It is good to be aware that the terms “custom” or “semi-custom” denote the availability of options, not the level of quality. There are high quality semi-custom lines and poor quality custom shops. Here are some ideas on what to look for in determining cost and quality level. Faceframes:
Material: Are they ¾” solid wood frames? Does the wood grain and color match across the fronts?
Fastening: Are there pin nails showing or is the fastening invisible?
Inset door frames: Are the frames square with consistent margins around the doors? Any gaps or binding? What do the doors close against? A more elegant solution to bulky blocks or pins to stop the doors is to raise the cabinet box bottom slightly to provide an even door stop.
Box material: From low cost to higher would be hardboard, particle board, melamine, then plywood. Each of these materials come in grade levels as well. Melamine is graded from 100 to 180 depending on the thickness of the coating. A thicker grade will wear better.
Thickness: Thicker is generally more durable than thinner. Check if the box has a full back and top. Some only have hang strips in the back. Sides can range from 3/8” to ¾”.
Shelves: Thicker is better to avoid sagging. Longer shelves should have center support or a solid wood edge for rigidity. Are the base cabinet box shelves full depth or held short giving you less storage? Are the shelves easily adjustable to accommodate the items you need to store? Are the brackets holding the shelves unobtrusive or large metal standards that detract from the appearance and protrude into the space?
Joint Construction: Drawer boxes work hard and take more of a beating than some other cabinet components. Dovetails joints are the most durable provided they are tight. Other common methods are screwed or doweled.
Material: Solid wood combined with good joinery provides the strongest drawer box. Ask, if you can’t tell if it is solid wood or plywood. Also check the type of wood as hard maple is more durable than soft maple or birch. Melamine is a lower cost alternative, but has the feature of easy cleaning and if built well can also be a very durable drawer.
Bottom: Thicker bottoms are better than thinner as it holds the weight of the contents. Check if the bottom of the drawer is butt jointed or has a dado to make it more secure. Stapling or gluing drawer bottoms without a dado is much less durable.
Depth: Are the drawers full depth? Some manufacturers make drawers only ¾ the depth of the box. This causes you to lose a lot of valuable storage space.
Slides: Steel ball bearings and metal attachment fittings are more durable than plastic or nylon. Slides are rated for load. Ask the load rating and make sure larger drawers, pullout trash units and rollouts for heavy pots and pans are heavy duty. They can range from 75 to 150 lbs.
Mounting: Undermount slides allow for a cleaner look than ones mounted on the side. Check how easy it is to remove and replace the drawer for cleaning.
Extension: Does the drawer pull all the way out allowing maximum access? Slides can be ¾ , full extension or over travel.
Soft close: This is s convenient feature which causes the drawer to close itself once it is pushed past a certain point. This avoids slamming or hanging open.
Door construction: Look for tight joints in paneled doors as well as no sign of warping or twisting. Check the thickness of the center panel. Mitered versus butt joints are a visual choice rather than a quality one.
Materials: There is an enormous variety of woods available for cabinetry. This is another topic in itself. The wood species generally affects price more than quality. Just beware of thinking that “solid wood” is always better as it is not. Wood can warp, expand and contract making it unsuitable for some applications.
Wood Color and Grain: Wood is a natural product which comes in a variety of colors and grain patterns within each species. Lumber that is hand selected for consistent color and grain raises the cost of cabinetry, but provides a look that randomly selected ”factory” doors just can’t match. Veneers can also be laid out so that the grain pattern flows from one door and drawer to another as opposed to having mismatched graining on each piece. Hand selection will not eliminate all variation, as wood is not like plastic, but done properly it can create a much more elegant look.
Finish: Aside from visual considerations, finishes vary considerably in durability. Look for industrial coating grade finishes with catalyzed hardeners and UV protectors for the best durability and color protection. This is true for both clear and “painted” finishes. Conversion varnishes are a step up from a catalyzed lacquer. The surface should be smooth without bubbles, runs, or other visual defects. Special processes like glazing and distressing can vary widely depending on the skill of the finishers.
Hinges: The most popular are hidden “soft close” hinges. This mechanism stops the door from slamming, but also keeps the door closed all the way so it doesn’t hang open. Exposed hinges are seldom used in quality cabinetry except when an authentic vintage look is desired.