Please help with cabinet construction choices

chelsea252February 5, 2013

Firstly I want to thank all of you for the terrific information you provide on this forum. I have been lurking for the past six months and doing lots of research and planning for my condo renovation in NYC. My contractor has his own custom cabinet maker who is highly recommended by both my architect and designer. We are about to start the project which includes a complete gut of the kitchen next week and are finalizing details. My plan calls for a mixture of painted white cabinets and a dark stained wood peninsula. My cabinet style is frameless, shaker with a very clean edge. The countertops will be honed statuario marble with a mitered edge (profile reads as 2/5" thick). The cabinet boxes will be plywood with maple veneer and drawer boxes made from solid wood as well. Using all Blum hardware for slides and hinges.

My question is regarding the construction of the doors/drawers for both the painted and wood cabinets. The builder, cabinet maker and architect all say the following:

-Painted cabinets doors/drawers should be made from MDF - no wood
-Stained cabinets doors/drawers should be made from veneered MDF - no wood

This is a very expensive project and I was shocked that it would not include wood at least for the stiles on the shaker doors and drawers. I have searched as many articles as possible on the site and I am unsure as to what to think about this. Should I be concerned? I am worried that the veneers will chip or peel or look cheap, but they assured me that this was not the case - that it depended on the thickness of the veneer.

Thanks in advance for your guidance.

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That is how the very best brands I carry do it.
I should add that they will offer an option of a reverse cove (flat panel solid wood) for woods if preferred. Depends on brand, wood and color if that is a good idea.
Not to be used for painted.

This post was edited by jakuvall on Tue, Feb 5, 13 at 14:34

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 1:56PM
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I've been debating this very issue. I want painted cabinets and have been told that mdf is better because the paint won't crack.

One company I'm dealing with wont guarantee the painted wood doors...

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 2:03PM
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Which stained wood are you using? My cherry slab drawer fronts are solid cherry, which was one of the reasons I chose slab over 5-piece on all drawers

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 3:28PM
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I would want wood and am in fact having painted wood cabinets. Many on here have wood cabinets that are not MDF board. I cannot believe that top shelf cabinets are not wood. Are you saying Woodmode and companies of that quality are MDF board?

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 3:59PM
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Wood-Mode yes,Quality Custom Cabinetry Inc (even better) yes...long list. Ive soLd Wood-Mode and currently handle QCCI. Believe what you wish.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 4:30PM
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Wood expands and contracts in the presence of moisture. While I have a company that will make you anything that you want you'd be better off not wanting it unless you are 1000% OK with wood behaving like wood. You WILL get small cracks in every location where one piece of wood joins the other. Between the stile and the rail. Between the panel and the stiles and rails.

90% of all cabinet lines use a MDF center panel in order to minimize the cracking at the panel and stile and rail joint. You will still get solid wood stiles and rails, and you will still get some cracking there. But the major culprit, being the panel, is much more stable and expands and contracts much less when made of MDF.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 5:41PM
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I'd have my antennae up more about a "local" cabinet maker doing frameless. Has he/she done a lot of frameless construction? You'll get solid wood frames for the stained doors-don't worry about the painted MDF-they know what they are doing and there are improved grades of MDF these days[it's not particle board]. So your group is doing the install of this locally sourced frameless cabinetry? Make sure they will stand by all aspects of the construction and install then,and address any problems themselves.It will probably be fine,but frameless is different than framed and has only recently started saturating the market in the US....

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 6:42PM
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Based on a few comments the OP made I would think they are likely ok. I'm often more than a little skeptical of "local custom" cabs but there are quite a few superior builders in the NY metro area. Not cheap, just good.
Plenty of hacks too, not usually referred by architect.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 9:59PM
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Interesting. I read today that the average life for paint finish on kitchen cabinetry is 5 plus years. If you're Wood Mode and other top cabs known for longevity finish and construction, one can see why best grade MDF is encouraged kitchen doors and drawers,

That said, I had no idea of this although I knew about the sign off, about veneer fronts and reverse cove. Maybe I should rethink my own paint drawers and door choices. Thanks for this educating thread, OP and good luck with your choice.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2013 at 11:56PM
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I'm not in the cabinet business, but I'm a very hands-on homeowner/business owner who has remodeled 2 kitchens and 3 large medical/dental offices as owner-builder with a keen eye for design and thousands of research hours into every aspect of construction.

MDF for paint grade is pretty well established, but for stain-grade shaker style doors, I would still go with solid wood over veneered MDF; veneer can delaminate when banged over time, whereas wood gets distressed... character.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 2:02AM
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Davidahn-the real issue with veneered panels in doors has to do with color shift with age and grain. Some woods in some colors will age diferently than the solid wood frame.
Some mfgs only use rotary cut veneer which in some species simply look awful. Others woods it can be fine. Some will use flat sawn when they can though.
I have seen aged stained (even natural) veneer doors that look fine after more than a decade, others not so good in 5 years. I don't know why, but the one variable does seem to be price. I believe that there are variables in the laminating and veneer thickness which contribute.

Not that there aren't issues with solid wood panels, also by price point. Less expensive brands will use narrower sticks to build the panel. If sorting and grain matching are poorly done there can be great inconsistancy. Doesn't bother everyone though.

I have yet to see a veneer panel delaminate in a brand I'm willing to work with. Plenty of veneered antiques around. My own Brookhaven kitchen is 9 yrs old with veneered panel cherry. Note too that plain finished ends are always veneer. Veneer is also preferable for slab doors and all you will find from the best hi end mfgs, I've done quite a few contemporaries and again never had a delamination.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 7:08AM
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I've never had a veneer delaminate. Not in any of my 60 year old antique MCM furniture pieces nor in any kitchen that I've done. The only time delamination of anything has ever been an issue is when a pieces is soaked in water in a flood. And then, the plywood usually delaminates well before the actual veneer door delaminates.

A veneer is the ONLY way you're going to get some of those high end beautiful modern slab door looks. And on the other end of the spectrum, it allows those on a budget to get a nice looking wood cabinet for a little less money. For the vast majority of cabinets in the middle ranges, it allows a maker to guarantee the product's stability, and still maintain a certain look that a customer wants.

There's nothing wrong with a properly built cabinet that uses MDF or veneers. I've seen plenty of poorly built "solid wood custom" cabinets that use crappy Chinese formaldehyde laden void ridden plywood and poorly matched and joined wood strips all hidden under a coat of tinted lacquer.

90% of the time, price IS the best guarantor for the casual shopper that they are receiving a quality product. There are a few (VERY few) small custom shops out there that offer decent work at a less expensive price. They usually belong to some type of religious group that values hard work, such as Mennonites or Amish. But, and this is a really big BUT, their finishes can never approach a factory finish. Even in states that don't have the strict requirements that CA does, you never have a shop have the downdraft paint booth with supplied air for the operator if you're talking Amish. The woodwork is beautiful. The finish is durable enough for light use. But, if you want something to stand up to a heavy use household, look elsewhere.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 7:39AM
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As a cabinetmaker that has seen all kinds of stuff happen to real wood over the years I am a big believer in MDF for painted cabinets fronts. No joints mean less movement which means more durability. I do want solid wood for the frames.

I also like veneered doors..they are just like plywood and again give more stability. They still have joints but less wood movement is better.

The key is the finish- catalyzed lacquer or conversion varnish has the durability and resistance that you are looking for.

Travis Alfrey
Pinehurst, NC

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 8:20AM
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Thanks to all of you for your input - I feel relieved and comfortable to go with the choices suggested by my team now. My architect did also say that we will go with as thick a laminate as possible (~ 1/8") and that for the narrow sides of door/drawer we will use solid wood rather than veneer tape.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 10:21AM
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" My architect did also say that we will go with as thick a laminate as possible (~ 1/8") and that for the narrow sides of door/drawer we will use solid wood rather than veneer tape."
That I don't understand- we were talking about veneer panels in shaker doors- the only time I see tape versus 1/8" wood should be on slab doors- no where else.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 12:55PM
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have you met with the cabinet maker-seen his work or samples/his portfolio/discussed his impressions of what he will be building?

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 1:36PM
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I'm glad people with experience with veneered furniture have stepped in. It makes me feel better about my walnut gold-ply slab doors' future. They're just being installed now. I'm also having solid core doors veneered with matching natural walnut veneer, so I have high hopes for their longevity and durability now.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 4:01PM
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Well I just met with my cabinet maker and discussed this MDF thing. He does the doors and drawers in solid wood including the center panel of a five piece door and all the face frame etc. The boxes are made of 3/4" furniture grade plywood and the cabinets have stretcher bars in them rather than a little piece of wood or whatever laid on a diagonal in the corners. All drawers and face frames are solid wood. He will do whatever I want, so if I want my center panel to be MDF board, he can do that too. My cabinets are going to be painted " Simply White" by B.M. with a catalyzed finish. I am also having a "light" rub thru. (My cabinet doors will be 1" thick as well as all face frames.)

I am confused, which is not hard for me. So are the experts here telling me I should do my five piece doors and drawers in MDF instead of wood as well as my slab drawers or just the center panel of the five piece drawer? And what difference would that make if the rest is wood anyway as far as paint cracking, shrinking etc? And really, just how badly does it crack, shrink or whatever when it has a good catalyzed finish on it"?

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 5:39PM
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is your center panel a raised panel? with a rub thru finish,it sounds that is the case...there is probably relief to the panel,which is typical because the rub thru becomes a detail on the various surfaces.Your maker is likely using paint grade wood..... The original poster had a flat panel. Two different treatments.the slab drawer fronts are a small surface area and attached to something [the carcass of the drawer]so the wood issues are different than a door front which is moved independently/hinged on the side,quite a bit larger with various pieces of wood assembled together to make the door ...the MDF vs. plywood carcass is the only thing you might bother to review with your have a face frame construction/there isn't always a need for the plywood carcass...good MDF with good construction vs the plywood carcass can boil down to price points/ease of sourcing materials/preference/etc. [There is cheap plywood and lesser quality MDF out there equally]As far as the finish and it's life span??? it's not a stained finish so the life of it is different. if you want it that's what matters.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 9:18PM
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No, my center panel is flat. My door style is a variation of a shaker style with wide stiles and a bead along inside edge of stile. He uses solid maple for painted cabinets. The rub thru is just a touch here and there, not a heavy application.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 10:15PM
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I had full custom cabinets made - plywood carcasses etc. and we chose MDF for the doors. They are painted BM Cloud White.

If anyone insists on having 'real' wood doors painted, you'd want MDF panels at a minimum. But bottom line is if you live in an area where the climate changes (i.e. you have real seasons) you will invariably experience cracks in a pieced together wood door. They may be fine lines, but they will be there.

MDF should not have the stigma it seems to have. First, the cost is actually the same - I could have had solid maple doors for the same money. If anyone thinks 'real' wood doors are lovingly hand crafted, and therefore somehow more valuable or time consuming, get over that. They're slammed out on computerized milling machined and slapped together on large clamping tables en masse. They're mass produced.

MDF doors are cut out of a single slab of material on a computerized CNC machine. Frankly it's likely more expensive to produce a MDF door than a solid wood door.

The center panel of a door or drawer front is not glued in place - it floats in the frame, specifically to allow for the expansion and contraction of the frame.

MDF expands and contracts as well, but it does it uniformly in all directions - there is no grain. Hence no cracks.

100% stick with the plywood carcass. They're lighter, stronger, moisture resistant and shouldn't be much more expensive than particle board. The up-charge on our cabinets was about 5% (cost of material only - sheets of plywood vs. particle board). Furniture grade plywood.

The interior appearance cannot be beat. Real birch veneer, not printed wood grain on plastic melamine.

You could easily see a 1/8" band of unpainted panel exposed by an expanding frame, and will no doubt have hairline cracks in the seams of the real wood frame itself. Will be readily evident on a white door.

A lot of it depends on where you live - how much the relative humidity changes through the year. We get a wide swing and I have all sorts of expansion and contraction gaps on my poplar crown molding and baseboards etc. at different times of the year.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 10:45PM
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Toronto Tom, thank you for the info. My cabinets are being made by a Mennonite cabinet shop. Once I read this post,we did speak of a MDF panel for the cabinet and that is probably what will be even though I have a hard time with the idea of cabinets not being real honest to goodness wood through and through. Our home has climate control and we have not experienced any problems with other wood in our home. I hope those who have wood painted cabinets will comment on their experiences as well.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2013 at 11:15PM
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Ours are wood stiles/rails with MDF center panels. We do have fine cracks at the edge between the frame and the center panel after two years. I thought at the time that the reverse panel doors helped on that front, but maybe that's wrong? (We didn't get them for cost reasons, though sometimes I wish we had for weight reasons; our cabinetmaker recommended MDF for any painted finish.) The cracks really don't bother me that much--you only notice them if you look closely, and mostly on the backs of the doors. A bead might hide it. The original cabinetry in our house is all wood, but it has multiple layers of paint on it, so cracks aren't an issue. Our boxes are plywood with birch veneer, like TorontoTim's, and we've been very happy with them.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 12:09AM
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Toronto Tim - thanks this is very helpful. My cabinetmaker is making full MDF doors outside frame and floating panel for the painted cabinets.

Jakuval - perhaps I used the wrong terminology, I was referring to the veneered cabinets. They will have a shaker style drawer/door on them. I read that with veneer you needed to be careful on the edges because they often use a tape product that can peel off over time. My architect explained that they could use solid wood edging to combat that problem. Does this make sense now?

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 7:28PM
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Chelsea- usually rails, stiles are wood. Slab drawers are also typically wood as they can be a single pice, occasionallY draerheads are MDF which does not need tape or edging. Introducing either makes another place for expansion/contraction to crack the finish. Even painted slabs are often solid MDF.
BTW mdf has been used extensively for years in museum and exhibit work. The exterior of many Starbucks are MDF and I know of one ski resort whose sign is exterior grade MDF.

    Bookmark   February 7, 2013 at 8:36PM
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I'm confused... My cheapie thomasville cabinets from Home Depot have plywood boxes and wood doors, not mdf.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 7:06AM
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If they have plywood boxes, that was a 20% "upgrade" that you paid for. 1/2 furniture board is standard ----and perfectly fine for the boxes. If you have painted cabinets, then the center panel IS MDF and only the outer stiles and rails are maple.

    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 7:41AM
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Toronto Tim- I live in Monttreal where we obviously have some extreme weather changes,lol. I originally was planning painted white wood doors but the more I keep reading this forum the more I am leaning toward mdf doors.

I have gotten quotes for my kitchen from 2 places and they too have both strongly recommended the mdf doors. I have asked one of them to qoute me on having plywood interiors. This isn't very popular here it seems...

    Bookmark   February 8, 2013 at 8:10AM
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