Cabinet box options: Does plywood beat particleboard?

Jim Mallery

Few projects drain your budget like a kitchen remodel. And the price-tag for the new cabinets in that remodel doesn't just drain -- it sucks.

Your preferred style doesn't matter -- whether you are going Shaker or modern or in between -- with cabinet tabs ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 for an average kitchen, you want quality for your coin. One of your first cabinet decisions is whether to choose a cabinet box made from particleboard or from plywood.

Why the box matters

So why should the mostly hidden box be of concern? Because it is the backbone of your cabinets. It must be strong.

Cabinet fully loaded

A ¾-inch plywood box provides plenty of muscle to carry this heavy load of dinnerware

Most people don't appreciate the strain put on cabinets, at least until they have had some fall apart. Your cabinets are asked to carry hundreds of pounds, from dishes to pots and pans to bottles and small appliances. They get hot, they get wet, they get tired.

In their lifetime, drawers are repeatedly slammed, and doors might be opened a thousand times a year or more, often by family members who habitually hang on the knob while searching for the chocolate chips and graham crackers. The life of kitchen cabinets is more Grimms' fairy tale than Disney cartoon. They need a strong spine.

Particleboard or plywood?

Of the two popular choices for box construction, plywood and particleboard, which is better?

Here are a couple of hints: Cabinet manufacturers use plywood for the boxes of their upper-end cabinets and many cabinet-refacers are reluctant to reface particleboard boxes. Particleboard doesn't quite measure up to plywood.

"It comes down to weight and durability," says John Dyer, an 18-year cabinetry veteran who now works at Lowe's in the greater Seattle area. Even the holes for the shelf pins hold up better in plywood, according to Dyer.

Particleboard cabinet damaged by water

The veneer is coming off and the particleboard has swelled in the cabinet panel in front of the kitchen sink in these low-end cabinets

Particleboard cabinet faces with water damage

Next to a dishwasher, these particleboard drawer faces have de-laminated and swelled

On the plus side for particleboard, it is smoother and more consistent than plywood and less likely to warp. It's also cheaper. But it is much heavier and more susceptible to moisture damage -- and there is plenty of moisture in a kitchen. Some particleboard supporters argue that the modern product, sometimes referred to as "furniture board," is made under higher pressure with stronger resin and is better than the old. But if it's any indication, this material is still not used by manufacturers for their top-end cabinets.

Plywood is stronger and more durable than particleboard. But not all plywood is alike. In fact, there can be huge variations in quality. Plywood can have gaps in plies, and all but the best stuff can warp.

Good quality plywood drawer with veneer

High-quality 11-ply plywood, including veneer, is used in this custom-cabinet drawer

These tips can help you check the quality of plywood cabinets:

  • The wood should have many thin plies -- at least 7-ply for ¾-inch plywood (including the veneer), but you can go as high as 13-ply.
  • When you look along the edge of the plywood, you should not see any voids in the plies. And needless to say, if you see any warping in a sheet of plywood, it is not suitable for cabinetry.

Cabinet box hybrids

Some cabinetmakers use a hybrid of particleboard and plywood. The core is particleboard or medium density fiberboard (MDF), covered with a wood veneer. This product is virtually warp-free, but carries similar weight and moisture problems like particleboard.

All but the snootiest of cabinetmakers typically offer both particleboard and plywood products, but according to Dyer, plywood can cost you 12 percent more than particleboard on average -- ranging from as little as 7 percent to as much as 20 percent higher. Weigh your budget and your needs carefully before you choose.

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