Cabinets come in three basic types—stock & RTA, semi-custom, and custom, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Understanding their similarities and differences will help you decide which cabinet is best for you.
Stock and Ready-To-Assemble (RTA) Cabinets
Designed to be economical, stock and ready-to-assemble (RTA) cabinets are mass produced in a factory and are available to buy off-the-shelf. They are pre-built to standard sizes and offer limited design choices. Stock and RTA cabinets often use inferior materials to keep the cost down, with most stock and some RTA cabinets using particleboard for the back and sides.
RTA cabinets are shipped in flat boxes and must be put together at home. Home assembly can be lengthy, and can’t reproduce the sturdiness of a cabinet glued and nailed square by specialized factory machinery.
In contrast to stock and RTA cabinets, custom cabinets often offer nearly unlimited choices of shapes and colors and can fit any odd size or corner. Built to your exact specifications, they tend toward longer lead times and higher price tags. Among custom cabinet makers, price, quality and delivery time vary widely. A few custom brands are built in factories, while most are built on-site on in a local workshop.
Semi-custom cabinets represent the best of both worlds. With a wide variety of the most popular styles and colors available in semi-custom cabinets, most homeowners find the look they want. Most semi-custom cabinet brands are well-engineered with high quality standards. Adjustment options and custom modifications help ensure a tailored fit.
Summary: Stock & RTA vs. Semi-Custom vs. Custom
|Stock & RTA||Semi-Custom||Custom|
|Cost||Economical||Mid-range||Expensive, but varies|
|Construction||Mass-produced in preset sizes||Factory-built for individual layouts||Built for individual layouts|
|Product Choices||Limited selection||Most popular selections||Unlimited selection|
|Customization||Little or no customization||Custom modifications in 1″ increments, modular storage solutions||Fully customized to your specifications|
|Lead Time||Available off-the-shelf, or 1-2 weeks||4-8 weeks||6-10+ weeks|
|Quality||Lower quality, but varies||High quality construction||Varies depending on builder|
|Warranty||Limited Warranty||Lifetime Limited Warranty||Varies depending on builder|
|Other||RTA requires self-assembly||Modification options will vary||Most custom shops are local|
Aren’t custom cabinets the best quality?
One thing that commonly confuses cabinet shoppers is that “stock”, “semi-custom”, and “custom” don’t exactly mean low, medium, and high-quality construction. Rather, they refer to different cabinet manufacturing processes.
A stock cabinet with plywood construction and dovetail joints will have higher quality construction than a ‘custom made’ particleboard box held together with butt-joints, staples and glue. So there’s some overlapping between each category when it comes to quality.
“Custom cabinetry is a really vague term,” says CliqStudios Senior Designer Patty Green. “It could mean fantastic, beautiful craftmanship, or could mean Uncle Bob in his basement.”
Another note: factory finishes on stock and semi-custom manufacturers may overshadow custom-construction. Local craftsmen may not have the same level of professional finishing equipment that larger manufacturers can afford.
How important is customization for cabinets?
When it comes to customization and modification of cabinets, “there’s always something,” said Green. “Even if it’s just a conversation about possible storage options or a possible use of space, there’s always going to be something.”
More customization means greater utilization of space: fewer fillers, less dead space, and more accessible storage.
If you’re unsure of how a custom-fit design can improve your kitchen layout, consider consulting a kitchen designer to see what a custom or semi-custom line could add to your space.
Which type of cabinet is best for me?
Ultimately, your cabinets should match your house, Green advises.
Though remodelers often focus on the question ‘how much can I save?’, an equal consideration may be ‘what value will this add to my house?’
If you imagine selling your home in the near- or medium-term, understand that your kitchen renovation may affect the sale.
“Kitchens have gone from behind-the-scenes to front and center,” said Green. “It’s an entertaining space. The average homeowner is savvier and cares more. Put the kitchen in your house a buyer expects to see.”
Learn more about the differences between stock, custom, and semi-custom cabinets: