The Complete Guide to Kitchen Cabinets Part 1

Johanna Macalalag

Johanna Macalalag

May 16, 2019

The cabinetry world is deep and wide, there are hundreds of manufacturers, materials and design options when it comes to kitchens.

Being a designer once myself, cabinetry was the hardest thing to learn, but also the most fun to design. Kitchens are meant to be functional above everything, to intuitively help you make big meals for your family, or bake for a bake sale. Kitchens are the heart of the home, and for that reason, should be given the attention they deserve during your next remodel.

Maybe you're sitting here thinking, "how tall are kitchen cabinets?" or "what are kitchen cabinets made of?" which are both very reasonable questions! Hopefully, we can answer a lot of them for you here. To begin, let's see what types of cabinets exist!

Types of Cabinets

Base cabinets come at a height of 34.5" without countertops, and 36" once you add tops (which you will for sure need to do). Standard cabinets come 24" deep; leaving you plenty of room to store all of the nifty kitchen gadgets you have to make zoodles. After you add your countertop, you'll be left with about 25" total width. It's important to note that you are required to have 36" in front of any cabinet before you can place another so that you have sufficient walking room. Base cabinet width starts from 9" and raises in increments of 3" with the smallest being 9" or 12" up to 48" wide in some cases. All base cabinets have a recess that is 4" tall called the "toe-kick" at the bottom, which sounds exactly like what it's there for. It helps you scoot your feet right up to whatever you're cooking up or writing down.

Between the Base and Wall Cabinets, you would usually leave 12-18" so you're not bumping your head while you're working. This space also leaves you room to install a creative personal element to your kitchen, the backsplash.

Wall/Upper Cabinets are generally 12 inches deep and comes in heights from 12" to 42" depending on what they're being used for and where they are going. For example, above the fridge or microwave, you'll need to have significantly shorter cabinets than normal. Most people are opting for the 42" cabinet height to elongate their space and make it look bigger, along with giving them added storage. Most kitchens from the '70s have 36" tall cabinets with a soffit above them, thank goodness we're moving past that phase though! Note that the 42" cabinet is only an option if you have a minimum of 8' ceiling.

Tall/Utility Cabinets are typically 84" 90" or 96" high and can be used for a variety of purposes. These cabinets are used next to fridges to frame them in or for beautiful pantry storage. Whatever the use, they come in a variety of widths and can be very customizable in terms of shelving pull-out options and handy tools to store your spices and pasta, maybe even a misbehaving child! (I'm kidding).

Specialty units are made because everyone's kitchen is different and we all like and use different tools and strategies in the kitchen. Specialty units always blow my mind, these include corner cabinets like the lazy Susan, sink/cooktop cabinets where you can put your cooktops or beautiful deep farmhouse sinks. There are cabinets to hold your wine, your wine glasses, spatulas, cooking boards, spices, knives, you name it; there are plenty of specialty cabinet options. There are no standard dimensions on these, other than whatever applies from above, and always varies by manufacturer.

The next thing that is good to know and understand is all of the different types of materials that cabinetry comes in, look no further, here are the options:


Oak/Ash will give you a very rustic look and is inexpensive as well. This type of wood has very visible grain patterns that might be less noticeable with a darker stain. When put in the right space (a cabin) it can be the perfect fit.

Maple is the most "in-trend" species at the moment, and for a good reason, it is cost-effective and paints or stains very well. Less grain shows through on this species, along with the fact that it is very versatile in style and durable too.

Cherry is more traditional looking and can be a little more expensive. Cherry stains well which gives it a variety of options for color. It has warmer, red tones and tends to darken with age. Less grain shows through on this species, along with the fact that it is very versatile in style and durable too.

Character Maple or Hickory these wood species are the most expensive options and have a very specific style. The "character" part means they have wormholes or other knots and unique marks. They are extremely durable and have a strong grain. These could fit in a variety of different applications and have a gorgeous finished look.

Medium-density fiberboard (MDF)

This very affordable "wood" can only be painted, hence the low cost. MDF is a mix of thin wood fiber, resin and wax formed together in large panels and is better than plywood for a number of reasons. For your money, it’s an excellent option and looks great in almost all kitchens. The MDF holds up better to moisture and warping, but not as scratch proof (or repairable) as solid wood is. In most cases, it is impossible to tell the difference once painted.

Laminate this is a very low cost and versatile option and you have seen this type of cabinetry in every doctors or veterinary office across the nation. Technology has really brought this product up in quality and style, however; and can be a very viable option for your remodel. I'm sure you have heard rumors of this type of cabinetry "melting" and although it's not common, it's something to consider. Make sure you check the specifications for the type you're considering and buy a heat barrier for next to your oven. That aside, it can look incredible in any kitchen if the design is right!

Thermofoil/Duraform Very cost effective but typically only available in white or linen. This material is a thick vinyl film wrap, glued to medium density fiberboard (MDF) which allows cabinet doors and drawer fronts to exhibit the same styling and detail found in solid wood doors. It cannot withstand excessive heat but looks great in the right application and is durable for the price. Duraform is the thermofoils older sister, who is heat-resistant and comes with a few more customization options.

Stay tuned for next week where we go over the other two important parts of kitchen cabinetry, frame and door styles! We would love to work with you to customize your kitchen as well, and let one of our experts do all of the hard thinking so you don't have to! Give us a call today, 512-542-9790 or sign up for a free consultation today!

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