Types of Cabinets: Stock vs. Semi-custom vs. Custom cabinets

What’s the difference between stock, semi-custom, and custom cabinets?

This is one of the first questions you’ll have as you begin your kitchen cabinet search. And it’s a really good question. By understanding the three basic cabinet construction methods: stock cabinets, semi-custom cabinets, and custom cabinets, you’ll have a solid foundation as you start your journey.

Once you know how cabinet manufacturers build and sell their cabinets, you’ll be much better equipped to decide which type works best for your situation.

The differences are based on choice of style, finish, and design, and not on price or quality.

In this article I’ll help define and describe what each method is, as well as the pros and cons to each.

Stock Cabinets

Stock cabinets are built in a large production factory, boxed up (typically unassembled), and then stocked in a warehouse. The cabinet box widths start at 9” wide and run up to 48” using 3” increments (ie. 9”, 12”, 15”, 18”, etc.). The base heights are the standard 34 ½” tall and the uppers go from 30” to 42” tall using 3” increments.

Each company will have a catalog with all of their cabinet sizes for you to pick from. And since the cabinets are pre-built, you are unable to modify the width, height, or depth to any cabinet. If you need two cabinets to fill a 64” wall-to-wall space and you wanted symmetry, you’d order two 30” cabinets and use 2” fillers on each side.

There will be many door styles and finishes to choose from, but since the cabinets are pre-fabricated, you won’t be able to mix and match the door style and finish. What you see is what you get. And stock doesn’t mean that the cabinets are physically “in stock” at the cabinet store. These cabinets still must be ordered and there is a short lead time.

As far as quality goes, it really depends on the company. As with any product mass produced, quality and craftsmanship are in general less than desired. I’ve seen some good ones, but wouldn’t recommend many. We do carry one stock line, JSI Cabinetry; and it’s the best one we’ve found.

In general, stock cabinets are going to be your least expensive option.

 Stock cabinets come in 3" increments and fillers are required.

Stock cabinets come in 3" increments and fillers are required.

Semi-Custom Cabinets

Semi-custom cabinets offer you many more options. Unlike stock cabinets, you are able to modify width, height, and depths of the cabinet boxes to some degree – typically in 1” – 1 ½” increments. More wood species finishes, and door styles are available to you.

You’ll still have a catalog to sort and pick through, but there a lot more features. But working with 1 ½” vs. 3” increments allows the kitchen designer much more flexibility in design. The benefits of semi-custom cabinets over stock are the better design and sizing options.

Semi-custom are the most common types of cabinets being sold out of cabinet shops. Most of the display vignettes set up at the big box stores are semi-custom cabinets from various manufacturers. Some are American made and some are imported from other countries. And quality varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some use all wood with 5 piece hardwood doors/drawers with 3/4” sides; while others use particle board with MDF doors/drawers and 1/2” sides. It just depends.

Now the downside to customizing and accessorizing a semi-custom cabinet are all of the upcharges. Every time you reduce or increase the cabinet size, it costs. Do that enough times and you’re looking at a hefty price tag. We’ve have quite a few customers tell us that our price for custom cabinets was much cheaper than semi-custom.

We do carry one line of semi-custom cabinets, Bellmont Cabinet Company. There are frameless, made to order, and are built in America. We feel they complement our custom line nicely.

Custom Cabinets

With custom cabinets, anything is possible. You want a cabinet 38 3/16” tall x 14 7/8” wide x 15 ¼ deep with a banana yellow high gloss finish?...no problem. Sizes, finishes, and styles are unlimited. Each cabinet is built from scratch which allows you complete freedom in the design.

Custom cabinets are for the most part, built by local cabinet shops. Many are one or two man shops and others are larger facilities (like ours) capable of producing in mass.

Each kitchen built is one-of-a-kind and handcrafted. Finishes are applied by hand and custom components are built by master craftsman. The materials used are generally superior to stock or semi-custom cabinets. For instance, we use ¾” domestic plywood for our boxes. Compare that to many semi-custom cabinets which use 5/8” China birch plywood. Big difference. We also use Grass (Austrian built) drawer guides and hinges. Most of the semi-custom brands use a China made knock-off.

There are quite a few advantages to working with a cabinet maker. I won’t list them all, but here are a few:

 Not stock or semi-custom....this is custom :-)

Not stock or semi-custom....this is custom :-)

  • There’s no wasted space because fillers are not used to fill space. And custom cabinet makers can build odd shaped cabinets to fill an odd shape.

  • You will typically work directly with the designer and builder of your cabinetry.

  • Bu working with a local custom shop, you and the shop are in control of the entire manufacturing process and schedule. Your project will stay on time.

  • If there happens to be a misstep, where a cabinet was built incorrectly, or a door was damaged during installation, or you need more crown molding; most shops can have it back to the job site the next day. Otherwise, if you have to order it, you may be waiting 3-5 weeks for a new part.

  • Factory direct pricing. No middlemen.

Lead times for custom cabinets are generally 6-12 weeks depending on the shop.

The only knock on custom cabinets that I hear is: price. Custom cabinet pricing is all over the board. And it's true, one shop might quote $15,000 and the one down the road is $32,000. We see it all the time. But keep in mind, most times what you believe is “custom” is actually “semi-custom”. By the time the semi-custom shop add up all your customizations to a cabinet line, their price is way too high compared to an actual local cabinet maker.

After 30 years of experience, we find that a moderately modified semi-custom cabinet will be similarly priced to many local custom cabinet shops.

Conclusion

One is not better than other. Depending on your situation, need, and budget one may win out over the other. Here’s a snapshot of the three types of cabinet construction:

Stock: Pre-manufactured in mass quantity. No customization and cabinets come in 3” increments. Limited selection, but quick delivery.

Semi-Custom: Similar to stock, but with detailing options and the ability to re-size by 1” increments. If you find a style and finish you like, and minimal modifications are made, semi-custom might be right.

Custom: Built to your exact specifications. Design, style, wood species, and finish options are virtually unlimited.

There you have it: the three basic types of cabinet construction. Hopefully that was helpful as you embark on your journey to into the world of cabinets. Good luck.