What are Cabinets Made of These Days?
When you’re shopping for cabinets one of the most important things for you to consider is the materials used to construct the cabinet. The materials and the style of construction play a huge role in the durability of your cabinets. Let me give you a general description of what cabinets are made of these days.
Cabinet materials fall into one of four categories including solid wood, particle board, plywood, and medium density fiberboard, also known as MDF. Let’s get into some more details about what each of these materials means for you as a consumer.
Solid wood refers to a cabinet built from cut wood that is not engineered or man-made, unlike the other materials referenced above. Cabinets constructed with solid wood are available but are more expensive. This is due to the higher cost of natural wood, and the manufacturing processes required. Most manufacturers employ solid wood in the construction of cabinet doors, face frames, and trims, but not in the box of cabinets. It requires someone with a high level of skill, and experience working with solid wood, to obtain a quality finished product. These cabinets will be more expensive because of the skill requirements and the higher cost of solid wood as compared to engineered wood.
Plywood is an engineered wood product made of thin sheets of wood glued together. Manufacturers glue the sheets of wood so the wood grain of each sheet alternates directions. This increases the stability and strength of the product. While often considered an upgrade when ordering cabinetry to have All Plywood construction, most cabinet dealers will recommend you go for this option. It will increase the stability and durability of your cabinets while also weighing less than particle board. This is helpful if you want to install the cabinets yourself. Plywood holds screws and hardware better than particle board or MDF. It is also less prone to swelling when exposed to water. While plywood construction will increase the cost of your project the value it adds makes it the best choice.
Particle board is a wood product made of wood pulp that manufacturers mix with a binding agent and press into sheets. It is dense and extremely heavy. Particle board is a less expensive option than plywood but has some downfalls. It swells when water gets into it and does not always have the same long term durability as plywood. Even though manufacturers attempt to seal the edge of the wood they cannot eliminate the swelling caused by exposure to liquid.
We had an old cabinet made of particle board that we kept in a garage area. During a heavy rain, water got under the garage door and into the base of the cabinet. The water caused the bottom of the cabinet to collapse into a pile of wet wood pulp. This bottom photograph shows water damaged particle board. With any wood product it is important to avoid allowing water to soak into it, but it can be especially damaging with particle board and MDF.
Medium Density Fiberboard
MDF, sometimes referred to as furniture board, is the last material option we will discuss. They manufacture it in a similar process to particle board but instead of wood pulp they use sawdust. This limits the air pockets within the sheet and increases the density. It is also prone to swelling like particle board when exposed to water. Manufacturers must properly seal MDF to try to avoid swelling issues. It is denser and heavier than particle board. Manufacturers use MDF in the center panels of cabinet doors and cover the door with a veneer or laminate. This photograph shows a cross section of two doors. The one on top has a panel made of MDF and the one below has a panel made of solid wood. Both doors have stiles and rails around their outer edges made of solid wood.
Many manufacturers use MDF extensively in the construction of cabinets and furniture. Because it is a smooth and stable surface it accepts paint, wooden veneers, laminate, and Thermofoil very well. Due to its weight manufacturers rarely use MDF in the construction of cabinet boxes. They most often use it for doors, filler pieces, and panels.
If you love the look of solid wood you can still achieve a natural wood look without splurging on solid wood. Veneers are thin sheets of natural wood that manufacturers adhere to engineered wood in order to give the look of a natural wood grain. You can purchase the veneers pre-stained or you can stain them yourself. If you like the look of a more exotic wood, veneers are a great option to both reduce cost and have less of an environmental impact. Manufacturers are able to produce a greater quantity of veneer from one log than solid wood cabinets which limits the environmental impact on forests. They can apply veneers over particle board, plywood, or MDF.
Most cabinets available for purchase will be some form of engineered wood with a wood veneer or painted finish. This is particularly true for the box of the cabinet. The use of engineered wood is a good thing as plywood boxes are the sturdiest and most durable. Depending on what door style you choose, the door of the cabinet may be solid wood or a combination of solid wood and veneer over plywood or MDF.
Thermofoil doors are typically made entirely of MDF. Manufacturers fabricate Thermofoil doors by placing a thin layer of vinyl with adhesive on one side onto a MDF door. They vacuum seal the vinyl to the door to remove any air between the vinyl and the MDF. These doors are one of the least expensive options. Thermofoil can be problematic because if it begins to peel or tear. These issues are more difficult to repair than a painted or stained door.
I hope this helps shed some light on the wide world of cabinets. Go forth and choose your new cabinets with confidence, knowing which materials are right for you! Happy renovating!