KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Aug 31 2011

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Why aren’t my cabinets solid wood?

Ahh at last—after months of work, this kitchen project is almost completed! The design and decision hurdles are over, electrical and plumbing roughs are approved, floor is in, and the walls are painted. My favorite installer is setting the cabinet bases.

The final payment is earmarked for a well-deserved long weekend away and I can already feel the cool ocean breeze… My client (a successful Wall Street broker) has been calm and focused through out the process. Smiling, he has just walked into the kitchen with a Friend. Within seconds Friend looks at the uninstalled base cabinets and asks, “Hey, why aren’t these cabinets made of ‘solid wood’”?

The happiness on my client’s face is replaced by stark terror. He has flashed back to his college apartment on a Saturday night with four roommates and 56 close friends. There’s been a spectacular collision between a tub of melted ice and beer and his assemble-it-yourself bookcase, which is now lying prone on the floor, drowning in a sea of liquid and foam. Books, binders and beer are floating out into the hall… He watches in horror as its water-logged construction explodes out of its “veneer.”

My initial response of “Are you kidding? WAKE UP—it’s not 1980” will neither calm him nor get me to the beach. So when this happened last week, I gave my client a lesson in “Cabinet Construction Materials in 2011.”

“Hi Tom (names have been changed to protect the slightly hysterical), let’s sit down.”

And I gently began:

Life has changed since 1980 and so has cabinet construction. Today the best cabinets are made from high-grade composite woods of which many can be specified as moisture resistant. Good cabinet makers don’t use sold wood construction for many reasons.

Plywood, which is one type of composite wood product is often used to make cabinet boxes—although for humid areas, industrial-grade particleboard can be a more stable choice. Combination-core and high-grade MDF are also good composite wood choices for some applications.

comparison MDF + Particle Board
Veneer Core Plywood

Let’s compare composite wood to solid wood construction.

1. Raw Materials Cost: Slicing a tree to produce lumber for solid wood construction generates a lot of waste. More trees are needed for the same result and the overall material cost is higher—if the species is even available in solid wood. Species such as wenge (your cabinets) and anigre are not.

2. The Environment: Every sliver of wood from a harvested tree can be used to produce composite wood products. This has a positive impact on the local, national and global ecology. And less waste means cost savings for the consumer.

3. Warping: Solid wood boards warp easily. Look at an antique armoire. The doors usually don’t close properly. Its solid wood construction has warped so the “box” is no longer square. Solid doors warp as well.

The best substraight for slab doors is  MDF  for smoothness and stability

The best substrate for slab doors is MDF for smoothness and stability

4. Replacement Costs: The soft-close mechanisms on today’s hinges and drawer slides need square cabinet boxes (un-warped and level) to work properly or they will stick, pull out or break.

5. Beauty & Choice: Veneer such as your wenge looks most beautiful when laid up on the smooth surface that certain types of composite wood products, such as combination core, can offer.

6. Your Healthy Home: Today’s composite wood products can all be specified as NAUF (Non-Added Urea Formaldehyde) to cut down on harmful VOC emissions in your home.

So by using composite wood products, your cabinets can cost less, last longer and are more environmentally friendly to your home and the earth.

Are you feeling better now?  Tom smiled.

Roberta Kravette, LEED AP

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 31st, 2011 at 6:00 AM and is filed under Green. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1.  bwilliamsdesign |


    As always your information is spot-on. I have owned a custom cabinet shop as part of my design work for over two decades and I still fight the battle of “Solid” wood cabinets. There is a place for solid wood construction, but it is usually relegated to small furniture pieces or designs that do not lend themselves to engineered products.

    We will often opt for MDF raised panels in paint grade doors…it is more stable than a “glue-up,” machines easily and actually holds a finish better. With the advances in glue (we buy a plywood with a soy based glue) plywood, MDF and even furniture board core sub-straights can now be specified for any situation and, as you stated, will hold shape, look cleaner and not warp.

    Thanks for the good information…now go enjoy the beach.

  2.  Roberta |

    Thanks Billy. You’re right about the raised panels. They are more stable and for folks who prefer not to have the inevitable cracks at the stile and rail joints MDF is perfect. And that soy based glue means that it is a NAUF product and does not have the harmful off gassing that the old glues had.

    The beach was great! Now back to reality!

  3.  Becky Shankle (@ecomod) |

    Fantastic information. I’ve had the same conversation many times with my clients! I’m a believer that all materials have their ideal application within their margins of tolerance & long term performance. (though I do have an affinity for those that minimize environmental impacts)

    Like Julia, I’ll be pointing them in this direction as well for the scoop on wood & wood products in cabinetry especially.

    Also, this seriously made me LOL:
    “(names have been changed to protect the slightly hysterical)” !!

  4.  Jacqueline Hosford ASID |

    Roberta –

    Thanks so much for writing so well and clearly about cabinetry construction. I wish I’d had this handy for my recent project where I suspect my client still wonders whether her cabinetry is of good quality (it is).

    And, to know that their cabinetry is more “green” – how wonderful!