Understand Cabinet Materials

What your cabinets are made of determines how they look and how they'll stand up to daily use. To help you strike a balance between style and structural support, here's a look at the most common cabinetry materials.


Most cabinets are made from hardwoods, but to reduce costs, these hardwoods are often applied as veneers over a substrate, such as plywood.

Wood warps easily as its moisture content changes. That's why it's important that the wood be finished on all sides before it leaves the factory. Unfinished cabinetry should be finished on-site as soon as possible to prevent warping. Veneered cabinets are more stable than solid lumber in high-humidity areas.

Types Available

+ enlarge image Red oak

Red oak is strong, durable, and relatively inexpensive. Available in a wide range of styles and finishes, it features pronounced grain patterns and is most often used for traditional cabinet styles. This wood is an option for stock, semicustom, and custom-made cabinets.

+ enlarge image White oak

White oak is as durable and a bit stronger than its red counterpart. With more golden tones, white oak has a more subtle grain and is often quarter-sawn for custom cabinetry -- especially for an Arts and Crafts or period look. Generally, white oak is available only as a custom option.

+ enlarge image Maple cabinets

Hard maple is a fine-grain and light-color wood slightly more expensive than oak but less dense. A popular choice for semicustom and custom cabinets, maple can be stained, but it is most often dressed with a clear or natural finish to achieve a light, contemporary look.

+ enlarge image Hickory

Hickory is lighter than oak, but is similar in grain pattern and strength. This creamy, pale yellow wood can be stained; however, like maple, its blond tones are most often complemented with a clear or natural finish. Lending itself to a rustic style, hickory is a rare choice for custom and semicustom cabinetry.

+ enlarge image Cherry

Cherry is hard enough to withstand knocks and marring. Elegant and formal when used for certain traditional styles, cherry's design versatility can also give a kitchen a contemporary personality. This smooth, fine-grain, red to reddish-brown wood darkens with age and is often stained for uniformity of color.

+ enlarge image Birch

Birch is a durable, fine-grain wood that is slightly darker than maple. It takes finishes well and can masquerade as a more expensive wood. When stained, it can achieve a good "faux" cherry or maple look. Prone to some irregular coloring, birch is a relatively inexpensive wood choice in both stock and semicustom lines.

Ash is similar in strength and durability to oak, but has a light color and a more pronounced figure. This straight-grain lumber takes on a contemporary character when it's given a clear or natural finish. Its availability is limited in semicustom lines and is more often seen in custom work.

+ enlarge image Knotty pine cabinets

Pine is the only softwood species commonly used for cabinetry, and it dents more easily than hardwoods. This pale yellow wood can be stained, and it often features knots used to underscore traditional and country styles. Eastern white pine and Western white pine are found in select semicustom lines.

Features to Consider

  • Grain. Except at the very high end, veneered cabinets are likely to give you better grain-matching than solid wood cabinets.
  • Color. You're not always wedded to a wood's natural color. Stain can replicate the color of maple on a birch base, for example.
  • Construction. Wood cabinet drawers can be constructed using dowels or rabbets, or using dovetails. Drawers with dovetails should last longer, but consume more wood to produce, and therefore are more expensive.

Cost Guidelines

Wood or wood-and-plywood cabinets start at about $80 per linear foot, especially in the stock and semicustom realm. The cost can rise to well over $165 per linear foot for the rarest woods, custom designs, and so on.

+ enlarge image This kitchen has the look of maple for less, thanks to laminates.

Cabinetry that is not solid-wood or wood veneer is generally laminate or Thermofoil, both of which are applied to substrates. Laminate and Thermofoil come in a range of colors and patterns, including some that mimic wood.

Types Available

  • Laminates are made of three resin-saturated layers: a base layer of paper, a printed and colored layer (which may look like wood), and a protective transparent layer. Heat and pressure fuse a laminate to a substrate. The weight of the substrate makes laminate cabinets heavier than those made of wood. Laminate is used to cover exterior cabinetry surfaces, the fronts and backs of doors, and some interior surfaces. High-pressure laminates are difficult to damage, giving vertical surfaces the same durability as countertops. Low-pressure laminates, also called melamine, are less impact-resistant than high-pressure laminates and have a tendency to crack and chip. The use of better substrates reduces these problems.
  • Thermofoil is a vinyl film applied to a substrate with heat and pressure. The application process makes it possible for Thermofoil to resemble wood detailing more closely than laminate can. Most often white or almond, Thermofoil cabinets are easy to care for and less likely to chip than painted cabinets.

Features to Consider

Availability. Laminate and Thermofoil cabinets are readily available at home centers and even some assemble-it-yourself home stores. If you need new cabinets in a hurry, and don't have a lot to spend, this is a good choice.

Durability. The construction of particleboard-substrate cabinets is not as strong as other options. The joinery on the least expensive options is likely to be staples, which are not as sturdy as other construction options.

Door style. Your choice is likely to be limited to flat front, although the laminate and Thermofoil processes can accommodate the curves of raised-panel doors.

Cost Guidelines

This is the lower end of cabinetry options, compared to wood or wood veneer. Expect to pay $50 to $75 per linear foot for wall and base cabinets chosen from a stock selection. High-pressure laminates are more expensive than lower grades but are also more durable (though also hard to repair). Thermofoil will vary in cost from $35 to $45 per linear foot.

Manufactured wood products known as substrates are hidden behind laminate, vinyl film, or wood veneers. Here are the various types used:

  • Particleboard is made from wood particles mixed with resin and bonded by pressure. It serves as the base for most cabinetry covered with laminate and vinyl film. New technology and improved resins make particleboard a strong, reliable building material. In poor grades, though, hinges and other fasteners tend to fall out; and particleboard that's too thin will buckle or warp under the weight of kitchen gear.
  • Medium-density fiberboard is a high-quality substrate material made from smaller fibers than particleboard. It offers superior screw-holding power, clean edges, and an extremely smooth surface. In addition, its edges can be shaped and painted.
  • Plywood is made by laminating thin layers of wood to each other with the grain at right angles in alternate plies. Varying the direction of the grain gives plywood equal strength in all directions. The layers are bonded with glue under heat and pressure. Thinner plywood is typically used on cabinet backs; thicker plywood forms the sides.

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