6 New Kitchen Cabinet Basics

Light gray kitchen cabinets with white countertops

The Spruce / Christopher Lee Foto

In a full kitchen renovation project, new kitchen cabinets represent the single biggest investment you will make. Cabinets can easily add several thousand dollars more to your entire kitchen remodel cost. So, along with flooring, appliances, and countertops, this is one purchase you need to get absolutely right.

From the moment of purchase to the moment the last cabinet is installed, it becomes progressively more difficult to reverse your initial choice. Once the cabinets are delivered, you will be responsible for return shipping charges and stocking fees.

House Style Can Influence Cabinet Style

When you are considering your purchase of new kitchen cabinets, it's best to start at the highest level and work down to the details. The highest level, in this case, would be the general kitchen or even house style. Details would mean door style, finishes, wood, and treatments.

It's easy to get off-track when it comes time to remodel the kitchen. Modern, contemporary kitchen styles might get shoehorned into cottage-style houses. Or traditional cabinets with tons of ornamentation may end up in spare, clean-styled homes.

What seems like a great idea now may not work when those kitchen cabinets are firmly planted in place. Plus, subsequent buyers of your house may balk at clashing styles.

Let the home provide style cues for your kitchen cabinets purchase.

Prioritize Cabinet Finish Colors

Finish color and wood selection are sometimes (and erroneously) used interchangeably. For example, cherry is sometimes used to describe the color of a certain type of kitchen cabinet. Cherry is the type of wood.

To confuse matters more, wood stains take on different colors when applied to different types of woods. So, it's necessary to look at wood types and stains in conjunction with each other.

Your new kitchen cabinets' finish color is the first thing that will stand out in your remodeled kitchen. At first glance, an all-white thermofoil kitchen feels markedly different from cabinets with a very dark espresso color.

Here's the great news about choosing the materials for your new kitchen cabinets: it's not necessary to spend a lot of money on fine hardwoods.

The cabinet stain can influence much of the general look. For instance, even ordinary oak cabinets can be stained to a dark, rich mahogany wood-like appearance. Colors behave differently with different kinds of woods—but you can leave that in the hands of your cabinet manufacturer. An espresso finish on maple looks much like an espresso finish on birch.

Choosing Wood For Your Kitchen Cabinets

Progressing to lighter cabinet stains, the selection of the wood is crucial. A strongly patterned wood such as hickory is much different from the creamier maple in these lighter finishes. So, this is where wood selection comes into play.

It's fair to note that even in the dark finishes, the characteristic streaks and burls of hickory will show through to some extent.

Some popular types of wood for cabinets:


Oak is a reddish wood with an open grain. Oak is an affordable type of wood that's commonly used for kitchen cabinets. It stains well, plus it's durable enough to hold up against damage experienced in kitchens.


Cherry is a multicolored hardwood with many specks and curls and gum pockets. Along with oak, cherry is another popular type of wood for cabinets.


A uniform, softly highlighted wood, maple provides a relaxing appearance. The minimal graining and streaking give the wood a consistent color and texture.


The most eye-catching wood in its natural state, hickory is a cacophony of dark streaks and dots. HIckory isn't the most commonly used type of wood for kitchens. When it's used, though, hickory gives a kitchen a highly unique personality.


Birch is a hardwood with strong vertical stripes. Birch comes in various shades, ranging from white to golden-brown. Birch is especially well-suited to kitchen cabinets because it is a strong wood and it holds screws and hardware well. Birch cabinets take stain well.

MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard)

MDF is engineered wood unsuitable for kitchen cabinets in its natural state, MDF is always covered with some type of veneer such as thermofoil or laminate. Often derided, MDF does have a number of strong points. It's very affordable, solid, and durable.

The important thing is to keep MDF covered with its veneer. When the veneer loosens, the underlying MDF is susceptible to water damage.

Cabinet Finish Treatment

Cabinet finish treatment refers to the appearance of the finish, excluding color. You might have a transparent natural treatment that lets the beauty of the wood grain show through.

Or you might want to apply a treatment on the other end of the spectrum—a painted finish that completely blocks the wood grain. Then, of course, you have an entire range of finish treatments between those extremes.

  • Thermofoil: The veneer, usually white, covers the entire surface.
  • Paint: A thick coating of paint that is more about the color of the paint than the texture or color of the wood grain below.
  • Distressed or Vintage Paint: Distressed paint finishes are either hand- or machine-distressed to create an attractive, aged appearance.
  • Glazed: After the base coat of stain, a glossy layer of glaze is applied for a more contemporary look.
  • Highlighted: Your basic stain but with darker highlight colors added to recesses, giving the cabinets more of a rich, 3D appearance.

Cabinet Overlay: Full vs. Partial

Cabinet overlay refers to the amount of cabinet frame is showing beyond the door area. If this sounds like an insignificant detail, it's anything but. Cabinet overlay greatly affects the appearance of your kitchen cabinets:

  • Full Overlay: The full cabinet overlay look is all-door, with no cabinet frame showing. It's a sleek, contemporary look that lets other parts of the kitchen shine.
  • Partial Overlay: Partial cabinet overlay exposes some of the cabinet frames. These can be 1/2-inch, 1-inch, or greater. These contribute to a classical look and give the cabinets a deeper, more visually textured appearance.

Kitchen Cabinet Door Treatments

Arches, squares, and cathedral cabinet door styles refer to the shape of the cabinet doors.

Door treatments refer only to the door itself. Some common cabinet doors are:

  • Flat Panel
  • Raised Panel
  • Multi-Panel

Even though kitchen cabinet glass doors technically falls in the category of door styles, they're separate in this list because they are so distinctive.

Glass kitchen cabinet doors give your kitchen a more open feeling. Since kitchen cabinets tend to feel imposing, adding in some glass-front cabinets will give your kitchen greater dimensionality.

Not only that, but you can add interior lighting to cabinets with glass-fronted doors for a mesmerizing effect. Glass-front kitchen cabinets can help you highlight special china or other attractive items.