tortured over decision! plywood or mdf?!

calypsochickMarch 23, 2010

Hi, everyone. I have seriously been torturing myself over this decision: plywood or mdf for the box/interiors of my kitchen cabinets?

I had always thought I would be using plywood. When I went to one $$$ cabinet manufacturer in a showroom, the guy was really pushing mdf (doors and melamine-coated interior). He said that believing plywood was the best was an American way of thinking, and that mdf was an excellent top-of-the-line choice. He said at some high-end cabinet dealers, you are only given mdf, and no other choice. He said a lot of European manufacturers only use mdf.

After talking to some other people and doing a lot of research, I just decided I would go for the mdf. Weeks of torture was over.

But then, a general contractor came out today and he asked what kind of cabinets I would be using. When I told him about the mdf, he SCOWLED at it! He said plywood was the best, was pricier, but well worth it. He urged me to reconsider my choice.

And now, I am tortured again. I was confident that whatever material I was using from this expensive showroom would be quality. So I wasn't so bothered. But now that I have come back to the basics of mdf versus plywood, I have no idea!! Which, in your honest opinion, is the better choice overall? I know it's more expensive, so I'm not basing this on budget. I just cannot seem to make up my mind about which is the better choice.

Thank you!

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Fori is not pleased

Well, with the doors, it depends on style, paint (or not), etc. For the boxes? Pfft. If you're really paranoid but want to be frugal, get plywood for sink cabinet and anywhere you might maybe have a big water leak and MDF elsewhere. Do be sure it's not bad MDF (and I don't know how you'd check that) but good MDF makes a perfectly acceptable material where you don't get water or direct wear. And of course you don't want to SEE it.

Just because you're not basing it on budget doesn't mean you can't save money...

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 12:45PM
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Overall quality, workmanship and warranty are WAY more important than the MDF/plywood debate. If you are happy with everything else, don't stress about the MDF. I do agree with Fori that the only place I might be concerned about MDF boxes is in the sink base. Water and MDF do not mix well at all.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 12:48PM
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Hi, there. Thanks for the response.

I would like to do white painted Shaker-style cabinets. So I'm fine using mdf doors.

I'm just so crazed about what is best for the boxes! I'm also very concerned about what quality MDF is used. I figured I can never know, but if I'm using a good brand, chances are they hopefully they are not going to be using something so low quality.

I just always thought plywood was considered the best, and then I meet someone whose cabinets I really like, and he is pushing mdf.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 12:51PM
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We had ice-damming shortly after install and water ran down an inside wall. Luckily only a small cab was destroyed, but it could have been worse if it had occurred on another wall. I wish we had gone with plywood. However, having said that, we haven't had any other probs since then.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 1:07PM
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The contractor wants you to use plywood because it's a lot lighter than MDF for cabinets. He wants an easier job. Cabinet sellers that push MDF do so because it's a 20% upcharge. They make more money for very little actual price difference.

I wouldn't pay any extra put plywood in my own kitchen. In any situation where you have enough moisture to cause moisture damage, plywood will be equally damaged. It delaminates in the presence of moisture.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 1:19PM
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Interesting thread, and I'm curious to hear more comments.

I originally thought I would get Brookhaven cabinets (plywood), but now I am talking to a local cabinet company that uses MDF for their unframed cabinet boxes. I really like the KD at this place a lot and they do not have an upcharge for every little thing like Brookhaven does. I'm not sure if the MDF vs plywood should be a factor in my decision.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 1:43PM
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The contractor isn't actually going to install the cabinets. The cabinet people will be doing that. But what do you mean there is a 20 percent upcharge for MDF?

(I also don't really understand why I should worry so much about moisture and cabinets getting wet and warping, unless there was some catastrophic event of a leak or something.)

And what is the difference between particleboard and mdf?

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 2:04PM
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Fori is not pleased

Well, nobody INTENDS to get leaks! :)

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 2:09PM
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Haha, I know...I'm just wondering if the moisture issue regarding mdf is really about if there's a big leak, or just everyday kitchen use of splashing around. And does this plywood mdf debate really just come down to moisture? Everything else is comparable?

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 2:18PM
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Fori is not pleased

I'm sure plywood is more durable, but cabinet boxes just don't get enough abuse to warrant plywood over MDF from a durability standpoint. If your cabinets are properly painted/sealed, moisture from standard use shouldn't be a problem.

My cabinets are plywood because that's what my cabinet guy uses. My (painted) fronts are maple frames (stiles and rails? You know what I mean...) with MDF middles. I have a curvy edge on my doors which is totally different looking in MDF than wood. My spouse couldn't tell the difference but I could. On a square edged Shaker frame I probably couldn't tell.

If you DO get MDF on the doors, see if they dent more than maple (which is a pretty common wood for a painted door). The frames of doors take a beating compared to the rest of the cabinetry and you want whatever is hardest there. Of course, that's not plywood so it's not entirely related...but the door frames is where I'd probably want solid wood over MDF. (And yet I'm not even sure MDF dents easier than maple--I just know it didn't look right on my doors.)

But I wouldn't worry much about the boxes unless you're going really cheap.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 2:31PM
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The MDF will be fine and hold up fine for decades.

For me the upcharge to plywood was going to be 15% ... of everything. When I argued that was not really fair that every upgrade I add (say a glaze, or soft close drawers) gets 15% added when it is not affected. They came down to 10%, or really they did 15% and threw in dovetail drawers.

They were Decore cabinents and just installed and I love the plywood. It has a birch veneer that is ploy'ed and looks fantastic showing off the grain. When I open the doors to show the insides they look lovely, versus the MDF that would have a fake veneer. Tops, side and backs are plywood and also have that lovely finish, which sadly will never be seen again.

The upgrade also included all plywood shelves with the same nice looking birch wood finish!

Some other pluses are the Plywood is stronger and will hold up the granite better without sagging. It can take an impact and not disintegrate. It is lighter so easier to put up the uppers and less load on the walls.

One negative is the plywood is thicker so room inside, probably 1/4" to 3/8". Another is you are suppose to cover the shelves.

I love it and am very happy I did it. When I open my cabinets they look so great inside, I can see myself showing everyone.

So it comes down if it's worth the cost to you to be proud of your boxes and cabinet insides. I would want to verify exactly what you are getting, like what the shelves are made of. The MDF will be just fine.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 5:25PM
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Well, if I did the mdf, it was going to be melamine-coated mdf on the interiors, so it would all be white and have that laminate sort of surface on the inside. I don't so much care as what the insides LOOK like. I'm more concerned with what is the best material for the box of cabinets.

I'm getting granite for the countertops, and they are going to be 1 1/4 inch thick. The entire slab will be no more than 7 feet long (it's a galley kitchen). Will I have to worry about the heaviness of the granite on MDF then?

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 5:31PM
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Fori is not pleased

No, granite won't cause MDF cabinets to sag. I would suggest not to get MDF shelves if any are going to be very long though. But vertical MDF won't flop or anything, although many people (I bet your GC for one) will say they can't support granite.

I've had melamine coated cabinet interiors and they're very functional and easy to keep clean. Maybe it's not as pretty but darnit who cares!? :)

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 5:50PM
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I have an almost 25 year old kitchen with some sort of particle board cabinet boxes and oak doors.

The ONLY particle board that disintegrated was the floor under the sink. Everything else is OK, and the cure for the under the sink issue was to put a scrap of leftover linoleum flooring on it from a bathroom project. No big deal.

And, the technology and quality should have improved with time.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 6:37PM
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Maybe I am just overthinking all of this! It's just nerve-wracking for one guy to be all for mdf and the contractor to be totally against it.

If I end up doing mdf, does that mean that I have to make sure that the cabinetmaker is not using mdf for the sink base? Or would that be understood anyway?

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 6:53PM
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Fori is not pleased

You'd have to specify. Or just get a leak detector and not worry about it. Might be a good idea anyway. I need one!

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 7:24PM
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I would consider plywood for the sink base and/or any cabinet that would have an exposed side (like at the end of a cabinet run). If you chose MDF however, you can easily cover the exposed side with a skin or false door front.

MDF is heavy and sturdy. We had a cabinet that had plywood and cabinets that had MDF - same thickness. When we lifted the plywood box cabinet, it flexed a bit. The MDF never flexed.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2010 at 7:56PM
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We had MDF for some 20 years. We had problems with delamination at the drawer fronts, with the sides of the cabinets bowing and the interior shelves falling in addition to water damage around the sink. Thankfully, DH was handy and could replace drawer fronts (till no longer avaiable), use angle irons, and use supports to keep cabinet boxes together, etc till we could remodel. I couldn't wait to replace with plywood and would never have MDF again. It is true that plywood is thicker so I sacrificed a bit of space, but still wouldn't go back to MDF.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 5:13AM
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There has been some debate on a few other threads - over the last few days on
this topic....

I have been in the trades for 32+ years - the last 25 years, I have been doing
Granite Slab Fabricating. The ONLY thing I use for subtops when doing 2CM
Granite countertops is 5/8" ACX Plywood.

I will keep this short and sweet... IF you are going to be doing a Granite countertop

here's why I'm so set on this:

Granite does not flex much due to movement - when it does - it breaks

MDF - when it gets wet - sucks water up like a sponge and SWELLS

Swelling of MDF = MOVEMENT of the Granite



Bottom line - Plywood is more dimensionally stable on the rare
occasion when it gets wet due to a leak or a big spill, etc.

Besides that - the MIA mandates that ONLY Plywood be used for subtops

I am going to do a video on this to make it more evident to consumers -
I will post a link to this video on Natural Stone 101 and AZ School of Rock
as soon as it's up on You Tube......

how's that?



    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 9:35AM
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Thanks for all the advice.

But what about melamine-coated particleboard for the cabinet boxes?

I don't understand why all the cabinetmakers I have been to would even offer MDF if it's just not a good choice.


    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 10:05AM
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Tuesday at 2pm:
"And what is the difference between particleboard and mdf? "

calypsochick you need basic information. Web search using these words


osb board vs plywood

Oriented strand board
At the bottom of article are links to other variations of wood products. Plywood is one of them.
Reading those other articles will only give you more basic information and won't hurt you.
The best oriented strand board is as good as the best plywood and may be better for certain reasons. It is lightyears ahead of the cheaper product particleboard. However, once you get to a range of products that are all Good Enough For a Kitchen, never ask which one is better, as they are All Good Enough and all of their differences are minor, negligible, and just a distraction, which salespeople can and will use against you to build up your doubt and confusion in order to make them the expert not you. Don't give in.


    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 10:16AM
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OK - My Bad......

I just re-read the OP - I'm so used to hearing the Plywood vs MDF question
for SUBTOPS - I guess I did the old "knee-jerk" reaction and answered based
on that premise.....

as far as the actual cabinet BOXES go - the ones that I see that are custom made
are usually made of plywood. Particle board and MDF are used a lot too,
but I see those more in the "production" homes and commercial applications...

the cabinet frames, decorative doors & drawer fronts are usually made from a higher grade
of "finish" wood - ie: Oak, Cherry, Pecan, Birch, Walnit, etc....

The final answer will depend on what you're willing to spend, but remember
that your subtops - IF you are doing Granite Countertops - should ALWAYS



    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 10:23AM
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They make millions of kitchen cabinets with melamine-coated panels.
Ask what wood product is in those melamine coated panels.
Underneath the melamine.

Once you know, and really know that you know, and are sure you know, go back and ask those MDF/plywood guys and get them to answer right away. Don't give them a day or two to find out the answer. It may stun you to discover that many guys think of plywood as better than all others even though it is not dimensionally stable (one corner pulls out of plane) and some people think of MDF as best for cabinet boxes because it takes cuts nails screws and glues well.


    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 10:34AM
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I wanted to mention that MDF is thought to offgas for longer and more signifcantly than many forms of plywood. This is a generalization of course but thought I'd put it out there.

    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 10:38AM
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Hi, everyone.

So I've talked in depth with the two cabinetmakers I was considering...about what they offer and why. One guy was all for mdf for doors and interiors, especially because I want a white-painted kitchen. He says, why pay more for plywood?

The other cabinetmaker (showroom) I am now leaning towards uses "3/4" high quality thermally-fused melamine particleboard in a choice of white, grey or black finish or 3/4" veneered maple plywood." The guy in the showroom was pushing white-painted mdf doors and the particleboard interiors. I was confused because I thought they were going to give me mdf interiors/cabinet boxes, not particleboard. Everything looks very well made and gorgeous in their showroom, of course. I was just trying to determine if it's worth it to pay more for the plywood. I asked the showroom guy about the weight of granite on top of the particleboard and he said it was not an issue. Hmmm.

Thanks for your help!

    Bookmark   March 25, 2010 at 10:55AM
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