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