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The combination of materials and designs for cabinet doors is a critical stylistic component that sets the tone for the entire kitchen. In some cases, the design can be even more important than the underlying material from a visual standpoint. In all cases, a well chosen design will accentuate and add to the material selection, while a poorly chosen design can make the most beautiful, exotic, and expensive piece of natural wood look no better than a scrap from the yard sale reject pile. 
Understanding different design options is important not only if you are purchasing custom cabinets. Among semi-custom, stock, and RTA cabinets, there are many possibilities with respect to panel designs, finishes, and door handles. In many cases, the difference in cost are not substantial, but the differences in appearance are significant. Consequently, it is worthwhile to take the time to understand the broad variety of design options which are available.

Selecting appropriate designs is also important from the standpoint of thematic continuity. Generally, a kitchen follows one of the seven basic styles: traditional, contemporary, transitional, country, rustic, Old World, or Arts & Crafts. A cabinet door design which looks at home in a traditional kitchen will almost always look out of place in a contemporary kitchen. A cabinet door design which looks perfect in a country kitchen will probably not work for an Old World kitchen. A cabinet door design which works well in a rustic kitchen may or may not work in an Arts & Crafts kitchen.

Aside from aesthetic and thematic considerations, there are also functional and health issues which pertain to cabinet door design. External door hinges and door handles have to not only serve as decorative accents, but also reliably and comfortably support the ability to easily open and close the cabinet doors. The paints, stains, finishes, and sealants used on the doors have to not only provide the desired look, but also provide maximal protection against moisture, grease, and odors while being safe for home use in terms of formaldehyde and VOC emissions.

We begin our discussion with the most traditional type of kitchen cabinet door construction, which is panel doors. This is a type of door which has a center panel inside of an outer frame. This style is primarily used for doors made of wood or doors which use wood veneers. The panel of the door can either be raised, flat, or beadboard.

A typical panel door is actually constructed from five individuals pieces. Four of the pieces make up the four sides of the frame and feature a groove on their inside facing edges. The fifth piece is the actual center panel, which has thinner outer edges that fit inside the grooves in the frame pieces.
Usually, the center panel "floats" inside the frame, encompassed by the grooves so that it cannot fall out, but not physically attached to the frame. The reason for this type of construction is to accommodate the natural expansion and contraction of wood due to seasonal changes in humidity levels. By sizing the groove of the frame slightly larger than the outer edges of the center panel, the frame can support slight seasonal variations in panel size without cracking or warping. The way the pieces of the frame are put together can also affect how well the panel door can stand up to humidity changes. Generally, what is known as cope and stick construction, where the horizontal rails of the frame have protrusions that fit into corresponding fitted openings in the vertical stiles of the frame, are considered to provide excellent structural stability. By contrast, miter joint construction, where both the rails and the stiles have diagonally shaped edges, is considered less effective in withstanding the stresses associated with humidity changes.

Because the edges of the center panel have to be thinner than the frame of the door, the portion of the panel that abuts the frame will always be recessed relative to the frame. However, the rest of the panel can be made thicker, effectively "raising" its surface to match the frame. Correspondingly, this type of design is known as a raised panel door. The primary visual attributes of a raised panel door are the shape of the raised panel and the styling of the edge profile around the raised panel. Common design shapes for the raised panel are: square, arched top, arched top and bottom, cathedral arch (an arch which does not extend all the way to the corners) top, and cathedral arch top and bottom. For arched designs, an arched top with a squared off bottom is much more common than an arched top and bottom.

The individual design shapes for the raised panel can be created using different edge profiles, where edge profile refers to the way in which the change in thickness from the thin part of the center panel that abuts the frame to the thick part that represents the raised panel portion is handled. In a "cove raise", the thin frame-facing part of the panel is brought up to center thickness using a slightly concave curvature that is rounded inward and looks like a gradually increasing slope. In a "slant raise", the thin frame-facing part of the panel is brought up to center thickness using a straight diagonal line. In a "tulip raise", the thin frame-facing part of the panel is brought up to center thickness using a slightly convex curvature that is rounded outward like the outside of a sphere. Finally, in a "slant and bead raise", the thin frame-facing part of the panel is brought up to center thickness using a straight diagonal line to about the two-third point and then using a convex curvature, as in a tulip raise, the rest of the way. These edge profiles are used for both the raised panel and the inside of the frame. This edge profile of the frame, coupled with the edge profile of the panel, makes it look like the door slopes down to the thin portion of the frame, then slopes back up to the middle portion of the center panel. This is a more aesthetically pleasing look than a straight edge drop from the frame to the panel and another straight edge rise from the outer part of the panel to the raised portion of the panel.

In addition to the edge profiles of the inner part of the door frame and the raised panel, the outer part of the door frame which abuts the frame of the cabinet box also has an edge profile. There are several common profiles used for the outer frame edge. The "roundover" uses a convex curve which adds an outward rounding to the outer edge. The "table top" uses a concave curve that is rounded inward. The "classical" uses two concave curves rounded inward, as if two table top edge profiles were combined, with the first significantly smaller than the second. The "thumbnail" is essentially a roundover edge profile which starts slightly lower than the top of the frame. The "table top and bead" is a combination of a table top edge profile for the first drop and a roundover profile for the second drop.

With regard to edge profiles, there is no major functional benefit of one over another. Certain edge profiles, such as the thumbnail, arguably lend themselves better to the application of paint, glaze, and other finishes. However, by and large, the edge profiles are primarily a decision based on what you think looks more attractive, what the cabinet maker makes available, and what you believe to be most cost-effective.

While we have discussed raised panel doors so far, there are also what are known as inset panel doors or flat panel doors. In this type of construction, the center panel does not have a change in thickness, but is rather kept at the same level the whole way from one side of the frame to the other. Thus, the entire center panel is recessed relative to the frame. Flat panel doors do not have the same intricate edge profiling as raised panel doors and offer a simple, clean appearance. Cabinets which feature flat panel doors are also referred to as "Shaker" cabinets because they are popular in the Shaker style of construction which emphasizes function over form and simple, durable carpentry over decorative accents.

The choice between raised panel and flat panel doors comes down to preference and stylization. Raised panel doors provide a timeless, elegant, and refined look which lends itself well to most traditional, transitional, and Old World kitchens. Flat panel doors provide a clean, grounded, and functional appearance which works well in country, Arts & Crafts, and rustic kitchens, as well as less ornate traditional styles which include Cape Cod, Shaker, and Cottage.

A third option for panel doors, which is really a sub-type of the flat panel door, is the beadboard door. Beadboard is a type of wood paneling which features distinctive vertical grooves. Often found in wainscoting applications, beadboard lends a casual, yet inviting feeling to surfaces. For cabinet doors, a beadboard design or veneer is applied to the flat central panel, making it seem as though several parallel planks of wood are strung inside the door frame. This design works particularly well for country, Cape Cod, and Arts & Crafts kitchens.

Overall, panel doors are the most versatile design as they can work with different types of cabinet face frames and overlays. That is to say, panel doors can be made as full overlay, which means they completely cover the face frame of the cabinet, partial overlay, which means they partially cover the face frame of the cabinet, or full inset, which means that they sit inside the face frame of the cabinet. In addition, panel doors provide a lot of flexibility in terms of whether the panel is flat or raised, how the edge profiles look, and incremental designs on the panel, ranging from beadboard to hand carved images. Panels can even be finished with fabric, or made of glass, which is further discussed in the glass doors section below.
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With the advent of contemporary kitchen designs and frameless cabinet construction, slab doors have become a popular alternative to panel doors. Rather than having a frame around a panel, a slab door is constructed of a single piece of material that is of uniform thickness. Because it uses a single uniform piece of material, a slab door can be constructed of a full range of materials including natural wood, engineered wood, laminate, vinyl, stainless steel, metal, or glass. A common construction method for slab doors is to utilize a particle board, MDF or plywood piece and cover it with a laminate or veneer.

Because it has uniform thickness, a slab door only has a single edge profile, which is its outer edge. Typically, this edge profile is either left square, rounded, or beveled. For natural wood doors, the outer edge profile can utilize more intricate patterning. However, in the case of veneers, laminates, or metals, the options for edge profiling are more limited. Some cabinet makers offer the option of incorporating v-shaped grooves into the surface for natural wood slab doors, creating a beadboard-like effect. With veneers and laminates, a broad range of textures and visual effects are available.

Slab doors are usually made as full overlay and appropriate for either framed or frameless cabinets, as they completely cover the face of the cabinet. In some instances, slab doors can be fitted as full inset with framed cabinets, although this look is far less common. For slab doors made of natural wood, expansion and contraction due to changes in humidity is a factor, so these work better with framed cabinets. Adding a reinforcing strip to the back of a natural wood slab door can also help to limit warping as a result of humidity induced size changes.

Within the kitchen renovation industry, slab doors are also referred to as European or Euro doors as the frameless type of cabinet construction incorporating these door types originated in Europe before becoming popular in North America. With their roots in the functional designs of modern architecture, slab door cabinets are associated with contemporary kitchen styles and will look out of place in traditional or Old World kitchens. Slab doors can be an interesting addition to a transitional kitchen, however, which seeks to blend contemporary elements with traditional touches.
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In addition to panel and slab doors, there is a third type, which are glass doors. In most cases, glass doors are nothing more than flat panel doors where the flat panel is made of glass rather than wood. In fact, for many kitchen cabinets with panel doors, the center panels can be removed and replaced with glass paneling instead.

Glass is both incredibly versatile and highly light enhancing. The addition of glass fronts serves to bring more air and space into a room and to multiply the available lighting. At the same time, glass can work for virtually any type of stylistic theme, from Old World to contemporary and all things in between. Glass also fits well with non-glass doors, so it can be used for some cabinets but not others, lending a more heterogeneous and visually arresting look to the cabinet runs.

There are a number of options available with respect to the type of glass that is used and the way that it is then designed and finished. The glass can be clear, opaque, or somewhere in between, depending on whether you prefer the contents of your cabinets to be visible or not. In the case of accent cabinets, where you showcase fine china or ceramic pieces, clear glass makes more sense. In the case of regular storage cabinets, opaque or semi-opaque glass can provide all the light and space enhancing benefits of a glass surface while obscuring the inner contents as fully as a cabinet door made of wood.

Clear glass can be installed as a basic rectangular or arched pane, or, alternatively, with intricate designs utilizing mullions or cames. In case of cabinet doors, a mullion is a structural element typically made of thin strips of wood, which divides the window pane into multiple units. Originally, mullions were used to provide greater structural integrity to large spans of glass. However, in the case of cabinetry, the purpose of mullions is to provide a design pattern which makes the glass door appear more visually interesting. A came is like a mullion, except it is made of metal, usually brass, zinc, or lead, which blends more into the natural coloring of the glass surface. A mullioned or camed pattern can either be geometric, made up of repeating rectangular or diamond units, or decorative, made up of intricate curved designs incorporating arches, circles, ovals, and other elements. Because the manufacturing process is more involved, mullioned or camed glass will be more expensive than basic glass.

Aside from mullions or cames, a number of treatments can be applied to glass to provide it with varying types of designs, looks, and textures. Etching is the use of specialized acids or abrasives to glass in order to create designs. The etched areas have a sandpapery, frosted look and the design is created by a careful alternating of clear and frosted areas. The glass can also be frosted in its entirety, lending a sophisticated, semi-opaque appearance to the cabinet doors. In addition to etching and frosting, glass can have a variety of other textures applied to its surface, including ribbing, bubbling, and pebbling, which create prism-like effects by incorporating three-dimensionality into the glass. Glass can also be beveled, which creates raised ridges that can be used to form designs that resemble cames.

In addition to having textures and designs, glass can also be stained or colored. Glass is typically stained or colored via the addition of specialized pigments and mineral salts during its manufacture. Pieces of stained glass are then arranged in various patterns to create images and designs. There are a number of production methods for stained glass and some are higher quality, but also more expensive than others. For example, basic stained glass designs incorporating simpler colors and patterns and utilizing lead cames are less costly than more advanced copper foil "Tiffany style" glass which offers more intricate designs and vibrant colors.

Given all these different types of textures, colors, patterns, transparencies, and designs, there can be no question that glass represents a uniquely versatile material for cabinet fronts. It can work with virtually any kitchen style, from stained glass in an Old World kitchen to mullioned glass in a traditional kitchen to frosted glass in a contemporary kitchen. Furthermore, glass is light-enhancing, elegant, and fairly easy to clean and maintain. Whether used for all, some, or just a few of the cabinet doors, glass is a material that is well worth incorporating into the overall design.
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For cabinets made of natural wood, engineered wood, or plastic composites, an important design element to consider is the finish. The finish refers to the final layer applied to the cabinet material, also referred to as the "topcoat". This layer can incorporate both functional elements, such as a moisture seal, and decorative elements, such as a desired color or texture. There are many different types of finish, the most common of which are paint, stain, and varnish.

Paint offers an opaque coating to the substrate. The main benefit of paint is that it offers the broadest possible range of colors and allows the underlying color and texture to be completely covered. Paint can be chosen to fit any color scheme, providing you with total control over the kitchen's thematic appearance. Additionally, paint serves to cover up any imperfections, discolorations, or inconsistencies in the cabinet material, providing a consistent finish. Paint also allows for the easy incorporation of multiple hues and hand-painted designs. Certain paints incorporate The one potential drawback associated with paint is its tendency to crack if the underlying material expands and contracts, as natural wood is prone to do with changes in humidity. However, paint cracks can be repaired by simply repainting the affected area.

There are several types of paint in terms of chemical composition, with oil-based paints and latex-based paints the two most common types used for painting kitchen cabinets. The benefits of oil-based paints are that they are better sealants, they are more impervious the temperature changes, and they are generally considered to be more durable. The benefits of latex-based paints are that they are easier to apply, less likely to chalk, more resistant to fading, non-flammable, and less likely to yellow over time. Importantly, oil-based paints usually outgas a much greater quantity of harmful VOCs than latex-based paints. So from a health perspective, latex-based paints are usually the better choice. However, a great deal depends on the specific pigments and chemicals being utilize in a given paint and individuals paints should be analyzed on a case by case basis.

Unlike paint, which covers up the underlying material, stain is used to complement the surface of the material. Typically used with natural wood and wood veneers, stain can be utilized to either accentuate or obscure the natural wood grain. In either case, however, stain is either a fully transparent or semi-transparent substance which reveals the pattern of the material underneath. By applying stain to wood, the wood can be darkened to various degrees and the subtle changes in color associated with its natural grain can be magnified. To create this magnification and increase in grain contrast, stains incorporate either pigments or dyes. The difference is that pigments rest on top of the wood, much like a paint would, while dyes actually soak into the cellular structure of the wood, producing a more transparent result.

Generally, if you pay for high quality solid wood cabinets, you will want to use a stain rather than a paint to show off rather than obscure the natural beauty of the wood. Coupled with an attractive wood grain, a stain will lend a warm, luxurious, and elegant appearance to the kitchen cabinets. In addition, staining preserves the option of painting at a later time, as sanding the stain and painting over it is a much easier process than removing almost any other type of finish. From a health perspective, a great deal depends on the specific type of stain used. There are oil-based stains and water-based stains, with oil-based generally containing a much greater number of harmful VOCs. However, the specific outgassing will depend on the specific stain. A number of manufacturers today produce more environmentally friendly and less toxic stain products, so relatively more healthy options are definitely available.

Some stains provide not only coloring, but also protection and sealing for the substrate. However, many stains require the application of an additional layer to "lock in" the stain and protect the wood. The additional layer, which can also be used on its own as a wood finish, is varnish. Unlike paint or stain, varnish does not contain a coloring pigment or dye. Rather, varnish is a transparent, protective film which hardens when it dries after application.

A varnish is typically composed of a drying oil, a resin, and a thinner. Because there are many different types of varnish and because they can be categorized either by the type and amount of oil present in the mixture, or by the kind of resin used, understanding varnishes can be a challenging process. The issue is confounded even further by the fact that certain types of varnish such as lacquer, shellac, and polyurethane, have become sufficiently well known to stand on their own, rather than  to continue to be referred to as a varnish. So, rather than delve into the labyrinthine world of varnishes, which is somewhat outside the scope of our theme of kitchen cabinet designs, we will instead simply list the primary types of varnish utilized in cabinetry applications and briefly consider each one's differentiating characteristics.

The most popular type of varnish used on factory manufactured cabinets is conversion varnish, also known as a catalyzed finish. This is a tough, hard, durable, and long-lasting varnish that many cabinet makers prize above other topcoats for its strength and longevity. However, a conversion varnish releases significant amounts of formaldehyde into the air, which is a known carcinogen. It can take thousands of hours for the harmful levels of air toxins to offgas completely, so despite its beneficial characteristics, a conversion varnish has a significant downside from the perspective of health.

Another popular type of varnish is polyurethane, informally known as "poly", which is another hard, abrasion-resistant, waterproof, and incredibly durable coating that forms a tough protective film over the wood surface. However, depending on the chemical composition, polyurethane finishes are also known to release significant amounts of hazardous VOCs into the ambient air. Oil-based polyurethanes are generally more durable, but also have the highest amount of destructive VOCs. Waterborne polyurethanes are generally safer than oil-based polyurethanes, but there is a great amount of variability depending on the specific brand and formulation.

A third popular varnish for kitchen cabinets is lacquer. This is a fast-drying varnish that is typically sprayed on rather than applied with a brush. Lacquer offers excellent transparency and gloss relative to polyurethane, but it is somewhat less durable. Still, as far as finishes go, lacquer is a tough topcoat that will provide fairly good protection for wood. However, most lacquers incorporate high VOC synthetic solvents which pose significant health hazards as far as indoor air quality. As with polyurethanes, water-based lacquers will generally offer safer, more environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional lacquers, but a lot will depend on the specific formulation.

Shellac is another varnish that may be applied to kitchen cabinets. A resin secreted by the lac bug which finds its home in the forests of Indonesia and Thailand, shellac based finishes were quite popular in the early part of the 20th century, but have since then given ground to tougher, more durable chemical finishes such as conversion and polyurethane. Nonetheless, shellac is an effective sealant, blocking moisture, odors, and stain from penetrating into wood surfaces. As shellac is a natural substance, it does not pose the same health hazards as chemically manufactured finishes. Shellac is a rich looking finish and easy to clean. Although it is used much more today by antique refinishers than modern cabinet makers, shellac is nevertheless well worth your consideration.

There are other varnish options, such as natural oils, acrylics, marine varnish, and others. In most cases, there is a tradeoff between durability and safety. Low VOC finishes pose far less of a health hazard, but they are often not as hard or long-lasting as high VOC finishes. If you do purchase a set of cabinets that utilizes a conversion finish, polyurethane, lacquer, or another high VOC alternative, you would be well advised to leave and air out the home for a period of several weeks, during which time a majority of the harmful VOCs should outgas. Additionally, an air purifier utilizing a combination of HEPA filtration and active carbon technology can be an effective tool for the removal of VOCs from the air both during the initial stages of cabinet installation and thereafter.
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The final aspect of cabinet design we shall discuss here is cabinet hardware. This refers primarily to door handles and, to a lesser extent, door hinges, and represents the elements which enable the opening and closing of the cabinet. As other aspects of cabinet design, the hardware plays both a functional and an aesthetic role. On the one hand, hinges and door handles provide access to the interior cabinet storage, and on the other they provide a set of visual accents that either offset or complement the cabinet fronts.

There two primary configurations possible for a cabinet door handle: knob or pull. A knob is a spherical or prismatic extension that is attached at a single point to the cabinet door and designed for both decoration and ease of door opening. A pull is either a vertical or a horizontal extension that is typically attached to the cabinet door at two or more points that is designed for grasping with the fingers.

Generally, cabinet doors with pulls are considered to be easier to open. However, a lot depends on both personal preference and the specific design of a particular pull. There are arguably more design options with respect to knobs given that they only require a single attachment point, but pulls have more possible configurations. Bar pulls utilize a sleek bar between the two attachment points and are particularly appropriate for contemporary kitchens. Drop pulls, ring pulls, and pendant pulls, use a handle that curves away from the attachment points and are a better fit with more traditional kitchens. Cup pulls resemble one half of a turtle shell, providing an enclosure for the fingers rather than a bar. Finger pulls usually extend from the edge of the cabinet and provide a slight thickening in the front, allowing easy opening by just one or two fingers. While cup pulls can work with different kitchen styles, depending on design, finger pulls are usually only appropriate for contemporary kitchens.

Knobs come in many different shapes, from spherical to longitudinal to oval to prismatic to object- or animal-shaped. Some knobs have carved reliefs, etched pictures, or painted drawings on their faces. With respect to richly decorated knobs or pulls, care must be taken to ensure that they are still comfortable to use for opening the cabinet door. Decorative handles that have sharp edges or which are difficult to grasp can rapidly become a source of annoyance and frustration.

Door handles are available in a dizzying array of materials and material finishes. Possibilities include copper, brass, pewter, stainless steel, glass, enamel, crystal, ceramic, wood, iron, aluminum, porcelain, bone, plastic, granite, marble, and even leather, polyester, and nylon. The material and the design chosen should reflect the overall theme of the kitchen. Many door handles specifically come in styles such as Old World, traditional, Craftsman, Tuscany, French Country, rustic, transitional, and contemporary, which makes matching even easier.

It is important to also consider the color of the door handles vis-a-vis the color of the cabinetry. The general rule of thumb is darker knobs or pulls with lighter cabinets and lighter knobs or pulls with darker cabinets. Alternatively, you can also opt for a lighter or darker shade of the same general color type such as white cabinets with stainless steel handles, maple cabinets with brass pulls, or cherry cabinets with copper knobs.

Hinges can be either exposed or concealed. In the case of concealed hinges, function trumps form and the goal should be a quality hinge that allows for easy door opening and closing. However, in the case of exposed or semi-exposed hinges, it is important that the hinge style, color, and finish match the style, color, and finish of the door handle. Incorporating differently colored or textured exposed hinges will create a mismatched look and has the potential to turn thousands or tens of thousands dollars in cabinetry into an outright eye-sore.
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