Three Kinds of Cabinets: Flush Inset, Flush Overlay, and Overlay – Cabinet Types – Board & Vellum

Ask an Architect, Custom Residential, Interior Design

What Kind of Cabinets Should I Select?

By Jeff Pelletier
November 16, 2011

I'm a huge fan of built-in casework. The more a room feels custom and special, the more you'll want to spend time in it. A huge part of that is casework (or cabinets, millwork, built-ins, etc.) built to fit in your house. Think of it as permanent furniture and the perceived cost of it really drops. After all, if you look at some of the costs of furniture, the jump to some custom shelves or a cool cabinet really isn't that much.

A good friend of mine turned an under-used closet into a cool custom bar that helps organize the space for parties and really brings the whole house together. Custom casework turns a boring old closet into "Closet Bar" (their phrase not mine) and a couple of mild hangovers. What could be better?

Once you've identified where to put your casework (and this includes kitchens obviously), then the fun part is figuring out what KIND of casework you need. Unfortunately, the big box home stores have really made it difficult to appreciate the three different styles of cabinets that actually exist. They pretty much only carry two of them (thank goodness I'm around to take you on a little tour o'cabinetry). Plus, I find that you can often find a better value going with custom if you find the right fabricator. Regardless, here are three main kinds of cabinet options to choose from in terms of construction:


Example of Overlay Cabinets – Cabinet Types – Board & Vellum

Overlay cabinets have a door that is small enough that you can see the cabinet box behind it. We have yet to put any of these type of cabinets into a project, but we remodel them out of homes all the time!

This is the most common kind of cabinet. A cabinet box is built with all the sides built and a hole for the opening to the cabinet. Over that hole is a door that laps just enough over the edges to allow it to close. When you look at the front of the cabinet you'll see the door and a chunk of the frame behind it.

This is the easiest one to build and the cheapest because they don't have to be super accurate with the doors as they don't touch each other. This is also the most common kind of cabinet out there and not one I'm a huge fan of because it is so often done so poorly. It really takes the right door style to make this one work, particularly one that is more of a cottage style. But when it is done right it can look very good.

Flush Overlay

Example of Flush Overlay Cabinets – Cabinet Types – Board & Vellum

With flush overlay cabinets, the door faces completely cover the cabinet box. This shot is from our "Chef's Kitchen" project.

The second most common kind of cabinet is a flush overlay. This has the same box as the overlay cabinet but the doors are made such that when they go on the cabinet they are all completely flush with each other and there is no cabinet box visible when the doors are closed. I've talked before about IKEA having some good cabinets (they really do – check out my post on it), but you can actually find good examples at a variety of places. The trick is to make sure that the doors really do line up and there aren't funky gaps between them. These kinds of cabinets really suit contemporary interiors.

Flush Inset

Example of Flush Inset Cabinets – Cabinet Types – Board & Vellum

In the case of flush inset cabinets, the doors (and drawers) are inset into the opening in the cabinet box, flush with its face. This is example is from our "Madrona Kitchen" project.

This is the kind of cabinet that big box home stores run away from as they are complicated to build. The basic box is the same as the other two but the opening into the cabinets is more precisely made and measured. The door then sits within the opening and has a consistent and small gap around it and lays flush with the actual frame of the cabinet. Hinges can either be European style on the inside and concealed or exposed on the exterior. This style of cabinets really suits any kind of environment. Painted white, they are very beautiful in a traditional environment. Stained, they can look striking in a contemporary one. Plus, they really give off an upscale look. While there are very few cabinet manufacturers who make this line, Crown Point is an exception. They tend to the more traditional side, so I try to work with custom fabricators when I'm going for a more contemporary look.

Comparison in Plan

– Cabinet Types – Board & Vellum

This diagram illustrates how the size and alignment of the cabinet faces (doors or drawers) differ between the three basic cabinet types.

Here is a quick sketch of the three different types in plan so you can get a more detailed idea of what I'm talking about. It all looks pretty straightforward but you'd be amazed at how much they can really change the look of your space!

All that said, these are just the basic construction types. Beyond this point, you have to work with your style, your level of detail (is the door all flush, or is there a recessed panel on it?), and price point. A good architect can always help you navigate the ins and outs of what to do.

A true piece of custom casework in a house really can make it feel like a home.

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