When you first start looking at them, kitchen cabinets may seem to come in a bewildering array of styles and materials. If you don't already have a clear idea of what you want, you may be dazed by the choices.
As you shop around, however, you'll begin to see some patterns. Think of it as an old-fashioned Chinese menu: one from Column A, one from Column B, one from Column C.
Column A is finish. Cabinets really come in only three basic finishes: solid wood, veneer and laminates.
Column B is color. Wood and veneer can be natural, stained or painted any color; laminates come in wood look-alike and just about every color of the rainbow.
Column C is surface. Cabinet doors, if solid, are either all-flat or have some raised areas; if they have glass panels, the glass may be clear, leaded or stained. Hardware will be dictated to some extent by the door style you choose. Sleeker cabinets get sleeker hardware -- some Eurostyle or high-tech cabinets have no visible hardware. If you need pulls, all you have to decide is whether you want handles or knobs. A kitchen designer or cabinet salesperson can help you decide what's appropriate.
By now the process should be making more sense. You probably think that Column D is going to be price. But it's not. You can almost certainly get the look you want at a price you can afford.
"Look for the style you want and then look around for the best price," advises Lori Markey, kitchen designer for National Lumber Co. in Baltimore. Many maunfacturers produce similar styles.
"We have four cabinet lines that are constructed very similarly," Ms. Markey says, "but the price will vary by almost $1,000."
The differences are the variety of cabinet styles available and the kind of accessories they're equipped with. If you can live with fewer options, you may find a good deal in a lower price range.
The lower-priced cabinets are constructed very much like the middle of the line, Ms. Markey says. "All-wood" cabinets are never all wood, she says. Most cabinets use the same grade of particle board on the backs because the particle board is stronger, with less tendency to warp, than wood or plywood.
There are a few differences in construction, and they will translate to differences in price. Here are Ms. Markey's suggestions for evaluating cabinets:
*Look at the area around the door, the "face frame." It should be hardwood or solid wood. If the cabinet has a laminated finish, the face should be a very hard-packed, high-quality fiberboard.
*Drawers are important, Ms. Markey says. "If the drawer is flimsy, the rest of the cabinet will be flimsy too." Drawer tracks should be rated at 45 pounds or more. Every cabinet line has a "spec book," which gives dimensions and specifications. Ask the cabinet sales person to show it to you. The best drawers have glide wheels at front and back; the best drawer glides are epoxy-coated, to withstand wear, Ms. Markey says.
*Examine the drawer front. It should be dovetailed, not stapled, together, and should allow at least 4 inches of depth. There should be a mechanism for adjusting the drawer fronts so they can be made even.
*Push on the bottom of the drawer to make sure it won't pop out.
*Cabinet doors should have mortise and tenon joints, not miters.
*The best shelves are adjustable. (Lower-priced double-door cabinets will not have adjustable shelves.)
Don't be shy about asking the cabinet salesperson to show you how the cabinets are constructed. Kitchen cabinets should work so well they're invisible. You have a choice here. Don't buy anything that will annoy you as long as you live in the house. And remember: It's not the price you pay; it's the care you take in selection.
Next: Cabinet installation.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager of Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.