The Surprising Truth About IKEA vs. Custom Cabinets

Here’s a primer on kitchen cabinets, from custom designs to stock options

Cabinet construction may well end up being the single biggest expense of your entire renovation, and the results are the most obvious visual proof of your investment, so this can feel like a heavy decision. The challenge (and opportunity) is that your choices are endless, but if you focus on a few key factors, you can find the right cabinets for your kitchen renovation.

IKEA cabinets in Laura and Matthew’s kitchen renovation.

While it’s tempting to assume that your budget is the only consideration and while it’s true that custom cabinets can be (much, much) more expensive than stock cabinets, they don’t have to be. Even the cheapest kitchen is an enormous investment, so if budget isn’t necessarily the deciding factor, how should you decide and how can you keep your budget from dictating your choices? First, a few definitions.

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Should you go with custom or pre-fabricated cabinets?

Stock cabinets

IKEA is widely considered the go-to for stock cabinets. Unlike almost anyone else, they mass-produce a system of set sizes, colors, finishes, and features that you pick and choose. The pieces of your order are pulled from stock supplies and shipped to your home, where you need to handle both the assembly and installation. IKEA keeps its costs low because they are sending your order to you in pieces and because the materials they use are very inexpensive.

Pre-fabricated cabinets

Home DepotLowe’s, and other big-box national retailers are distributors of independent lines of cabinets. They offer a semi-custom option: like IKEA, you pick and choose from set sizes, colors, finishes, and features (though national retailers tend to have more options overall). Unlike IKEA, your order is then manufactured and assembled for you so that your cabinets arrive ready for installation. Because you have more choice in materials and construction, the range of prices varies more here. You will probably pay more upfront for higher-quality materials, but you may spend less on labor because the cabinets are assembled before they get to you for installation.

Custom cabinets

Custom cabinets are designed and constructed by hand based on your individual design. You define the sizes, materials, finishes, and features and your order is hand-crafted and delivered for installation. Because your choices for materials and construction are endless, the range of material and labor costs is very wide. The costs here are generally distributed between your choice of material and style, labor, and a more personalized design and customer service approach.

High-end, built-to-order cabinet systems

A small group of cabinet companies also offer cabinetry systems that are extremely high-end (Bulthaup and Henrybuilt are examples). These companies are known for beautiful and durable cabinet construction and best-in-industry warranties, but the bare minimum for even a small kitchen can easily exceed $20,000, so unlike other categories of cabinet construction, this option is only available if the starting point for your budget allows you to consider it.

Custom cabinets by Henrybuilt in Kavi and David’s kitchen.

Custom cabinets might be less expensive than you think if your kitchen has limited space, lots of space, or an unusual layout.

In a tight kitchen, stock and pre-fabricated cabinets in standard sizes might not be worth the initial material savings because you will need more inventive labor to fit everything in.

In a large kitchen, extra depth or high ceilings give you an opportunity for additional storage and functionality. Non-standard cabinet heights and depths can bring value to your renovation and re-sale value. Multiple corners, awkward niches, and unusual footprints can be tough to outfit. Stock and pre-fab cabinets in standard sizes may force you to spend money on filler materials, wasted space, and labor for semi-custom adjustments.

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“If you have a kitchen with corners or small spaces or an awkward layout, you may not actually save money on the total because you end up paying for filler materials and extra work to pull everything together.” – Sweeten contractors

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Custom cabinets in Eric’s kitchen designed and built by his Sweeten contractor.

Custom cabinets might be worth extra money if you plan to stay for years, have kids or a high-traffic kitchen, or want personalized support.

Semi-custom and custom cabinets offer higher quality materials in sturdier thicknesses that last longer. Particle board and MDF, two common materials for stock cabinets, are susceptible to water and have a shorter life span than plywood and wood. 1/2” particle board will not last as long as 3/4” or 1” furniture-grade plywood cabinet bases, and solid wood doors and drawers will endure tougher handling over the years.

Custom cabinets also typically use sturdier construction and joinery methods. Custom cabinetmakers will often use dovetail joints that interlock pieces of wood to distribute weight and stress more evenly, whereas stock nut, bolt, and nail methods isolate wear on a few points. They also offer options for tougher hardware elements like hinges and drawer sliders. In addition, custom cabinet makers generally provide a higher level of design support and customer assistance. They will do site visits, re-designs, and get a real person on the phone with you when you need it.

You might be absolutely fine to handle the ordering and delivery of a stock system, but if you hit a roadblock, custom cabinet companies expect to support you and respond personally.

“Once you order the IKEA materials and you pay for assembly and installation, you’re not far off from a custom option that would last longer and provide more options – for a few extra thousand dollars, you may actually get a much better deal. Each time you take one of these steps up in material quality and thickness, you have a corresponding price and life span increase.” – Sweeten Expert Alan

IKEA cabinets with custom doors by Semihandmade in Becky and Sarah’s kitchen.

Cost aside, pre-fabricated cabinets might work best for you if your renovation timeline is speedy or you feel overwhelmed by choice.

Custom cabinets have lengthier lead times. If you’re gearing up for a renovation in the next two months, you can get your hands on pre-fab cabinets in-store on a same-day basis, or delivered within two or three weeks. And, a perceived weakness of pre-fabricated cabinets is actually a real strength: for many homeowners, unlimited choice is not necessarily desirable. Many homeowners go with custom cabinets because they think they want options and then end up feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed. Pre-fabricated cabinets offer a pick-and-choose experience that requires less homework and decision fatigue.

“Many clients ask us what styles we offer and it can be hard to explain that it can be anything they imagine. Shops like ours provide personalized design as part of the overall service to build features for individual clients.” – Sweeten Experts Paulina and Albert

Still having trouble deciding? Go for a hybrid!

Combining a pre-fab kitchen with custom pieces can lower your cost without compromising on quality.

“Combining a pre-fab kitchen with custom pieces allows for lower cost and uniqueness. Companies like Semihandmade and Kokeena make door and drawer faces for stock cabinets so you’re not limited to IKEA’s palette. In addition, there are endless options for shelving, countertops, and cabinet pulls allowing for individuality while using inexpensive pre-fab cabinets.” – Sweeten Experts Lauren and Adam

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Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.

How to customize kitchen cabinets

The most common ways to customize kitchen cabinets include changing out the knobs and drawer pulls, repainting or restaining the cabinets, and replacing the cabinet door with a different style of panel, like Shaker, glass, or flat-front. For more modern kitchens, a matte-finish knob or pull is an easy way to customize cabinets. Repainting with a calming neutral or a bold jewel tone can refresh a kitchen without requiring demolition.

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