Inset vs Overlay Cabinets — What's the Difference, and Which are Better for Your Kitchen?

When it comes to comparing inset vs overlay cabinets, it's not just about good looks, as a kitchen designer explains

a overlay and inset kitchen side by side
(Image credit: Doublespace Photography. Design: Reigo & Bauer / Design: Gabrielle Fabbri)

Remodeling a kitchen is full of decisions to make, and some of them you may not ever even think about until it comes time to make them. For example, if your designer asks you whether you want overlay or inset kitchen cabinets, would you know what to say?

In my experience, a kitchen designer is more likely to show you examples and ask about styles that you're drawn to, but knowing the difference between these cabinet types and each of their pros and cons is such useful information before you go into a design consultation.

So what's the difference between inset and overlay cabinets, and what does it mean to a modern kitchen? We asked a kitchen designer to explain exactly what you need to know.

What's the difference between inset and overlay cabinets?

It's pretty easy to identify the differences between these two types of kitchen cabinet. 'Basically, inset cabinetry means the cabinet doors are set into the frame,' kitchen design specialist Gabrielle Fabbri explains. 'Overlay means the doors sit on top of the frame, so the frame is no longer visible.'

An inset kitchen is a more traditional style where the door is set into a frame, surrounded on all four sides, using a classic hinge.

An overlay kitchen is a modern style of cabinetry, which has been devised using a complex hinge that allows for the door to sit on the front of the frame. From the exterior, you only see the door.

What are the pros and cons of inset and overlay cabinets?

a white inset kitchen with accessories

(Image credit: Design: Gabrielle Fabbri)

Overlay kitchen cabinets were basically created as a response to the expense and craftsmanship required for inset kitchens, so you may find that the pros and cons of inset and overlay kitchens reflect each other.

Let's start with inset kitchens. 'Inset kitchens evoke a bit more of a timeless look and have a higher craftsmanship,' Gabrielle explains. 'The frame also provides structural support for the weight of the cabinets.' Other than this, there are no huge practical benefits of inset kitchen cabinets over overlay ones. It's more about the overall look. It's a design that honors the tradition of cabinet-making, and therefore has a luxuriousness about it. They're often accompanied by other signs of craftmanship in cabinetry, helping to contribute to an elevated look.

a modern overlay handleless kitchen

(Image credit: Doublespace Photography. Design: Reigo & Bauer)

Overlay kitchens offer a different sense of style to inset ones — and your choice may be down to preference. 'I think a company like Amuneal is a fantastic example of overlay cabinetry done exceptionally well,' Gabrielle explains. 'If you look at their metal doors, for example, they read cleaner and sleeker because there are no frames.' 

Overlay cabinets are also considered to be the more space-efficient option. 'When you lose the frame, you also gain a few inches of storage in your drawers and doors, which can be a big draw for clients with smaller spaces,' Gabrielle says.

It's also noted that you may be more likely to nick corners of overlay cabinets, where inset cabinets are more protected within the frame when closed.

How does it affect the cost?

a modern white kitchen with mix and match lighting

(Image credit: Melissa + Miller Interiors)

When choosing between inset vs overlay cabinets, it's not just a case of picking your preference. There's going to be a price difference too, which may be quite significant in your overall budget. So how much does a modern kitchen cost with inset cabinets compared to overlay ones?

According to the team at Georgia-based kitchen design studio Dove Kitchen & Bath, the difference could be between 15-20% of the overall cost of your cabinetry in choosing an inset style. Other designers, such as Bob Bakes from Bakes & Kropp, say it could be as much as 30%. It's no small amount across the cost of a kitchen.

Overlay cabinets are much simpler in construction, and therefore demand a lower price. It's not so much an indication of the quality of materials used, but about the amount used and the craftsmanship required to create inset cabinetry.

So which are best?

a green kitchen with a brass range hood

(Image credit: Kirstin Karch. Design: The Misfit House)

Which is best for your kitchen depends on a multitude of factors, including what your kitchen budget is. If you're looking for a modern look, and want to save on your cabinetry in the process, overlay-style kitchens don't look inexpensive, nor are they out of style in anyway. They often suit more contemporary style kitchens, too, especially if you're looking at handleless, slab doors for your design.

However, there is something just a little bit magical about inset cabinetry that feels elevated and luxurious, and while it's a more classic style, right now it feels like the way to go for a modern, elegant space. Gabrielle agrees. 'I prefer inset cabinetry,' she tells us, 'and I'd say ot is the leading style in luxury cabinetry.'

Luke Arthur Wells
Freelancer writer

Luke Arthur Wells is a freelance design writer, award-winning interiors blogger and stylist, known for neutral, textural spaces with a luxury twist. He's worked with some of the UK's top design brands, counting the likes of Tom Dixon Studio as regular collaborators and his work has been featured in print and online in publications ranging from Domino Magazine to The Sunday Times. He's a hands-on type of interiors expert too, contributing practical renovation advice and DIY tutorials to a number of magazines, as well as to his own readers and followers via his blog and social media. He might currently be renovating a small Victorian house in England, but he dreams of light, spacious, neutral homes on the West Coast.