Interior Cabinet Shelves - do the particle board ones bow?

buffalotinaMay 9, 2009


I am looking at new cabinets for my kitchen. I currently have 1940s or 1950s site built cabinets where the shelves are fixed solid wood - might be fixed to the studs for all I know. Anywho, they are strong as heck - I have piles and piles of dishes and heavy things on them and they are solid as a rock. I notice all the new cabinets have particle board shelves - some seem to have plywood as an upgrade. I was looking at Omega/Dynasty today and the sales guy said they never had a problem with bowing yet I noticed that even some of the display cabinet shelves, which have obviously never held anything on them, were bowed already.

What is the deal with this? I am thinking I would not be able to put piles of heavy dishes on these particle board shelves held with little shelf clips without them bowing. Would plywood upgrade shelves help?

This issue seriously makes me wonder whether I should be demoing my old kitchen!

Thanks in advance.


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How are the piles and piles arranged? If you had cabinet with adjustable shelves wouldn't you organize them in a manner that makes them more accessible (ie in smaller less heavy piles)? Having just worked on a kitchen for my Mom who is in her 60's we organizd her storage so large or heavy objects\materials were stored in the lowers or on the lowest shelves of her uppers (which are fully supported across the back) for easy access.

How wide are your planned cupboards? The less space between the supports the stronger the shelf.

To each their own but if I am choosing between adjustable shelves with less integral strength or fixed shelves with more I am always going to pick adjustable shelves (and I say that as someone with solid as a rock fixed shelves that always seem to leave too much wasted space above their contents (or require awkward stacking) or are just a little bit too short for whatever I want to put on them.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2009 at 6:54AM
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caryscott - thanks for the suggestions. I think my upper cabinets will be 36" wide. Here is my current setup (you helped me with this kitchen before) :)

    Bookmark   May 10, 2009 at 10:06AM
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That second shelf has a lot of weight on it.

Particleboardand Melamine, if you don't already know this, is simply coated particleboardÂis not very strong, and if you were to load up a particleboard shelf with that amount of weight, it's a pretty safe bet that it would sag. We have a reach-in pantry with particleboard shelves that are attached to ledgers. Because we have so many canned goods on those shelves, they are sagging. When I finally replace them, I will most definitely use plywood or solid wood.

As a cabinetmaker, I am a little biased, but what you might want to do is check with whatever local cabinetmakers you have. Lots and lots of people these days use European style cabinets because they are so much cheaper to use. All of those cabinets are made of Melamine and have adjustable shelves. And that necessarily means that you must either put your dishes somewhere else or watch the shelves sag.

Nothing in this world could get me to use Melamine, for reasons already stated. If you look around your area, you may find a small cabinetmaker who feels the same way. If so, examine some of his finished products and see if you don't think he's the guy you really want to build your kitchen.

Another thing I would do is be honest about my need for adjustable shelves. I do know one lady who actually cleans her kitchen from top to bottom several times a year, and every time she does, she moves everything out of the cupboards and rearranges her entire kitchen. Nothing but adjustable shelves are going to do for her. However, it is a fact that some 95% of us will simply adjust the shelves one time and then leave them that way. And, to add insult to injury, most people simply use a standard configuration for their shelving. So, why have adjustable shelves?

Actually, the true reason for adjustable shelving is not because it serves the customers' needs, but because it is cheaper for the manufacturer of kitchen cabinets. You simply drill holes in the sides of the cabinets and issue shelf pins and plain shelves to your customers. Actually, it's even cheaper than that as the bulk of these cabinets are now made with CNC routers, which cut entire kitchens from Melamine sheets in a couple of hours. They are then quickly assembled with screws. However, although the savings to the manufacturer are pretty obvious, it is not a method of construction that necessarily serves the customer's best interests.

Personally, I would have cabinets made with permanent shelves, and I would have them made of plywood or solid wood. Plywood is actually strong enough, and if you go with faceframe cabinets, they will be even stronger.

Also, if you consult your local cabinetmakers, you may be pleasantly surprised. I was in a cabinetmakers guild for a number of years, and most of those guys did much better work than outlets like Home Depot, and did it for less. Big box stores make their cabinets look cheaper than they actually are because they only quote the price of the cabinets. They then normally charge just as much for the installation as they do for the cabinets, thereby doubling the price!

Looking at your picture, I can see that you have some well-built cabinets. They even included a center stile that adds a lot of strength to those shelves. Standard European style cabinets will span this entire distance with adjustable Melamine shelves that WILL sag. Truthfully, even plywood might sag, given that amount of weight, if there is no center stile to help out.

You have some nice, solid cabinets that you like a lot. Why replace them with garbage? Consult a local independent cabinetmaker, even if you end up paying a little more. Because it is still true that you get what you pay for.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2009 at 11:43AM
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I am going to pipe in not to answer your question but just an organization tip. looking at your cabinets, I would put all my plates on the lower shelf and cups above or in another cabinet if you like them lower. Typically heavier items go to the bottom and lighter to the top.. I've always had my plates and a hands reach and glasses a bit higher up.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2009 at 2:06PM
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The linked page is a shelf sag calculator. You enter all parameters and it tells you how much the shelf will sag.
Every material will sag if the load is great enough. Particle board is at the bottom of materials for resisting sag.

    Bookmark   May 10, 2009 at 3:32PM
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European or frameless cabinetry also offers better utility and is less expensive because it uses less material (and thus is generally considered a bit greener than face frame cabinetry). Many companies produce face frame cabinetry using melamine infused furniture grade particleboard these days so this is hardly something that can be exclusively attributed to frameless manufacturers.

Your not considering frameless anyway so I'm not clear why it even came up. Principles of Universal Design and space planning philosophies like Blum's Dynamic Space (zone and ergonomic planning) both encourage keeping frequently used items in the space just below the countertops or on the lowest shelves of uppers just above the countertop. These changes have everything to do with the convenience of the user not the load capacity of shelves.

Hey Tina!

Thanks for the pic. I recognize you don't have a huge kitchen but I would recommend checking out the Blum Dynamic Space site to see what might be of interest to you for your space (a lot of the layout advice offered here is rooted in the Dynamic Space approach). I would certainly inquire about upgrading your shelves or it may be a lot more cost effective to upgrade them yourself. Inset construction requires a middle stile so you will have another possible point to add support to your shelves in the middle of your wider cabinets.


I wouldn't own a kitchen cabinet that didn't have a melamine interior - durable, bright and easy to clean, what is there not to like? Pricey European oufits like SieMatic and Alnos still use it for the exteriors of their cabinetry so the notion that it has some sort of cheap connotation seems misinformed to me (not to suggest that melamine clad slab doors would be appropriate for your period kichen).

    Bookmark   May 10, 2009 at 7:12PM
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THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH for all the input. You know the answers I got here and on my previous thread about these period cabinets I think have finally made me see what I think I should do with this kitchen... Those upper cabinets are rock solid and the shelves...well as I said...rock solid! I think I do maybe need to find a local cabinet maker to make all new period style lower cabinets that I can paint and then have new matching doors made for the uppers. There does not seem to be any advantage in ripping out the built in shelves and cases of the uppers and I honestly love my shelves the way they are and do not need adjustable. I might have to repaint all my blue over to white/off white as that is my vision for the new lower cabinets. Also because of the height of the upper cabinets which are only 16" off the counter at the moment (and I don't want them any closer!) I would have to get custom height lower cabinets.

I think the suggestion above of a local cabinetmaker is making more sense. I do think I will regret losing my exisiting upper cabinets and my tall blue box pantry cabinet. But I think the doors have to match the new lowers or it is going to look like a mess.

Caryscott: Thank you for the space planning link. I will check it out. I think the feedback I have received is so so useful. I got pretty postive responses to my cabinets and kitchen on my other period cabinets thread and I think maybe I should work hard to integrate the exisiting uppers and the pantry cabinet.. but I want it to look knockout gorgeous fantastic... and that's my new challenge!



    Bookmark   May 10, 2009 at 11:47PM
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I love wood, and admire people who are woodworkers.

However, I've loved our frameless kitchen cabs of high-density particleboard covered in melamine (interior) and laminate (exterior) for 20 yrs of hard usage. As has been pointed out here innumerable times:

- There are different quality levels of ALL wood types. This includes plywood and particleboard. I have in my house different levels of both wood products, because we're book fiends and have acquired over twenty 6' tall, 2 - 4' wide bookcases over the last 30 yrs, to hold huge art and reference books that far outweigh anything I put on my kitchen shelves - and I put a lot, believe me, on my kitchen shelves (I own six different dinnerware services).

Our kitchen shelves are infinitely adjustable, and have never bowed or bent. (See the next point for the all-important reason) They have a 75-lb rating for each shelf, whether fixed, rotating, or adjustable.

- High density particleboard beats low-quality plywood every time. If you are going to load a shelf up, you should never go over 36" without either a center stile or back wall center support. I personally don't go over 31" without a center support, whether it's a bookcase or kitchen cab (which when frameless is just a bookcase with a door, after all).

If you doubt this, take a good long look at the Masterbath cabinet line sold by HDepot, which loves to advertise itself as "all wood - no particleboard!" We bought a few of these framed cabs in 2003 when I was in a rush during a bath remodel. They are the thinnest, junkiest plywood possible. I stand on my kitchen cabs to wash the windows all the time, and I weigh over 200 lbs. I wouldn't dare stand on that bathroom cab! Nice looks, but I've got $50 particleboard bookcases that have proven more capable of holding heavy loads.

Particleboard cabs are heavier than plywood. Installers always prefer plywood because it's so much lighter and therefore easier to hang the uppers without as much work. But it doesn't necessarily mean plywood is always better, in and of itself. Again, quality is the determining factor. A custom woodworker (like the one we just had built some beautiful birch plywood custom wall units for us) is going to use something nice s/he can be proud of. A big corporation looking at the bottom line knows that their customers have a price point that works within a narrow range. They know the outside counts for 90% over the insides when people are perusing store displays.

- There are different qualities in melamine and laminate as well. The very cheapest melamine is so awful, a damp cloth will ruin the smooth finish and raise bumps that are permanent (we have some pretty, but inexpensive stackable "cubes" that are like this). Conversely, good quality melamine resists moisture quite well - not proof against a long soak, but spills and an occasional dampness won't destroy it.

Doubt this? I put my dishes away wet from the DW all the time. I have no idea if the heating element in it actually works, because I've never used it (electricity is expensive out here!). I just shake the visible drops off, stack 'em up and put everything away - no problems after two decades. I do my spring cleaning by spraying the insides with cleaner and wiping them out. Not only are the melamine interiors still perfect, we once had a slow, six month leak in the sink cab from a faulty faucet fitting. It caused a small bubble in the melamine, about the size of a quarter. Raised it up but didn't crack it open. No other damage, then or now.

One of the negatives often claimed about particleboard is that if a screw tears out, "it can't be fixed." I always thought that as well, until a contractor corrected me. I have a bad habit of leaning on a door as I open it, and one of our base Lazy Susan cabs eventually developed a sagging hinge from a screw tearing out.

Our contractor/handyman filled it with quick-set epoxy, then redrilled the hole and put the hinge back in. Problem fixed, and it's been solid as a rock since he repaired it back in 2003.

In summary - buy the best quality of material possible, and make sure the design (e.g., in your case the width of shelves vs load rating) is properly functional.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2009 at 12:36PM
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With adjustable shelving, you can arrange each shelf space to be the depth really needed. Here's a picture of JamesK's shelf that was an inspiration for the organization of my cabinets:

And, here's one of my cabinets...

(Yes, I have a lot of plates & bowls!)

My most used dishes are on the bottom shelf and as you go up the cabinet those dishes are used less and less often.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2009 at 4:50PM
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oh dear, all those dishes make my set for 4 look so sad...

    Bookmark   May 11, 2009 at 5:14PM
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LOL! I've had this particular set for over 20 years!

If I see matching dishes at a yard sale, I usually buy them so over the years I've accumulated a lot. Oh, and when Pfaltzgraff changed the size & style of their cereal bowls 6 or 8 years ago, they sent me replacements (for free) for all my now I have twice as many!!!

    Bookmark   May 11, 2009 at 5:43PM
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My cabinets came with plywood boxes and solid maple shelves, same 3/4" material as the dovetailed drawer boxes. Finished in clear catalyzed varnish. So, as you were saying...?

    Bookmark   May 11, 2009 at 6:21PM
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Hey Tina!

There are no wrong answers but I really wonder if that cabinetry merits preservation (which if memory serves was discussed in your first thread). Not for me to answer obviously. I'm wondering if you have thought about purchasing unfinished cabinetry and having it painted or, as you painted your current cabinetry, painting it yourself. In an issue of Kitchen Makeovers (Fall 2008) from last year one kitchen that was featured had inset cabinets from Cabico that the homeowners had painted on site with an alkyd paint because they wanted brush strokes and a more retro feel for their kitchen. The cabs were from Cabico but they had saved on the total budget by putting a black and white checkerboard vinyl and wood counters in (as well as finishing the cabs themselves of course). It was a gorgeous kitchen with a lot of the charm your own showcases but with the function you are seeking. I always remember this kitchen because it had such an eclectic mix of materials.

    Bookmark   May 11, 2009 at 8:31PM
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jkmom- thanks for your useful input. I keep going back and forth between replacing all, doing new doors or.....what? Your comments make me feel better about replacing with quality new cabinets - and I will bear in mind the idea of keeping the shelves shorter or using a center stile.

Honestly this thread has been so useful! buehl - thank you for the pictures of cabinets with adjustable shelves. Perhaps I would be better off with lots of shelves like the ones you show from jamesk - those shelves look very thick. Presumably I would have to order extra shelves from the cabinet company to get so many in a standard cabinet as you have?

caryscott - your post is again right on the mark - thanks! I just reviewed my earlier thread. And yes, while I had so much positive feedback on the charm of my kitchen - and I do love its charm, the overall feeling I think was that sadly it needs to be replaced - perhaps even the tall "blue box" pantry cabinet. I think I am coming around to that - but I want to keep the simplicity and charm factor. If I replace I will not paint myself - been there, done that...trying to get no maintenance into this house! I just found pictures on this forum of decolilly's kithcen - the before had old lipped cabinetry like mine and the after - all inset shaker doors, black counters etc - what a transformation. It made me realize again that mine has had its time.

This is killing me! Also, it is very hard not to be "sold" by cabinet sales/design people who swear their stuff is better made than what I have. Even though mine needs to be replaced it is really well made. I am checking out Crown Point to see whether it is totally out of range or not....they might even be able to do an overlay drawer with an inset door too which would be so appropriate for my 1927 house.


    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 9:56AM
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Circus Peanut

Personally, I prefer your idea of keeping the uppers and having lowers built to match. No matter how nice new cabinetry can be, it won't have the charm of the original. I say: if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

But that's ME, of course. :-)

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 11:54AM
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Yes, I ordered extra shelves and they weren't that expensive (relatively speaking)...I think they were $25 for a set of 2 18"x15" (my cabinets are 15" instead of 12" deep...more dishes fit!)

Looking at your cabinets, the insides, at least, look like they're in good condition (better condition than my mother's cabinets that are 49 years old...1960 site-built cabinets).

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 12:11PM
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I'm just guessing about buehl's shelves, but perhaps the thickness of the actual shelf is the usual 3/4" (or so) and the edge is actually an additional, wider piece that is attached to just the front?

Sort of like the edge treatment that they do to shelves in a properly trimmed-out bookcase?

(If so, it would definitely still shore up the anti-sagging aspect of the unsupported front edge of long shelves, I would think.)

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 12:14PM
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