kitchen cabinet features.
Quality kitchen cabinet features

Kitchen cabinet handles and knobs, alternative handles

Cabinet handles and knobs are the finishing touch to a beautiful kitchen. Even this part of the design can generate questions:

  • are the handle holes spaced at standard widths? would updating the cabinets be easy because the handles are standard (not like the very long handle in the photo below)?
  • are there handle-less options (milled groove or tapered edges to open instead of hardware)?

One last tip for handles and knobs, they are expensive to replace an entire kitchen set. Consider if the look you want can be achieved with a less-expensive knob or handle. When I replaced the handles on a small kitchen, I couldn’t find any handles that would match up with the same handle holes I had before. I had to buy handle “plates” to cover up the holes that didn’t match that were already drilled into the cabinet front – this easily doubled the cost of the hardware.

Kitchen cabinet door hardware/opening choices.
Kitchen cabinet door hardware/opening choices

Happy shopping!

Remember, it doesn’t cost money to look! Have fun visiting home improvement stores and gathering ideas. Use the opportunity and time to educate yourself about kitchen quality construction. When you’re ready to build that dream kitchen or make a fancy update, you will be ready!

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