Your mother always told you to follow your own path, not to worry about what others are doing. Once again, in the area of kitchen cabinetry, mother's counsel was right on.

"There really isn't one hot trend right now," observes Mark Korte, a kitchen designer at Keidel Cabinetry & Appliances, a full-service cabinetry, appliance, and plumbing distributor in Norwood. "Contemporary is in. Old World is in. Tuscan style is in. Darker woods are coming in. I'm seeing whites. I'm seeing creams. People want to do it right, and they're getting what they want."

And in a big way. Korte says he's booked weeks in advance for consultations these days, juggling 25 to 30 projects at a time when in years past he typically had about 15 on his plate. "One thing in the cabinetry business right now is that things are booming."

No surprise, then, that the 2006 Kitchen/Bath Industry Show and Conference in Chicago in April was the biggest yet, attracting 55,000 visitors and more than 900 kitchen and bath exhibitors from around the country. Many people will always follow trends, mimicking what they see on HGTV or the hot design magazines. But the range of exhibitors at the Chicago industry show and the scores of other local events held in Cincinnati and elsewhere help to underscore the good news on today's kitchen front, particularly for homeowners who want cabinets that reflect their distinct personality and flair: These days, it's okay"”desirable even"”to suit your own diverse tastes by mixing and matching woods and styles within the same room.

Cherry and oak have long been popular for cabinets, but homeowners in Greater Cincinnati and elsewhere aren't feeling confined by tradition. They're adding an island with a different wood or finish, maybe painted black or dark wood, designed to look like a piece of furniture. Or they're choosing embellishments such as Enkebolle architectural accents and bold trim, often in contrasting woods or colors.
Kathy Dietz, a designer with CabitDesign in Cincinnati, also has used exotic veneers, such as red birch and Honduras mahogany. "The first thing I tell people is to keep an open mind," she says about working with clients to design a kitchen. "We look at the possibilities."

But that's not to say certain looks aren't hot right now. Warm finishes, including an antiqued look, are in vogue. High-end buyers today are overwhelmingly choosing cabinet trims built to the ceiling, mantel hoods over the range, and full overlay doors so cabinet frames are covered, says Don Corbin with Corbin Custom Remodelers in Independence, Ky.

And old is new, particularly in turn-of-the century homes where owners want cabinets that look as if they've been there for 100 years, with glazed and distressed finishes in kitchens bedecked with antique mirrors and moldings. "They're trying to blend the kitchen in with the old flavor," Korte explains.

The challenge is creating that look"”with all the modern appliances, countertop heights, and cabinetry"”in a space that's oftentimes smaller than that of modern kitchens and doesn't easily accommodate double sinks, islands, and many drawers. That sometimes requires building more space, but can be achieved easier today than five years ago thanks to appliances and custom cabinets in narrow widths, such as the 36-inch Sub-Zero refrigerator with freezer drawer underneath.

Hiding appliances with customized wood panels that look like cabinets is often done, as well. And brushed nickel and stainless steel pulls have been in for several years.

Despite the attention to style, homeowners are definitely looking for kitchens designed to fit the way they live.

"There's less concern about what's 'in' and more concern about what's going to fit their lifestyle," Dietz remarks. This attitude has led to kitchens that are less formal, often traditional, and typically include plenty of storage and organization. Accessibility is in, and cabinet manufacturers have continued to introduce designs that allow homeowners to read and hide everything: cabinets with pull-out trays to hide the trash and make item retrieval easier, spice inset drawers, roll-out trays, and islands that include microwaves at counter height and seating for casual dining or lingering.

There's a joke that new cabinetry will cost between $1,000 and $100,000, but many a truth is spoken in jest. "What people ask you to do is very broad," Korte notes. "It just depends on them and their budget." The lower range can put basic cabinets in a small kitchen, and the larger numbers will afford custom made cabinetry in the most exotic woods.

And with a whole kitchen renovation, be prepared for some disruption. Such a project can easily take five to six weeks, Corbin says. Coordinating construction with ordering"”so your cabinets are in when the kitchen is ready for them, for instance"”can minimize the disruption. One-piece countertops such as granite cannot be cut until the cabinet frames are installed, insuring that the measurements will yield a perfect fit. Laminate tops can be cut in advance and installed immediately if they're ready. In general, cabinets take five to six weeks from order to delivery.

Although kitchen renovations can be done in stages, it rarely happens that way, according to local kitchen designers. Once people decide to invest in new cabinets and paint, they find it hard to resist the temptation to change countertops, appliances, lighting, flooring and furnishings"”even artwork and other decorating schemes.

With new cabinets and countertops, who wants to put an old sink back in? And with a fresh look, 10-year-old appliances might stand out as worn. If you need to update the wiring anyway, why not replace the lighting? "It's hard to stop it," Korte says.

But if your budget can stand a bigger project, it can save money compared to piecemeal renovations, and give you more options for changes. One of Dietz's clients recently finished a kitchen in blue cabinets and stainless steel countertops, proving the point that choosing cabinetry is an opportunity to blaze your own trail. "It's what works for them," she concludes. 

Cabinet re-facing, refinishing are upgrade options

When is comes to budgeting a kitchen renovation, cabinets might be the top expense on the list. So, then, the big question is whether your kitchen needs new cabinets, or can you get by with sprucing up the ones you have. In cabinetry, this is called the "Three R's" question: refinish, re-face, or replace?

Robin Truax, who owns Kitchen Tune-Up in Cincinnati, said that one of the first things she asks a new customer is what they don't like about their cabinets. Is it the color or the configuration?

"If it's color, it's easy to talk about color," she comments. Changing that could mean a good cleaning and spot refinishing, where discolored areas are touched up. Or, it could mean stripping the cabinets and re-staining them the same color.

"This does have a tendency to make them look lighter and brighter," Truax notes. But non-professionals beware: Stripping and staining cabinets can be messy and time-consuming process. And staining cabinets a different color"”say, from a cherry tone to  walnut"”isn't recommended, she says, because cabinets don't strip well.

For a widescale color or style change, re-facing is an option. This is when cabinet doors are re-placed and a matching, thin veneer is installed on the frames and exposed areas, including end panels. Re-facing allows you to choose any wood species or color, including the painted or antiqued look.

This is an effective way to change the style and color of your cabinets without the disruption of a total kitchen renovation. Re-facing only takes a few days, and homeowners usually can use their kitchen throughout the process.

But don't assume that re-facing means you'll have to settle with a few options. In today's market, customers who opt for re-facing can choose from an unlimited range of styles, woods and configurations. That includes everything from Amish-made solid wood doors to high-end trims and laminates.

"This is not what your grandmother got," says Susan Dowd, co-owner, with her husband Jim, of Cincinnati Cabinet Refacing.
Consider whether you'll be changing the countertops, too, and whether you want to add drawers or change the size, placement, or configuration of the cabinets"”which could impact the decision on re-facing or buying new. In addition to re-facing, the Dowds will also move cabinets, custom build others, and add islands to give customers the look they want.

Re-facing can be easier on the budget, too, since it might save a client 30 to 40 percent over buying and installing new, upscale cabinetry. Cabinet experts point out, however, that re-facing in solid wood or upscale materials can easily cost much as new, basic cabinetry.
"But the quality of cabinet you're getting (with re-facing) is much higher than builder grade," Jim Dowd points out.

If you're after a painted look and aren't buying new, Truax generally recommends re-facing rather than painting the cabinets yourself. She'll tell eager clients to paint the frames if they want to save some money, but it's usually best to install factory-painted doors treated with catalyzed varnish for durability. A non-factory paint job might stand up on gently used cabinets (read: no little hands slamming doors all day) for one to three years, Susan Dowd adds. The painted look"”reds, blues, yellows, greens"”has been popular for  several years and shows no signs of slowing.

The major question, however, is whether your cabinets are structurally sound. If they're falling apart, have been chewed by dogs, or are rusting, a replacement is probably in order.

And remember: There are other ways to spruce up the cabinets, too, such as putting in a new door with glass. "There are small changes that give a big bang for your buck," Truax notes. Painting the walls and updating lighting can do wonders for the overall look of the room, too, while you're saving for that major renovation in the future.