This is where you'll see the vast quality differences in cabinetry. You're really looking at three types of cabinetry: custom, semi-custom and stock. Let's start with the lowest end and work our way up.
Just as the name implies, this is mass-produced cabinetry that is kept in stock at large warehouses until an order is received. Door styles, wood types and hardware choices are very limited.
Most stock cabinetry is only available in 3" increments, so they require the use of fillers to fit most spaces.
Stock cabinets work well in rooms with little use; guest baths, garages or basements. Some can look quite nice and work well, in rental properties or if you're trying to get the house ready for sale.
Stock cabinetry is of a lower quality and will not hold up to normal wear and tear for more than about 10 years, often much less.
Don't be fooled by the use of the word "custom". The quality and construction methods are the same as stock cabinetry. The main difference being that the cabinets aren't produced until ordered.
Because you order the cabinetry before it's produced, you do have more styling and hardware options.
Although semi-custom cabinetry can look quite beautiful with the extras that can be added, the lifespan and overall quality mirror stock cabinetry.
This is my least favorite type of cabinetry, because it deceives people into thinking they are getting significantly better quality. When, in reality they are just getting a few more options with slightly better hardware.
Often, by the time you add all of the bells and whistles that semi-custom can offer, the price point is very near (if not higher than some) custom cabinetry. Furthermore, the baseline quality of hardware and materials on most custom cabinetry is much better than the highest end of semi-custom.
If you're considering semi-custom, get a custom quote as well. You may be surprised at how much more you'll get from the custom with very little (if any) more money spent.
Custom cabinetry runs the gamut in terms of price and quality. Price and quality are determined first by the cabinetmaker and second by the area.
Generally this is the highest quality. But be warned; there are several 'dudes' with no training and very little experience calling themselves custom cabinetry builders. While they are building "custom" cabinetry; its not always "quality" cabinetry.
That said, everyone has to start somewhere. There are some very skilled newbies out there. The best thing to do is look at his showroom and ask questions. Even if you don't know what the answers should be, you can tell a lot about his operation by his confidence and enthusiasm when answering.
There's almost no limit to what can be done with custom cabinetry. The choices can seem overwhelming, but a good kitchen designer or cabinetmaker can help you find the look and function you want.
Of course, custom cabinetry does take the longest to get into your house. It's really difficult to give an estimation, because every custom cabinet maker runs his business a little differently.
In our shop, most projects are ready to be installed 6 weeks from the time the final design is approved. Occasionally it can take a couple extra weeks for very large jobs or full cabinetry for a new home. We give a completion date before work begins, and we haven't missed one yet!
Getting to the final design is the variable. We usually have a few designs for customers to look at within a couples day of the first meeting. From there the tweaking happens. Some people come to a final design within a week. For some it's several months of design and redesign and thinking it over.
For some choosing a style is based only on budget, for others it's based on having the kitchen of their dreams. For most, though, it's a combination of both. In the end, you're the one who has to decide what you really want.