Having decided I wouldn't build the cabinets from scratch, I began to research my options. I never considered a custom cabinet shop, primarily for cost reasons but also because we don't need or want a custom design. That left three categories of options: ready to install, ready to assemble and semi-custom.
I looked at ready to install cabinets but was put off by the low quality and bland nature of what I saw, and the prices weren't great either. Many are stapled together particleboard but some are higher quality. A second category is ready to assemble cabinets, basically pre-cut and often easily assembled with specialized fastening systems. European style cabinets in particular yield themselves to this approach because of the standard dimensions and use of holes spaced 32 mm apart for everything from box assembly to hinges and drawer slides. You build a series of standard boxes and then put them together before adding shelves, drawers and carousels of your choosing. There was a good article about ready to assemble cabinets in Fine Homebuilding that made this option appealing to me. Finally, I discovered that architects are using a "semi-custom" approach in which standard ready to assemble boxes, drawers, etc. are combined with custom drawer fronts and doors to yield a custom look at reasonable cost. There are other variants of semi-custom cabinets, but this is the one that was attractive to me.
I have previously written about being influenced by a speech about design by John Economaki of Bridge City Tools here in Portland. At one point, he said we should go to Ikea to study furniture design and, when he was met with guffaws, brought us all up short, saying that Ikea offers world-class design executed cheaply. I did just that and found that he is absolutely right. Not surprisingly, then, I decided to go to Ikea and look at their kitchen designs. They had about a dozen model kitchens on display and many of them were extremely appealing to us. The melamine boxes and painted fronts are particle board but they also have several styles of fronts in solid wood. They use Blum hardware and the online reviews were very positive. I don't like particleboard, but I decided to hold my nose and go with it.
One of the things that attracted me to this option as a hand tool woodworker is that you can buy everything from Ikea except the doors and drawer fronts and then make your own. I almost went this way but instead decided to buy painted fronts we particularly like for now, with the thought that I will replace them with ones I make myself from white oak in a craftsman style. This is a great option, in my opinion, basically what architects are doing except making the fronts yourself. I think this is the right way to go and, if I knew then what I know now, this is what I would have done. You can't begin to buy the jigs, material, finishes and hardware to make your own boxes for the prices Ikea charges and you have the freedom to add very high quality woodworking to them where it matters most. They have so many choices of styles and configurations that little is lost. The only downside I see is that your boxes are melamine, a significant disadvantage but one I decided I can live with.
I read online that woodworkers who go the semi-custom route typically buy one inexpensive door and drawer from Ikea in each of the sizes in their design to use as templates for making their own. That way theyi can have everything made before they begin demolition of their existing kitchen and be back in business quickly. I wish I had done this.
In the next post, I'll tell you about my experience building the Ikea cabinets, which, among other things, will help you understand why I think the semi-custom option is best.