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An Honest Comparison of IKEA, Big Box Retail, and Ready-to-Assemble Kitchen Cabinets

Today we’re giving our honest take on the three different types of cabinets we’ve installed in our projects: IKEA, big box retail semi-custom and RTA (Ready to Assemble). We’ll use a simple scale to fairly compare all three and hopefully offer some perspective for your next project!

One of our favorite parts of our job designing, rehabbing and renovating homes is that we have frequent opportunities to try out products from different brands and retailers. Based on the sheer quantity of projects we’ve taken on, this lends us a fairly unique perspective when it comes time to select (and help all of you select!) products for any style or budget.

The kitchen in Unit 2 of our two flat was built using IKEA SEKTION cabinets with doors from Semihandmade. The contrast of the black lower cabinets and light countertops was just the pop we were looking for!
Two Flat Unit 2 Kitchen | faucet | hardware | shelving

Over the last decade or so, we’ve designed and installed half a dozen kitchens using all different types of cabinets. With all of this experience, we have lots of thoughts on each style! For this comparison, we’ll address the first category, cost, using a scale from $ to $$$$. Next, we’ll use the following categories and rank each on a scale from 1 – 5 with one being lowest and 5 being highest:

  • Ease of installation: How is the assembly and installation process for the average homeowner? Both time and skill level required are taken into account for this rating. You can DIY this! We Promise!
  • Customization Options: How many width and height options are available? Can additional drawers, organizers and pull-outs be added? How many finish options and colors are offered?
  • Visual Presentation: How do the finished and installed cabinets look? Are there exposed fasteners? Do the glides function smoothly? Do they look and feel high quality overall?
  • Bottom Line: We’ll average the points from the 3 categories above, take cost/value into consideration and give final thoughts on how likely we’d be to use each cabinet again.
The Two Flat's unit 1 kitchenette was built with IKEA SEKTION cabinets and IKEA countertops. The light wood cabinets and black countertops contrast beautifully.
Two Flat Kitchenette | beverage refrigerator | sconce

All cabinet types will be compared based on the assumption of homeowner installation for a level playing field, although professional installation is always an option! Make sense? Let’s get started!

Note: Given ongoing supply-chain issues across the board, we haven’t taken shipping/lead times into account since they’ll vary geographically and based on specific timing. Prior to committing to any type of cabinet, it’s a good idea to check lead times carefully!


IKEA SEKTION Cabinets

IKEA SEKTION cabinets are ubiquitous! They’re so popular that entire product lines and brands have sprung up to offer additional customization options for them. In both of the Two Flat kitchens, for example, we utilized SEKTION cabinet bases with doors from our friends at Semihandmade. For the sake of this comparison, we’ll focus on doors offered directly from IKEA, but there are tons of additional options once cabinet boxes are configured! This would, in theory, also make them the easiest to visually alter with new fronts down the road once the cabinet boxes are installed! A new-looking kitchen could potentially be as cost-effective as buying all new doors and replacing trim panels.

The kitchen in Unit 2 of our two flat was built using IKEA SEKTION cabinets with doors from Semihandmade. The contrast of the black lower cabinets and light countertops was just the pop we were looking for!

Cost: $$

Ease of installation: 4 | Installing SEKTION cabinets is by far the easiest of the group. The unique mounting rails are installed on the wall directly into studs, then the cabinets simply hook onto the rail and lock into place. This offers infinite adjustment options both vertically and horizontally. For lower cabinets, SEKTION feet offer loads of adjustment as well. This makes installation on uneven flooring surfaces a breeze that doesn’t require a mountain of shims! Note: We removed one point because building the actual cabinets isn’t complicated, but can be time consuming. We like to build boxes a couple at a time a few days prior to install day.

Customization Options: 4 | SEKTION cabinets offer tons of internal options for shelves, lazy susans and drawers-within-a-drawer. These cabinets can be truly customized for anyones storage needs! We’re docking a point for limited cabinet size options, which can sometimes lead to unnecessary dead space between cabinets and walls.

Visual Presentation: 4 | There are dozens, if not hundreds of options and price points for SEKTION cabinet bases and fronts. IKEA hardware and hinges sometimes doesn’t feel quite as high end as some of the other options. Sometimes hiding fasteners can also add an additional step to the process, but overall the design is completely up to the installer.

Bottom Line: 5 | You’d think the bottom line would average to a solid 4, but I’m adding a point because we’d absolutely use SEKTION cabinets again. At this point we’ve used them in 4 kitchens, our snug, and for two different fauxdenzas in our Chicago home. Once the first cabinet is assembled and installed, the installation process quickly becomes second nature and can be accomplished quickly. Given all of the options for storage, finishes and sizes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better bang-for-the-buck cabinet value!


Big Box Retail Store Semi-Custom

Semi-custom cabinets are likely the most adaptable option on the list. They can often be ordered in custom width increments to make the most efficient use of every square inch of space. Since these cabinets are offered in a range of high-end finishes including solid wood options, they can come with a premium price tag. That said, they’re also delivered fully assembled which eliminates the time-consuming step of building them onsite. Our experience with semi-custom cabinets is based on the Kraftmaid cabinets from Lowe’s that we installed in our Michigan Tree House though similar options are available at comparable price points at most other big box hardware stores. Hint – if you decide to go this route, many retailers offer BIG seasonal savings of up to 15% – 20%, so be sure to watch for sales!

The kitchen in our Michigan Tree House was built using semi-custom Kraftmaid cabinets from Lowe's. They're the highest quality of the bunch, but also the priciest.
stools | pendant light | faucet | amber soap pump

Cost: $$$$

Ease of installation: 3 | Since semi-custom cabinets don’t offer the infinite adjustability of IKEA’s rail and foot system, installing these cabinets on uneven surface can be an absolute bear. We probably wouldn’t recommend it as a first-time DIY. Luckily, the kitchen floor at Tree House is the most level of all of our properties and this installation wasn’t our first rodeo. When the countertop installer came to take the final measurements, he actually said that this was the most level cabinet installation he’d ever seen after decades of experience in the industry. Needless to say, we patted ourselves on the back that day! Not bad for a couple of DIYers and a grandpa who lent a hand for the weekend, huh?

Customization Options: 5 | As we mentioned earlier, semi-custom cabinets are available in countless shapes and sizes. They can also be ordered with an incredible number of different interior configurations and built in organizers. They also come in dozens of finishes and colors to match any decor or home style. This make for easy mixing and matching if two-tone kitchens are your thing.

Visual Presentation: 5 | Our Kraftmaid cabinets are simply stunning. The solid maple fronts and true shaker construction of the doors ensure these cabinets will last as long as we need them to. The attention to detail on these pieces is leaps and bounds above the rest with no exposed fasteners in sight. Glides and hinges are high quality and they just feel luxurious.

Bottom Line: 4 | If budget were of no concern, we’d definitely consider going the semi-custom route again, but the price point might a tough pill to swallow. Don’t get us wrong – we completely understand where the additional expense goes and understand why these cabinets are sometimes the right choice. They’re the most plug-and-play option and most retailers offer free design services to help narrow down selections and finalize placement, which can add a layer of value to the process. While it wasn’t considered for this comparison, if professional installation is in the budget, these are likely the perfect choice! If DIY on a budget is something you enjoy, they might not be the right fit.


RTA Cabinets

RTA (Ready To Assemble) cabinets have been gaining steam over the last few years. They’re similar to IKEA cabinets in the sense that they ship flat packed and are built by the end user onsite. They’re different from IKEA cabinets in the sense that the entire design and ordering process can be handled online, potentially saving tons of time if an IKEA store isn’t nearby. A few years back, we used TheRTAStore.com for our Chicago laundry room and have since used them for the custom pet bench in the primary bedroom at Tree House.

Our Chicago laundry room was built out using RTA cabinets from the RTAStore.com.
hardware | wallpaper | butcher block

Cost: $$$

Ease of installation: 3 | Installing RTA cabinets in our laundry room was not the most straightforward DIY. In all fairness, this was one of the most physically complicated of all of our large scale cabinet installs. We constructed supporting structures from scratch, cheated the sink cabinet away from the wall to allow for access to plumbing connections and created a custom surround for the washer/dryer stack. Installation in a kitchen would likely be similar to that of the semi-custom cabinets, resulting in an identical score.

Customization Options: 3.5 | (Note: 4 points for finishes, 3 points for sizes and shapes = 3.5). While RTA cabinets don’t offer as many physical customization options as the other cabinets, they do sometimes offer a full line of custom paint colors! If you’re after cabinets in standard sizes and shapes and incremental sizes aren’t necessary, this could potentially allow for a unique custom look.

Visual Presentation: 4 | Our RTA cabinets look great! Overall, the cabinets are very solid, the doors are high quality and the hinges and hardware are nice enough.

Bottom Line: 3.5 | RTA cabinets are probably best suited to the seasoned DIYer on a budget. Many RTA companies offer thorough kitchen design services at no cost, so if design struggles are a part of your project, this is another added bonus. They’re cost-effective, but may require a bit more strategic problem solving than other options. They certainly have their place and could be the best bet for a wide range of different projects outside the kitchen. They’re definitely worth a look!


Conclusion

After considering cost, ease of DIY installation, customization options, and the final visual product into account, we feel that IKEA SEKTION cabinets are the best overall value of the bunch. When third-party options are taken into consideration, the sky’s the limit on how customized and unique this cabinet line can actually get. We wouldn’t hesitate to build out yet another kitchen using SEKTION cabinets and the ever-changing variety of doors from both IKEA and third party retailers.

So, we’re dying to know – do you feel the same way? Did we miss the mark? Has your experience installing any of these options differ from ours?

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  • Michelle10.22.21 - 6:13 AM

    I have not used Ikea cabinets, so I can’t comment on the install and longevity, etc. At first glance, though, the insides and drawer structure are what trigger me for a no. I want a solid wood drawer with dovetail joints which has lead me to RTA cabinets by three different companies, and all were a world of different experiences and each one a step up from the next.  As a designer and construction professional, I would say they are fairly easy to work with, have a basic design service, but I’m with you on the complexity. I’ve designed more than a handful of kitchens so have an understanding of spacing size, process, and language on order forms which can be critical to an successful kitchen design. Overall, it’s definitely a process for a more seasoned DIYer and would recommend a homeowner utilize the design services offered as much as they can to ensure they are getting all the correct parts pieces and sizes required. ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.22.21 - 9:31 AM

      Such a great point. The design services are crucial across all types to ensure you’re not missing a single filler, toe kick or panel! Thanks for chiming in with your experience, Michelle.ReplyCancel

    • Julie10.25.21 - 3:06 PM

      Michelle – can you share which RTA company has been your favorite to work with?ReplyCancel

  • Is10.22.21 - 7:20 AM

    This is so helpful! Thank you for breaking it down. ReplyCancel

  • Mirror10.22.21 - 9:47 AM

    I have a unique space that needs 18″ depth. Ikea is one of the only places that gets close with 14″ depth in addition to the standard. Everywhere else is 12″ or custom.
    And I love the frameless design of Ikea, which means you can really customize each cabinet versus “if you want 3 drawers, this is your only configuration choice” of RTA/semi custom. You’d think with the price tag of semi custom you’d get more choices but no. And my kitchen cabinets, from a similar company like Kraftmaid, only offers 5 color choices. 
    Needless to say, I have not chosen a cabinet company. I didn’t think it would be so difficult in 2021 to find something.ReplyCancel

  • Lori10.22.21 - 10:02 AM

    I’ve been fixing up houses for the last 30 years–yikes, I’m old! But I’ve had a range of cabinets–SieMatic, Ikea, Ikea with Semi Handmade fronts, and traditional semi-custom wood cabinets. For me, the Ikea function is amazing but I care a lot about how the organized drawers look and perform. Also, I think Americans perceive the wood cabinets to connote quality, but European cabinets look lots like the Ikea cabinets. After having a SieMatic kitchen I was pleased with the operation of the Ikea hardware. The doors tend to not offer options that work in every environment, so the companies that offer alternatives are worth a look, and I was happy with the heavier looking Semi Handmade fronts. Finally, with any cabinets, the attention to detail on the installation is the difference to me between a cheap looking room and something that reads as integral to the space. I love storage, so thanks for letting me run on! ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.22.21 - 10:05 AM

      This is SUCH a great point, Lori! The attention to detail during the installation can elevate the look in an instant, no matter the budget. Interesting to hear about European cabinets being most similar to IKEA!ReplyCancel

  • Kathleen10.22.21 - 10:42 AM

    Oh man, this is so timely. We’re planning a kitchen renovation and would love to use IKEA but have been warned by our contractor (and IKEA sales personnel) that supply chain issues will make that nearly impossible. I have spent so much time ordering sample doors and reading reviews on Houzz and elsewhere and just struggling to pull the trigger on such an expensive order without an opportunity to see the cabinets built in-person. Now we’re comparing Barker RTA (Scherr’s was on the list but current lead times are for May/June deliver) and a local kitchen design firm with Showplace EVO assembled cabinets. For Barker, they’d deliver unfinished and we’d need to paint ourselves… in the middle of a construction zone?? :(ReplyCancel

  • Kim10.22.21 - 10:43 AM

    You forgot one option…..custom! ;) Most people (myself included) would generally think custom would be way out of budget.  But for my last kitchen, custom cabinetry from a local shop priced out lower/comparable to semi-custom from a big box store.  And I wanted some very specific customizations that I just wasn’t going to be able to achieve otherwise.  (It involved a cat food station and secret cat passageway.)  Lastly, the cabinet makers fully installed my cabs in a day saving me tons of time and frustration.  woot!  ReplyCancel

  • Ivy Vann10.22.21 - 2:26 PM

    I have built out four  kitchens with IKEA cabinets and I love them. I’m part of the Incremental Development Alliance and all of us rely on IKEA for all the reasons you listed. They’re great. ReplyCancel

  • Erin Zubot10.23.21 - 8:36 AM

    I am so glad you came to that conclusion!!  I have installed ikea cabinets in a couple of flips but are using them in our own home for the first time this year.  We are customizing like crazy and I think the cost savings is going to be insane.  Our last house had custom cabinetry and we didn’t want that huge expense again.  I really appreciated this in depth look at the different types you’ve used, thanks so much for writing this!! ReplyCancel

  • aussiebushgirl10.23.21 - 10:31 PM

    We’re about to embark on a complete kitchen renovation, and your pointers have eased some of my concerns and will make the process a lot less daunting. Thank you!ReplyCancel

  • Kelli10.25.21 - 2:14 PM

    My home was flooded in Hurricane Ida, which caused an unexpected kitchen renovation. Because I needed to work within a strict budget (aka what money I expected to get back from the flood insurance company), I ran into the issue of either getting the color of cabinets that I wanted but not the style; or the style I wanted but not the color. It was such a source of frustration! After a lot of consultations with local and big-box cabinet companies, I ended up ordering Home Depot’s line of unfinished frameless cabinets that were close enough in style to what I wanted and I plan to paint them in my desired color. Though, I had to make other design sacrifices because I was also limited by the cabinet sizes. I worked with two different kitchen designers at two different stores; the first really was not helpful at all. Another roadblock has been supply chain delays – several of the wall cabinets I need are out of stock. :(I would have loved to have gone with an IKEA set up but none of their finish options were in line with what I wanted, and going the Semihandmade route would have destroyed my budget.ReplyCancel

  • Julie10.25.21 - 3:12 PM

    I know you aren’t mentioning lead times these days, but my favorite place to get cabinets is from the suppliers in the industrial district of town. They get huge containers of cabinets from overseas and store them in their warehouse. After you design with them in person or email (attention to detail varies by sales rep, but they are usually quick), order, then they assemble the boxes, and three days later you can pick up. I say they are similar to an RTA company, but in person and in stock.ReplyCancel

    • Kim10.26.21 - 11:14 AM

      This is such an awesome tip!ReplyCancel

    • Ashley2.9.22 - 9:50 PM

      Where can one find such suppliers?ReplyCancel

  • Cici Haus10.26.21 - 3:00 PM

    My only regret in my kitchen renovation is that we went with an RTA company instead of IKEA! We were planning on IKEA but our contractor talked us out of it. Yes, we got solid wood dovetailed drawers and honestly they’re fine, but I had to make way more compromises on size offerings, pay more to customize the interiors myself and, this is a biggie, US upper cabinets are 12″ deep while IKEA’s (and Europe’s?) are 15″ deep. Those three inches make such a difference in being able to store what I was intending to!ReplyCancel

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