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There is no single fine line definition of "cabinet type". Some use the term to mean construction type, as in framed versus frameless. Others use the term to refer to placement, as in base cabinet versus wall cabinet. Yet others use the term to denote design, as in Old World cabinet versus Art Deco cabinet, or material, as in oak versus cherry. However, we feel that the most appropriate use of the term is to differentiate among the four primary types of kitchen cabinet manufacture and their associated characteristics in terms of both feature selection and cost. 
In many cases, the type of cabinets that you select for your kitchen will be the single greatest determinant of cost. Given that cabinets comprise 40% to 60% of the typical kitchen construction or remodeling expense, the importance of this decision cannot be overstated. The difference between a set of stock cabinets and a set of custom made cabinets will be on the order of $10,000 to $20,000 for a 300 square foot kitchen. The purpose of this section is to help you understand the reason for such a profound difference in cost.

Before delving into the individual cabinet types, it bears noting that many people do not differentiate between RTA and stock cabinets. From their perspective, there are three types: stock, semi-custom, and custom, with RTA simply a subset of stock. However, we are of the opinion that RTA cabinets are sufficiently different to merit being separated as their own type. In any case, the point is worth bringing up because it means that when a manufacturer offers "stock cabinets", they may or may not be RTA, and this should be explicitly clarified before proceeding with the purchase decision.

The "RTA" in RTA cabinets stands for "ready-to-assemble". These cabinets come packed in flat boxes and are intended to be assembled onsite by either the homeowner or an installation professional. These types of cabinets are sold at a number of retailers, including discount furniture stores such as IKEA and home improvement stores such as Home Depot. In addition, many competitively priced RTA cabinet options are available for purchase online.

RTA cabinets are mass manufactured using large-scale factory processes designed to minimize costs. There is no assembly before they are shipped and sold. Consequently, RTA cabinets are by far the least expensive type of kitchen cabinet available. A full kitchen set can be purchased for $2,000 to $3,000, which is a bargain by the overall measuring stick of kitchen cabinetry. By the same token, RTA cabinets also tend to be among the lowest quality cabinets available, utilizing cheap materials and inferior construction. In addition, RTA cabinets come in a limited range of styles and finishes. They also provide a limited set of standard sizes which may or may not fit your particular kitchen layout. Finally, because RTA cabinets are not assembled by the manufacturer, there could be misalignments among individual components which only become evident after the cabinets have been purchased and assembled at home.

However, budget minded consumers should not dismiss RTA cabinets out of hand. Among the offerings that are available, there are some excellent deals. A number of manufacturers offer plywood cabinet boxes with beautifully finished solid wood doors, solid wood drawers, and quality cup hinges for a fraction of the cost that the same materials and designs would cost in a semi-custom or custom configuration. The assembly is often easy and straightforward, requiring nothing more than a screw driver. Once these cabinets are assembled and installed, they look no different from their more expensive pre-assembled cousins.

The construction on RTA cabinets still will not be as solid as on properly woodworked custom cabinets, with their higher quality joinery and hand-crafted alignment. However, for most kitchen uses, the better RTA cabinets can last for years. In addition, replacement parts are very inexpensive and, given the cabinets' method of assembly, it is easy to substitute old parts for new ones. If your budget is tight and you are thinking of purchasing stock cabinets anyway, you should strongly consider RTA options. You can often find better quality materials for a lower price than available for equivalent stock cabinets.
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The next step up from RTA cabinets are stock cabinets. The main difference between RTA cabinets and stock cabinets is that stock cabinets come fully assembled. These are carried by a wider range of retailers. Many large hardware, home improvement, and furniture stores, as well as cabinet dealers, will offer a range of stock cabinet options. Like RTA cabinets, stock cabinets are also sold online and available from certain wholesalers, often at 10% to 20% savings over the retail price.

Stock cabinets incorporate a limited set of material options. There may be more variety than available with RTA cabinets in terms of door styles, moldings, colors, and finishes. In addition, because stock cabinets are pre-assembled, the construction may be higher quality, with better joinery than possible with RTA cabinets. Since stock cabinets are a lower cost option, many stock cabinets are made using particle board or MDF, which are cheaper alternatives to plywood.

There are more sizing options possible with stock cabinets than with RTA cabinets, but they still come in a limited set of standard sizing options. Dimensions cannot be modified to fit a particular room size. In addition, elements of the inner design cannot be changed. For example, many stock cabinet lines utilize a center support rail for their double door cabinets. When both doors are opened, this rail is essentially a plank which sits in the middle and which can limit access to the inside of the cabinet. Although most homeowners would prefer not to have the rail, they may not have that option with many stock cabinet lines. In any case, the moral of the story is that it is important to check the how cabinets look on the inside, as well as how they look on the outside, before making a purchase decision.

Because stock cabinets come in standard materials, designs, and sizes, they are usually available for delivery immediately, or within a few days, of the order being placed. Thus, a benefit of buying a standardized set of kitchen cabinets, aside from the lower cost, is the lack of lag time between purchase and installation. In addition to the speed of delivery, there is also simplification with regard to the decision-making process. Since stock cabinets do not offer any custom choices, the homeowner does not have to agonize over minor modifications in terms of doors styles or cabinet configurations. For those who wish to maximally streamline the remodeling process, this can be a benefit.
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The next step up from stock cabinets is semi-custom cabinets. As the name suggests, semi-custom cabinets allow for a certain level of customization, but the extent to which individual elements may be altered varies widely by manufacturer. Semi-custom cabinets are still factory-assembled, but, unlike stock cabinets, they are not turned out until the order is actually placed. In turn, this allows for individual elements to be customized to specifications.

Typically, semi-custom cabinets allow customization with respect to the depth of the cabinets, the decorative additions such as moldings, the materials and finishes for the doors, and the interior cabinet fittings such as pullout shelves or lazy susans. In addition, semi-custom cabinets are usually constructed to higher standards of quality than stock cabinets. In many instances, it may be difficult to tell the difference between semi-custom and fully custom cabinets.

However, the ability to make certain customizations along with the typically higher quality for semi-custom cabinets come with a price. The expense associated with semi-custom cabinets is about three times higher than the expense associated with stock cabinets. The budgetary difference between a $5,000 stock cabinet set and a $15,000 semi-custom cabinet set is significant and requires careful consideration.

Because semi-custom cabinets are not actually manufactured until after the order has been placed, there is usually a wait of several weeks for delivery. However, for most home construction and renovation projects, this does not seriously interfere with the overall timeline. Still, the wait is something which should be built into the schedule, particularly if other elements such as countertops are dependent upon the new cabinets being installed first.
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The highest available level with respect to kitchen cabinets is represented by custom cabinets. These are cabinets which are made precisely to specifications, allowing you complete control over every aspect of the cabinets, including materials, dimensions, door designs, interior fittings, finishes, and any other details, all the way down to hinge and slide selections.

A set of custom cabinets can either be made at the shop of a local cabinet maker, or at the factory of a major cabinet manufacturer. The benefit of using major manufacturers is that they can often offer 3-D computer models of how the finished product will look, they have access to commercial grade tooling, they have established quality control processes, and they provide a baked on factory finish which is going to stand up to wear and tear much better than most shop finishes. On the other hand, the benefit of local cabinet makers is that they can provide a better price, they can offer a more personalized service, they can allow you to make additional changes along the way, and they can do a better job of matching existing stylistic elements.

Custom cabinets are by far the most expensive option when it comes to kitchen cabinets. They also require the greatest amount of lead time, taking anywhere from several weeks to several months to construct. Local cabinet makers can have several orders in queue, in which case your custom order may have to wait for other orders to be completed and take an even longer amount of time to be delivered. In cases where exotic or special materials are used, it may take time for the materials to be ordered and shipped, which can also add weeks to the projected timeline.

If you decide to go with custom cabinets, you should take the time to understand various aspects of cabinet construction. To start, take a look at our cabinet construction section here. Remember that when ordering custom cabinets, there is an opportunity to specify not only materials and doors designs, but also such smaller features as joints, slides, and hinges. Given the expense of going the custom route, you may as well make sure that all of the details are done to the highest possible standards. By discussing every element of the cabinet construction in advance, you can avoid having sub-par materials or construction methods being used.
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