Updated: Jul 22, 2021
Walking into a Cabinet showroom can be very overwhelming, that is why working with a knowledgeable kitchen designer is very important. This is true for bathrooms as well.
There are four main factors to consider when choosing the face of your cabinets for your kitchen or bath, wood species, texture, stain or finish, and lastly door style. When clients have no idea what they want, I take them through a process of decisions and eliminations in this order.
Wood Species and Texture: I start here because the wood species will definitely change how your chosen stain will look on the door. This is because different wood species take the stains differently. Listed here are a few main wood species that you will choose from.
Oak - Oak has a lot of visual texture. It was way over used in the 80's, so most people are replacing it in their homes. It is inexpensive and abundant so builders tend to use it in large home developments as a basic. Oak has a heavy flame like grain so it has a lot of pattern and in some cases can seem visually busy. It's a hard wood but tends to stain pretty true to the color of the stain. There are red oaks and golden oaks. These are the undertones that can come through if it is left to its natural color and no stain is applied. Oak has a tendency to yellow with age as well. If you like a rustic look with lots of wood grain, this is a good choice for you. The feel to me is very country looking.
Hickory - Hickory is very similar to Oak. In fact, I can only tell the two apart when Hickory is in its natural state or has very light stain on it. It has a grain that is very similar to Oak, however the color of the grain will have extreme highs and lows. This is why I always refer to Hickory as "wild Hickory". Its a hard wood and finishes in the same way Oak would stain, pretty true to the color of the stain. Hickory, like Oak, will give a very country, rustic, or cabin like feel in it's style. Either wood has a very rustic feel and lots of pattern. Hickory can also have very gnarly knots! You can get clear hickory as well. Usually you can get a clear option of any wood species. Side bar here...... for some reason most all men like Oak and Hickory. I don't know the psychology of this but it's fun to guess that oak has been everywhere since the early 1900's, and men really don't like change, or it's a rustic looking manly wood, interesting observation.
Maple - Maple is very hard wood. That is why they make baseball bats out of it, because of the hardness factor of maple, it is a good wood for heavily used areas, children, and pets. This also makes it a hard wood to stain. On most woods the stain absorbs into the wood, on Maple, it does not, it tends to just stay on the surface. This is why a stain color on Maple will look much lighter than it will look say on Alder, or Cherry because they are softer woods. Maple is an Ideal wood species for a painted finish, because it has a clean looking grain so nothing shows through the paint. If you want that contemporary look or don't like grain, then Maple would be a good wood choice for you, again, because of the clean minimal look of the grain. One thing to be aware of with maple is it also has lots of natural highs and lows in its natural wood coloring. This inconsistency can come through the stain as well. This is something to keep in mind when choosing Maple. If you choose "Rustic Maple" you will get knots. Be clear about this choice. You can also choose clear Maple. Rustic is not always available in every line of cabinetry, so ask these questions when you are making your selections.
Cherry - Cherry is at the upper end of pricing for wood species for cabinetry. It is on the soft side of the hardness factor and it also has highs and lows in its natural color. The highs and lows are so extreme that you should really see a natural cherry kitchen before you make the choice to do one. Cherry is also a finicky wood in the way that it will darken with age, and this has a tendency to happen faster if the cabinet is in direct sunlight. The darkening will stop when it gets to a certain point, but you should be aware of that if you ever have to replace any doors in your kitchen. Replaced cherry parts or doors will not initially match the originals but eventually the color will catch up. This is a beautiful wood when you stain it. It has a richness in the grain and color that is wonderful. Cherry also can come "Rustic" or "Clear". These options are not available in every line of cabinetry, so ask these questions.
Alder: This wood is often referred to as the poor mans Cherry wood. This is because Alder stakes stain the same way that Cherry does. More times than not, Alder has rustic knots (no pun intended....). In some cases clear Alder is offered. Since Cherry and Alder can look similar, they can be hard to tell apart, except for the knots. This makes Alder a more economical choice if you want the look of Cherry, but you are working on a budget. Cabinet companies have caught onto this trend so they will sometimes price them the same. The major difference between the two is that Alder is a much softer wood than all the others. I still see it being used a lot in kitchens, especially here in Tucson, but, because it is softer, you need to be aware. It is a beautiful wood, but its the softest one on this list.
You will make your wood species choice based on how much texture you want to see in your cabinet door, if any at all. If you are looking to get a rich dark color, then cherry is a good choice, or alder. Just know with Alder you most likely could have knots. If you only want a few knots, Don't pick a species with knots! Nature decides how many knots you will have in your doors. You get what you get. Don't do them if you are hesitant, it's an expensive change. If you want a clean, minimalist look, then Maple is a great choice. The grain is very quiet and low key. If you are doing a painted finish, then Maple again is a great choice . There are lots of other materials out there, melamine, thermafoil, paint grade, aluminum. These are all, of course, man made materials and are good for commercial or high end contemporary or utilitarian settings, or just a specific look.
2. Finish, or Color - Most people have a good sense of what they want as far as finish, they just sometimes don't know how to express their thoughts. Color can be difficult that way. I have had people come to me and say, "I want a cherry finish". Technically that is a wood, not a color, but I know what they are thinking because usually cherry wood has a darker reddish tone to it. So with stain you should think first do you want dark, light, or medium tone cabinets. Paint is also an option. I get this comment a lot from clients, " I don't want to pick something that is trendy now, but won't be desirable in a couple of years". Well, I get that. I use the term "timeless". For finishes, you want to pick something that you like, but not something that is so far out there that it won't appeal to buyers when you are ready to sell your home. Even if you think you will be in your home forever, you should always think "re-sale" to a certain extent. Medium toned stained wood cabinets will always be timeless. That is always a safe bet. Choosing an extreme dark or light colored stain just means that you are narrowing down the pool of people that your kitchen will appeal too, should you have to sell. That being said, it's your kitchen, and ultimately you should get what you want. There are a ton of white kitchens out there. I can't tell you how many I am doing now, lots! Also grey tones are really in. I like that lots of the grey tones are in stains, not just paints. This makes them a safer choice. Stains always last longer in their appeal to the public and they seem to hold up better. White kitchens have been around since the 1950's and they go in and out of fashion, but they never go away all together. If you want to do a more custom finish, like a painted color, or a heavily distressed finish, sometimes it's best just to just leave that to one part of your kitchen, like the island. This way you can set your island apart from the rest of the kitchen and make it look like a piece of furniture. Often times the novelty of those cool trendy finishes wear off. If it's just on your island then it's easy and less expensive to change then having to re-do the whole kitchen.
3. Door Style - There are two main door styles out there that all other door styles grew out of.
Shaker - This is a square frame with a flat panel in the center. The center panel is usually 1/4" thick. This is called a veneer center panel. Don't let the word "veneer" scare you. It just means thin skin or panel of wood. This is what is needed for this door style. Unlike a thicker panel of wood in the center that can expand and contract, this veneered center panel will never move. The only time that you would want this panel to be thicker is if you are doing a rustic wood with knots, then you need the thickness to accommodate the knot.
Raised panel - This is the traditional door panel that you see in most kitchens. Square frame again, but with a raised center panel, very traditional looking.
All the zillions of other styles out there are just derivatives of the shaker or the raised panel door.
Slab door - This style speaks for itself. Usually a very contemporary look. Can be a veneered slab door or a solid wood door.
All these styles can be done in most any man made or natural material. When choosing a door style, a good thing to think about is, the cleaner and less going on, the more contemporary it will look. If you need to soften a hard contemporary look, then add in the texture of doing a rustic wood with some knots. The combination of clean lines and rustic wood is a really nice look. Another thing I am starting to embrace is the painted finish on a door with heavy grain. The old barn wood look is really in right now on floors and walls, why not on your cabinetry. Now you may just want to do this on your island and not your whole kitchen because you might get tired of it. But it has that old barn wood feel about it. I personally love it.
That wraps it up for door styles. All I can say is if you are closing the door on your old look then PLEASE, pick something new. You are spending your hard earned money on a new kitchen, so step outside your box, but be comfortable with what you pick. And open the door to something new!!
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