Blog: Save Money Building Your Own Kitchen? By: John Heisz

Since I’m back to working on my kitchen again, I thought I would talk about the in and outs of what’s involved if you want to do all of the work yourself. This is my fifth complete kitchen build from scratch and I have an uncountable number of installations to my credit as well, so I think I can speak with some measure of authority on the subject.

Design

The design of the kitchen and cabinets is the first step and in many ways, the most important. A detailed comprehensive design can save a lot of headaches when the time comes to actually build the cabinets and install them. It really pays off to do your research and work out a plan that has as much detail as possible, and then stick with that plan. Small changes can cause big problems, a kind of ripple effect that can really increase the amount of time it takes to finish the project. And time is the commodity when you take on a kitchen build from scratch – it’s what you are trading to save money.

Type Of Cabinet

This is actually part of the design stage, but I thought I’d mention it separately since it can have a big impact on the overall cost of the kitchen. There are basically two types of cabinet construction methods: the so called European design and the face frame design. The difference, for the most part, is the face frame itself and how the doors mount to the cabinets. In the Euro style, the cabinets are just boxes made from sheet stock and the doors mount directly to the boxes. The face frame method uses a solid wood (usually hardwood) frame that is fixed to the front of the box and the doors are mounted on that.

Using the Euro design can save a lot of time and not an inconsiderable amount of money because you don’t need to make that face frame. However, the face frame style is usually regarded as the superior design because it adds that durable solid wood to the front of the cabinet. It’s also better suited to a more traditional look, where the Euro cabinet has a more modern appearance.

Finish – Painted vs Natural Wood

The type of finish for the cabinets has to be be decided before you build them, because once again money can be saved if you choose one over the other. While it is possible to build cabinets that will have a natural finish from less expensive wood, you will probably spend more time and end up buying more material than you actually need to be selective and pick out the best pieces to use for the more visible areas. Everything is that trade-off I mentioned before – time for money.
Using paint for the finish can save money because you can use a less expensive hardwood (like poplar) for the solid wood parts, and a reasonably inexpensive sheet stock like MDF for the flat panels, instead of a higher priced hardwood (like maple) and veneered sheet stock for the panels. It can also save time, since you can get away with using fillers to fix any problems in the assembly that you’d want to avoid (read that as do over) when using a natural wood finish.
As for applying the finish itself, there really isn’t much difference, unless you decide to go with a stain for the wood. Staining requires tighter control over how smooth and free from scratches and other blemishes the wood can be, since it will really highlight those defects. Paint covers all and provides a smooth, consistent (and durable) surface if done correctly.

Materials

The type of material will be dictated by the finish, but in general you should avoid using solid wood for the carcass (boxes) of the cabinets and go with some type of sheet stock instead. Solid wood expands and contracts with seasonal changes in humidity, where engineered sheet stock does not. Plywood, MDF or particle board are all suitable, melamine coated particle board in particular because it is prefinished and ready to use.
Do not fall into the typical prejudice against using a sheet stock that has a particle board core, thinking it will not stand up over time – that’s simply not true. If you take the time to properly construct and finish the cabinets, and avoid flooding them with water, they will last out your lifetime, and then some. Water will have an adverse effect on any wood product, even the most expensive solid hardwood. so you need to protect the cabinets from it with a durable finish and plumbing that doesn’t leak.
One major way to save a lot of time is to just build the boxes for the cabinets and buy the doors. The least expensive way is to go with stock sizes for the doors and design the cabinets for them. However, buying prefinished doors (either real wood or painted) can put limits on how you can build the cabinets. If you select a wood finished door, it will be very difficult to finish the face frame on a cabinet to match, so you’ll be better off with Euro style cabinets. Painted doors give you more freedom, and you can go with either type of cabinets.

Hardware

Is not just the pulls, knobs and hinges. If your kitchen has a lot of drawers in the base cabinets, outfitting them all with full extension slides can be expensive. There are cheaper options, including doing it old school without metal slides, but you will be giving up functionality. There are a few different models of slides – ones that mount on the sides of the drawer and are fully visible when the drawer opens, and others that are hidden beneath the drawer out of sight. You need to design the drawers to suit the slide you will use.

The type of hinge you’ll use is based on the type of cabinet construction (Euro or face frame) and whether the doors are overlay or inset. In general, overlay is the more common method of door installation, since it’s much easier to work with. Inset doors can look more refined, but need to be very precisely sized to properly fit in the openings. Either way, you need the correct hinge to work with your design and it’s a good idea to decide on that during the design phase.

Work Space

Another very important consideration is where you will be building these cabinets (and doors, if you make them yourself). The typical hobby workshop is not really set up to handle larger items, especially if you want to build all of the cabinets before you start installation. In particular, you’ll need a dust free place to do the finishing and an area large enough to store the finished cabinets as they are built.
While it’s probably not the way that most people would want to do it, in my experience the best way to build a kitchen that’s being used is to do it piecemeal. I usually start with the base cabinets where the sink will go and get that installed with a temporary countertop to remount the old sink in. I leave all of the existing upper cabinets in place until I have the new ones made to replace them. Of course, this is contingent on the basic layout of the kitchen staying the same, without any major changes.

Anything Else?

I limited this to talking about the cabinets and cabinet doors only, but there are dozens of other things to consider before you take on a project of this size and complexity. Kind of heads up for those of you that are thinking about doing it, especially if you have a full time job and other commitments that will limit how much time you can spend on it. Like I said at the beginning of this entry, time is the currency you’ll be working with and you’ll need plenty of that.