Norfolk Kitchen & Bath | Family Owned Since 1934

A Complete Guide to Builder Grade Kitchen Cabinets

If you are building a new home, or renovating a kitchen, you may have come across the term “builder-grade” at some point in your research.

What are builder-grade cabinets exactly? Should you put builder grade cabinets in your home? Or, if you have them in your home already, how can you update those cabinets to look more like a custom kitchen?

builder grade white kitchen cabinets

What Are Builder-Grade Cabinets?

Builder-grade, or contractor-grade, is an industry term for product built to meet construction code requirements, using simple, inexpensive materials with minimal detailing. These products are usually very affordable and are available in-stock at home improvement stores and even online.

There are builder-grade options for all types of home improvement materials, including: lumber, roofing, lighting, plumbing fixtures, flooring, cabinets & more. These products are appealing to many contractors because of their availability and cost, which is where they get the name “builder-grade.”

However, these products tend to get a bad reputation because they are made with inexpensive materials and do not last as long as quality cabinetry.

Note: Despite the name, it is important to understand that not all builders use builder-grade cabinets. For example, the kitchen cabinets that Norfolk offers to our contractors are much higher quality than your typical builder-grade. If you are building a home, it is important for you to understand the material quality offered by your builder.

What Are Builder Grade Cabinets Made Of?

A typical builder-grade cabinet is made of an inexpensive wood product, such as particleboard or a cheaper plywood.

Many come ready-to-assemble (RTA), meaning they are delivered to you in a flat box to save on shipping costs. The cabinets are then assembled using butt-joints, a technique where the ends of each piece are placed together and fastened into place.

While sizing & style options are limited, the kitchen cabinets come in the most popular style and colors and are very budget friendly.

Builder-Grade vs. Custom Cabinets

Custom cabinets, or semi-custom cabinets, are higher quality than builder-grade.

They are made with either real wood, hardwood plywood or a high-density wood product. These materials give the cabinet higher humidity & moisture resistance, as they are less porous than cheaper wood products such as particleboard.

Custom cabinets are carefully made with plenty of structural supports and reinforcements, keeping the cabinet rigid & square. Drawer joints are dovetailed together and secured with wood glue for maximum strength, and soft-close door & drawer hardware is used to prevent slamming.

Custom & semi-custom cabinets come in many sizes, styles, and colors, and feature a high-quality paint or stain finish, which protects your cabinet from the wear and tear of everyday life. The only differences between semi-custom and custom cabinets are the amount of design flexibility and sizing options.

custom wood builder grade cabinet

While builder-grade cabinets have the advantage of being more affordable than custom cabinetry, it is important for you to consider the quality you are receiving, as well as the price tag, before making the choice that is right for your family.

How Do You Update Your Builder Grade Cabinets Without Replacing Them?

If you bought a house with builder grade cabinets installed already, you may be looking for ways to update the cabinets or improve the overall look of your kitchen, and there are many ways to do that. Before you decide, there are a few important questions you need to ask yourself:

Are The Cabinets in Good Condition?

As we said above, builder-grade cabinets get a bad reputation for poor durability over time. If your cabinets are structurally falling apart, we do not recommend spending your hard-earning money and time updating a failing product.

Is Your Kitchen Functional?

Does your kitchen layout work for you and your family? Do you have enough storage & countertop space?

If your current kitchen is not functional, no amount of paint or crown molding is going to improve that. You may be better off planning for a full kitchen remodel. It can be more affordable than you think!

Are You Planning on Selling?

If you are planning a quick update to sell your home, some quick & easy updates to your builder-grade kitchen could make a big impact on your overall sale price.

If you are planning to make your home a forever home, a few short-term improvements are an effective way to improve the current look while you save & plan for your dream kitchen down the road.

How To Make Builder Grade Cabinets Look Custom

If you are renovating an existing builder-grade kitchen, there are several ways you can give your kitchen and your cabinets a customized look and feel.

Note: If you are building a new home, we strongly recommend working with a kitchen designer who is experienced working with builders and knows how to maximize your floorplan & your budget.

Crown Molding

Crown molding is a great way to improve standard builder-grade cabinets, giving them a custom look.

The molding is attached to the top of the cabinet and can be added either during installation or later down the road. Some homeowners choose to combine, or “stack,” molding pieces together to give it more detail and height.

Crown molding also helps add height to existing cabinets and eliminate the gap between the top of your kitchen cabinets and the ceiling.


crown molding white cabinet

Open Shelving

Do you have some extra wall space in your kitchen?

Open shelving adds storage capabilities to a builder grade kitchen without having to try and match your existing cabinetry.

Cabinet manufacturers change their products regularly. If you are trying to update an older kitchen, there is a strong possibility that your cabinet’s style or finish has been discontinued by the manufacturer.

Open shelves can also be stained or painted to match your existing cabinets and create extra storage space for your kitchen.

open shelving kitchen cabinet

Glass Doors

Glass reflects light and creates depth in a kitchen design, giving your kitchen a brighter & airier feel without altering the layout or adding windows. They can be customized to complement and elevate any design style, with multiple mullion and glass options available.

Thoughtfully placed glass doors can also provide a focal point in your design, allowing you to display special décor or dinnerware for your guests.

Glass doors are typically added during the initial design phase, although it is possible to replace a standard door or two with a glass door later, as part of a cabinet refacing project.

glass door kitchen cabinets

Cabinet Hardware

Cabinet hardware is jewelry for your cabinets.

Accessorize your builder-grade cabinets by replacing your simple hardware with a more elegant, stylish option. This will immediately give your design an upscale look and is an easy DIY project for any handy homeowner.

Countertop & Tile

Does your kitchen or bath include laminate countertops, or a basic granite?

Consider switching it out for a beautiful natural stone or quartz countertop. Adding an eye-catching, trendy countertop design and a complementing tile backsplash can give your kitchen or bath a custom look at a reasonable cost.

Note: If you are updating an existing design, we only recommend a countertop replacement if your cabinets are in good structural condition. Weak, unsupported cabinetry will not be able to manage the weight of a stone countertop. Many remodeling companies will not reuse existing stone countertops, because they are difficult to handle & store without breaking.

quartz kitchen countertop

Can Builder Grade Cabinets Be Painted?

The short answer is yes. You can paint nearly anything nowadays, and cabinets are no exception.

Painting your builder grade cabinets may be one of the most impactful updates you can make to your kitchen outside of a full remodel.

How to Paint Cabinets

Before you paint your cabinets, be sure to clean them thoroughly and eliminate any grease.

Remove the cabinet doors, drawer fronts, and hardware.

Once your cabinets are clean & dry, use 100 or 150-grit sandpaper to remove the smooth finish. This will help your paint adhere better to your cabinetry.

Painting cabinetry requires a lot of time & patience to achieve a high-quality finish. You will need to prime your cabinets using an interior, all-purpose paint primer, such as Zinsser Bulls Eye 1-2-3.

After the primer is dried and sanded, make sure to use an alkyd enamel paint intended for cabinets & trim, like Benjamin Moore ADVANCE). Although this paint takes longer to dry than traditional latex paint, you will be rewarded with a harder, more durable finish.

a man painting his kitchen cabinets white
Pro Tip: If you are looking to give your kitchen a trendy feel, try painting your lower cabinets a different color than the upper cabinets, for a popular two-tone look!

For more information on how to paint kitchen cabinets, please check out this how-to guide from the paint experts at Norfolk Hardware.

Designing Your Kitchen With a Builder?

Just because you are working with a builder, does not mean you have to settle for builder-grade.

Consider contacting a local builder design specialist, like the ones we have at Norfolk Kitchen & Bath. In addition to offering a higher-quality cabinet, our team knows all the tips & tricks of the trade to achieve a custom, thoughtfully designed kitchen within your builder’s budget.

Having an expert design your kitchen can make the difference between a functional design for your family and a room full of cabinets.

man and woman analyzing home remodel blueprints

Renovate Your Builder-Grade Kitchen With Norfolk

Ready to ditch the builder-grade?

Norfolk Kitchen & Bath is New England’s largest family-owned kitchen design showroom, with six locations in Massachusetts & New Hampshire. We offer high-quality cabinets for homeowners and builders alike, as well as countertops, cabinet hardware and remodeling services.

Whether you are looking to remodel your kitchen or building a brand-new home, Norfolk can help you design the perfect kitchen for you and your family. In addition to our wide selection of cabinetry, we have an expert team of kitchen & bath designers, who are trained to help you maximize your space and your budget with a functional & beautiful design plan.

Let us show you how great your kitchen can be. Request your free design & estimate today to get started!