Published on July 19, 2020

There’s no way around it: Kitchen renovations can be costly. As much as we’d love a custom-designed set of cupboards, it’s simply not in the (credit) cards for some of us. The good news is designers agree that there are clever work-arounds to find yourself with a set of inexpensive kitchen cabinets—that happen to be functional and beautiful, too.

How? We tapped six designers to spill their cost-effective kitchen cabinet secrets: cabinetry companies they love, how to make the most of custom cabinetry without blowing your salary, and how to put a DIY spin on Craigslist cabinets. Having a kitchenful of gorgeous, custom-ish, inexpensive kitchen cabinets has never felt so obtainable. 

Choose a Less Expensive Wood

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Design by Anne McDonald; photography by 2ndtruth

“Kitchen cabinets can be a huge financial piece of the puzzle,” says Minneapolis-based designer Anne McDonald, who passed along a key piece of advice when crunching numbers on your kitchen budget. “Wood type matters!” stresses McDonald. “Right now white oak is all the rage, but it’s very expensive.” Instead, look for less spend-y wood species to utilize, ones that bring in the same natural vibe that white oak does. 

“One of my go-tos is natural-grade birch,” says McDonald. “It’s one of the cheapest wood species and it’s domestic, so there’s no guilt that it’s being pulled out of the rain forest or shipped across from Europe. It’s also very hard and durable, so it will stand the test of time.” Win-win!

Upgrade IKEA Cabinets With Semi-Custom Fronts

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Courtesy of Plykea

Meagan Camp of New York City–based Meagan Camp Interiors suggests jazzing up your simple (sometimes too simple) IKEA kitchen cabinets with new fronts and pulls. “IKEA is everyone’s go-to for budget kitchens,” says Camp. But there are some innovative companies making semi-custom door fronts that are stylish upgrades to what’s available at the famed Swedish retailer. “Superfront and Plykea have been two we’ve used, and they’re surprisingly affordable,” she notes.

Color-wise, Camp recommends sticking with a neutral palette and adding in colors through accessories. “You can never go wrong with classic white, cream, or pale gray,” she says. “Matching the cabinets to your wall color or wall material is a modern way to seamlessly integrate the cabinetry into the overall design.”  

Choose a Full Overlay Design

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Design by Prospect Refuge Studio

Victoria Sass of Prospect Refuge Studio breaks down the three types of primary cabinet styles: partial overlay, full overlay, and inset. Partial overlay, meaning you can see part of the cabinet frame between the door fronts, looks dated and inexpensive, while inset requires the most skill and is, therefore, the most expensive.

The Goldilocks of kitchen cabinets is a full overlay design. The door fronts fully cover the cabinet framing. “It looks super-tailored but requires less precision than inset, and so is less expensive,” says Sass. 

Design Affordable Kitchen Cabinets Online

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Courtesy of Barker Modern

Marie Trohman and Ashley Drost, the designers behind Los Angeles–based Proem Studio, swear by Barker Modern as a great option, even if you have to buy cabinets sight unseen. “It’s one of the few cabinet companies that offer full design and purchasing online,” says Trohman. 

“It gives advice on what size to make a refrigerator opening, how to design the toe kick, and where to use finished end panels,” she adds. She also praises the company’s range of finishes and colors, particularly the French Grey and City Oak. “They’re nice and light and still bring in some color and texture without being overwhelming,” says Trohman.

Scour Craigslist or Go DIY

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Courtesy of François et Moi

DIYer Erin François of François et Moi knows where to look for new-to-you cabinetry: “Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, Offer Up, and architectural salvage yards are great places to find millwork,” she says.

Or you could give your existing kitchen cabinetry a makeover. “Fresh paint and new hardware are cost-effective ways to breathe new life into your kitchen without tearing everything out. It’s a big job but well worth the amount you’ll save in the end,” says François. You’ll need both patience and one particular tool for a professional look. “If you’re going this route, I highly recommend renting or investing in a paint sprayer for that professional cabinet-shop finish. You might also consider replacing old hinges and drawer slides with soft-close varieties or adapters to further update the space,” she adds.

Don’t Underestimate IKEA

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Photography by Gina Rachelle Design and Max Maloney; build by Mike Vasilas

Even high-end designers, who generally work with custom cabinetry, can’t deny the appeal of IKEA cabinets. “We usually work with custom cabinetmakers on our projects, but we have also had good experiences using IKEA’s cabinets,” says Michelle Lisac, owner and principal designer of Michelle Lisac Interior Design. “Since they come in a wide range of colors, finishes, and affordable prices, it’s easy to configure a design that works well for your space,” she adds. “Much like the rest of what IKEA offers, they come in flat boxes and need to be assembled. You can DIY the assembly or pay for assembly by an expert.”

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