Choosing a cabinet style

Whether considering new cabinets for a kitchen or bathroom, an entertainment center, or library showcases, today’s homeowner has more to choose from than ever before. More styles. More construction materials. More hardware.

To help you make the best possible cabinet choices, we’ve assembled this brief description of standard styles and their relative costs and benefits.

About Materials

What you see may look great. And what you get may not last long.

Particleboard cabinet pieces cut and drilled for assembly with computer controlled machinery (CNC technology) yield cheaper overall baseline prices for relatively attractive cabinets.

But particle board cabinets:

  • are difficult to repair should anything go wrong

  • are difficult to refinish when the time comes to repaint

  • suffer moisture expansion problems (it’s compressed sawdust)

  • suffer fastener retention qualities

At Tharp-Hamilton Woodworking we recommend …

Face Frame Inset

This most traditional of cabinet styles is distinguished by solid wood face frames overlaying interior solid or plywood casework. The cabinet door hinges to the inside edge of the frame with a mortised butt hinge – hence the “inset” -- and has a separate catch to keep the door closed. The inset drawer with an integral front was traditionally mounted onto wood slats or runners seated inside the frame; the contemporary version uses modern runners. It is eminently buildable.

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Downsides include:

  • very labor intensive to produce well, hence, pricey

  • inefficient use of space with the frames between the doors and the drawers – not ideal for a kitchen with limited storage space

  • difficult to keep doors and drawers straight, true, and functioning if there is any settling in the house foundation, any earthquake-generated distortion.

Despite these shortcomings, this style is particularly compatible and suitable in older historical homes. The traditional furniture look makes a timeless aesthetic statement, especially in the living room, dining room, or the island and the hutch with glass doors.

Face Frame Overlay

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Essentially the face frame inset style of traditional-looking cabinetry, but utilizing modern self-closing hidden hinges, mechanical drawer runners, and stock sizes. This all lends itself to industrial manufacturing processes that lower labor costs – most factories are found in “right to work” states – and bring down prices. But it has little to do with custom design or with skilled cabinetry. These cabinets are designed and built for the widest possible market. The same inefficient use of space remains in play, and the overall look can be “clunky” because of the large gaps -- 1/2” to 1” -- between the overlay fronts.  

Flush Overlay

Often called “European”, the flush overlay cabinet is distinguished by the lack of solid wood face frames except at walls, finished ends, the crown, and major cabinet breaks at corners. Doors and drawers use modern hardware and are flush with each other with small 1/8” gaps, called “reveals”. The European front typically overlays interior boxes made with ¾” banded plywood. Less expensive versions use particleboard interiors. A pleasing traditional aesthetic can be created by using frame and panel doors and finished ends in wood or paint. Veneered panels for the door and drawer fronts give a contemporary seamless look to a kitchen. In either case the overlay cabinet with no intervening frames is by far the most efficient use of space.

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  • A well-crafted flush overlay cabinet usually costs more than a face frame overlay cabinet.

  • It takes a much higher skill set to create a consistent 1/8” reveal between all the fronts.

  • It is particularly difficult to install such precision cabinetry in older homes where square or plumb are often issues.


  • The choice of a cabinet style is a matter of personal taste taking into account the nature of the space you are remodeling and the quality and longevity of the finished product you desire.

  • There are often conflicting needs, efficiencies, and aesthetics to consider.

  • We have learned over many years that it is perfectly acceptable to mix and match different cabinet styles within a specific home as long as it is done with care and attention to detail.