Is Plywood the Best Material for Kitchen Cabinet Frames?

If you’ve been looking around for new kitchen cabinets for very long, you’ve probably noticed that most kitchen cabinet box frames are made of plywood. Why is this? Is it really the best material?

In a word: Yes. Here’s why.

Plywood vs. Particle Board/Fiberboard: Water Resistance and Fasteners

Plywood is a somewhat cheaper material than hardwood of course, but nowhere near as cheap as MDF, HDF, or the dreaded particle board, so it isn’t cost that makes most manufacturers use plywood over these other “engineered wood products.” Rather, it’s water resistance. Plywood is actual wood in its natural state, just sliced very thinly then glued back together at criss-crossing angles. This means it retains wood’s natural ability to resist water damage. Though any wood can swell over time if it gets wet, particle board actually starts to disintegrate when that happens, because it’s basically just sawdust and glue.

Worse still, since there isn’t any real internal structure to particle board, or even its higher-quality cousins of medium- and high-density fiberboard, fasteners like screws and nails aren’t holding on to strong fibers of wood running along the grain, but just a bunch of glue, which isn’t really all that good at holding onto screws long-term.

Plywood vs. Hardwood: Warp Resistance and Fasteners

Wood warps over time. The more moist it gets, the faster it warps. It does this because the grain all runs in basically the same direction. In a living tree, this doesn’t happen because the direction of the potential warping is always inward toward the center of the trunk, since the grain pattern runs in concentric circles around a central axis. But once you cut a tree into lumber, the natural warping direction of the grain doesn’t have anything to counteract it, so gradually, over time in a moist, warm environment like a kitchen, hardwood under a load begins to bow. Bowing is bad for structural elements.

Since plywood is hardwood with its grain patterns running in many different directions in thin layers, it reestablishes a living tree’s natural resistance to warpage to a degree. This makes sure plywood remains straight, true, and sturdy for years and years to come.

In addition, while hardwood isn’t bad at holding screws and other fasteners, it only holds it from two sides, like pinching a screw between your fingers. Plywood, with its many-angled grain pattern, holds it from four, six, or even more sides, for a much stronger grip, and much longer-lasting cabinets.

Plywood vs. Stainless Steel: Style and Resilience

There is a reason commercial kitchen cabinets are almost always made of stainless steel. It’s completely water-resistant, holds fasteners perfectly, and doesn’t warp at all. Most homeowners don’t want cold steel all over their kitchens, though if that’s your style, we won’t hold it against you. Still, there is a bit of a longevity concern. Not with the structure, mind you; good quality steel cabinets will indeed outlast anything made of wood.

Rather, steel tends to get lots of dents, dings, creases, bends, and other large-scale, highly-visible surface defects over time. In a commercial kitchen, that’s just expected and accepted. They aren’t built for beauty after all, but to put out huge quantities of food quickly and stand up to all kinds of abuse. In a home, though, that can be a problem. Because wood is flexible, and a little bit soft, it can absorb blows from things like knees, feet, or even pots and pans, with its natural springiness. If something does ding or cut into it, the wood will naturally swell back up over time, in a way “healing” some of the damage, which can be further covered up with a simple stain pen or blend-fill pencil. Once metal is bent, though, there’s almost no way to “unbend” it back into its original shape, because as it bends, it stretches, and compressing it again is all but impossible without heavy manufacturing equipment.

Would you like to get the inside scoop on buying cabinets online, including common dirty tricks and misconceptions? Get The Consumer’s Guide to Buying Kitchen Cabinets—it’s a free downloadable book that will help put your mind at ease.

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