Custom Cabinetry, Part 3: A case study

But first, a response to comments:

If you’ve read my two previous posts about custom cabinetry (part 1 and part 2), you may think I’m arguing for a definition of custom work so exclusive that few would be qualified to use the word. You may also infer, as one comment seems to suggest, that custom work is only for the wealthy. 

Neither is true. The understanding of custom work elaborated here has deep roots in history and encompasses work done for family, love, or barter. As I mentioned earlier, the level of care involved in genuinely custom work has made “custom” a buzz word for marketers only thanks to our contemporary backdrop of near-universal standardization. While such care takes time, close attention to a customer’s particular needs and preferences, along with details of the context for which you are working, can result in a job that costs less than some products that are not custom made.

How is this possible? Clue: Budget is a critical dimension of context. As long as the budget seems reasonable based on my experience (I’ve kept detailed records of job costs for the past 25 years), I can tailor my design for a dining table, sideboard, or kitchen accordingly. While it’s true that some see custom work as an opportunity to inflate their charges (cue the appliance salesman who once referred some customers to me, adding with a wink that I could charge virtually whatever I wanted because “It’s custom, baby”), some of us want our work to be affordable to people in the equivalent of this year’s 22% tax bracket.

Why go on at such length about a single word, “custom”? Words are important.* The richer our understanding of the words we use, the richer our lives will be. And as a woodworker whose career has been spent in custom work, I’ve been living too long with the cognitive equivalent of a festering splinter due to this word’s misuse.


Now let’s move on to the promised case study, with a caveat: It is long and detailed, even though it touches on only a few of the considerations that have shaped this kitchen’s final design.


As in most cases, the “before” was someone else’s “after”: cherry cabinets with full-overlay-everything, fully recessed kicks, backsplash tile with a country motif and fancy rope-style edge. Notice the dramatic crown. One detail our customers found most objectionable was the depth of the cabinets and protruding fridge next to the window on the north wall (at right), which obstructed light from the window. There was a nearly useless cabinet over the fridge, flanked by a tall pantry cabinet to the right of the refrigerator. All of it made the room feel darker and more cramped than necessary.

In our first phone call, these customers made two goals clear. First, while they didn’t want to be wasteful by getting rid of their perfectly usable cabinets, they did want better traffic flow and more practical storage. Second, while they appreciate the historic character of their home, the sharp division between the kitchen and dining room didn’t function well for their three-generation family.

Their concern to avoid waste and their respect for the historic character of their house spoke to me. These people were not just following design trends, which would typically dictate removal of the wall between the kitchen and dining room to create a single space.

The city’s historical survey lists the house as a Colonial Revival built circa 1930, which might mean anywhere from, say 1923 to 1934 (though my money would be on 1925-30). The exterior is limestone; a pair of elegant stone columns support the roof of the porch at the entry. Inside, public rooms are spacious and light, with original oak floors (sanded and refinished to their natural pale color), lightly textured plaster, and metal casement windows. Doorways are cased with dark-stained trim and a backband moulding. Baseboards are plain, with an eased top edge. Windows are recessed in plastered openings without trim. The effect is a warm, minimalist “black and white.”

After several meetings, we had a plan.

1 Respect the windows


Windows let in natural light and define architectural character. The customers would have preferred that this window come down lower than it does; its height above the counter is probably due to the original sink, which almost certainly had an integral backsplash that came up to the underside of the trim.

The position of everything on the west wall was determined by the original kitchen-sink window. In the original architect’s drawing, the sink and window were centered on the west wall, but a previous homeowner added the bump-out visible here to augment the half-bath with a shower. The new sink, a narrow apron model, will be centered on this window. After discussing the feasibility of reclaiming that space for the kitchen and deciding that doing so would be more costly and complicated than desirable, our clients decided to work with the existing footprint.

2 Regard historic character as a guide


Aaron McDaniel painstakingly toothed the new rift- and quartersawn oak boards for the kitchen into the existing dining room floor to minimize the visibility between old and new. (This was shot before the floors were sanded and finished.)

The ceiling fixture in the dining room is original to the house. A pair of matching sconces are on the north wall.

The kitchen previously had a swinging door into the dining room. Now there will be a cased opening about 8′ wide. Kitchens in homes of this vintage were not open to adjacent public rooms; they were work spaces for servants or the woman of the house. We decided to use the original cased opening between the dining room’s south wall and the entry hall as a precedent for the design of this one; the remaining sections of the wall would honor the original division between them, while preserving valuable space for storage on the kitchen side.

3 Listen

It seems obvious, but too few builders do it. Listen to your customers. Respond with pros and cons so they can make informed decisions. Then do what they want–because it’s their house, not yours.


Sink base

I usually urge people to consider putting their trash can in the sink base instead of using precious cabinet space to house garbage, but many prefer to have a dedicated space. These customers wanted a pull-out that would house trash and recyclables and could be opened hands-free.

Instead of building two cabinets–one for the trash/recycling, the other for the sink–I combined both in a single base so that they share one clean face frame stile. A recessed kick will be fitted below; the floor supports attached to the cabinet sides (and at the center of the floor) double as nailers.

Fitting the sink and a trash pull-out into the limited available space while centering the sink on the window took careful planning. For this job, the most functional and cost-effective solution for trash was a ready-made unit by Rev-a-Shelf. I will add a pedal at the bottom of the door so it can be opened with a tap of the foot.

After searching for taller cans to avoid wasting vertical space (none of those available will fit the width we had to work with), I broached the possibility of adding a drawer above and provided an estimate of cost. The cabinet will now include that drawer.

4 Enjoy your freedom

Custom work liberates you from the tyranny of standard dimensions. Sure, you still have to work with the specifications required for appliances, plumbing fixtures, etc., but apart from these, you can size your cabinets to fit the space and your (or your customers’) preferences.

None of the cabinets in this kitchen is a standard width, and only three are standard depth–the sink base, a set of drawers for pots and pans next to the stove, and the narrow base for baking sheets, all of which are 24″.

The upper cabinet to the right of the sink is about 14″ deep, to accommodate extra-large dinner plates behind 1″-thick inset doors.

The peninsula cabinet is 19-1/2″ deep, a compromise between keeping it as shallow as possible to minimize the intrusion into the dining room, while maximizing the cabinet’s utility. In determining this depth I factored in the length of full-extension drawer slides that are actually available (as distinct from what I wish were available); 15″ or 18″ would work in the space. Experience has taught me that Blum Tandem slides occupy 1/2″ more depth than their nominal length, so this meant a cabinet of 15-1/2″ or 18-1/2″ net interior depth. The former would be so much less useful for kitchen base cabinet storage than the latter, so we went with the larger dimension.

Peninsula cabinet?” you may ask. “That is not an authentic early-20th-century feature.” Correct; it’s not. This was in the “con” column of my list of pros and cons, for just this reason. But the customers wanted a peninsula, as it would be an ideal place for their children to draw or do homework right there with them in the kitchen. We settled on a plan to make the dining room side of the cabinet more dining-room worthy and less kitchen-like in appearance by finishing the end and back. Instead of just plonking cabinet doors onto the peninsula’s exposed sides, as many conventional manufacturers do, I designed the end and back panels to extend to the floor, increased the proportions of their rails and stiles so that they would look more structural, and allowed for the two panels to be mitered at the dining room/kitchen corner for a seamless, intentional look. Finally, instead of topping the peninsula with the same stone as the other counters, we agreed to use solid wood stained to match the house’s original trim.

This peninsula cabinet differs from most of the kitchens other cabinets in another way: To keep the depth minimal, I made its face frame and drawer faces 3/4″ thick instead of the 1″-net standard of most cabinets in the kitchen.

Once the contractor had installed the cabinets, I noticed a chunk of space I hadn’t thought about before. I checked with the customers, who agreed it was worth modifying the peninsula’s back panel in order to use it.


I was aware of the space behind the wall (at far right here) that would go unused unless we added a recessed cabinet accessed from the dining room side. The customers decided against that. Until the builder installed the peninsula cabinet, however, I didn’t realize that the area between the jamb of the cased opening and the inside corner of the peninsula (space required  for the peninsula cabinet’s drawers to bypass the stove and its handles) would accommodate a cabinet about 15″ wide by more than 16″ deep.


Now the right panel of the peninsula’s finished back will be a door that appears to be stationary like the others. This section will have adjustable shelves. We discussed adding drawers, but they would have increased the cost far more than a single door and would also have made this side of the peninsula look more kitchen-like than the customers preferred.

5 Think


Vertical storage for baking sheets. Because the narrowness of this cabinet would make chopping the mortises for hinges horribly difficult after assembly, I cut the mortises in the hinge stile before assembling the face frame, then glued it to the carcase.

The 8-1/2″ space between the dishwasher and cabinetry on the north wall used to be occupied by a filler strip. (Pause for a moment to imagine an 8-1/2″ filler strip.) Now it will store baking sheets.

We discussed installing a pull-out unit (along the lines of this one) to store condiments or spices. My experience with these is that they utilize less space than promised; side bars on the shelves make reaching contents relatively inconvenient and restrict the usable width, while the limited adjustability of the shelves further restricts the amount of space available for practical use. These units make sense for some applications, but this was not one of them. Instead, the narrow cabinet will store baking sheets, which this family uses regularly.

6 Use space intelligently


Twins in looks alone

The 4-inch-deep cabinet on the left will hold spices; the shelves will be 1/4″ glass with ground edges, a material that takes up minimal vertical space and is easy to clean. Why not make the cabinet 12″ deep? For two reasons: First, a deep cabinet for storing spices just ends up being annoying. Most spice containers are less than 2″ deep. Storing them more than one-deep means having to rifle through to find what you’re looking for. Second, the customers wanted to maximize the diffusion of light from the north window across that wall and into the rest of the room. Keeping this cabinet as shallow as possible does the trick.

The 12-inch-deep cabinet on the right makes use of additional depth offered by an alcove that housed the original cookstove; 8 inches will be recessed into a framed opening in that alcove so that the cabinet will appear symmetrical with the spice cabinet in depth, as well as width. When we discussed whether to increase the cabinet’s depth to take advantage of existing space, I pointed out that the cabinet’s contents will be a challenge to reach once the stove and adjacent peninsula cabinet are in place. The customers wanted to go ahead anyway; space that’s hard to reach can still be worth building to store items used less often, such as holiday glassware.


Once installed, the two cabinets appear to be the same depth. The exhaust vent will be finished (we’re still deciding the design), and there will be a stone shelf in the recess behind the stove, a detail the customers had seen elsewhere and found attractive. The peninsula is barely visible here on the right. There is a spacer about 1-1/2″ wide between its face and the stove, to allow the oven door on the right side of the stove to open without hitting the adjacent drawer pulls, which will protrude about 1″.

7 Some on-site assembly may be required


Missing you

Because the face frame and finished side panel of this upper cabinet for pantry storage will extend down to the counter and up to the ceiling, we won’t install it until after the counter has been fitted. That’s the only way to ensure a good fit at the counter.


We’ll be together again soon.

The upper cabinet that goes with the still-unattached face frame has a top section for pantry storage and a lower section that will be left open, housing a microwave. Because the lower section will be open, I built it separately in cabinet grade plywood that does not have a prefinished side. This way it can be painted to match the rest of the cabinet faces. After assembling the two cabinets, I screwed them together through the ceiling of the microwave section for ease of installation.

The corner where this upper cabinet and its matching base will go is 16-3/8″ deep, so I made the upper 16″ deep. The base will also be 16″ deep with drawers on full-extension slides. Blum Tandem slides come in 75mm/3″ increments (and remember, they’re 1/2″ longer than the nominal sizes), so by the time I factored in a face frame, cabinet back, and inset drawer faces, the longest we could use would have been 12″. Too shallow. I asked our customers whether they would mind substituting a different type of slide for this cabinet, the Knape & Vogt full-extension ball-bearing slides, which come in 2″ increments. This allowed for a slide length of 14″, provided that I made the face frame and drawer faces 3/4″ thick, as with the peninsula cabinet. This is what we agreed on.

Finished pictures of this kitchen, which will illustrate the points here far better than these process shots, will likely be included in the book about kitchens that I’m writing for Lost Art Press.

*Some, such as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, even claim that language is a distinguishing feature of our species. 

11 responses to “Custom Cabinetry, Part 3: A case study

  1. Tease.. .. .. .. ..

    • Tease? You mean because the finished pictures aren’t here? I’m not trying to tease you; the kitchen is far from finished! (That’s a source of daily stress for me, as the deadline is just over a month away. Still, I am NOT working on it today, i.e. Thanksgiving.)

  2. Joseph Kesselman

    Good insights into practical design — much more useful than the uninformative enthusiasm in many room-redo articles. This is an area where I know I’m weak — I often don’t care much about which style or wood a piece is as long as it’s true to itself, and my preferences in kitchens have a lot more to do with work flow and storage than anything else, though I do see the value in natural light and “outside awareness”.

    The one room in my own place that really calls for some stylistic decisions (somewhat-formal library) is still unstarted precisely because I _do_ need to pick a style…. and in an 1890ish New England house, saying “period-aporopriate” really doesn’t narrow it down much.

    • You’re right that a date alone is of little help in guiding design. There will be a ton of info about this in the book. Provided your house still has some original features, look to those for clues. An excellent though rare guide is original blueprints (I say “rare” because most such records have long been separated from the buildings on which they were based). Nearby houses of the same vintage and style (note: like you, I am differentiating between date and style, because there are vast differences between them) can be other sources of guidance.

      • “You’re right that a date alone is of little help in guiding design. There will be a ton of info about this in the book. Provided your house still has some original features…”

        This statement is freezing me in my tracks. My “new” old house was built somewhere around 1929. It’s this weird, maybe even schizophrenic mix of Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, and Art Deco, and then in the 1960’s someone gave it a half-vast, Mid-Century modern make over, mostly by covering all of the original 6 panel doors with sheets of luan to make them into flush doors, ripping out all of the base cap and shoe,overlaying the original window sills with Pepto Bismol pink tile, and installing blue and yellow patterned shag carpet wall to wall over the strip oak floor.

        There are still a few remaining original details, and I can’t wait to read what you have to say in hopes that I can help the house find it’s true personality.

      • For ctdahle (there’s no reply button to respond to comments left on other comments, unfortunately): Your house sounds amazing. What a lot of energy someone put into trying to make it something “new.” This makes me think of what Edgar Miller and his friend did with the Carl Street Studios in Chicago circa 1929. Here’s a link to an article I wrote for Arts & Crafts Homes and the Revival Magazine a few years back, in case you’re interested; I found Miller’s example of totally transforming a house’s original character wonderfully challenging and impressive, and you may find it thought provoking:

        As for the mix of styles in your home’s original construction, that’s not at all unusual, especially for places built during boom times such as 1929. Stylistic purity is something we project onto buildings from our vantage point in their future. In many (perhaps most) cases, the prevailing style did not–and today, does not–even have a name. The names come later, along with arguments for recognizing what’s there as expressing a particular style.

        Finally, one of the most fabulous kitchens I have ever seen was a mid-century re-do of the original in a house built around the same time as yours. It will be in the kitchens book and I will probably post something about it before the book is in print–because it’s just that cool.

        I mention all of these because sometimes elements added over the course of a building’s life are worth preserving (though probably not the luan on your doors, heh). There have long been people in the world of preservation arguing against removing all fabric added over the course of a build’s life and restoring it to its pristine original state (William Morris was one of these voices. In recent years this has become a major argument), on the grounds that it’s all part of the building’s *actual* history. Food for thought!

  3. I like your approach. Time spent thinking through the job ahead of time, allowing time to think about it thoroughly, will save more time at construction and installation. If you’ve discussed your concerns with the client and they still want to do something you wouldn’t, as you said, it’s their house.

  4. Why can’t more craftspeople be like you? It drives me crazy when people buy old houses and then immediately go about erasing all the historical character from the house.
    I have your book on Hoosier cabinets, I enjoyed it. I will probably buy your upcoming LAP book on kitchens; thus far the only other author I’ve enjoyed on kitchens have been those by the late Jane Powell; yours looks like it will another winner.

    • Jane Powell was such a wonderful character (and house steward). My photographer friend and I included her and her house (the “Bunga-Mansion,” as she called it) in a book on which we collaborated, A Home of Her Own, published by the Indiana University Press in 2011. We spent the night with her (Kendall got the guest room; I took the living room floor and got to close the 8-foot-wide sliding door, which worked better than many newly installed ones today). Thanks for your kind remark. I love the minimalist look as much as anyone, but not when achieving it entails destroying intact historic fabric.

  5. Loved this: “It seems obvious, but too few builders do it. Listen to your customers. Respond with pros and cons so they can make informed decisions. Then do what they want–because it’s their house, not yours.”
    It’s a universal principal. I use it too, as a CPA / fee-only Financial Planner. The words change only to this: Listen to your clients. Respond with pros and cons so they can make informed decisions. Then, so long as the numbers work / the plan is internally consistent, do what they want – because it’s their life, not yours.

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