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.
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.
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.
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!
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 (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.
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!
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?