Plywood vs Particle Board Cabinets


Are Plywood Cabinets Worth the Extra Money?

As a cabinet dealer I get asked about plywood vs particle board cabinets almost daily.  Do your cabinets have plywood boxes? Is plywood your standard? Is plywood stronger than particle board?  There is however, one question that no one ever asks.  Is upgrading your cabinets to plywood boxes worth the extra money?  My answer, as a cabinet dealer, a professional carpenter, and a lobbyist for high quality woodworking, may surprise you.  The answer, with one big giant asterisk for frameless cabinetry (which I will explain later), is no.  Plywood cabinets are not worth the extra money in most situations.

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Yes, Plywood is Stronger Than Particle Board

There is absolutely no doubt that most plywood cabinets are stronger than most particle board cabinets.  There are countless articles, videos, and testimonials that demonstrate the advantages of plywood over particle board.  I am not here to contest that fact.  What the majority of these discussions fail to point out is that the majority of the advantages of plywood simply aren’t applicable in most kitchen cabinet situations. 

image comparing particle board cabinets with plywood cabinets

Construction and Installation Methods Matter More Than Material Strength

If your cabinets are constructed well and installed properly, they will become one continuous, integral piece of your home.  In fact, the vast majority of home owners can’t even tell the difference between plywood and particle board cabinets after installation.  What does matter is how those cabinets are constructed and how they are installed.  I-beam braces and deep dado integration is far more important than the strength of the board.  You can buy solid wood kitchen cabinets, but if the pieces aren’t joined correctly it really won’t matter what the cabinets are made of. See our cabinet construction standards and installation guidelines for more details.

No, You Don’t Need Plywood Cabinets.  Really.

The most common concern that I see when comparing plywood vs particle board cabinets is that particle board cabinets will swell if it submersed in water.  True statement.  Here is another true statement.  If your kitchen cabinets get submersed in water, you’re screwed regardless or what they are made of.  Having plywood cabinets is not going to save your kitchen from a flood, massive water leak, or any other catastrophic situation in which the advantages of plywood over particle will actually come into play, because guess what?  If your kitchen is flooded, your flooring is ruined, your drywall is ruined, and your precious plywood cabinets are also ruined.  So why pay 10-20% more for the upgrade?

Get Plywood Cabinets Where It Counts

You can get everything you need out of plywood construction in your kitchen cabinets without spending the upcharge for all plywood construction.  There are two places in every kitchen that I do recommend plywood.  Exposed ends and sink base cabinets.  At New Leaf, we incorporate a plywood sink base and plywood ends into every kitchen that we design whether you ask for it or not. 

Photo showing sink base cabinet with a sink mat.  Cabinet is constructed of plywood

Plywood Sink Base Cabinet

The sink base cabinet (or bases) are the only kitchen cabinets that will most likely be subjected to minor water exposure, such as a leaky drain pipe or cleaning bottle spill that may cause more noticeable damage to a particle board cabinet than a plywood cabinet.  By upgrading just that one cabinet to plywood rather than the entire order, you can save thousands of dollars.  We also offer a factory cut sink mat that holds almost a gallon of water in an average 36” sink base.*  

Flush Finished Ends

The other thing that our kitchen designers do at New Leaf Cabinets & Counters as a standard practice is upgrade any exposed cabinet end panel to what is a called a flush finish end.  Other cabinet companies may refer to it as a furniture end. What this means is that we will take that one side panel that is at the end of a run and therefore exposed to higher amounts of traffic and has a much higher potential for bumps and bruises and upgrade it to ¾” plywood that will be integrated into the face frame and have matching finish factory applied.  Many cabinet dealers will simply have their installers apply a ¼” “skin” –typically made of MDF, on the side of the cabinet.  This is something I have seen many times and in my opinion separates a good kitchen designer from a great kitchen designer.  People spend an extra, 10, 15, even 20% to upgrade to plywood constructed cabinets, but then rather than having a flush finished plywood end, they use an MDF cabinet skin to finish the exposed sides of cabinets.  This means at the end of the day, they spent a ton of unnecessary money upgrading all their cabinets to plywood boxes only to end up having something even more vulnerable than particle board in the most vulnerable locations.

photo of a painted gray cabinet with a plywood end panel

The Exception for Frameless Cabinetry

As I mentioned in the beginning, there is one huge exception to all the points I have made above regarding plywood vs particle board cabinetry. Frameless cabinetry should always be upgraded to plywood construction when the budget allows.  In traditional face-frame cabinetry the door hinges and drawer guides are mounted into the face frame of the cabinet, not the cabinet box.  The face frame of the cabinet is built from whatever species you chose (maple, cherry, oak, etc.).  Most likely that material is a hardwood that is extremely strong and durable and more than capable of supporting your doors and drawers. This is true for all types of traditional framed cabinetry including half overlay, full overlay or inset cabinetry. 

In frameless cabinetry, also called European style cabinetry, there is no face frame and therefore the hinges and drawer guides mount into the side of the cabinet box.

What can happen, and happens quite frequently, is because the cabinet doors are hanging on hinges that are only screwed into the cabinet box, which at most is ¾” thick, the screw can actually pull out a piece of the cabinet box when it is particle board.  If you are opting for a frameless or European style cabinet, I highly recommend upgrading to plywood construction.

photo of a frameless cabinet in tacoma, wa

Particle Board is the Majority Standard for a Reason

The vast majority of cabinet makers big and small use particle board or some similar version of engineered plywood such as furniture board, MDF, or melamine as their standard for the cabinet boxes.  There are several reasons for this.  Most people think the main reason is cost.  Although cost is a factor, it is not the main reason.   The main reason the vast majority of cabinetry manufacturers use particle board is that because it consistently maintains accurate dimensions throughout the sheet which makes it easier to work with in tight fitting applications such as cabinet construction.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that if you are buying cabinets, you need to consult with an expert before making your decision.  Small, “mom and pop” dealers that have been building, selling, and installing cabinets for years are going to offer huge advantages over big box stores with high turn overs of meekly trained “designers” and subcontracted installers. 

Come into New Leaf for your free initial design consultation today!

*Mats hold 6 liters per square meter or .158 gallons per square foot of mat

Plywood vs Particle Board Cabinets Comments

Speaking as a "meekly trained designer from a big box store" (LOL) ... I do thank you for the information!! It was very informative and answered all my questions. Very well written and made me chuckle out loud a few times!!

Well-written article! I'm also pretty sure 'Alison' isn't from Baltimore, MD. Just sayin' ;)
03/14/2019 - Thomas from Whocares, UT

Wheat straw fiber based Particleboard
Hi, thanks for your professional and techinical article about the plywood board VS particleboard used in cabinent making. The US plywood almost imported from China, the quality of plywood depends on many conditions, such as the wood pieces and the techinical proficiency of the workers. The US imported less particleboard from China, but used demostic particleobard produced in the US. I don't think the partciebloard manufacturered by the US factories which quality is better than China. We use particleboard most in wardrobe and cabinets making. There is also a new material based particleobard that is made of wheat strawfiber and P-MDI adheseive, 100% formaldehyde free, which make sure the cabients is with much lower formaldehdye emission and more strong. Why? The waxy layer on the straw surface has natural water-repellency similar to paraffin.
MDI is the manufacturing materials for waterproof coating and sealant, the fiber formation of the combined structure in the water will not degrade, so wanhua strawboard can still maintain good strength and integrity when absorb water or moisture. Moisture-proof performance and recovery rate is better than that of tradtional wood panels. MDI is used in the automotive industry to make bumpers, brake pads and shock absorbers.
This is because MDI has extremely high binding strength.
After the thermal chemical reaction of the fiber, it forms a stable polymer form, so panels will not degrade due to the resin decomposition during the use.
This product has been lanuched in China for 12 years, very popular now, but are un familiar with the us, one reason is North American has produced wheat board during 1995-2002, but failed, most distributors lose confidence to it, the other reason our company focused on China domestic market, has not overseas marketing, it lack product recogintion. We attend the IWF exhibtion in 2018 in Aug. Most clients are unfamilar with this, now the China-Us trade war may proplong the strawboard marketing in the US. However, it is a very potential and promising product, hope you don't miss it. More details, you could check website or contact
09/29/2018 - Alison from Baltimore, MD

particle board
Hello, I will give kudo's to you for understanding how important it is for a sink base to be made out of plywood..and not the cheap stuff called particle board !. my gosh, I see so many large cabinet companies making most of their sink bases out of particle board !. I guess they just don't understand what happens when you mix this cabinet with water huh ?, and what other cabinet is subjected to water most of the time ?..THE SINK BASE !..LOL. As for using it almost everywhere else ?, i'm sorry, but that does not fly with me. I won't mention the name of the kitchen cabinets that came in a total wreck from the factory ?!, but I will tell you this !. they had the screw backing boards made from particle board on the back top, and back bottom..ONLY 2 INCHES WIDE, AND 1/2 THICK !?, this was a 30 inch tall wall cabinet, 42 inches long, it was going to be my plate cabinet, CAN YOU GUESS WHAT WOULD HAPPEN WHEN I ADDED ALL MY PLATES IN IT ?..LOL. another thing they did very wrong, HOT GLUE !!!, and lots of it on all the joints, guess how long that would stay on the wall ?! I am a certified cabinet maker by trade, I do not build them anymore, but I do know the correct way to build them, and building the sink bases from plywood is the ONLY WAY TO GO !, so..i will give you credit for understanding this part :-). in my world, I do not think particle board is strong enough ?, last long ?, and is very cheaply made ?. it does not nail good, it does not hold joints very well ? ( unless it's screwed or nailed ? ) ( which you will never see in the big box stores ! ). most high end cabinets today, are all particle board, UNLESS YOU UPGRADE TO PLYWOOD ?, and as you pointed out, yes it does jack the price up !, but..ask yourself this, would you rather take a gamble on a cabinet falling off your wall made from particle board ?, or would you gamble on a wall cabinet made out of plywood ?, I KNOW WHAT MY CHOICE WOULD BE !.
08/12/2017 - ALAN605 from north little rock, AR