Kitchen Cabinets: Particle Board or Plywood
Which is the Better Choice?
Are Plywood Cabinets Worth the Extra Money?
Over the past 30 years of building and remodeling homes, I get asked about particle board vs plywood cabinets almost every time we design a kitchen. Everyone wants to know if plywood really is stronger and better than particle board. While the short answer is yes, plywood is better than particle board, there isn’t a simple and short answer to the more important question that usually follows, is plywood worth the extra money? My answer is not always. So let’s take a look at the pros and cons of particle board and plywood for cabinet boxes.
What’s the Difference?
The biggest difference between plywood and particle board is how they are made. Plywood is made from thin sheets of wood veneer, glued together under heat and pressure, and orientated so that each layer’s grain alternates direction.
Particle board is made from particles (or more accurately chips) of wood and sawdust that are glued together and pressed under heat. Lately there is apparently a new marketing angle being used at some of the big box stores to re-name particle board as “furniture board”. A salesperson actually told a client of mine that “those cabinets aren’t made from particle board; they are furniture board.” Ridiculous. And no, I’m not making this up.
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Which is Stronger?
Plywood’s cross grain pattern makes it significantly stronger than particle board and it’s holding power of fasteners like nails and screws is definitely superior. But when it comes to cabinet strength, the quality of the construction and the installation are far more important than what the cabinets are made out of. A poorly made cabinet is still a poorly made cabinet, even if its box is made out of plywood.
The one exception is if you are planning on getting frameless cabinets, (where the door and drawer hardware is mounted directly to the box instead of the face frame), you should always get plywood boxes. Particle board just doesn’t hold screws well enough to stand up to the regular use and abuse that doors put on the hardware.
The other thing to keep in mind is that once your cabinets are installed, they become more like one continuous built in. Screwed together and to the walls, it’s not like you are going to drag them around the house like a cheap dresser from Ikea. The pitch you get from the cabinet salesperson that you should upgrade to plywood boxes because they are stronger just doesn’t hold water. Speaking of water…
What About Water and Moisture?
To say that water is not particle board’s best friend is somewhat of an understatement. Anyone who has ever looked inside a sink base cabinet made out of particle board after having an undetected plumbing leak for even a short period of time knows that particle board’s kryptonite is water. It doesn’t take much for it to start swelling up and then to turn spongy until it finally disintegrates.
Plywood on the other hand can be exposed to a fair amount of water with almost no ill effects. If your budget doesn’t allow for upgrading all of your cabinets to plywood, consider spending a little money to upgrade just the sink base cabinet.
Some people like to advise against using particle board cabinets in bathrooms because they claim that all of the moisture produced when showering will ruin the cabinets. I can tell you that if you have that much moisture in your bathroom, you are going to have much bigger problems than just the cabinets falling apart. I would recommend upgrading your exhaust fan. There is no reason that particle board cabinets can’t last for years in a properly ventilated bathroom.
Is Plywood Worth the Extra Money?
When it comes to cost, cabinet boxes made of plywood typically run between 10-20% more than comparable particle board construction. This is the main reason that most manufacturers in the US offer their standard units in particleboard. Are you going to be able to tell the difference from the outside appearance of your cabinets? Definitely not. The face frames, doors and end panels with be identical in either version. Will plywood cabinets hold up better over time? Aside from the sink base cabinet, no.
One final thing to think about: Do not judge the quality of the cabinets by what the manufacturer offers as it’s standard construction specs. Case in point: Some of the Chinese cabinet manufacturers offer plywood boxes as standard, mainly because plywood is much lighter than particle board, and therefor much cheaper to ship. There isn’t always a correlation between plywood cabinet boxes and cabinet quality.
It really all comes down to your budget and what you value the most as a homeowner, and neither option is a bad choice.