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More than Just a Pretty Kitchen
By: Katherine Salant
July 08, 2003

Every time I attend the annual Kitchen and Bath Industry Show, I come away with a different impression. This year it was how much we Americans celebrate freedom of choice, especially when it comes to consumer goods. But, I also observed, this enormous cornucopia can have its downside.

When the choice is A, B or C, weighing the pros and cons and making a reasoned decision is easy. When it's A to Z and sometimes two or three times over—as you will find when you start selecting cabinets and countertops for the kitchen in your new house—all those possibilities become overwhelming.

For example, at the trade show, Kraftmaid, a semi-custom, mid-grade cabinet line that is the nation's top seller, displayed 85 different door styles made with six species of wood and available in 32 glazes and finishes. With that many choices, how can you make a "reasoned decision" in selecting one?

With cabinetry, the most sensible place to start, and one that can, in fact, lead to a "reasoned decision," is the cabinet box behind the doors. In the long run, function and durability will matter more than the look.

The sides and back of Kraftmaid's standard cabinet box are made of particle board covered with Viraguard, Kraftmaid's trademarked melamine paper that is treated to be water resistant and can easily be wiped clean. Kraftmaid's upgrade cabinet box (and that of many other semi-custom cabinet lines) is made of plywood; the upcharge is 15 percent. Should you consider it?

Plywood is not necessarily stronger or better, though many consumers think so. For just this reason, many high-end custom cabinets makers make all plywood cabinet boxes, but some do use particleboard. As with many things, the quality depends on the grade of particleboard used. After the Kitchen and Bath Show, I consulted with Ypsilanti, Mich., certified kitchen designer Andy Dankert, who has sold cabinets at all price points, and who now sells Kraftmaid among other brands. Dankert said that in his experience the particleboard used in cabinets has vastly improved and the particleboard now used in semi-custom and custom cabinets is comparable to plywood.

The only instance where Dankert would recommend a plywood component for a semi-custom cabinet box is when it is at the end of a row and the side is exposed, as, for example, by a doorway. For a 9 percent upcharge, Kraftmaid offers a plywood end piece with a veneer that matches the wood of the cabinet doors (other cabinet manufacturers also offer this).

Moving on to function, Kraftmaid and most other cabinet manufacturers offer rollout trays instead of fixed shelves for the base cabinets. I would absolutely get these; otherwise, you have to remove everything in the front of each shelf to reach items at the back. With Kraftmaid, the upcharge for the rollouts depends on whether they have 2-1/2-inch sides, 4-inch sides (so fewer things fall overboard), or 4-inch ones with 8-inch backs so things won't fall out in the back where it's hard to retrieve them (a gripe I have with my own low-sided rollouts).

The last things to check are the drawers. For any cabinet, these absorb the most wear and tear. Wood drawers with dovetail joints, which are standard with Kraftmaid, are stronger than the particleboard drawers with stapled joints that are standard on lower-priced stock cabinets. You also need to check the drawer glides. With most custom and semi-custom cabinet lines, including Kraftmaid, the standard glide is an undermounted type, which increases the width and storage capacity of each drawer by about an inch. To this, Kraftmaid has added a useful, life-lengthening drawer closer, which grabs and prevents the drawer from being slammed shut.

Kraftmaid's other standard drawer glide is a full-extension type, which makes it easier to retrieve items at the back of a drawer. This type is most useful on larger drawers where heavy items such as pots and pans are kept.

After factoring in the cost of all the functional upgrades to your overall budget, you're ready to zero in on the doors and door prices, which can range widely. For a Kraftmaid 24-inch base cabinet with one drawer, for example, the difference in cost between the least expensive white thermofoil (a vinyl finish) door with a raised panel and a solid cherry one with a raised panel is $365.

The functional upgrades may narrow your choices. The degree depends on the cabinet line; Kraftmaid offers many doors and finishes at each of its 19 price points. After a thorough appraisal of the possibilities—the moss-greens; gray-blues; garnet reds that are the latest trends; a distressed look that makes a cabinet look 100 years old; the light stains; the dark stains; and the wood grains—you may find yourself returning to your initial preference: a light wood look that will make your new kitchen seem larger—the maple or the oak raised panel doors that are Kraftmaid's perennial best sellers.

One note of caution here: with a semi-custom cabinet such as Kraftmaid, the grain patterns visible on the doors will not match perfectly. To get a book-matching grain where one door mirrors the grain on the other door, you have to go to a more expensive custom cabinetmaker. You can, however, tone down the grain with a light stain or a glaze.

I also spent time at the Kitchen and Bath Show studying composite countertops made of quartz and a polyester resin binder. There were plenty of choices, and, unlike the cabinets, no homework is required to make a "reasoned decision." The four major manufacturers—Silestone, Okite, Caesarstone and Silestone—use a similar manufacturing process and freely admit that the only difference between them for the end user is the color and textures offered. Taken together, the four firms offer more than 130 countertop choices.

Produced in Israel and Europe since 1987, composite quartz-resin countertops were first introduced in the United States about five years ago. They were initially billed as granite look-alikes with a similar price—now about $45 to $100 per square foot—but without the problems. Composites are highly resistant to chips and cracks, nearly stain-proof, and they don't require periodic sealing. Overlooked in the promotions were the unique manufacturing process and the remarkable countertops that can be produced with it.

Quartz is a very hard stone; it's also brittle and breaks easily into small chunks. But when it's ground up, combined with a very small amount of resin binder and compressed, the resulting material is five times stronger than granite, very dense, and very resistant to the cracks and breakage that can occur with natural stones during quarrying, finishing, shipping, cutting holes for sinks and cooktops, and installing. Although the composite material is synthetic, the clear or milky translucence of quartz gives the countertops a depth and luminosity that can only be achieved with natural stone.

Of greater interest to consumers is quartz's capacity to assume the look of practically any stone imaginable and then some. Its natural color is white or beige, but adding minute quantities of pigment can produce a result that looks like a dark granite—it can be a dead ringer for Dakota Mahogany or Black Absolute—with the soft white of a honed limestone or a cream-colored marble or granite that you can't identify. You can also get wonderful textures and colors that do not mimic anything. For example, Caesarstone's Ocean Blue has the milky-blue, retro look of 1930s ceramic dishware. Silestone's Patricia Bay has the blue-green of turquoise. Okite's Verde Loguna is a smoky, gray-green marble and Zodiaq's Caroli Red has a rich, warm brownish tone. I could imagine any of them paired with a classic raised panel door style and any number of stains and wood species.

For more information, check these Web sites:;;;; and

Queries or questions? Syndicated columnist and author of "The Brand New House Book," Katherine Salant can be contacted at

Copyright 2003 Katherine Salant

Distributed by Inman News Features

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