Defining "Custom Cabinets"

      What is a "custom" cabinet, and what do terms like "semi-custom" and "stock cabinet" mean? Pros discuss the dividing line between craftsmanship and mass production. December 28, 2005

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?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
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.

From contributor B:
Like contributor A, I think custom means built to suit. A lot of people confuse the definition of custom to mean fancy.

From contributor C:
When a customer asks me this question (usually in response to how high my prices are) I hand them a pre-printed index card with this on it:

"Custom" means "built to project-specific dimensions, standards and specifications". All of our work would be an example of "custom" cabinetry.
"Semi-custom" means "customer selected products from a standardized library of cabinets with a wide variety of styles, quality standards and specifications". Home Depot kitchen design centers are an example of "semi-custom" cabinetry.
"Stock" means "one size fits all, what you see is what you get". The storage cabinets available at Orchard Supply Hardware are an example of "stock" cabinets.

This has always worked, and it clearly demonstrates the difference between us and the big-box designers.

From contributor D:
I would concur. Custom means you are designing and building to suit a specific situation/space for a specific client in a specific home or office. I've had previous clients ask me to build a cabinet “just like you did for so and so but 2" wider”. That's not hard. Why does it cost so much?' It may look the same but I guarantee that their tastes aren't the same nor are the walls as square or the dimensions the same, or the house as easy to get into. That's custom.

From contributor B:
I disagree with the notion that there is a semi custom category for cabinetry. It either is or it isn’t. Home Depot type outfits have a wide variety of designs, specs and quality standards but those are applied as the opposite of custom cabinetry which is "modular cabinetry". Home Depot is unable to give you any size of cabinet that deviates from the sizes they offer as stock in that particular cabinet line. I would call this modular cabinetry with a lot of options and choices and leave the word custom out of it. I know this distinction may seem picky to some but I think it hurts custom makers if the public gets the idea that that Home Depot, Lowes and home improvement centers offer a product that is basically the same as what a true custom shop would supply. I would go as far as to say that a maker could offer a custom installation of modular case goods by being creative in the way he arranges the modular stuff.

From contributor C:
I totally agree with contributor B's distinction between semi-custom versus modular, but my customers don't respond as well to that terminology. They can more easily understand that the custom part of semi-custom means they get to mix and match and reconfigure modular cabinets, thereby customizing the style and layout for their project, but not the quality or specifications.

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.

From contributor E:
There are 3 grades of cabinets. It does not matter whether they are residential or commercial. These are custom, semi-custom, and economy. If you are in the custom cabinet business, you are making cabinets to someone’s specifications. You could throw premium in front of custom, to make it sound more valuable. Whatever they want, they get. Size, box material, door and drawers, hardware, finish, etc.. There no practical limits to the customers wants and needs.

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.

From the original questioner:
I appreciate all your comments and I agree with most everyone but I don't believe you have answered the second half of my question. The problem I have is that I have had two customers come into my showroom and order $60,000 worth of cabinets for a $3,000,000 house and $25,000 for a $1,500,000 house. Each of these customers had expected something different then what they received. The first one wanted 3/4" backs and I could have made these but unless someone specifies this we use 1/4" backs. The other customer said that "custom cabinets" have to come in large sections or runs (for example in a kitchen). Again, I could have done this but unless the customer specifies we do are cabinets a certain way. Has anyone else had this problem? I have a showroom and if the customer looks at our displays they can see our standard construction method, so why are they coming to me later and telling me they expect something I don't use as a standard?

From contributor B:
Just sounds to me like you need to spend more time with the customer before you present the contracts. When it is a couple I am dealing with, I determine which one really cares and concentrate on that person when discussing the details of the job. I make it clear that as a custom maker I am set on providing exactly what she or he is looking for in a set of goods and that will usually open the door of communication and allows me to uncover any preconceived notions of what their end product should be. I also usually ask if there is anything they dislike about cabinets they have seen or owned. After ironing out all of the details I go through the bid process.

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.

From contributor F:
It seems to me that the term “custom” is a prestige term that many manufacturers of semi-custom and modular cabinets have latched on to, to position their brand and product. Perhaps they are using the term custom to mean “built to order”, in which case I thoroughly enjoyed my custom Jack-in-the-Box lunch today.

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.

From contributor F:
Maybe you should look into AWI's Quality Standards. It cost me $10 with shipping included. They have 3 grades of cabinets, Premium, Custom, and Economy. It gives such details as how the carcass is to be joined, how drawers are to be made, what blemishes are acceptable for each grade. And it gives some very helpful information, like who makes the decision when something is not specified (the "factory" being you).

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.

From contributor E:
When following the AWI guidelines, there are 3 quality levels of woodwork, not to be confused with cabinetmaking - premium, standard, and paint grade. Examples of these are: Casing for an arch entry door - premium would be fine hardwood, laminated strip curve, no knots. Standard grade would be a segmented curve, fine hardwood, no knots. And paint grade would any material, any method, as long as it painted up well.

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.

From contributor D:
I would recommend that every person building anything in wood call AWI today and order Quality Standards. It's $100 for non-members but is worth four times that. It goes into detailed descriptions of what quality certain items are to be when they are specified at a certain level or grade as they call them - Premium, Custom and Economy. Architects use this manual all the time to spec cabinets and architectural millwork, thereby eliminating the possibility of confusion about what is expected.

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.

From contributor H:
Custom cabinets - we build whatever you want - construction, finish, style, etc.

"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.

From contributor I:
To contributor D: Are AWI standards spec'd just in the US, or are they more global - in particular, Canada?

From contributor G:
As a non-member, I got AWI Quality Standards, 8th Edition for $10 at AWFS. That included shipping. What a great deal!

From contributor D:
To contributor I: From what I gather in the current edition, Quality Standards is released by AWI (Architectural Millwork Institute) in conjunction with AWMAC - Architectural Woodwork Manufacturers Assoc. of Canada. So I would say yes, it would apply.

Direct from Quality Standards:
Premium grade - The Grade specified when the highest degree of control over quality in the execution of the design intent, and providing the highest level of quality in materials, workmanship and installation. Usually reserved for special projects or feature areas within a project.

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.

From contributor J:
"If it's made out of wood, I can build it". That's custom.

From contributor K:
If Lowes and Home Depot have semi-custom cabinets does this mean that someone can get a cabinet from them or Woodmode or Kraftmaid that's 37" tall by 27-11/16" wide by 14-1/2" deep? I kind of doubt it. Don't they come in 12, 18, 24, 36"etc.widths with standard depths and heights? That sounds modular to me. But when it comes to finishes, they've got the options there. There are hundreds of choices and they're adding more every day.

From contributor G:
To contributor K: Semi-custom includes options. You can choose colors, door styles, etc. Stock would be those that only offer 1 style, i.e. - white with flat panel doors. And yes, the big companies are becoming more flexible and offering more options. That is why we have to differentiate between custom and semi-custom if we want to stay in business.

From contributor K:
Even though there are options for door styles the doors still come in certain sizes to fit cabinets that come in certain sizes. They are interchangeable, or modular. If you can't make 4 cabinets fill a wall completely, and you are left with 6", then fillers are used. You can't make each cabinet 1.5" wider, or two 3" wider etc. You work with what they have. They don't work with what you have.

From contributor H:
Lowes and Home Depot sell both "stock" and "semi-custom". I'm certainly not suggesting they are the place to go for cabinets, but you can order specific sized cabinets in semi-custom lines. I had a real eye opener at KBIS in Vegas this year. I had the same misconception that "pre-made" cabinets were very limited in sizes and poor quality. We saw just the opposite, in quite a few cases.

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.

From contributor K:
To contributor H: That is some interesting info. What brand(s) are doing that?

From contributor L:
It makes you wonder, if we can't even define it amongst ourselves, what are the chances of a typical customer being able to do it?

From contributor M:
Interesting – I did not see any response to the question about real cabinet makers nailing the face?

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

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.

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