Cabinet advice needed.

mrsashleyoJune 19, 2013

Hello, I've been lurking here for awhile and love the advice I get from that alone. We are currently designing our new kitchen but have run into some stumbling blocks. First our budget is for red oak, we may upgrade to knotty alder or poplar (although i don't want to). I really like the look of the dark chocolate with red undertones. However the samples we have tried make the oak look very 70s due to the grain pattern. We have just sampled penetrating and wiping stains so far. We are planing on trying the General finishes java gel stain to see if we like that look better. I guess my question is what is the most cost effective way to get the look we want which is a rich color with understated graining. Should we put the money into a different wood or into the finishing?
Here are two looks that I like.

Traditional Kitchen

Traditional Kitchen by San Francisco Kitchen & Bath Designers Barbra Bright Design

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If you don't want to see the grain, then you need to ditch the oak in favor of the alder. However, you may also want to view some darker oak kitchens in person to get an idea of how prominent the grain may be. It's much less so in a whole kitchen than it is in a small sample. Or, you may want to upgrade to quartersawn oak, as the grain pattern is different. Many find that more attractive. Like below.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2013 at 11:16AM
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Have you considered Maple? Not sure if that is an upgrade or not, but it stains beautifully imo.

This post was edited by beaches1980 on Thu, Jun 20, 13 at 9:40

    Bookmark   June 19, 2013 at 11:43AM
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Maple is usually at least a 15-20% upcharge over oak. And it is VERY temperamental to stain. It only stains well in the hands of a very experienced professional finisher---which isn't always the same thing as a professional cabinet maker. It tends to blotch badly in the hands of someone who hasn't done it much before. Alder is an upcharge as well, but it's much easier to stain and finish. It is softer than maple or oak however.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2013 at 12:01PM
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Live wire, what do you think of birch for cabinets? Our cabinet maker offers all types of wood, we like the birch for its subtle wood grain. We will be having them stained a few shades darker than the solid oak flooring. I didn't want too strong of a wood grain in the cabinets because of the busier grain on the floor.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2013 at 12:09PM
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Birch is also tricky to stain with anything darker than a very light stain without blotching. It's also soft. It can be a really pretty kitchen for a bit less than you'd pay for maple if you are on a really tight budget. I'd personally get a quote for maple as well, and then weigh the amount of use/abuse the kitchen is likely to receive vs. the upcharge to see which way might be the best option. If your family sees a lot of rambunctious activity in the kitchen, I would recommend maple over birch, regardless of the upcharge. It also doesn't have a very prominent grain, but is much harder to stand up to the wear and tear better.

    Bookmark   June 19, 2013 at 12:17PM
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Maple and the knotty alder are about the same price. The cabinet maker also mentioned that its hard to go dark with maple and it is a lot of work to do it right. I think we are leaning towards the alder but its nearly $3000 more than the red oak for all the cabinets and doors in the house. I guess I am hoping someone will say "oh ya you can get that look from oak!" but I know its unrealistic. I haven't seen any all oak kitchens in a dark stain IRL. The cabinet maker mostly has light stained oak, the darker stuff is other wood species.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 8:23AM
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Seriously, no samples of dark oak? Mendocino oak, a very dark stained oak was all the rage in the 1980s, and their are many samples of this hideous stain around in older homes. Today the popular dark color is Espresso Oak (See pic). We just finished a large kitchen in Espresso Oak, and the customers liked it so much they commissioned us to build their dining room furniture of the same material.

Are you using an actual cabinetmaker or a cabinet manufacturer? Manufacturer's often have a hefty upcharge for wood that is not oak -- it's how they may their money -- but local cabinetmakers usually do not.

Maple, birch and cherry do not stain well - blotchy. But poplar stains very well, and properly done, looks more like cherry than cherry does.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 9:22AM
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More Espresso Oak pics.

This post was edited by OldTimeCarpenter1 on Thu, Jun 20, 13 at 9:31

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 9:29AM
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I've seen lots of the 70s dark oak, which i hate. I dislike the dated strong grain look. They are actual cabinet makers, red oak was the cheapest bid out of poplar, alder and maple. I am put off by poplar for my kitchen I guess because I've always been told how much less durable it is than oak. The oak is the most affordable so if we can get the look we like with oak for less than upgrading to another wood then i would like to stick with it. I do like those photos, thanks for sharing! My husband would like them to have a red undertone as well. Any advice on the process to get this look out of oak?

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 9:47AM
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Bridget Helm

I don't have any advice on which wood to choose in place of the oak, but I definitely wouldn't go with oak. I think you'd regret it in the long run. Cabinets make up most of the kitchen. You need to really like your cabs, so spend a little more on them and maybe go with a cheaper range, fridge, hood etc.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 10:21AM
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We wanted a dark stain on our vanity and looked at alder. I really liked the grain pattern and it takes stain so well. I was concerned about the softer wood, so we went with cherry with a caffe stain. It has natural red undertones. Too much red in the cabinetry can overtake a kitchen imo, so I'd be careful with specifying a red stain on other woods.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 11:51AM
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We for sure don't want RED. I would like a warm chocolate brown with a little red. Right now we are just debating which way to go with these cabinets.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 5:49PM
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I know you don't want a red kitchen. Sorry you took it literally. I mean red undertones in the stain. It's a look that was popular at one time, paired with golden granites. Definitely not a current trend.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 7:19PM
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I have a feeling that oak is making a comeback, even the medium and lighter colors.

Here is a link that might be useful: oak

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 7:24PM
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Woo hardness is measured by several methods, the most common being the Janka scale which measures the amount of force required to dent the wood with a steel ball.

Here are the Janka ratings of common cabinet woods. Keep in mind that this is an average. Some boards will be softer, some harder. Sapwood generally is harder then heartwood. Wetter wood is usually softer than dryer wood, and old wood harder then new wood. The higher the number, the "harder" the wood. For comparison, the hardest wood in common commercial use is Lignum Vita, Janka rating of 4500. The softest wood, balsa sapwood is 88,

"Hard" Maple 1450
White Oak 1390
Red Oak 1290
Cherry 995
Birch 950-1450
"Soft" Maple 700 - 940
Alder 590
Poplar (Tulipwood) 540

In the US the wood sold as "poplar" is actually tulipwood. True poplar is rare and expensive here.

The commercial maples are usually sold as "hard" or "rock" maple and "soft" maple. These are actually groups of various maples -- there are no actual "hard" maple or "soft" maple trees. The most common "hard" maple is sugar maple, with a Janka of 1450. But any maple above Janka 1100 will probably be considered a "hard" maple. The "soft" maples range from 700 to 940 Janka.

Birch has the same ranging problem. Wood sold under the common name "birch" varies in Janka hardness from 1470 to about 760. You will get a mixture in any wood delivery, and it is not possible to specify a certain hardness.

Now, what does all this mean to you. It simply means that any wood above Janka 500 is tough enough for cabinets. Oak is a little harder than poplar or alder, but not enough to make any real difference. Chestnut, a very popular cabinet and furniture wood for decades, before it wall all killed off, has a Janka of just 540 -- about the same a poplar. Pine, a widely used cabinet wood, ranges down to 380 Janka.

Unless you are planning to beat on your cabinets with a hammer, you won't see much difference in wood rated 500 vs one rated 1300. You are much more likely to mar the finish than you are to dent the wood -- the finish is not, after all, very hard.

There are a lot of myths about what works and does not work in cabinets, most of which is just nonsense. That poplar is too soft for cabinets is one of those nonsense myths.

For more information than you will probably need about any species of wood, follow the link below.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Woodworkers Wood Database

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 8:02PM
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Cindy Noll

I am surprised at the comment on birch. I have 29 year old birch cabinets with slab doors & hardly a mark on them. They went through toddlers & are now abused by 4 adults who are not careful with anything. My DIL asked if they had ever been refinished, because they look so good. She is tired of seeing the dark old cabinets in houses they look at. Mine are a nice light to medium color, maybe bordering on the dreaded golden oak. Just saying birch held up well for us.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2013 at 9:43AM
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