What materials are kitchen cabinets made of?
Since cabinet materials play a meaningful role in the life span, service, and beauty of your kitchen, a little knowledge can go a long way in helping you choose the best cabinet for your needs.
Kitchen cabinets are chiefly built from wood and wood-based materials:
- Medium-density fiberboard (MDF)
- Wood Veneer
Of these materials, plywood and hardwood have the best reputation for high quality cabinets. However, their strength and durability often comes with a higher price tag. It’s not uncommon to see cabinet manufacturers charge an additional 15-20 percent for full-plywood cabinet boxes.
MDF and particleboard are engineered wood products made by binding and pressing together glue and wood particles (think sawdust and wood chips) under pressure. Many of the low- to mid-range cabinets you’ll find off-the-shelf at home stores and online retailers will be built from these composite wood products.
Solid hardwood is a natural product from trees. Each piece of wood is unique in its color, texture, and grain patterns, which include mineral streaks and knots. These natural variations add to hardwood’s distinctive appeal and beauty.
Hardwood is durable, resilient, and easy to repair. Scratches, dents, stains, or water marks may be sanded and refinished, further increasing its lifespan compared to veneers or laminates bonded to a composite fiberboard like MDF or particleboard.
In cabinetry, hardwood is typically used in two areas of construction: the face frame, and the door/drawer front. Hardwood is rarely if ever used to build the entire cabinet, due to the costliness of wood, as well as its weight. Changes in temperature and humidity will cause wood to contract and expand. Because of that, a heavy box built from hardwood could warp, or shift. MDF is a preferred material over hardwood on painted doors and drawer fronts to prevent paint cracks.
Plywood is made by layering wood at alternating right angles, and binding them together with glue, heat and pressure. Rigid and stable, plywood has the highest strength-to-weight ratio compared to solid wood, MDF, or particleboard.
Consumer Reports recommends plywood as the premium quality option for cabinets. Plywood holds screws more securely and resists moisture better than less expensive particleboard or MDF. It is resilient against blow-outs, dings, dents, and sagging, making it the best material for cabinet sides, backs, shelves, and drawer bottoms.
The thicker the plywood panels, the more rigidity they will provide. Look for plywood thickness of at least ½ inch for the sides and bottoms, and 3/8 inch on the back.
Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF)
Medium-density fiberboard is attractive to consumers as a less expensive alternative to plywood. A composite material made from recycled fibers, resin, and wax pressed together under high pressure, MDF is known for its use in IKEA cabinets.
Medium-density fiberboard can offer good strength, and many consumers have reported long-lasting durability with MDF cabinets. It resists expansion from temperature changes and has a smooth surface, which makes MDF a good choice for painted surfaces like the center panels on painted doors.
On the other hand, MDF is heavier and denser than plywood, but does not provide the same per-square-foot strength. It is also susceptible to damage caused by moisture and crushing.
Some have raised health concerns about MDF since it is made with an adhesive containing urea-formaldehyde, which can be released into the air or “off-gassed” and cause coughing, allergic reactions, and other symptoms to people exposed to elevated levels. Of all the pressed woods, medium-density fiberboard emits the greatest amount of formaldehyde gas, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association.
Particleboard, also known as low-density fiberboard (LDF) and chipboard, is an engineered wood product made by pressing together recycled wood products such as wood chips and sawmill shavings and forming them into sheets. It is usually finished with a layer of laminate, or a wood veneer to improve its appearance.
Particleboard is inexpensive, but not very durable. It is weak in compression and tension, and can degrade quickly when in contact with moisture, which causes expansion and discoloration. Low on strength, particleboard used as cabinet shelves or drawer bottoms are prone to sagging.
Wood veneer is a thin layer of solid hardwood peeled from a log in a process much like peeling an apple. Wood veneers are usually less than 2mm thick and are typically glued and pressed to particleboard or MDF to produce flat panels.
Unlike the materials above, hardwood veneer should be understood as a finish material, comparable to laminate or thermofoil. It’s not a material that’s used to construct the actual cabinet box or frame.
In cabinets, hardwood veneer is used on the large panels of the cabinet sides. It is also used in the flat center panels of Shaker and Mission styled cabinetry. In these applications, veneer is preferred for its stability, light weight, and inexpensive cost compared to solid hardwood.
At CliqStudios, we are dedicated to making high quality cabinets for the best possible price. Our cabinets come standard with all-plywood box construction, hardwood face frames, soft-closing drawers, and more. Check out our cabinet construction specifications.
More articles about kitchen cabinet materials:
- Architizer – How to Choose the Right Kitchen Cabinet Materials for Your Project
- Home Style Choices – Judging Kitchen Cabinet Quality: Cabinet Box Material And Construction
- Displays2go – Comparing Building Materials: Particle Board, MDF & Plywood