A Full Guide to Cabinet Design

Options for kitchen or bathroom cabinet styles can sometimes feel overwhelming. This article summarizes a number of cabinet design and functional elements, and will help you hone in on the perfect style for your home.

Door and drawer face styles

Shaker cabinet faces are made of a flat recessed panel, surrounded by a four-piece frame. The outside frame can be any width, but are commonly between 2 and 3 inches. Earning the name from the religious community that started crafting the style in the 19th century, Shaker cabinetry reflects the sect’s values of honesty, simplicity, and utility. With elegance in its simplicity, Shaker cabinetry has proven to stand the test of time, complimenting both traditional and modern styles.

Slab cabinet faces are solid and flat with no embellishments. Many modern kitchens have slab style cabinetry, but it is also common for other styles to include slab drawers on small drawers, and top drawers.

shaker and slab cabinet design
Shaker doors on the left are complimented by a set of three slab-faced drawers on the right.
This kitchen has glass upper cabinets, and a combination of shaker and slab faces on the lower cabinets.

Glass upper cabinet doors can help a room feel more open when used in place of solid doors. They provide storage as well as a way to display dishes, china, or decorative items. Because the doors are glass, the downside is that you will need to keep items relatively organized.

In addition to the three face types detailed in this article, there are many additional styles to choose from. Additional face styles include beaded, bevel, inlay, profiled, European, and more.

Inset, overlay, and frameless cabinet design styles

Inset cabinets feature drawer and cabinet faces that are flush with the face frame. Many custom, high-end kitchens feature inset cabinets. Because they are more labor intensive to build, inset cabinets typically cost upwards of 25% more than overlay or frameless. It is more challenging to find semi-custom or prefabricated inset cabinetry.

Overlay cabinets (standard, partial, or half overlay) feature drawer and cabinet faces that rest in front of the face frame, with the edges slightly overlapping the frame. With this style, the face frames are clearly exposed. This is the most common style of cabinetry, especially in the prefabricated market.

Frameless (full overlay) cabinetry tends to look like a combination of inset and overlay. The edges of each drawer and cabinet door face rest against the framing, and nearly touch one another. With the faces close together, this hides the frame, eliminating the need for a face frame. Frameless cabinets are less bulky than overlay cabinets, and are much more affordable than inset cabinets. They are also readily available in prefabricated options. Frameless cabinetry tends to skew a bit more modern than overlay.

Toe kicks, skirting, and cabinet feet

Toe kicks, an important functional aspect of cabinetry design that’s common in the United States, are a recessed notch at the base of cabinets. Typically, toe kicks are 4 inches tall and 3-4 inches deep. They are designed to allow you to stand with your toes under the cabinets. These few inches allow for a more natural stance when working on the counter, and can help you avoid back pain from straining to reach across your workspace.

Skirting is chosen by many homeowners instead of toe kicks, conveying a sleek look. Skirting is a moulding at the base of cabinetry. For modern spaces, or for spaces with an open floorplan, skirting can help to provide a more seamless aesthetic to cabinetry.

Skirting gives this cabinetry an elegant profile.

Cabinet legs and feet can be added to the ends of cabinets, or to toe kicks, to enhance the look of cabinetry. They can be used to help distinguish focal points of cabinetry, such as the sink, or help add intrigue to long runs of cabinets with toe kicks.

Decorative legs and feet can be built with cabinetry as part of the face frame, or can be added to pre-built frames. Whether straight legs, tulip, or tapered, feet can be a great design element for some homeowners to consider for their kitchen design.

End panels, waterfall counters


A cabinet end panel is the decorative facade that hides the exposed end of a run of cabinetry.

Continuing the pattern of the cabinetry onto an integrated end panel gives cabinets a custom, high-end look.

A slab-style end panel can also be used to add simplicity and draw attention to other elements of the kitchen.

Waterfall countertops are a stylish end panel alternative, often used in modern, high-end kitchens. The “waterfall” is created by combining a vertical and horizontal piece of the countertop at a 90-degree angle. When done properly, they seamlessly tie together the cabinetry and countertops. Waterfall edges are a popular design choice for kitchen islands.

An additional option is to add an integrated shelf to the end of your island or cabinets. This creates visual interest, while also providing a place to display beautiful dishware, cookbooks, or plants.


Upper cabinet alternatives: Open shelving and rods

Open shelving is a great alternative to traditional cabinetry. It is growing in popularity due to its ease of use, airiness, and affordability. It is very functional for dishes, but also makes a great place to display art or other collections. Open shelving is a great way to introduce a new texture or color to a kitchen without having to make a big, permanent commitment.


Another alternative to upper cabinets is a rod and hook system. These are great for hanging dish towels, scissors, pots and pans, etc.

Additionally, rods take up less depth than an upper cabinet or shelf. Therefore, this leaves the workspace more open.

Cabinet Design Hardware

The brass exposed hinges pair perfectly with the other hardware and faucet.

Cabinet door hinges can either be hidden or exposed. Exposed hinges are also referred to as “European-style hinges”. Both are acceptable options, but if using exposed hinges, it’s best to incorporate them into the hardware design scheme rather than adding as an afterthought. They look best when matched with the knobs and handles.

Soft close hinges are always worth the extra price tag. This type of hinge prevents doors and drawers from slamming shut. These will save you time, make your kitchen more durable, and can help protect breakable dishware.

Drawer slides offer a few mounting options to choose from, including side-mount, undermount, or center-mount. Undermount slides are much more visually appealing, as they are concealed underneath the drawers. Whether you choose side or undermount slides, you will lose a small amount of either width or height from your drawer size.

Color & materials

Cabinets are typically either painted or stained. If painted, oil paint is the most protective and durable option. Satin and semi-gloss finishes can be easily cleaned – too flat of a finish will not wipe down well. Maple and poplar hardwoods are great options if you are painting, as hardwoods are more resistant to dents and scratches.


Solid all-wood cabinetry is the most expensive, and is often custom built. These cabinets are heavyweight and durable, and can be refinished or repainted over the years. A common alternative is to use hardwood plywood for the internal, hidden structure, and solid wood for the exterior frame and drawer/door faces. White oak is a beautiful and popular option for unpainted cabinets.

Fiberboard, veneer, laminate, and particleboard are more affordable options that can give a similar look to wood. However, they are not as durable.

When selecting materials, it is important to consider your lifestyle and future plans. If you do not use your kitchen often, or if you don’t plan to be in your home long-term, a more affordable option may be preferable. However, if you are building your forever home, have children, or love to cook and entertain, wooden cabinetry may be worth the extra expense.

We hope that you found this cabinet guide helpful, and that it saves you time when you start to design or remodel your home. Be sure to also read The Ultimate Guide to Selecting a Countertop. Please comment below if you have any additional questions!

Are you planning a kitchen or bathroom remodel, or in need of any other design help? Know that we now offer virtual design services!

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