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Solid Wood Cabinet Boxes vs. Plywood Cabinet Boxes - Which is Better?


Which is Better... Cabinets built with Solid Wood Boxes or Cabinets built with Plywood Boxes?

If you're in the market for quality wood cabinets, you may be asking this very question, The real answer may surprise you. This heated debate among consumers could be completely avoided if everyone in the cabinet industry would simply use the same terminology. All of these wood cabinets are constructed using Solid Plywood Cabinet Boxes. When your designer or contractor specs solid wood cabinets, they are simply referring to cabinets made with Plywood Boxes instead of MDF or particleboard boxes. Professional jargon strikes again! :(



 

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Why doesn't everyone just call it what it is? Why use plywood instead of solid wood? Why can't I get a cabinet made from actual solid wood? Why not just use MDF or particleboard? If you've been asking any of these questions, please keep reading. I will make sure you have the information you need to go forth and shop confidently.


Before we get started, I just want to make sure we're all on the same page. The cabinet box we are referring to includes the sides, back, tops (upper wall cabinets only), and bottoms (not the cabinet face frames, doors, or drawers).


Why does the cabinet industry use the term Solid Wood as opposed to Solid Plywood?

Let's rewind! Pretend the year is 2010 and you are planning to purchase quality kitchen cabinets for your home. While I'm sure there were options to shop for cabinets online, it is pretty likely that you would have visited a specialty retail store that sold kitchen cabinets. A cabinet sales professional would have personally guided you through your entire cabinet buying experience using simple laymen's terms that the average consumer could understand. If you had questions, you could ask.


Now, fast-forward to 2022. Maybe you've done some research and realized you can save some substantial cash if you purchase your cabinets from an online retailer that doesn't have to elevate prices to cover the costs of a traditional brick-and-mortar store. While this very different shopping experience will save you thousands (depending on your selected cabinet style and kitchen size, of course), it does not come without consequence. You've got a steep learning curve to overcome. Without a cabinet professional (or a good contractor) to guide you through this process, you're out there all alone reading cabinet descriptions and those super interesting specification sheets. Unfortunately, these spec sheets contain information provided by the manufacturer that is intended to be interpreted by trade professionals. While this information, including the use of the term 'solid wood' when referring to cabinet box construction, is commonly used and understood lingo among cabinet professionals, the average consumer often sees the words 'solid wood' and understands it to mean a single solid board (and most any other time, this would be correct).


Pro Tip: 'Solid Wood' cabinet boxes are actually constructed using plywood. However, when referring to cabinet face frames and cabinet door construction, 'Solid Wood' does in-fact refer to solid boards, not plywood. (I Know, Right?) If you're interested in learning about quality cabinet door construction methods, be sure to check out our blog post "MDF on my Kitchen Cabinet Doors? Yes Please!" - The materials that are used to create superior kitchen cabinets may surprise you.


Why construct a cabinet box using plywood? Wouldn't solid wood be better?

No. Believe it or not, for this application (and many others), plywood is the superior product. To understand this, you have to understand the composition of woodgrain. While wood and woodgrain are beautiful, you have to remember, wood is a natural product, and just like us, it is not without flaws.

If you've never really looked at a piece lumber, take a look at the one above. The varying lines, light and dark, that run the length are referred to as the woodgrain; these grains are what naturally constructs a solid wood board. These grains all run the same direction in an imperfect fashion. The imperfections of the wood grain are directly responsible for the beauty of natural wood. These same imperfections can lead to problems that you don't want to deal with on kitchen cabinets. Let's take a closer look...

  • A true solid wood board has a tendency to grow and shrink lengthwise as the long wood fibers expand and contract with any changes in temperature and humidity.

  • A single piece of lumber is a thin slice of a much larger tree. This thin slice may eventually curl or 'cup' resulting in a surface that is no longer flat. Even traditional tongue & groove hardwood floors (with narrow boards nailed down and supported on all four sides) have this tendency. The wider the board, the better the chance this will happen.

  • As a board dries over time, it could split leaving unsightly visible cracks in your hardwood surface.

  • Lumber can twist and warp. Even if attached to other cabinet components, this warping wood could pull and place unnecessary stress on other cabinet components and result in an unsightly cabinet that is not truly square and straight.

Plywood alleviates these concerns. Plywood is constructed using multiple layers of wood with the woodgrain intentionally running in different directions. While not woven together like fabric, imagine the woodgrain as little threads that all support one another when they are able to hold on from multiple directions. The result is a very rigid piece of 'Solid Plywood" that is much less likely to twist, warp, cup, shrink, or grow. Now, add a beautiful wood veneer to the exterior surfaces of this plywood and you have a very structurally stable material that very much resembles a solid wood board (because wood veneer is made of real wood). In fact, you are able to make a much wider surface (compared to natural solid wood lumber) that will accept stain and give you the beautiful woodgrain details you are looking for. To top it all off, plywood is really great at accepting screws to fasten cabinet boxes together. This results in a super strong cabinet box that is much less likely to develop the common issues associated with solid wood lumber.

Birch plywood side view that shows multiple layers of wood with woodgrain pattern running in opposite directions.
Birch Plywood - Side view shows multiple layers of wood; each layer has woodgrain running in opposite direction. Different types/thicknesses of plywood will have a varying number of layers.

Why can't I get a cabinet made from actual solid wood?

While you may be able to find some type of cabinet made from solid wood, this type of cabinet construction is typically used for furniture construction (you will often find furniture grade plywood utilized for furniture construction as well). You may find someone willing to build cabinets using solid wood board lumber, but this would likely be a custom cabinet maker. Aside from the high price tag associated with custom cabinetry, be sure to consider your current lumber prices. While you may be willing to pay the extra price for a product that sounds good, you won't necessarily be receiving a higher quality product. Plywood box construction is definitely the industry standard (unless of course a manufacturer is using MDF or particleboard cabinet box construction - more on this below) and is considered to be the superior option for a quality wood kitchen cabinet that is designed to withstand decades of normal wear and tear.


Why not just use Particleboard?

Don't get me wrong, if you're looking for kitchen cabinets, especially cheap cabinets, you're going to find plenty of options when it comes to particleboard cabinet box construction. And I will not candy-coat the subject for you. We could offer these types of cabinets for sale... and probably sell tons of them. But we won't! I could not maintain business integrity while trying to sell you an inferior cabinet that I know is destined to fail. I wouldn't be doing you or myself any favors. I don't want phone calls and BBB ratings confirming what I already know... particleboard cabinets are pure junk! I will elaborate on this topic in my next blog post. For now, in the interest of staying off of my soapbox, I am going to answer this question with the following Reader's Digest Condensed Version:

  • Particleboard cabinets are too quickly ruined with a minor water mishap. Leaky faucet or Drain... Anyone?

  • Particleboard cabinets cannot withstand normal wear and tear; they cannot successfully hold on to the screws and fasteners that are trying hold the cabinets together. Think crooked cabinet doors that are falling off and shelves that no longer hold in place.

  • Even in the cleanest of homes, particleboard cabinets are a food source for certain six legged creatures. Sorry, Not Sorry - They Are Not Just Eating Your Reece's! I know this is disturbing, but I feel obligated to let people know. I don't want anyone to feel the need to spray toxic bug spray in and around a place that is supposed to house your dishes and food.


I hope this information gives you the knowledge you need to persevere and successfully shop for your kitchen cabinets. If you still have some questions, please feel free to Contact Us. We believe that an educated consumer matched with a quality product is a recipe for everyone's success. For the record, all of our kitchen cabinetry, even the least expensive options, have Solid Plywood Box Construction - You Won't Find Particleboard Here.



PREFINISHED CABINETS specializes in helping homeowners and contractors create beautifully functional kitchens. You don't even need to know which cabinet sizes to buy. Just send us your measurements to take advantage of our Free Kitchen Design Service or click here to learn How to Measure.


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