cabinet construction - plywood box v. particle board

Samantha111August 7, 2011

This thread turned up on a search. I posted to it but it doesn't show up on the board for some reason. So here it is linked to be able to continue. I had another question on it.

Here is a link that might be useful: plywood VS particle board

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Usually it is the doors that are MDF.
I've built and installed a lot of cabinets and plywood beats particle board everytime. Plywood is lighter, easier to work with, is less susceptible to humidity, and lasts longer. Particle board is cheaper.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2011 at 11:18PM
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You should specify cabinet boxes made of plywood instead of cheap particle board.

Plywood is less susceptible to water damage than particle board and has greater strength.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2011 at 1:36AM
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This is a never ending debate that has no definitive answer. If you are going with frameless there is a viabke argument to be made that particleboard is a better choice for this method of construction. As was pointed out a whole host of very high end European cabinet companies like Siematic use particleboard and MDF in their cabinetry. Generally you don't make a cabinet out of particleboard the same way you would out of plywood - construction methods take into account the different properties of the two materials (anyone who with even a passing familiarity with PB would know that so be wary naysayers who don't know anything about using the product). Not many manufacturers construct the boxes out of MDF but many use MDF doors for painted finishes for its uniformity and stability. There is no one "right" answer so go with your comfort level.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2011 at 2:10AM
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I had brand new cabinets built for our river house last year. Nine months later the house flooded. The cabinets were totally submerged under water for just over 24 hours. I am talking 7 feet of water.

The cabinet doors and faces survived. I had one extention made for the cabinet next to the frige, because it was too short. It was made out of plywood and survived.

Every inch of MDF had to be replaced. It absorbs water and then swells. It won't dry out fast enough to survive like wood. All wood trim and doors survived throughout the house.

The flood mitigation people say that people lose cabinets to all sorts of household flood issues when the cabinets are MDF. Plywood almost always survives according to them.

The cabinet maker built everything back with plywood. He is the same cabinet maker that built my new kitchen in the main house.

He didn't even ask, he built it out of plywood. Even though we will never flood from the river as high as we are here. He now feels that kitchen cabinets should be plywood due to water risks within the house.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2011 at 9:13AM
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"Plywood almost always survives according to them. "

Almost is still a risk.

How many people's homes flood like that?

Should I plan my life around that "maybe"?

What about a fire? You can get fireproof construction too, but I don't hear anyone yammering on about that!

Isn't that what insurance is for?

Do you really want cabinets (out of any material) that have been flooded? Remember they are likely to mold/mildew no matter how "dried out" the disaster co. got them.

Bottom line is one material is not always better than another. There are cheap plywoods that will warp and delaminate when wet just like particle bd./mdf will fall apart when wet.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 10:01AM
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no one can possibly say particle board or mdf is comparable to plywood with a straight face. plywood is wood. particle board/mdf are manufactured products which contain resins and glues and (in the case of mdf) formaldehyde.

not in my house.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 10:10AM
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Agree w/ kateskouros. I would never put anything, from cabinets to furniture, in my house that was made of particle board or MDF. Even our closet organizers are plywood, albeit 1/2 inch instead of 3/4.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 10:16AM
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Plywood is also a manufactured product that contains resins, glues, and formaldehyde. Unless you go the extra mile to get "eco" plywood like Purebond, you have exactly the same issues of this sort with plywood that you have with MDF or particle board. There may be other reasons to prefer plywood, but this isn't one of them.

Here is a link that might be useful: How plywood is made, from Wikipedia

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 11:38AM
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Good point dee, it is important to get formaldeyhde free. US made too.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 11:42AM
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Agreed, beagles - I wish it were more widely available in lower price ranges. The regular stuff can be sealed (so can MDF and particle board), but it's nice to just use formaldehyde-free to begin with if possible.

And I say that as someone who will probably end up going with Ikea cabinets (particle board) due to budget. If I could afford it, I would absolutely use eco-plywood.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 12:52PM
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Cabinet shops just LOVE you folks! :) Insisting on paying 20% more for functionally equivalent products is any marketers dream. Everyone seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid down blindly. So, you just have to wonder why those pesky Europeans use nothing but "fake wood" in their cabinets and have millions of satisfied customers whose cabinets do not disintegrate over night. And you have to wonder why the majority of folks in the trade actually purchase furniture board cabinets for their own homes and put that 20% upcharge in other features. At the risk of being pilloried by the wood snobs (not that there is anything wrong with being a wood snob! LOL!) I will attempt to separate facts from myths promulgated by marketers. (BTW, you did hear about the radioactive granite didn't you? We can sell you some lovely solid surface that won't have that problem.)

Fact #1. Particle board isn't furniture board and plywood isn't plywood.

"Particle board" is the crappy 14 pounds per square inch stuff that those "decorator" tables are made from. You know the ones that fall apart when you set a sweating cold drink on them. Furniture board uses similar size wood particles but uses much higher pressures and better glues. The higher pressure does a much better job of locking the wood fibers together, much like the difference between a hank of wool waiting to be spun vs that same wool that has been locked together into fabric by felting. The glues used could contain formaldehyde, or not. Most commercial cabinet companies use low emitting furniture board that is pretty green. Some use zero formaldehyde furniture board, for which you'll pay an up-charge similar to plywood.

As for plywood, well there are a lot of different grades of the stuff on the market. All the way from Chinese imported stuff that's full of voids and formaldehyde (and who knows what other toxic substances!) to high quality Canadian or European no VOC emitting cabinet grade stuff. Most manufactured cabinet companies use the low to no emitting good quality stuff. Most custom guys, well the vast majority of inexpensive "custom" guys don't exactly use the top grade stuff. How bad the plywood is will depend on how cheap your quote is. They have to cut costs somewhere to give you a cheap quote, and the cabinet boxes sound great if they tell you they are "all wood"! Ha! Cheap Chinese plywood is so much better than good quality particle board you know, because it's reeeeel wood!

You have to actually ask about more than just the type of box materials. You have to delve into their quality and sourcing as well.

Fact #2 Cabinets using both furniture board and plywood will both meet the fairly rigorous KCMA standards. These tests simulate years of actual real world usage. (Read up on it if you like.) If both are constructed properly with the appropriate methods for their type then they will look unfashionable to you before they have any structural failures from ordinary wear. KCMA testing has factually shown this to be the truth. Abuse is another story. None will stand up to abuse. The hinges will pull out of both boxes if you use the doors to lean on while you are rummaging through the interior and other abuses. Now, you can overbuild them to your hears content if you have the budget. I think titanium cabinets would be just super!(They'd be fireproof too, Antss!) But you will get no "better wear" returns for the money spent in the real world. You do get one-upsmanship bragging rights, if that kind of thing is important. And, it really IS important to some.

Fact #3 Neither plywood nor furniture board is "real wood" if you want to be absolutely factual. Both are wood by-products. One uses very thin layers of rotary cut veneers glued in cross linked layers while the other uses smaller particles of wood that are compressed into a crosslinked solid. The particle board is actually more wood per square inch than is plywood if you want to get technical about it. It has more wood fibers per square inch than plywood. It's heavier and denser. Which brings us to another trade secret as to why cabinet makers and installer like plywood better other than they can charge you more. It's easier on them to work with because it's lighter. Not because it's so darn superior as they would have you think. The terminology is clearly chosen to make you think YOU are inferior if you don't want to "upgrade".

Fact #4 There are minor , but not truly significant, performance differences.

Plywood is superior to furniture board in it's resistance to deflection. It will hold more weight on a shelf without sagging. That's why you don't see Euro cabinets (which have used furniture board for MANY decades with no problems) larger than 36". If you have plywood shelving, you can span further distances. If you don't have any cabinets larger than 36" or plan on storing your entire cast iron collection on a single shelf then this performance discrepancy should be a non-issue.

The water resistance thing is also a bit of often repeated propaganda. If a flood/leaking faucet/water event occurs, both substances will be affected. Plywood will delaminate and MDF will swell. The degree of affectedness will depend on the amount of time that the material is in contact with the water and if the materials are fully sealed on all surfaces. Shelving and side walls should have the cut sides sealed, and many cab lines don't offer that. Same with the portions of the cabinet that touch the floor of the underside of the base. This is where using a custom maker can work to your advantage. Or, just do it yourself for the sink base and the cabinet adjacent to the DW after they've been delivered. You could use polyurethane or whatever leftover paint you already have on hand. A couple of coats on the exposed ends and then caulk the interior seam where the cabinet floor meets the cabinet walls. I'd do this on plywood or furniture board. I personally have a painted (on all 6 sides) MDF panel in one of our sunroom windows (To be able to put a cat door into it.) We don't have enough overhang on the sunroom and the wind just creates these great sheets of water that run down the window and drown the panel and leak inside from the cat door. It was supposed to be a "temporary" solution, but that temporary solution is at least 15-16 years old now. Exposed to every rainstorm. Zero problems. An I have a plywood bathroom cabinet that had a bit of a leak a year or so ago. It looked fine at the time. It's now showing where the water delaminated it. Mold grew between those delaminated layers. It's DISGUSTING.
And we thought it was just fine right after the leak. It didn't have any visible damage.

There is one other area where there is a bit of a performance difference. Plywood will hold screws better than furniture board will. But, that's very misleading. You really don't use screws to assemble furniture board cabinets. Remember what I said about the right hardware for the material? Camlocks, doweling, glues, and just a few screws designed for furniture board are what the right hardware is. If you use the wrong hardware, of course one is "superior" over another.

Yhe absolute truth is that well constructed cabinets of either kind will ling outlast your attempt to create a "timeless" looking kitchen and will become visually dated to a certain era and thus unfashionable. They;ll survive longer than your wanting a white Shaker kitchen will. Poorly constructed cabinets of either type may not even outlast their install before you have problems with them. You simply cannot say that one style is "better" than the other without using a LOT of qualifying statements. I replaced crappy thin plywood cabinets in my kitchen with middle of the road furniture board ones. The ones I have now are certainly better than the ones I had, and are certainly lower in perceived quality than Plain and Fancy ones. The only real long term wear difference that anyone would be able to tell down the road is for the doors, NOT the boxes. That;s where most of the difference in cost between cabinets comes from. P&F just have absolutely lovely finishes. And that's why I went with furniture board boxes in a brand that offered better finished doors than a budget line. (How much do you think KD's make? LOL! We're probably all on a budget for much less than most of our clients!) I only wish I could afford top of the line cabinets. But it would't be for "better" boxes!

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 1:18PM
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In most cases, plywood construction is the better choice. It holds up better against any accidental water damage and expands and contracts less than particle board due to humidity. Many installers that I've worked with also prefer working with plywood boxes because the wood is stronger and less likely to split when drilling into the cabinets.

Here is a link that might be useful: Kitchen Cabinet Kings

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 1:27PM
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Calling 'plywood' wood is like calling a ham sandwich 'ham'.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 4:16PM
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Folks on this board love, love their plywood cabinets. Personally, all of mine are industrial particle board. I've perfectly happy with them and will continue to use particle board in future kitchens and other cabinet projects whenever it's the best fit for the requirements.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 7:04PM
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Plywood is wood, period. It is sheets of veneer laid in opposing alternating layers and glued together under pressure. If you could dissolve the glue you could take it apart, and still have veneers that have their own essential integrity. What do you have if you dissolve the glue from particle board? Sawdust & small chips. Zen enough for you? Plywood still has the "is-ness" of a tree in it.
However, being and essence aside, my top reason for preferring ply is that it's stronger per pound than the alternatives. Which means you can have equal or greater strength at much lower weight. A lighter cabinet can hold more stuff without breaking; if some portion of the strength of the cabinet is being used to hold itself up & together, then lighter translates as better, because the usefulness of a cabinet is to hold stuff. Plywood cabinets are therefore more efficient storage vessels. Platonic ideal enough for you?

    Bookmark   August 11, 2011 at 7:35PM
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It is a personal decision. I do feel plywood is more durable, but I think you can still have a nice, usable kitchen with IKEA or other MDF cabs. We seriously considered MDF.

Comparisons to Europe miss their mark. One reason Europeans went to particleboard is that they don't have as many sources of wood of their own like we do. They cut down their forests centuries ago. They went to particleboard and MDF for economic reasons, not as a design statement. If you go to Italy, there are marble floors everywhere, even in the budget hotels. Why? Marble is plentiful there. Anything wood is considered a luxury.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 1:50AM
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in my current kitchen, i went with mdf sides on all of the cabs except for the sink base. this saved me about 15% which was a significant savings for me as we were renovating the entire house. 6 years later, the cabs have stood up over time, with the exception of one base cab drawer that is right next to the dishwasher. i should have also ordered that cab in plywood, but totally did not think of it at the time. another consideration for plywood versus mdf is how good your contractor is at cab installation. my contractor made a couple of mistakes installing and had to redo. the mdf is not as forgiving with re-dos like redrilling holes, etc. as plywood is. however, all of that is hidden in the non visible sides of the cabs, and did not cause any adverse affect to structure, so it ended up being fine in the end.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 3:14AM
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ditto live_wire_oak

Mold can be invisible for a long time. After any insignificant basement flood, a basement's wood floor will breed mold and produce bad air forever and ever. The veneer layers of plywood are worse. Any leak or humidity.

= = Don't use petty arguments like how well one product will stand up to being flooded or water damaged.

OSB is a good term to use when you want to web search.
Oriented strand.

Please keep in mind that kitchen cabinets do not have to be built more solid than the house itself.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 9:27AM
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LMAO Live_Wire_Oak! Ditto everything you said! I am going to save that post!! Written wisely and brilliantly! "Reeeeeeeeeeeeel wood!!!!" LMAO!

I had one client (my friend's parents!!!) come in and say, "I've been to one other showroom but NOT going there, they tried to tell me that I didn't need to upgrade to an all wood box!!! They didn't know what they were talking about!!! What do YOU think??" Even risking losing the job, I told him that I agreed with what the other store said. I did end up selling them the all wood version of P&F, but he got what he wanted and was honestly willing to pay for it.

As a KD in the industry for almost 30 years now....when re-doing my own kitchens, I always opt for the best finish possible over best box! You're right...the finish is what will show wear and tear more than the box. Ever seen a 12 year old Aristokraft kitchen?

I loved what you wrote: " The only real long term wear difference that anyone would be able to tell down the road is for the doors, NOT the boxes. That's where most of the difference in cost between cabinets comes from. P&F just have absolutely lovely finishes. And that's why I went with furniture board boxes in a brand that offered better finished doors than a budget line. ....I only wish I could afford top of the line cabinets. But it would't be for "better" boxes!"

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 3:21PM
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On the plywood being lighter notes, one KD said that the cabinets are less stressed hanging, holding, etc. (I realize this was said already.) I'd think this would be a big consideration even if both are strong. I'll be living with a dated kitchen 30 years from now. Will furniture board last that long or would plywood be a better bet for the long haul? I also see that the box on Shenandoah isn't as thick as many are requiring. The backs are only 1/4" and the sides and bottoms are 3/8 inches. It doesn't say what the drawer bottoms are but they aren't thick. Shelving is 3/4 inch. I know the KCMA has been through this but would lighter be better for wanting the cabinetry to last at least 30 years? My main area will be 36" uppers/lower drawers. I think that would be the one to worry about. There's also a cast iron sink going into a 33" base. And who knows maybe the butcher block countertop (very heavy) on that same span of six feet. They've got it covered?

That KD did the upgrade for his own cabinets because it is lighter for holding its own weight and because he liked not looking at images of wood grain on the shelving. I think he said he also thought it was a better product.

Mold needs a moisture source to survive and grow. I wouldn't think minor residual damage where mold had grown (inevitable because spores are everywhere) would be an ongoing problem or source of continual odor in a cabinet.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 7:17PM
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For what it's worth, my cabinets that I took out were made from particle board. They held their place fine but when it came time to renovating, a few cabs fell apart when removing and handling. After trying to refinish them we ended up replacing them - this wasn't the only reason, but it was a contributing factor.

With that said, I can't make any guarantees that plywood would've lasted any better. I think they would have, but there's now way to be sure, and whether they would've been reusable without repairs.

30 years is a long time. If that's your minimum standard, I don't know how to advise from there. With those demands you should be very concerned about not just build quality, but finish quality. And I'm not sure you'll find it with Shenandoah. I know of few instances of people replacing cabinets because they fell apart, but I know of many instances where cabinets are replaced/refinished because the finish wore off and damage occurred. And most of the time, cabinets are refinished 15-30 years anyways based on style alone.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 7:48PM
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FWIW, our cabinets are 20-25 yrs old and they are still sturdy and in good condition. I am 99.9% sure they are particleboard or MDF or whatever version of that was being used back then (I'd have to take one off the wall to know for sure). I have no idea whether MDF or plywood is "better" but I just thought I'd add my experience. In case it matters, our cabs are frameless. I do have a hard time believing the cabinet salespeople who tell me that particleboard cabs will fall apart, when ours have lasted this long with no problems. I can well believe that there are different grades of these products, though.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 8:19PM
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Along the same lines as northcarolina above, my current kitchen cabinets are mdf with wood face frames, built in place over 30 years ago. There is a small area of water damage next to the dishwasher, but they are otherwise in fine condition. They were not well designed (all half-shelves and blind corners), but they are still quite sturdy.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 8:54PM
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I seem to have gotten confused on the Shenandoah construction thicknesses. For one, sides are 1/2". So disregard whatever I noted if you're considering this line.

Funny, I'm looking over these nearly 40 year old junkers that are still standing. They were even uninstalled and shuffled around 30 years ago. The cheap wood grained laminate doors had been replaced. The sides and back seem to be a 1/4" particle board type product. Some of it also looks like luan but is painted and might be particle board. One shelf is loose and I can see the particles on the box side. Particle board 3/4" shelves chipping along the edge but strong. It seems to be solid 3/4" framing for the faces and hanging rail. They are still standing and doing their job! The side panel on the sink base has popped out and it's really bad construction otherwise. The boxes were painted and doors replaced so they don't look as bad as all that. The painted raised panel replacement doors have held up well for nearly 30 years. They look to be solid wood. The only real damage to the finish is on the raised panel edge of the two drawer fronts under the counter. They've lost finish and are chippy because the counter's drip edge doesn't project out far enough. I'm very surprised to see that situation on a lot of store display installations. The cabinets are just about even with the 25" counter edge. That's bad news for finishes. I'll be getting 26" counters for a good drip edge to protect the finish below.

Right, the finish will probably not last 30 years and I'll have to deal with repainting whatever I get. I doubt the stains these days hold up that long either. A lot of them look layered and baked on like the paints to me. But hopefully the cabinets themselves will be decently built and still holding together well. I don't know why that would change unless someone was hanging on the doors or overloading areas with very heavy items, as livewire mentioned.

The older builder type homes from 40-50 years or so ago seem to get there. They can just look dated at this point.

Maybe they all do this but Shenandoah is calling their mdf type cabinets 'engineered wood' which I think is misleading since it makes it sound like standard construction is plywood.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2011 at 11:19PM
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One more thing I should add:

While I have no problem with vinyl interiors that usually come with a furniture board constructed cabinet....I ALWAYS upgrade the EXPOSED exterior end panels. It can be just a plain wood veneer end, an applied door or an integrated matching doorstyle.

It's funny how many homeowners don't realize their cabinet end panels are not wood. It looks so real, but for minimal cost, I think it's a better decision to save on the box construction....and get the integrated end panels. Or upgrade to a better cabinet manufacturer with a better finish.

I would also like to point out that in my last house I DID upgrade to the all wood box with wood furniture board at all. The cost to upgrade for me wasn't that much, so I did it. After a few years, I did have some shelves delaminate a bit. I also found them harder to clean. Spilled soy sauce stained them....spilled honey jar was very hard to clean.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 9:58AM
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I agree with WhiteRiverSooner, whose particle-board cabinets were destroyed by a flood but her plywood survived. Particle-board cabinets will also be destroyed by things like a plumbing leak or the dishwasher flooding. The damage will be less extensive than it would be if your entire neighborhood is hit by a flood, obviously--only the cabinet(s) right near the leak will be wrecked, as opposed to all of them--but it is expensive and supremely inconvenient to have to rip out and replace one or more cabinets from a finished kitchen. And it's something your homeowner's insurance probably won't cover.

Particle board is just VERY vulnerable to water damage--that's why it's not recommended to use undermount sinks with laminate counters: because laminate counters are almost always built on a particle-board core, and just the water splashing from the sink, if it gets into the formica seam, will destroy the counter. (Unless you get a formica counter over a plywood core, of course--then you're fine.)

Kitchens are wet places. They're second only to bathrooms in that respect. So that's something to factor in no matter where you live; if you also happen to live in an area prone to flooding or hurricanes, that's an additional risk, but the basic risk of water damage exists in every kitchen.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 11:21AM
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Our local community college has an outstanding Cabinet and Furniture Technology program (Cabinet & Furniture Technology Program ). During the second semester our assignment was to make a piece of furniture with doors and drawers. I made a toybox with a fixed top, a door on the right for books and two drawers on the left. I used mahogany for the face frame and top and veneered mdf for the side panels and back. The door and drawers faces are mahogany and the drawer boxes are mdf with melamine veneer. This leaves some exposed mdf edges. For the shelf on the drawer side, I cut a slice of mahogany and glued it to the raw edge of the mdf shelf. For the drawer tops I got a roll of edge grain stuff (forget what it's called) and ironed it to the raw edges. It works great using the same iron I use for quilting.

Those who are saying that mdf is a perfectly viable material for cabinet construction are absolutely right according to this Cabinetry program; use the right material in the right place with the right techniques and you will have a superior product - and these guys are definitely wood snobs! They teach both framed and frameless cabinetry making and their graduates are employed for high-end jobs. They get all dewy-eyed over finely wrought hand-made chairs made from lovely woods. They use mdf in appropriate places.

I recently bought el-cheapo plywood from HD to make shelving for camping trips. I would never consider using that stuff for kitchen cabinets, but it was fine for camping. I also bought lovely laminated birch plywood to make a portable bed (portable is a relative term here!) and I'd use that for cabinets without hesitation. The veneered mdf I used for the toy box was perfect for that use. Each of these materials has its place.

And then there's the flooding question: years ago my in-laws had a washer hose break in the night. When they woke in the morning, there was standing water throughout the 1300 square foot house. Their lovely 40 year old oak plank floors were destroyed. Floods are floods and not a good measure of the goodness of plywood vs. mdf.

    Bookmark   August 13, 2011 at 11:34AM
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Having trouble picking a color white or coconut with gallio ornamental granite. These aren't the door fronts. I'm getting schrock Morgan door. I have to put my order in tomorrow.
The lighting isnt too swift. Any opinions?

    Bookmark   May 18, 2014 at 7:03PM
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lwo- one of the reasons i felt fine with not upgrading to ply was all the gw experts saying not to bother. not to say i now disagree but the medallion cabs i just had installed had more damage to the non ply sides. there were chunks missing from the corners and you can see how rough and crumbly the bottoms of the upper cabs are. i am wondering if apc would have been better? although to be fair, there were problems with the flush finished ends too and those are ply
kompy- "Ever seen a 12 year old Aristokraft kitchen?" i had a 15 year old aristokraft kitchen and you are so right, the boxes were fine but the finish was peeling away at the bottom edges of the wall cabs and just looked gross! i figured if the mdf boxes and drawers held up for those cabs then ply probably wasn't necessary. they had stapled drawers too and those also were functioning fine.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2014 at 2:19PM
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