Cabinetmaking / My Approach



    As I explained elsewhere on this site, the cabinet business has largely gone to mass production.  Even local shops, while touting “custom cabinets” are generally in the business of mass production, building “boxes” and attaching doors that were built in a distant factory.  I’ve had over thirty years’ experience building and installing cabinets in high end homes in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.  I worked for years building cabinets in the offices of the largest architectural firm in San Francisco.  I’ve never worked in a production shop. This isn’t just a sales pitch, I actually do this stuff and it is different. 

    As with the above kitchen, the authenticity is in the details.  It replicates the design details in the 1932 butler’s pantry seen through the door in the background (SEE “Anatomy of a Job” in navigation menu) . This all had to be done piece by piece and incorporates a variety of cabinet styles.  The reason there is a sameness to cabinetry these days is the series of compromises that drive the design.  A commitment to profitability and a blurring of details in that pursuit is not the same as a commitment to high end design.  If you have production equipment you have to make it pay for itself, site specific details become inconvenient; what would be best gives way to what would be acceptable.  Kitchens typically aren’t as detail specific as the one above but modern or traditional, they all can benefit from a keen eye and a commitment to quality design.


     My shop is efficient, with large woodworking machines, but I’ve drawn the line at loosing creative control of the project.  On a few occasions I’ve ordered doors from third party door companies but they have been rare exceptions.  If I were only building “boxes” and mounting pre-made doors from a third party I’d hang up my apron.


    I work from scratch.  I have no typical layout or scheme and I’m not going to talk you into or out of anything because it isn’t part of a standard layout.  I build all the doors and determine the cabinet style for each area of the job.  If a “face frame” style of cabinet would look better around the oven and refrigerator then that’s what I do.  Generally, large components look better than several modular pieces, the larger structures are more convincing as looking built-in.  This is all done within the design parameters set by the architect, of course, but there are choices within any design that can enhance the result.

    I typically take a job from the beginning.  If there are no drawings I can do CAD drawings and work with the client on the design.  I measure the structure and talk with the architect and builder about issues that regard the cabinet layout and the structure. There are always many things to get clear, the type and dimensions of the counter tops, the plumbing layout as it effects the cabinets, electrical components.  Often much of the “mechanical”, (vents, plumbing, etc.) are not in place when the cabinets are measured and started so it’s important to get everything clear with all the related trades. Experience plays a big role here in foreseeing potential problems.


     I let this all settle in and then I start scouting around for material.  I don’t just call a lumber yard and have the material delivered without seeing it first hand.  This might seem old fashioned but these days it is one of the most important things I do.  Having built cabinets for over thirty years I have a good idea of what the various species of wood and plywood veneers are supposed to look like. I go to numerous lumber yards and I reject an amazing amount of material.  Just about without exception material has dropped in quality within traditional grading categories.  There are many criteria for selecting wood, the color, the moisture content, stability, the straightness, etc. There are species that are available in sequentially matched veneers so that large areas of cabinetry can be matched and there are decisions about the size of the grain pattern and general quality. See MY WORK / Pics for further reference.


    At this point I do a drawing even if the architect has already done a set.  This helps clarify the crucial elements of the architect’s intent, how various components are supposed to align and how they are supposed to relate to the structure.  In an architecturally designed house there are always important features that have to be understood.  Sometimes these aren’t obvious so I like to let the design settle in for a while and then take another look to make sure I’m seeing everything. It’s easy to get focused on the cabinets and miss the way they are supposed to integrate into the structure.  Also, the structure is never exactly the same as the drawing, I usually go back to the house several times and verify certain details.

    Perhaps counterintuitively, mixing styles of cabinetry can result in a more even, balanced look. Maybe the frame on a bookcase next to a kitchen cabinet, maybe the surround of a refrigerator or oven, a slightly wider frame that allows the cabinets to be joined seamlessly.  These exceptions are edited out by large industrial operations which reduce the exceptions to an “acceptable” level for their wide application.   “Economies of scale” are achieved at the price of individuality.  I think those exceptions are what makes your house “your house”.

    A kitchen, for instance, is a complex room and there are many issues with appliances and clearances and various other trades from electrical and plumbing to tile and countertops.  I don’t start cutting until I understand all of these and have a clear understanding with all the concerned parties. I can’t overemphasize the importance of this.  I see jobs done where there is no thought other than a trip to measure the job and another to deliver the cabinets. I pay attention all the way through and typically visit the job site numerous times to make sure of key elements or changes in the structure that happen while the cabinets are being built. An extra pair of eyes on the job with the focus on the cabinets is vital on a high end project.

    If you are paying for a set of custom cabinets this is one of the things you should get in my opinion.  Since I install my work I have a keen interest in seeing everything go smoothly. 


    When I’ve settled all of these issues to my satisfaction I start cutting and building cabinets.  As I said I have no set layout, everything is built to specification, drawer layouts, doors, everything.  In addition everything is matched: door panels, door frames, drawer fronts.   Because of this a clear finish is all that’s necessary to bring out the beauty of the wood.   The soul killing tints and faux finishes are not necessary to “tone” or “even” the differences in the wood.    This may entail hundreds of pieces of wood in some cases.   Each one is marked and has a specific place and orientation within the cabinet layout.  There is no way of delegating this kind of care.  Large (and most small) factories can’t achieve anything like this.   

urthermore, I have a comprehensive knowledge of hardware so I can solve tricky issues with clearances.  There are a myriad of possibilities in this area and there are some very tricky solutions that are not obvious.  Experience is vital.  Modern designs push the envelope and I’ve often informed architects about what, given the realities on the ground, is possible.  For instance, a quarter inch reveal might be a nice idea but it is nearly impossible to achieve against sheetrock walls in the field without extraordinary care by the builder. A cabinet door swing in an odd angle layout might not work as drawn.

    I glue and clamp all trim and face frames where possible.  This means there are no nail holes and means that the fames are true and square.  It takes longer but it’s much better.  Where two pieces of wood meet, i.e., where a face frame and the plywood carcass join on the side of a cabinet, they are flush on exterior surfaces, they don’t have a routed line between the two elements to disguise the fact that they’re uneven. 


    In a sense this is what my entire effort has been aiming towards.  All my trips to the job site and talks with the builder and confirmations from various trades come down to the installation.  This is where the “custom” comes out.  The easy way is to rely on modular boxes and set layout schemes for drawers and wide fill strips to take up anything that was missed in measuring. Even scribe strips carefully planed and fit to the walls and equal margins next to windows, the wedding of the cabinets to the house, is the moment of truth in how well the cabinetmaker has done his job.  Like any art there are elegant ways of doing this that make it look effortless when it’s all done, but believe me, it isn’t effortless to achieve that look.


    As you might expect it does cost more to do a job this way, but it’s not prohibitive.  The ready made cabinets and the various agents operate on a high profit margin; the production machinery, design centers and display rooms are built into the cost.  Also, there is the tax, delivery and installation.  I have no illusions about this, most homes will receive the “design center” treatment but for the additional cost, for a home that is authentically “custom,” a truly hand built set of cabinets is worth the extra cost.  I have yet to see a job where this isn’t the case.  Even sleek, modern designs with few details are better done in this fashion.  The fewer the details the more important they become.  Irregular walls, high, nonstandard ceilings, tricky angles, unusual appliances all require special treatment.  It does cost more to make a design sing, to be something more than merely adequate.  If you compare the rare out of the box cabinetry that can accommodate these variables by custom specification--and some of the newer factories can do this, you’ll find that it not only takes longer, it is much more expensive than having a local shop do the same job.  Further, you will still run up against fixed dimensions that can’t be dealt with by the distant factory.

    Large factories can produce slick results, sometimes this can substitute for quality but generally gimmicks don’t wear very well. In some cases they are things that can’t be duplicated in a small shop, but is that slickness what you’re looking for in your surroundings at home?  Wouldn’t you rather live in an environment of your own choosing done carefully and specifically for your needs and tastes, something that ages gracefully and authentically.  Wouldn’t you rather have something warmer than office furniture in your home?

    Faux finishes, heavily tinted and baked on in a factory process often don’t age well, they chip and look old and they are replaced.

    These costs will be built into your home and not into the commissions of middle men or expensive equipment in a distant factory.  These costs will pay a handsome dividend every day and will set your home apart as unique and incomparable if you go to sell it.  High end houses often sell due to their individuality.  Truly custom cabinets are one of the most direct ways to impart that quality to a home.


       So, what does is all add up to?  If you’re sensitive to your surroundings, quite a lot I’d say.  If your going to “flip” your house maybe not as much, but I’ve seen it pay off nicely there too.  It’s the thing that is missing in many new kitchens.  It’s the piece of the puzzle that is missing when you go for the slick, packaged deal.  Like many good things it’s something you have to live with a while to fully appreciate.  So much of what we live with today is merely acceptable; if no one complains and the check clears, everything is fine.   I’d like to believe that the thought and care that I put into my work is something that can be appreciated even if you don’t understand all of the details.  There’s a certain balance that comes through in the thoughtful layout, careful selection of material, construction and installation, a certain harmony in the matched doors and panels, something you may not know is there but you’d miss if it were gone.  Instead of the cabinets just filling a space they enhance it.

    Many times when I finish a job I’m caught up in all the turmoil of dead lines and on the job chaos. I just don’t want to look at it anymore.  I’ll return a few months later and realize, Wow!, this  is what it’s about.

    If you’re an architect I can faithfully follow your design and maybe offer some insights, if you’re an owner I can work with the limitations of the architecture and incorporate your ideas, if you’re a general contractor I can be an extra, experienced set of eyes on the job to foresee problems and offer solutions.  

    These aren’t just words, it’s what I do.


LIC # 661317

PO Box 66

Tomales, Ca. 94971

707-878-2389 / 800-454-8100