Guide To Kitchen Cabinet Materials

Kitchen cabinets should look great and operate properly for decades. Learn about the different kinds available so you can choose cabinets that will last.

If you’re planning a kitchen renovation¬†or starting from scratch, your cabinetry choice will be one of the most important decisions you make. Not only are kitchen cabinets important for storage and organizing, they’re often the first thing people notice when they enter your kitchen.

Advancements in material types and coverings make it easier for experienced DIYers to build their own cabinets, and for retailers like IKEA to offer high-quality kits with everything you need.

We consulted a kitchen cabinet expert, Nick Yahoodain, CEO of Advanced Builders and Contractors, to explain the pros and cons of kitchen cabinet material options.

Solid Wood

Solid wood is an extremely durable, long-lasting material. Its grain offers an attractive natural look you won’t find in other options. It’s one of the most expensive kitchen cabinet materials, but according to Yahoodain, the benefits can be worth the investment.

Unlike less durable options, solid wood can also be sanded and repaired relatively easily. Keep in mind that harder wood, like hickory and maple, is less likely to dent or scratch than softer species like walnut and mahogany.

Solid wood is usually only used on cabinet faces and doors because of its high cost. More affordable materials go into hidden components. Also, solid wood needs to be finished correctly (which can be a challenge for DIYers) and maintained over time.

Pros: Durable. Easier to repair. Many color and pattern choices.

Cons: Expensive. Requires more maintenance.

Plywood

Plywood is made of thin layers of wood glued together, creating a sturdy, strong material. It’s relatively affordable compared to solid wood, although it usually costs more than medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or particleboard.

Plywood can be found in a range of grades, AA, A, B, C, D, and E, with the price dropping as you progress down the scale. The lower the grade, the more inconsistency in color and overall quality. Although lower grade plywood can be used for some interior cabinetry components, DIYers looking for a smooth surface that can be easily painted should choose AA plywood.

Its strength and durability make plywood a great choice for doors and interior cabinet walls. Plus, because plywood is made of actual wood, screws bite into it well.

Pros: Durable. Cheaper than solid wood.

Cons: More expensive than MDF and particleboard.

MDF

Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is made from wood fibers glued and pressed together, creating a strong material usually found in cabinet doors and boxes. Although it’s not as durable as solid wood or plywood, MDF is less expensive.

With a smooth finish and lack of wood grain, MDF can be painted easily, making it practical for those who want a custom color. “If you are looking for a grainless cabinetry material to paint, MDF is a great option,” Yahoodian says. DIYers should note that MDF is porous and needs to be sealed properly before painting to prevent water absorption.

The construction of MDF makes it difficult to repair and impossible to sand down, so chips and scratches are likely to be permanent.

Pros: Low-cost. Easy to paint. Will not warp.

Cons: Can’t be sanded. Vulnerable to damage.

Particleboard

Particleboard is made from compressed wood chips. Although it’s similar in design to MDF, it’s much less dense and not as strong. This lack of strength makes particleboard incapable of supporting heavy loads, and the loose structural makeup is more susceptible to water damage.

Particleboard doesn’t work well for cabinet doors, but it’s common to find particleboard interiors in kitchen cabinets. Particleboard is typically the least expensive option, which is its main advantage.

Particleboard, however, is the least durable of all the options on this list. Its loose construction will take a screw once or twice, but it will quickly crumble if fasteners are inserted more than that.

Pros: Affordable.

Cons: Not durable. Doesn’t accept screws and fasteners easily. Vulnerable to moisture damage.

Laminate

Laminate is a smooth, synthetic plastic covering that can be applied on top of plywood or MDF. It’s typically used on cabinet doors, so it’s good for refacing your cabinets. Yahoodain says laminate comes in low-pressure and high-pressure. High-pressure options (sold under brands such as Formica and Wilsonart) are more durable, while low-pressure options (like melamine) are cheaper.

Laminate’s smooth finish makes it easy to wipe clean, but DIYers should note that it’s difficult to paint. Painting laminate cabinets involves sanding and using specialized paint that adheres to the surface correctly, so keep that in mind if you want to change the color.

Pros: Easy to clean. Low-cost. Wide range of colors and faux wood grain patterns.

Cons: Challenging to paint. Difficult to repair.

Thermafoil

Thermafoil is another covering, like laminate, but made with vinyl instead of plastic. It’s applied by running a piece of plywood or MDF through a machine that heats and vacuum seals the Thermafoil to the exterior. Thermafoil is more affordable than laminate, but also more likely to peel.

DIYers should note that, like laminate, Thermafoil cabinets are a challenge to paint. However, their wide range of colors and finishes make it more likely you’ll find the perfect color option.

Pros: Easy to clean. Affordable.

Cons: More likely to peel than laminate. Difficult to paint.