Kitchen Cabinets Design 101: 
How to Create a Beautiful Kitchen in 4 Easy Steps   

If you're stuck trying to figure out your kitchen cabinets' design, you're not alone.   Just one display of door styles from a single manufacturer may leave your head spinning.  Add drawer styles, cabinet box types, and finishes to the mix, and you may decide that eating take-out for the rest of your life seems more appealing than deciding on your kitchen cabinetry design!  

But believe it or not, choosing from kitchen cabinet styles is fast and painless with a simple approach.  Just follow these 4 easy steps... 

4 Steps to Kitchen Cabinet Design

The 4 Steps to Choosing the Overall Look of your
Kitchen Cabinet Design

  1. Choose an overall decorating style
  2. Decide on your cabinet types and layout (box types, sizes, drawers vs. doors, frameless or not, etc) 
  3. Choose a door style that complements your overall decorating style, AND works with the sizes of doors and drawer fronts you will have
  4. Choose paint, stain, or other finish types 

Step 1: Choose an Overall Decorating Style

Before you do anything else, do yourself a HUGE favor and decide if you want a mostly Traditional, Modern or Transitional Kitchen.  Find out how to choose a kitchen style here

Why decide on the style first? 

Because the overall style of your kitchen (which should match the style of your kitchen cabinets) will help you determine which cabinet box construction you choose. 

The cabinet construction affects both the cabinets' design style, and size of your usable space inside the cabinet box. 

If you have a small kitchen, you'll want to know what usable space you are working with first, before picking drawer fronts or doors.  This is especially important for narrower cabinet boxes, where a couple extra inches of face frame on a traditional cabinet may make the door too small to make in your favorite or preferred door style! 

Size Matters

Also, the lost space can really add up.  If your face frame is 2" wide on each side of a cabinet, that's 4" of lost space for each cabinet!  This is most noticable on drawers, because they must fit inside the face frame.  Compare that to frameless cabinets, which only have about 1 1/2" of lost space each cabinet.  There, the drawers can use the full width of the inside dimensions. 

And, choosing framed boxes versus frameless cabinets will change the look of your door style dramatically.  For example, doors look much less contemporary when they're on cabinets with face frames.

See the space between the doors? That's the face frame showing.  "Partial overlay door" means the door is mounted to, and partially lies over the face frame.  The more space, the more country it feels.  These cabinets are mostly traditional with raised panels, furniture detailing, and partial overlay doors, despite their light color and modern use of mixed finishes.

If you need the extra space offered by frameless cabinets, you may need an extremely traditional door style to pull off an overall traditional kitchen style.  Most of the time, a traditional door on a frameless cabinet will end up as a transitional cabinet, which still works in a traditional kitchen (if you keep everything else super traditional!).  But throw a modern door on a frameless cabinet and you end up completely modern! 

So decide on your overall kitchen design style first, which you will want to match your cabinets design style to as closely as possible. .

If you haven't decided what your kitchen decorating style is, click on over to find out more about kitchen styles.

In general:

  • Frameless (European style) cabinets are more modern.  
  • Traditional cabinets have a face frame
  • Country styles can have even wider frames (and a lot more space between doors and drawers!  Yep- you guessed it!  Wasted space!) But essential to the country style. 
  • Transitional?  Well, transitional means somewhere between modern and traditional, so you can have frameless kitchen cabinets and more traditional doors, or vice versa. 

Transitional is one of the most popular styles because it can offer a look that appeals to both traditional cabinet lovers and fans of modern.  Mass appeal is what you want when selling a home, so many newly built homes highlight this style.

Also good to know:  sometimes semi-custom and stock manufacturers offer only certain cabinet doors with certain cabinet box types.  For instance, a modern design wall cabinet with the door lifting up instead of sideways is likely only available with a frameless cabinet.  If you want the doors that lift up, you will be using frameless cabinets.  (Tip: Make sure the people needing to use them are tall enough to actually open and close them!)

And if your heart is set on a certain look and you can't find anyone who offers it, you may need to explore custom kitchen cabinets.   Not a bad thing- they don't always cost more.  In fact, my last kitchen cabinets design cost less (thousands less) by going the custom route.

Step 2: Choose Your Kitchen Cabinet Box Types

So far, you only know what overall kitchen style you want. 

The second step is choosing the type of cabinet boxes you'll need.  This includes choosing face frame cabinets or frameless, sizes of cabinets, drawers vs. doors, etc.  

This is the second step for good reason:  if you are going to end up with a ton of drawers (like I did in my last kitchen design), you need to know before choosing a door style.  Why does this matter? 

Because a detailed drawer front design can end up looking busy (way too busy!) if you have a lot of drawers.  Especially if they aren't very wide!  The door style below would be tough to use with many drawers.  The quiet pattern in the countertop below offers a nice counterpoint to the busy but beautiful mitered door fronts.

Even if you end up with mostly doors, an ornate door style can still end up looking too busy with all the other things in the kitchen (complicated or colorful backsplash designs, pattern in the countertop (like granite!), textured floors (like stone or most floor tiles), multiple kitchen appliances and accessories, etc.). 

If it's everywhere, a lot of pattern, texture, and detail makes your kitchen look smaller!  I'm pretty sure you don't want your kitchen to look smaller, no matter what the size, so beware of overly ornate designs in cabinet doors and drawers. If you are dying to use one, try using it on someplace special, like just around the range, or only on an island. 

If there will be less pattern or visual interest other places (the floors, walls, backsplash, counters, accessories) then a more detailed door may be perfect for your kitchen cabinets' design.  It all depends on what you want the focal point of the kitchen to be- what you want people to really "see."  Detail, pattern, and color attract eyeballs. 

Where do you want your eyeballs to go?

Sometimes doors or drawers are so narrow, that there is no room left for a raised panel.  It's possible the cabinet manufacturer would put a flat panel there instead without warning you before ordering. Or do a slab drawer front.  So to avoid unpleasant surprises, you need to know beforehand what each and every door would look like in each size you need for your own plan.  That means you plan for box types first.

Find out if the manufacturer you are considering has a photo with the kitchen cabinet door you like (that's actually installed in a full kitchen) so you can have an idea of how ornate or simple it is from a normal distance.  You don't get the same effect looking at just one sample door, even from several feet away in the showroom.  Repetition intensifies whatever you see.  Also, how much face frame shows can change the look dramatically. 

Remember, you will usually be able to see your kitchen cabinets' design from several feet away, possibly from the next room if it's an open plan kitchen.  So you want to make sure you like the door design from both close up and farther away. 

Cheat Sheet:  Define Frameless Cabinets

Frameless cabinets (also known as European) have no face frame around the front of the cabinet box.  They can be quite strong, but not all of them are strong enough to support a heavy stone countertop without reinforcement.  If you want European style kitchen cabinets and a heavy stone slab sitting on top, be sure to ask the cabinet manufacturer if it's possible with the cabinet sizes you want.  A 36" wide mdf European style cabinet may not be able to support granite over the long haul!

Step 3: Choose a Door and Drawer Front Style

Now that you know your cabinet box type (frameless or not), your layout, and where you have drawers, doors, pullouts or other special cabinets, you can now choose a door! 

Cabinet doors come in a dizzying array of styles, but knowing a little about them will get you a long way. 

Doors come in three basic construction types: Traditional, Mitered, and Slab.  Your decorating style will tell you what types of doors to look at, and most importantly, what not to look at (making it much easier to narrow down your choices!):

  • For a Traditional / Classic kitchen cabinets design style, stick with traditional door construction
  • For Modern style, go with slab, mitered, or traditional doors with flat panels
  • For Country style, use traditional or slab doors, raised panel or flat panel is fine
  • For Transitional, avoid slab doors, but otherwise you get to pick whatever floats your boat! The finish, hardware, and whether it's frameless or not will influence the overall look.  

Transitional cabinets are the most popular for new homes, but the hardest to describe because it can be accomplished many ways...

  • construction
  • door style
  • finish
  • materials
  • hardware

All of these contribute to whether a cabinet is traditional or modern.  Thankfully it's pretty easy to recognize transitional once you know what a true traditional versus strictly modern cabinet looks like.  Just mix them together, and you get transitional.

Don't forget you can have glass doors for nearly any kitchen cabinet door style.  They're awesome for showing off pretty dishes, especially when lit inside the cabinets!

And now the bad news (or good news, if you'd like fewer choices)...

Sometimes you can pick your drawer fronts separately from your cabinet doors, but most of the time manufacturers only give you a handful of drawer front choices to accompany a door selection.  So....

If the drawers are more important to the style of your kitchen (you have a lot or they are going to be noticed first), you should choose drawers first, then the doors. 

This is a little backwards from the way they normally display things in the Big Box stores and some kitchen showrooms.  Big Orange and Big Blue have sample doors to look at in the big stores, with pictures of the drawers on the back of the door along with all the other need-to-know info about that line.  So in this case you'd be browsing the backs of the display doors, then the front.  Feel free to ignore any stares from other customers... while you oooh and ahhh over the photos on the backs of the samples! 

Also, now that the layout, boxes, and doors are chosen, you can add crown molding or corbels, or other decorative trimwork details.

Step 4: Choose Stain Colors, Paint, or Other Finishes

Design Tip:

A pronounced grain in wood "reads" as a pattern... which is a design by itself!  Oak certainly comes to mind.  If you want more "architectural" detail on a stained kitchen cabinet- ie fancier doors- consider a wood with a tighter grain.  Good examples are maple and beech, and even mahogany. 

At last! The icing on the cake, so to speak.  Now that you have door and drawer styles chosen, you can choose a finish.  To choose a stained finish, I recommend that you pick a color you want, then choose the wood. 


Yes, most people would tell you to pick the wood first, then the stain.  But I have had so many custom stain colors on so many types of wood that I must tell you not to do it that way!  Choose the color you want, and then find out what the wood can be.  The wood gives its own color, and certain woods simply will not stain to certain colors, no matter how hard you try!

So pick a stain color you like and see what kind of wood is in the sample.  Then find out if there is another sample in a different wood (with the same exact stain) that you like even better.   There's a good chance you can find a cheaper price, more attractive graining, more or less wood color variation, or a more durable wood by looking at the other alternatives.  And you want the best kitchen cabinets design for you, not someone else, so please consider all your wood options before deciding. 

Also remember that some finishes are more appropriate for certain styles.  For example, purple paint is never appropriate for a country style kitchen, but is fine for a modern one.  Interestingly, red is at home with country or modern style kitchens.  Learn more about kitchen style hallmarks. 

And don't forget that many wood types change color over time.  Think of an old pine dresser from the antique store, versus a brand new piece- totally different colors!  Cherry, for example, darkens with time, unless it's exposed to sunlight.  If you are using a dark stain, the color change won't be so dramatic.  In any case, find out how old the stained samples are, if possible.  Brand new samples may not be the best for coordinating your kitchen cabinets design with counters, floors, backsplashes, and paint.

Dark cabinets make a kitchen look smaller.

This can be true, but it doesn't have to be!  Dark kitchen cabinets can make the room look smaller, but not by much.  To avoid this problem and get those rich looking dark chocolate stained cabinets your heart desires, make sure you have sufficient lighting to make up for all the light those dark colors absorb.  Your eyes will thank you!

Have you thought about having some cabinets stained, and some painted? 

It's a great way to give some variety, or to do some visual trickery with your space!  White or beige cabinets feel more airy, light and space enhancing than a room totally full of dark cabinets (and insufficient lighting).  

If you do have some cabinets painted and some stained, make sure the darkest are not all at the top of the room.  Keeping darker colors below gives the room "visual weight" and avoids that top-heavy, "oh no- the room somehow looks like it's about to fall over!" effect. 

A great way to mix stained and painted kitchen cabinets is to use one near a focal point, such as a pretty range hood or unusual kitchen island design, and the other everywhere else.  Other popular ways to mix cabinet colors:

  • Stain the island, paint the surrounding cabinets, or vice versa
  • Use painted cabinets around the refrigerator (especially if on the same wall as the ovens) - just paint the deeper cabinets
  • paint or stain only certain cabinets to make them look more like a furniture piece- add some legs to make it more convincing
  • Stain the island a darker stain, and the surrounding cabinets a lighter stain, or vice versa

Cheat Sheet: Finishes

Remember you can mix and match finishes.  You can have a distressed black island with glazed honey maple around the perimeter, for example.  Studying pictures of kitchens is a great way to find a combo you love.

Paint It All!

But maybe you don't want any stained cabinets at all...

For mostly painted kitchen cabinets, or an entirely painted kitchen, your paint color choice and any other finishing (like glazing or a distressed finish) becomes even more important. 

Here are some popular choices...

  • Lots of folks are looking for classic white kitchen cabinets design because of its clean and crisp feeling.  Integrate some warm colors (such as browns, reds, oranges, or yellows) somewhere else to avoid a cold, sterile feeling.  Butcher block countertops (at least some!) are a great fix for that.
  • Many people love black kitchen cabinets, which is quickly becoming what I call a "new classic" for any decorating style.  They do not necessarily make your kitchen look smaller (at least, not by more than a few inches).  Just be aware that black absorbs light, so your kitchen may need some extra lighting to compensate!  A black kitchen cabinetry design has staying power, so don't worry about it going out of style any time soon!
  • Green can be stunning, especially as an accent such as an island (this is a great option for country French kitchens, or even a rustic Italian kitchen).  More magazines are showing entirely blue or green painted kitchen cabinets!  Surprising and gutsy, but really beautiful. 
  • Gray.  It's the new black in terms of versatility, but can offer some warmth depending on the exact shade. 
  • Glazing and distressing can add apparent age to woodwork, but can be expertly or poorly done since it is all by hand.  I recommend you find out who exactly is doing your finishes, how many people are involved, and how consistent you can expect the end result to be.  For deciding on a style, be aware that light glazing just looks like dirt (my personal favorite!) and adds age and character.  A heavy glazing application adds dimension to the crevices and accentuates them, and so is appropriate for more than just traditional or country kitchen cabinets design.  Why?  It can't be mistaken for just dirt!  And of course, distressing is really only for country styles (especially rustic styles).  French country, Tuscan kitchens, even a rustic American style benefits from distressing.  I love distressed wood!  Why? 

It has a wonderful sense of history, like an old family photo.  But more importantly...

My children can't hurt it!  Any new blemishes simply blend in with the old.  :)

You Passed! Kitchen Cabinets Design 101: 
How to Create a Beautiful Kitchen in 4 Easy Steps   

If all that info about kitchen cabinets design wasn't enough, here's even more information about kitchen styles.

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