If you select stock cabinets, manufacturers and retailers have chosen the wood type, but semicustom lines let you have a say. Oak and hickory feature prominent grain patterns and yield a traditional look. Maple and cherry can appear classic or modern depending on the finish; pick a rich or dark finish for a traditional look and a lighter or natural finish for a more contemporary appearance. Although pine, the only softwood species commonly used for manufactured cabinets, has traditionally been used for rustic or country looks, you can now buy contemporary-style, ready-to-assemble cabinets in natural-finish European pine. If you're an "I¿ll know it when I see it" shopper, seek out kitchen designers or custom cabinet shops for help.
The grain patterns of wood, called figure, differ in part because of how the board was sawn from the log. For manufactured cabinets, little attention is paid to the nuances of figure, though care is usually taken to avoid streaked or discolored lumber. A custom cabinetmaker can offer a specific look: Quartersawn white oak, for example, yields the flake figure of authentic Arts and Crafts woodwork, while vertical-grain ash, mahogany, or maple yields an edgy European look.
If you want a traditional look, consider ornate edge profiles, raised center panels, and arched doorframes. A flat panel in a simpler frame suggests a Shaker or Mission-style motif. A metallic laminate on a flat medium-density fiberboard (MDF) panel creates an industrial look.
Although some types of wood figure create a definite look, stain color is often a much stronger element. By the time the wood is prepped with a sealer or primer, some of the grain patterns retreat, leaving the stain to create the first impression. Top coats disguise the wood¿s natural color further, but this multistep process now typical for cabinet finishing greatly enhances durability.
If you love the appearance of a classic timeworn patina, consider a glazed finish. Glazes are hand-wiped liquids that add instant age to a stained or painted finish. They remain in small crevices and mimic the look of character accumulated over many years.
A few manufacturers have broadened their color palettes beyond white and off-white to include muted yellows, blues, greens, and other hues. Heat-set vinyl finishes are typically limited to white or almond; the same goes for plastic laminates unless you're buying custom.