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How to Choose Inset vs. Overlay Cabinets for your Home

Published on:

4/28/21

written by:

Carrie Barker

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When building or renovating a house, there is an unbelievable amount of decisions that you need to make … one of these decisions is whether you want inset vs. overlay cabinets.

When you think about your cabinets, you obviously think about what color and style you want. What you might not realize, however, is that this isn’t where the decisions stop. You need to decide how you want your doors and drawers placed on the cabinets.

There are three ways to place doors and drawers on framed cabinets: Inset, Full Overlay, and Partial Overlay. This was news to me when I was building my home, so I hope the information and photos below help you in understanding the differences so you can choose the best option for your home.

INSET CABINET DOORS

inset cabinet doors

Inset Cabinet Doors, Shaker Style

inset cabinet doors

Inset Cabinet Doors, Shaker Style

Inset doors are set into the frame and provide a custom and smooth overall appearance. The doors, drawers, and frame all sit flush when closed.

Inset cabinets are priced quite a bit higher than overlay cabinets, and they do require hardware (or a push system) because you can’t simply open them with your fingers.

I have custom inset cabinets in both my kitchen and master bathroom. While I think the look is beautiful and streamlined, the gapping does annoy me at times!

PROS: higher-end look and cleaner lines, hinges can be visible or hidden

CONS: higher cost, gapping can be pretty obvious in places (see photo above), and there is less storage space because the doors are inset (although I have never had a problem … I have plenty of space for my dishes).

FULL OVERLAY CABINET DOORS

full overlay cabinets

Full Overlay Cabinets in “House Updated” Brit’s kitchen! See more of her GORGEOUS kitchen HERE

Full Overlay cabinets offer a similar appearance to that of inset doors but with a lower price tag (yes, please!). The doors and drawers completely cover the cabinet face, providing a flat cabinet front similar to inset cabinets.

I opted for full overlay cabinets in my laundry room, basement bar, and secondary bathrooms. I think all of these cabinets look fabulous, and I saved A LOT of money since I didn’t do inset in these spaces.

This is the way to go if you want a higher-end look but your budget doesn’t allow for inset cabinets.

PROS: streamlined and sleek, less expensive than inset, and gapping between frame and door (or drawer) is not obvious like in the inset.

CONS: there really aren’t any cons other than the fact that they aren’t the higher-end inset

PARTIAL OVERLAY CABINET DOORS

partial overlay cabinet doors

Minimal partial overlay cabinet doors in my office. Notice the small gap between doors.

Partial overlay cabinets are the most common and least expensive option. If you have a tight budget, this is the route you want to go!

These offer more of a traditional look and do not require hardware because there is finger space between cabinet doors. The door sits on the cabinet face, leaving a gap of about 1” between the doors. My home office cabinets (see photo above) have a very minimal partial overlay. Typically the cabinet frame would be exposed on either side of the cabinet door (see diagram below).

Both overlay options offer more storage space within the cabinet since the door sits on the outside of the frame.

PROS: least expensive option

CONS: doesn’t look as high-end as the other options

SHOP MY CURATED COLLECTION OF CABINET HARDWARE

inset vs. overlay cabinets

A great visual of inset vs. overlay cabinets from Panyl.com!

HOW TO CHOOSE: WHICH IS BETTER?

As with any house design decision, there is NO right or wrong answer. Simply go with the look YOU enjoy most and what style fits best within your budget.

I hope that you now feel more confident in knowing how to choose inset vs. overlay cabinets for your home. If you’d like a little bit of extra guidance in CONFIDENTLY making design decisions for your home, download my *FREE* guided Design Decision Worksheet.

inset vs overlay cabinets

  1. Madison says:

    This post was SO helpful! Thanks for writing it. I would’ve never known about this!

  2. Jennifer says:

    When we remodeled our home, I wanted inset but cost wise it made more sense to go with full overlay. I love the way our cabinets turned out! I would do it again.
    Its amazing all the decisions to make. Don’t get me started on kitchen knobs.???? Talk about a hard decision.

    • Oh my goodness … SO many decisions!!! I know! I think full overlay is stunning! I plan to do that throughout my next home (kitchen, bathrooms, laundry, etc.)!

      • holly says:

        In the debate of full overlay … (or frameless ) and inset. I love the classic look of inset and we have the budget to do it. I noticed you said you’d just go with full overlay everywhere on your next home. Have your insets been a disappointment overall ? So many decisions in this process and I’m afraid to make the wrong one 🙂 Yikes.

        • Hi Holly! I know … SO many decisions! My inset have not been a disappointment overall, but imperfections do show. That is, my inset show any time a cabinet or drawer isn’t perfectly on track … which happens a lot! Maybe I would just be more particular in the kitchen to make sure the cabinet makers make everything as perfect as possible! I definitely won’t do inset anywhere other than the kitchen in my future home(s)!

          • Holly says:

            Thanks so much for getting back to me. I really appreciate it. Still in the debate. Ugh. So… If your cabinet maker had a good reputation …you WOULD opt for inset in the kitchen (no bead) ? I’m thinking Inset for the perimeter and full overlay (or even frameless) on the islands? Hmmmm….

          • Yes — I would make sure to view some of the cabinet maker’s work before doing inset! Also, I personally would keep the cabinet style consistent throughout the entire kitchen. I am too detail oriented to have various styles all in one room!

          • Holly says:

            Gotcha … Thanks so much 🙂 Appreciate your reply.

        • Kristin Clippert says:

          Hi Holly, I was reading your blog exchange convo w/ Carrie from 2018 and wondering how your kitchen turned out and if you chose inset or full overlay. Im preparing a kitchen reno this year and going over and over which I should choose. At first I was 100% inset because I have the budget and they look custom and gorgeous and theyre in all the high end kitchens. THEN I went to a showroom (a couple actually) and was appalled at the gaps and errors you could see immediately. I thought “well if they cant do it well for their own cabinetry showroom, who is going to care if they do it well at my house???” So then I was 100% overlay… and now Im second guessing again. Ive been told to heavily research the cabinet maker that was recommended by my contractor (Woodland – in South Dakota) but Im still skeptical, and of course my contractor has to install them perfectly! He is a personal family friend and I don’t want my new kitchen to be the demise of our friendship because of inset cabinets. LOL! OK – let me know what you chose and how it worked out! Would love to hear your advice now that you’ve also been there and back.

          • Hi Kristin! I know you were asking for Holly’s opinion … and I hope she comes back and replies! I just had to throw in that you sound like me … I notice every single gap and imperfection in my inset cabinets. I really don’t know if I would do it again in the future (unless I found a fantastic cabinet maker).

  3. Florrie says:

    This is actually useful, thanks.

  4. Deborah says:

    So if I understand correctly, inset cabinets are more expensive and “high-end” cuz… they look “high-end”. But in fact offer no other benefits. Gotcha.

  5. […] Post: HOW TO CHOOSE INSET VS. OVERLAY CABINETS FOR YOUR HOME […]

  6. […] 2. How to Choose Inset vs. Overlay Cabinets […]

  7. Lindsay says:

    This is all so helpful (both the article and the comments, lol!). I too am having this dilemma and you make such a good point about the quality of installation. I will double check in the cabinetmaker’s showroom for gaps and imperfections. When done right inset is just so beautiful!

  8. Theresa says:

    I thought about doing inset too for an upcoming kitchen remodel, but then I looked at the face frames of my current full-overlay kitchen. All of my cabinets are chipped around the edges of the face frames from wear and tear over the years. Fortunately, with full-overlay cabinetry the frame of the cabinet is almost fully covered by doors and drawers so you don’t see those chips edges unless you open the cabinetry. Not so with inset cabinets, because the frame of the cabinet is fully exposed around all the edges exposing any potentially chipped and damaged edges, even when drawers and doors are closed.

  9. […] I say this because: (a) my inset cabinet door wouldn’t close properly with this on it, and (b) I don’t want to see a little hook on the outside of my cabinet. Keep this in mind if you have inset cabinets. […]

  10. […] to have inset cabinets. I know it’s kind of ridiculous.. and if you don’t know what that means check it out here. But, because of the precision required for inset cabinetry they tend to be very pricey and I […]

  11. Sarah says:

    It appears someone stole your content word-for-word except for your comments from your experience. https://www.jentalbotdesign.com/blog-entries/2019/01/22/2019-1-9-the-truth-about-inset-vs-overlay-cabinets

  12. Ruby says:

    Thank you everyone for your comments and this article! I also was going for the high end inset cabinetry and have finally decided to go w the full overlay for all the pros of it. Beauty is appreciated but I value function and good long term wear over it.

  13. Leanne says:

    We currently have partial overlay from the builder. We HAD inset in our townhouse before this. One major difference I have notices is DUST gets inside the partial overlay. I can’t stand that! I can see the imperfections though in the photo above in the spacing between the frame and the drawers especially and somewhat of the doors. I don’t recall seeing that in the old townhouse though. SO – anyone else have experience with or without DUST in inlay, partial or FULL overlays or is it just WHERE we have move to is a dustier region!

    • Ugh – dust can be so annoying! I’m sorry you’re experiencing that. I probably have dust on my overlay cabinet doors but they are white so I don’t notice. Unfortunately, no option is absolutely perfect since nothing in life is perfect :).

  14. Cheryl says:

    We just completed our new build in Feb 2021. We went with full overlay. A couple of notes.
    1. We have 9′ ceilings on the first floor. I didn’t want cabinets above 8′, so we went with a frieze board and trim. REALLY looks great and you save a lot by not having 12″ cabinets all around the perimeter (with lights) that you don’t use anyway. Got this idea from Caroline’s kitchen.
    2. We have shaker cabinets, but I went with a plain front on the first drawer of the base cabinet everywhere in the house. First, I didn’t want a small shaker inset in the top drawer (since it is 6″) with a pull, and second, it saves a lot of $$ and looks cleaner.

    These 2 ideas help offset the cost of the full overlay.

  15. Catherine Crain says:

    What paint color did u use in the great room?
    Thanks for sharing all your wonderful ideas
    Cathy

  16. Mary Ann says:

    First of all THANK YOU. I was ready to go with inset for a small cottage redo and I’m going full inset all the way now. And Cheryl’s comment was helpful too – thank you Cheryl. We are using Shaker style too and going plain on that first drawer is an excellent idea. I am going to do the same thing.

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