The Truth About IKEA vs. Custom Cabinets

The Truth About IKEA vs. Custom Cabinets

(EDITOR’S NOTE: For me, the question about using Ikea (stock) versus custom cabinetry comes down to the classic triangle of time/money/quality. If you have the time and use a high quality installer, you can get a great result for relatively low cost. I’ve seen some beautiful (and incredibly expensive) high-end cabinets get butchered during installation because of time constraints and an inexperienced, unqualified installation crew. Of course, if you have unlimited time and money, you’ll get an unbelievable result, especially since you would be using a qualified and experienced kitchen designer certified by the National Kitchen and Bath Association to make the most out of your space and current technology available. Typically, the biggest factor that is overlooked is time. Do you have the time (or money to hire someone) to figure out all the pre-set sized components that will work with your space, place the order (and hope all is in stock), properly assemble all of the cabinetry, deal with missing or incorrect pieces, and install it all well? The following will give you more insight. You should also know that there are independent businesses, such as Hays, Furniture Assembly Services, and Perfect Assembly, that exist to put together Ikea cabinets in NYC. -RJ Diaz)

 The Surprising Truth About IKEA vs. Custom Cabinets

An excerpt from a post that originally appeared on on January 15, 2015

After last week’s look at the new IKEA kitchen cabinet system, we turned to seven Sweeten experts for guidance on the central question that most homeowners hit very early in kitchen renovation projects: should you buy custom cabinets or pre-fabricated cabinets? Cabinet construction may well end up being the single biggest expense of your entire renovation, and the results are the most obvious visual proof of your investment, so this can feel like a heavy decision. The challenge (and opportunity) is that your choices are endless, but if you focus on a few key factors, you can find the right cabinets for your new kitchen.


While it’s tempting to assume that your budget is the only consideration, all of our experts agreed on a surprising truth: custom cabinets can be (much, much) more expensive than stock cabinets, but they don’t have to be. Even the cheapest kitchen is an enormous investment, so if budget isn’t necessarily the deciding factor, how should you decide and how can you keep your budget from dictating your choices? First, three definitions:

1. Stock cabinets: IKEA is widely considered the go-to for stock cabinets: unlike almost anyone else, they mass-produce a system of set sizes, colors, finishes, and features that you pick and choose. The pieces of your order are pulled from stock supplies and shipped to your home, where you need to handle both the assembly and installation. IKEA keeps its costs low because they are sending your order to you in pieces and because the materials they use are very inexpensive.

2. Pre-fabricated cabinets: Home DepotLowe’s, and other big-box national retailers are distributors of independent lines of cabinets. They offer a semi-custom option: like IKEA, you pick and choose from set sizes, colors, finishes, and features (though national retailers tend to have more options overall). Unlike IKEA, your order is then manufactured and assembled for you so that your cabinets arrive ready for installation. Because you have more choice in materials and construction, the range of prices varies more here than with IKEA. You will probably pay more upfront for higher-quality materials, but you may spend less on labor because the cabinets are assembled before they get to you for installation.

3. Custom cabinets: Custom cabinets are designed and constructed by hand based on your individual design. You define the sizes, materials, finishes, and features and your order is hand-crafted and delivered for installation. Because your choices for materials and construction are endless, the range of material and labor costs is very wide. The costs here are generally distributed between your choice of material and style, labor, and a more personalized design and customer service approach.

3 and 1/2. High-end pre-fabricated cabinets: A small group of cabinet companies also offer pre-fabricated cabinetry that is extremely high-end (Bulthaup and Henrybuilt are examples). These companies are known for beautiful and durable cabinet construction and best-in-industry warranties, but the bare minimum for even a small kitchen can easily exceed $20,000, so unlike other categories of cabinet construction, this option is only available if the starting point for your budget allows you to consider it.

Custom cabinets might be less expensive than you think if your kitchen has limited space, lots of space, or an unusual layout.

In a tight kitchen, stock and pre-fabricated cabinets in standard sizes might not be worth the initial material savings because you will need more inventive labor to fit everything in. In a large kitchen, extra depth or high ceilings give you an opportunity for additional storage and functionality. Non-standard cabinet heights and depths can bring value to your renovation and re-sale value. Multiple corners, awkward niches, and unusual footprints can be tough to outfit. Stock and pre-fab cabinets in standard sizes may force you to spend money on filler materials, wasted space, and labor for semi-custom adjustments.


“If you have a kitchen with corners or small spaces or an awkward layout, you may not actually save money on the total because you end up paying for filler materials and extra work to pull everything together.” ~ Sweeten Experts Valeria and Eduard 

Custom cabinets might be worth extra money if you plan to stay for years, have kids or a high-traffic kitchen, or want personalized support.

Semi-custom and custom cabinets offer higher quality materials in sturdier thicknesses that last longer. Particle board and MDF, two common materials for stock cabinets, are susceptible to water and have a shorter life span than plywood and wood. 1/2″ particle board will not last as long as 3/4″ or 1″ furniture-grade plywood cabinet bases, and solid wood doors and drawers will endure tougher handling over the years. Custom cabinets also typically use sturdier construction and joinery methods. Custom cabinetmakers will often use dovetail joints that interlock pieces of wood to distribute weight and stress more evenly, whereas stock nut, bolt, and nail methods isolate wear on a few points. Custom cabinets also offer options for tougher hardware elements like hinges and drawer sliders. In addition, custom cabinetmakers generally provide a higher level of design support and customer assistance. They will do site visits, re-designs, and get a real person on the phone with you when you need it. You might be absolutely fine to handle the ordering and delivery of a stock system, but if you hit a roadblock, custom cabinet companies expect to support you and respond personally.

“Once you order the IKEA materials and you pay for assembly and installation, you’re not far off from a custom option that would last longer and provide more options – for a few extra thousand dollars, you may actually get a much better deal. Each time you take one of these steps up in material quality and thickness, you have a corresponding price and life span increase.” ~ Sweeten Expert Alan

Cost aside, pre-fabricated cabinets might work best for you if your renovation timeline is speedy or you feel overwhelmed by choice.

Custom cabinets have lengthier lead times. If you’re gearing up for a renovation in the next two months, you can get your hands on pre-fab cabinets in-store on a same-day basis, or delivered within two or three weeks.

A perceived weakness of pre-fabricated cabinets is actually a real strength: for many homeowners, unlimited choice is not necessarily desirable. Many homeowners go with custom cabinets because they think they  want options and then end up feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed. Pre-fabricated cabinets offer a pick-and-choose experience that requires less homework and decision fatigue.


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About the Editor:

RJ Diaz is a renovation and remodeling construction management executive in New York City. RJ is passionate about high quality, well-crafted construction and started RenovatingNYC in 2010 to share news and information specific to the industry as well as profile the best resources essential for a project’s success. For advice about your own renovation or remodeling plans, preliminary cost estimates and project opportunities, please contact RJ using the form below.