Frequently Asked Questions
What does "custom" mean?
Most people use the word “custom” to suggest that the custom-er has a say in how the product is made, of what it’s made, how is it finished, what size, and so on. Obviously, in the wood market, there is a spectrum of customer involvement, from merely picking out one-of-six finishes listed in the catalog, to working directly with a designer-builder, and starting on a blank piece of paper. A fully custom-shop is prepared to reinvent the wheel if need be. A fully custom-made piece is tailored to function in a certain way, fit in a specific space, match or compliment the ambient style, and, of course, fit into a certain budget. Many of my customers come to me after searching in shops for a manufactured piece, but never finding the perfect fit: it’s too this, too that.
One sees the lack of real customization, for example, in a kitchen that is full of these spacer panels that make up for the fact the cabinet is not offered in 39”, only 18, 24, 30, or 36. Losing three inches of usable space in a kitchen is not a calamity, but I’ve found that every bit of space is precious in these little rooms where so much has to happen and so much stuff has to be stored. These little sacrifices add up. And that’s just the dimensional limitation. The rigidities of the catalog usually compromise aesthetic elements, like balance and symmetry, as well.
Philosophically, without getting too “arty,” working from a stock catalog is an a-priori approach to design. Sort of like a child drawing a tree – it has to have a fat trunk, two skinnier branches and clouds of green leaves. We’ve all seen that picture. We recognize the subject but what is cravenly missing is its connection to reality, and the inherent, though perhaps imperfect, beauty of nature. Custom means being willing to look carefully and see what is there. Too philosophical?
Is custom more expensive?
Quite a bit of work goes into a piece before any lumber gets cut. Meeting with the customer, drawing up and pricing a proposal; deciding which joinery, materials, and hardware to use; sourcing and acquiring materials, drawing up cut lists, making patterns or jigs, and so on. All these steps have to be taken whether one table is made or ten. Then during production, set up time – adjusting a blade depth for example – can get spread out over a quantity run. But if the run is one, well, that one has to bear the burden. Custom projects don’t usually enjoy the so-called economies of scale.
Yet there are other efficiencies that can offset. For example, when the designer is the same guy as the project manager who is also the man at the workbench, communication becomes a lot easier: changes get made faster, better ideas are incorporated painlessly –and no meetings! For me much of the nitty-gritty happens at the moment that a decision needs to be made, and that precludes a lot of dead ends. Then there are the economies of small scale: no corporate headquarters, glossy catalogues, salesmen and commissions, no middle men, retailers and their markup. No inventory, storage, freight, returns, bureaucratic screw-ups, clearance sales, marketing flops, etc – you get the idea. I’ve found that for all these reasons, the price of a custom piece may well be about the same or even less than a piece you’ll see in an better furniture store.
How does a typical project at Kokontis & Co proceed?
First, I visit you at your home to see the site, meet with you and get a clear understanding of what you want and feel you need. I’m glad to offer suggestions, share pictures or samples. I’m always grateful for your pictures- perhaps a magazine clipping that has inspired you. I’ll measure the space and check for any details, like outlets, registers or tilty floors that must be accommodated. I like to get a feel for the style and architecture of the house, the type and finish of the trim wood, and other details that might inform and guide the choices we make in the project.
Next, back at the shop, I draft a sketch in either Graphite or Sketchup computer drafting software that is in scale, shows front, side, and top views of the piece, shows dimensions, and calls out details and essential specifications. I do not charge a fee for any design work during this stage. Then, from that drawing, I can generate a spreadsheet-based quotation detailing the amount of money needed for materials, labor, delivery and installation. This usually takes a week.
Then, either in person or by email, I present the sketch and quote, and discuss options and alternatives, additions, etc. Sometimes there are enough changes to go back to the proverbial drawing board to revise the sketch and requote. This is where computer drafting really pays off- changes can be done with minimum effort. We then determine an approximate delivery schedule. If all questions are satisfied, and you want to proceed, I ask for a 50% deposit.
Usually, I allow 8-10 weeks for the typical project, somewhat more for an entire kitchen suite. During this time, outstanding issues like hardware selection and finish samples are settled. All construction and finishing is done in the shop, only fitting adjustment are done at the home. Large pieces are made in appropriately sized modules that need only to be assembled.
When the project is complete, we schedule a delivery time that is convenient; never anything like “between 8 and 12,” but a specific time. The first thing we do at the home is lay down canvas drops and runners to protect the floors, and padding where corners might be dinged. Installation time depends, of course, on the complexity of the job, but most are completed the same day. When the work is complete, and you have had a chance to inspect it, a final bill for the balance is presented and a check is appreciated.
What do I want for hardware?
Drawer slides. There is a wide range of quality and cost in the hardware that allows drawers to slide in and out. In the old days, drawers were mounted on wooden runners, as they still are in better furniture. But in a busy kitchen, metal runners make drawers work better and last longer. For a few dollars per drawer you can get runners that work fine at first, then often fail as rollers fall off. Also, most low-end runners only allow the drawer to be pulled out only part (3/4) way. For me, the gold standard for drawer runners are made by Blum, of Hickory, NC. They offer a range of drawer runners, and at the top is their Tandem line which offers full extension, concealed hardware, optional heavy-load versions, great alignment adjustments, self and soft closing “Blumotion.” These are the only runners we use.
Handles and pulls. Obviously, some knobs are made better than others. Look carefully at several of the same pull to check for uniformity in shape, size, and finish- you’d be surprised how much variation there can be especially in ones made “off-shore.” But perhaps there is some charm in that. Solid metal is usually better than hollow; cast is better than stamped; brass or bronze is better than plated steel; Some metals like nickel will be a plating on brass. More expensive pulls probably mean thicker, better plating. I’ll usually direct my customers to several quality on-line retailers, whose addresses can be found in “WEB LINKS” Our company also offers custom hand turned wood pulls that can match the other wood elements.
Catches and latches. Most of the concealed (Euro) hinges used are self-closing (spring-loaded) that hold the door closed without a catch. Better cabinets include little shock absorbers that catch the slamming door and softly lower it to the frame. Worth the money! Traditional hinges require a catch to hold them closed. The better ones involve little rollers – they work very smoothly, are adjustable and last forever. Avoid magnetic ones: they are noisy and truculent.
Lights. New low voltage mini-lightsand LEDs can be mounted beneath, above or inside cabinets to provide focused work space lighting, indirect ambient lighting, and lighting inside the cabinet. Lights are especially effective in showcase cabinets with glass doors and shelving. Like everything else, price and quality go hand in hand. Better lights are more discreet, have more durable transformers, connectors and controls. They are less “flakey.” More money should be put into lighting that is always on, verses occasional accent lighting. If you’re remodeling, let your electrician know what you need for lights, switches, transformers, and the like.
Shelves and shelf adjustments. Look closely inside a cabinet at the quality of the shelves. At the low end, shelves are 1/2” thick melamine with veneer tape on the edges. They tend to sag under moderate weight, and often the edge banding chips or peels off. Melamine is a generic name for particleboard with a low-pressure laminate adhered with melamine resin. It’s a good choice for shelves because it’s inexpensive, fairly durable and easy to clean. We use only 3/4” melamine for shelves, and always band the front edge with solid wood, usually 3/4” thick and 1 1/4” wide. This helps keeps them flat, stand up to wear, and can be molded to match other wood details in the kitchen. Our shelf support holes are drilled on 30mm centers, and we use only 5mm steel and resin cast pins with retainer rims
Lazy Susans. We used to get these great LS’s that could carry 500lb loads, and had no center pole to obstruct the space. But when this supplier stopped making them, we invented our own system that has the same capacity, no center pole, and best of all, allows the entire space in the corner to be used, not just the rotating circular tray. And they cost a lot less!They can be sized to fit into any space, like an upper corner cabinet to maximize access.
Pull Out Trays. These are certainly preferable to plain shelves in the base cabinets, especially if they extend all the way out, and do not consume valuable space with bulky runners. We use either a Blum Metabox slide, with the runner mechanism built into the side of the drawer, or pull out trays with Tandem slides. Both extend 100%, and take up no side-to-side space. But consider replacing most base cabinet shelves with full-fledged drawers. Even wide, deep, and heavy-load drawers work flawlessly with Tandem heavy-duty slides.
How does cabinet style affect quality and cost?
Cabinet style can be the biggest indicator of quality. The so-called European Style is a product of the Bauhaus aesthetic, which forsook “corrupt” Old World ornamentation in order to bring all the “good things” to the masses. It stripped away most of the traditional elements of cabinetry like face frames, frame-and-panel wood doors, exposed decorative hinges and pulls, crown and plinth details, and in some cases just size. In the purest form a Euro-style cabinet has no solid lumber anywhere, and in many cases not even wood veneer. The spare-ness of contemporary Euro-style cabinetry has more to do with the economy of mass production than real style or aesthetics. But that’s not to say that beauty can’t be found in this style if all those missing elements are replaced by strikingly beautiful wood, finishes, and other accent details. So the particular style of a cabinet ought to and generally does correspond to a price point. To my mind the order of style vis-à-vis quality/price goes like this:
1. Euro-style face-frameless cabinet with flat panel plywood (particle board) or melamine door
2. Same with frame and panel style door in this order of quality:
a. molded vinyl clad MDF doors
b. wood framed doors with a flat plywood panel
c. wood framed doors with raised solid wood panel
d. the above with added molding detail
e. Customized elements like thicker frames, uniquely or differently sized stiles or rails, shaped header rails, divided lights (glass), to name a few.
3. Traditional Cabinet with a wooden faceframe and doors mounted:
a. On top of the face frame (overlay)
b. Half-in half-out of the face frame (half overlay)
c. Doors are inset and flush to the faceframe (inset), and the door opening is often detailed with beading.
There are two additional categories I’d like to add, and designate them as Hyper-Euro and Hyper-traditional. You’ll see plenty of examples of each in magazines like Architectural Digest. Hyper-Euro is ultra modern, accentuating utility, industrial -chic elements like metal legs, lots of stainless steel and enameled parts, bright colors, exotic veneers, very cool cabinets that open like gullwing doors on a Benz, and lighting from an operating theater. No clutter at all. No trace of the human race, either. Hyper-traditional is epitomized by Clive Christian, where every square inch is slathered in opulence. 10-foot Corinthian pillars flanking the dishwasher! Ornately carved corbels supporting other ornately carved corbels supporting a cupid dispensing ice! Yikes. Elements of each of these treatments appear in more earthbound applications, still, it’s all a much of a much-ness, don’t you think?
What do you look for in a good finish?
Most finishes now are either lacquer or conversion varnish. Each has lots of solids to fill grain pores and leave a consistently glossy, unblemished surface. Commercial grade water-born acrylics have been improved, and can be hard to tell from lacquer. The difference between finishes probably has more to do with the overall process at the shop: what kind of sealer/primer is used, how many coats are applied, and how much hands-on grooming like between-coat sanding, rubbing out and buffing is done.
Pre-finish preparation includes careful glue removal, tearout repair, easing or softening edges, several sanding steps including final-pass hand sanding, and dust removal. Careful inspection of all surfaces for defects must be done now, for it may be too late or quite difficult to repair them after the finish is applied. It may take as much time to get a piece ready for finishing as it does for making parts and assembly. Even the tiniest dent or scuff can become grotesque under stain and gloss. Before buying look for pre-finishing defects like sanding scratches, water or glue stains (dark or light blotches), wax or water contamination, splinters or sharp edges.
Adding color to the finish can be done in a number of ways and often in combination. One method to be wary of, though, is one I see more and more of, especially in mid to low-end furniture. Coloring is done by adding dye or pigment into one or more of the transparent layers, turning them less transparent and more like paint. This is done to homogenize the look from piece to piece to match the catalog picture or floor samples. It also is a fast way to hide defects in the underlying wood, especially mismatched wood parts. The overall figure of the wood is quite muted and often gone completely. These days I see much more really dark finishes, and I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong underneath.
Staining wood can be done by applying a wiping stain, then removing the excess with a rag. Since this is labor intensive, and prone to mistakes, manufacturers often prefer spraying on colorant, which requires little or no wiping off. The downside of this approach is that the colorant really acts more like paint, and obscures the pattern and true colors of the wood beneath. However, for some wood species, like cherry, spraying a dye is a great way to avoid the blotching that can happen with wiping stains, and dye can really enhance the natural play of colors in the wood.
Toning is the addition of some colorant to a lacquer coat, and is used to tweak the color or saturation of a piece or of parts of a piece. Done correctly, it does not obscure the figure. For some lighter finishes toning is all that is required to bring the raw wood to the desired color. It’s useful, too, to help match new work with pieces that have been around awhile and have acquired a certain patina.
Glazing usually means adding a layer of colorant to a piece, a section at a time, then carefully removing it with lambs wool pads and glazing brushes, but leaving a residue in corners and concavities. It emphasizes the topography of a piece, its dimensionality, and the sense that this piece has been around awhile. I used to think glazing was a mere affectation, like most of the distressing you see. But now I think it can really add a rich authenticity.
A word about gloss. From buying paint, most people are aware of the choices for the shiny-ness of a piece. A high gloss finish demands perfection because surface problems pop out as light rakes across a surface. Damage and wear show up faster too. Generally, a high gloss finish may be impractical in a working environment, like a kitchen or office. A duller finish like satin hides imperfections, but it can also hide color and figure as well. Remember, lower gloss is achieved by adding dulling agents to the lacquer. I’ve found semi-gloss, to be a good compromise.
A bad or thin finish will look flat, dry, or two-dimensional. There is a palpable porosity to the surface; the gloss is dull even with high gloss lacquer, or uneven. It does not feel “glassy.” A good finish looks deep; the colors in the wood are brighter, more distinct. It feels like polished stone.
What’s a good species of wood to use and how does that affect quality and price?
There are a number of considerations when picking out a wood for your project. First there’s personal taste: some people like a lot of figure, others prefer something more subtle. Take oak. If an oak log is sawed in a “plain or flat” way, like an egg in an egg slicer, cutting through growth rings- darker autumn growth, lighter spring growth, produces the figure. It has large loops and swirls – your typical wood figure. If the same log is cut radially, or quatersawn, you see much less of that feature and more tighter ribbon-like patterns with displays of medullary rays. If it’s sawn somewhat in between or “rift sawn,” the rays disappear. Personally, I prefer tighter, denser, smaller scale figure, but in this just my own taste, certainly not a rule.
Second, there is the question of light and dark. Aside from personal taste, there are some practical issues. For example, in a small room with few windows, a lighter wood can expand the sense of space. If the design objective is for a more formal “furniture” look, then a darker wood is suitable. That said, all woods can be stained dark, but not all are light, even with just a clearcoat. Cherry, for example, stains easily to a deep reddish brown, but left to darken by itself without stain will settle around a medium to dark caramel. Hard maple starts out as a pale blond and matures to a buttery yellow. Over time, all wood to a varying degree darkens due to reaction of the tannins with UV light, and that shift ought to be factored into the choice of woods and staining
Color is a consideration when establishing the palette of the design scheme. For example, the natural redness of cherry might clash with a scheme that’s organized around blue or green. I purchase certain veneers from Oakwood Veneer Company, and you can find a link to their online wood sample catalog in our Web Links page to see the relative colors and figure of the various species.
Next is the question of stability. All wood species shrink in the winter, and expand in the humid summer months. And as they shrink they can warp. The finish coating can slow this down, but never eliminate it. A soft wood like poplar is notorious for its seasonal movement, and this can create some problems when moldings pull away from ceilings, and wood panels can crack or rattle in their grooves, or reveal parts that were unfinished, or unseasoned. Doors can lose their flatness and fit. Engineered panels like plywood don’t have these problems, but any solid wood element will. Some woods are worse than others. I’ve found oak to be one of the most stable, and quarter-sawn oak much more stable that flatsawn. Same with maple. Softwoods, which are usually less dense than hardwoods, seem to move more due to seasonal moisture.
Finally, there are the architectural considerations. I believe in the virtue and remaining true to the character, style, vintage, and feel of your home. If your house has predominantly oak floors, doors and trim, then I’d say oak should be at least considered.
Here’s a somewhat crude list of the order of quality/price of some typical species used in cabinets:
- The exotics like mahogany, anigre, bamboo, and certain figured maples like fiddleback, curly, or birdseye.
- Select cherry of consistent figure and color with no sapwood (white strips)
- Quatersawn white oak, and perhaps red as well
- Select maple- uniformly pale with no brown or “natural” coloring
- And in more or less equivalent quality, plainsawn oak, ash, birch, hickory, natural walnut (yes walnut if you can live with all the allowed defects)
- Paint-grade maple (natural) or poplar
- Pine (although there are some grades of spruce, fir, and pine that are pricey and quite beautiful. I did a kitchen in southern yellow pine using the more radial grain sections of the planks.)
In each of these species there are numerous grades and classifications, so some cherry can be cheaper than some birch, let’s say. It helps to know a little bit about that grading system, and what defects can disqualify one piece of timber from a price class. For me the most awful material is rotary-cut red oak, which is used in making most of the oak plywood out there. The log is peeled like a paper towel roll and the figure produced is a grotesque caricature of wood. It’s everywhere because it’s cheap. Avoid it.
What is MDF?
MDF or medium density fiberboard is a panel product made by gluing together finely ground up wood fibers. The glue is usually formaldehyde resin. Its virtues are that it is inexpensive, fairly stable, is flat and smooth, and ideal for gluing veneer onto. Most of the plywood in cabinets made these days is in fact MDF or particleboard, a less dense cousin.
Its vices are: It’s very heavy, a single sheet can weigh close to a 100 lbs; it’s brittle and easily damaged; the sawdust produced when cutting it is nasty stuff requiring wearing a respirator; plywood manufacturers, exploiting the smoothness of the face feel free to apply the thinnest of papery veneers that is quite delicate, easily damaged and hard to repair; and finally it’s commonly known to emit urea-formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds that pose health risks at sufficient concentrations, for at least several months after manufacture.
That’s why we don’t use it, but prefer instead to use veneer-core plywood made from seven to 13 layers of real wood veneer. It is more expensive; has better, thicker face veneers; is lighter and much more resilient, smells better, is cleaner and safer.
Can I use my own material?
Yes, since we do not mark up materials, it only matters to us that the material is suitable for your project. For example, if we order 50 board feet of oak at $2/bf, we charge you $100 + tax. We sell only the service we provide in designing and building your project. Many customers prefer to source certain elements like handles, lights, or stain. Often a customer will have left over lumber or molding from a previous job and would like to have it not go to waste. Not a problem, in fact we encourage that kind of thrift and involvement in the work.
Are you "green?"
Our main lumber supplier, Rayner & Rinn-Scott supports the conservation of forests and partners with like-minded suppliers. As part of its commitment to sustainable forestry, Rayner & Rinn-Scott undergoes an annual audit to be certified in accordance with standards established by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the leading certification body for responsible forest management. This certification allows Raynor and Rinn-Scott to provide FSC certified moulding, lumber and panel products.
We primarily use water-based acrylic resin finishes with HVLP spraying equipment which reduces or eliminates emissions of VOC’s (volitile organic compounds), the kind typically produced by spraying lacquer, polyurethane, or varnish.