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Design Dilemma
Design Dilemma

Wood cabinets vs MDF.

jann0526February 20, 2013
Does anyone have any long term experience with either solid wood cabinets or an MDF based product. We aren't sure which will stand the test of time in our new kitchen. We are in the decision making / design phase. We would like to go with a painted white finish.

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Urbana ~ Designer Ellen Crystal
the machining is different in each product so the finished look can be quite different.

As an example, an MDF door is commonly used for painted finishes. It can be routed from one piece of material so less likely to crack in corners. It is relatively durable as a substrate and very stable. The edges are a little more vulnerable so should be eased. If you are wishing a very simple slab-FLAT door, this is the only way to go when painting as solid wood will tend to warp & possibly crack. ON a paneled "look" the corners are usually rounded.

Wood fronts are commonly done and painted as well. They can be a simple 5 piece rail & stile frames with recessed panels or mitered frames. The panels can be raised profiles. Often if the door is to be painted, the manufacturers will use MDF for the center panel. Again because they are less like to warp or flex... so less chance of cracking. The corners are square & crisp due to the construction techniques of building the doors

With wood, a joint at ninety degrees on frame will likely crack over time. This is because wood will expand & contract with humidity changes throughout year. this is normal!

Often the price point is similar. Marginally more for a frame & panel using wood substrate rather than MDF.

Both can be repainted.

Both final finishes will be done the same way, with the same products. The long term durability will be the same.

If paint, the most challenging thing is inevitable chips that can happen. Always order a touch up kit from your supplier to alleviate that worry

Your cabinet maker or supplier should be able to review these details using their proposed styles as examples.

Senior designer~Urbana
3 Likes    Bookmark   February 20, 2013 at 1:51PM
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Innova Cabinetry, Inc.
Based on the rendering you posted here, it looks like you may be comparing solid wood versus a thermofoil plastic coated MDF door, which also looks like wood from far away. There are pluses and minuses for each, some of which have been well described by Ellen above. I would only add that, if you are in fact comparing thermofoil versus solid wood, thermofoil is not really paintable or refinishable. Once those doors and panels go, they must be replaced. That said, they are very durable and mostly impervious to water and stains, whereas the solid wood will be susceptible to these issues, as well as movement with changes in environmental humidity.
2 Likes    Bookmark   February 20, 2013 at 2:03PM
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Urbana ~ Designer Ellen Crystal
and thermofoil, can be damaged by heat or repeated exposure to steam. Shielding at side of ranges is imperative otherwise the membrane can melt right off!
2 Likes    Bookmark   February 20, 2013 at 3:49PM
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Norm Walters Construction Inc.
I've even seen the foil melt off the wall cabinets near the range.
1 Like    Bookmark   February 20, 2013 at 10:05PM
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Ironwood Builders
I'm not a big fan of the thermofoil or MDF for that matter. Too many issues with the softness of the MDF and the resultant damage to the thermofoil top layer. I also think that any man made product attempting to look "natural" is a miss. White thermofoil is white...like paint, it is not trying to be something it is not. MDF is a basically cardboard..so moisture affects it in extreme ways, bubbling, swelling and things like that. Wood does move..true. But short of a catastrophic event, it is repairable as opposed to needing replacement.
6 Likes    Bookmark   February 20, 2013 at 10:35PM
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Blue Sound Construction, Inc.
I would heartily second Ironwood Builders comment. There are a lot of problems inherent with MDF--the main one being it is literally a bunch of sawdust and glue that lives or dies based on the impermeability of the paint or foil finish. If that is breached, and moisture gets there, it gets very ugly very fast and must be replaced. We try to stay away from it whenever we can because it also produces a large amount of off-gassing from the formaldehyde bonders it is made with. Again the finish is what protects it, in this case keeping the toxins in. Short answer: wood is good. (even if it moves a bit)

If the goal is a very sleek, modern aesthetic, one decent alternative is using plywood with quality edgebanding. For painted/lacquered finish use/request a maple veneer plywood, and it will paint up beautifully.
1 Like    Bookmark   February 20, 2013 at 11:15PM
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Great comments! @Ironwood Builders in particular...thank you for you invaluable HOUZZ comments. It is really appreciated. Technically and design wise...really great.
    Bookmark   February 20, 2013 at 11:26PM
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Here is a comparison, take from it what you will:

The cabinets in my kitchen are solid maple. They were installed in the late 60s. They have been painted twice, once by the previous owner 15 years ago then once by me about 3 years ago. They are in great shape, square and sturdy, with no flexing in any of the boxes or the shelves. The hardware and slides are still in good shape, the drawers work fine with no split corners or sticking wood. Some of the larger doors have a slight warp to them meaning they do not close flush any more but nothing a magnetic catch won't handle.

The cabinets in my son's recently purchased condo are MDF. They were installed by the builder 7 years ago. The boxes are coming apart at the seams, the lower cabinets have swelled at the corners from water, and every single warped shelf we replaced with plywood. The drawer slides are loose in most drawers, detached in some. The hardware has pulled out of the crumbling MDF in quite a few places so we used wood filler for temporary repairs. The cabinets were cheap builder grade garbage and they look it. We will be tearing them out this winter.

In my opinion, buy the best quality cabinets (and flooring) you can right from the start. These are two things that take a ton of abuse and that can't be easily upgraded. Light fixtures, plumbing fixtures, wall covering, window covering and appliances are things you can change out fairly easily, over a few years, even if the budget is tight. Changing cabinets and floors--not so easy.
5 Likes    Bookmark   February 20, 2013 at 11:29PM
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Fantastic discussion and thanks a mill. In the process of deciding how to build my kitchen and trying to get quality for the $outlay. Was thinking plywood but didn't know maple ply was the best for painting. It's helpful to be armed with at least some information when I venture out there into kitchen world. Would love more info about anything at all to do with building maple ply kitchens for eg. is it the most expensive way to go? Is there any other issues I should look out for?
    Bookmark   February 20, 2013 at 11:54PM
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Blue Sound Construction, Inc.
Hi piperreno,
Here's a couple things that come to mind:
Maple ply is typically an upgrade of about 10%, but good cabinet manufacturers will only paint on maple anyway. I also advise the cabinet boxes be constructed from plywood and not particle board. This is another 10% upgrade as the base price they quote will almost invariably be for the PB boxes. If you are going with a modern look and can use plywood/flush doors and drawers, you will save a lot of $ over traditional stile and rail panel doors.
Cabinet construction can be done in 2 styles: Euro or "frameless" cabinets or traditional "faceframe" cabinets. I'll avoid a lengthy description of each as you can easily look it up, there are pros/cons to each, of course. But in terms of $ most large cabinet manufacturers will charge more for frameless cabinets, while small, custom shops will charge less (though their overall price will be 1.5x to 2x more than a big outfit.) The only point I want to make about it, is that you can get the Euro look--this is what you see on almost all new kitchens where the doors and drawers stack right against each other with only a small reveal between them--without the upcharge for frameless cabinets by using a full overlay door and hinge. Your cabinet maker will know how to do this.
I like to use Canyon Creek Cabinet Company for all non-custom jobs, and a couple times a year (usually early spring/early fall) they run a promo for free upgrades on things like solid maple drawer boxes and soft-close glides which can be worth over $1K depending on the size of the kitchen. You should have your contractor check into promos like that for your particular area.

Hope that helps!
3 Likes    Bookmark   February 21, 2013 at 12:34AM
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Isn't it a great world where you can post a question, walk the dog, and hey presto, a wonderful soul like you provides me with the answer?:) I would walk over hot coals to get to Canyon Creek, but I live in Australia and the Pacific Ocean is the problem. Maybe some fellow aussie houzzer out there can recommend a good cabinet maker in the Sydney region? Your info about upgrades is still relevant and now I know how to dissect the quote and make a specific request. Euro cabs are extremely popular here and I'll most likely go that way and just personalise them with decorative hardware. Houzz has the most delectable traditional kitchens, but I think I'm a flatpanel girl. I also want some painted open shelving but want to avoid that white surface used in the particle board cabs, so maple ply should be good for that too, yes?
    Bookmark   February 21, 2013 at 1:19AM
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piperreno, it truly is great to get these answers. Thanks everyone for the responses to my original question.

Thermofoil was never a consideration for us for the reasons listed.

After some research, I think we are leaning toward a custom maker that provides 3/4" birch ply cabinets and painted solid maple doors with rail and stile joinery. This is the first major renovation our sesquicentennial farm has had in a few generations so we are obsessing over doing it right. We plan on staying in the house for life so that is another factor. The only arguments I've seen for MDF involve a small dimensional stability advantage and marginally smaller cost. I found a lot of discussion on different grades of MDF with a variety of compression ratings which make me think it could be a great material in the right situation (I'll stick with it for my crown moldings) but may not fare well long term (50 years?) with potentially moist areas. With two young boys running around images come to mind of stripped out screws from overextended doors, wet towels draped over the counter onto the doors where paint could potentially be rubbed through, spills, squirt gun fights?? .. etc. In other words expect the unexpected. Plus, in the back of my mind I can't help but think that perhaps MDF gained a good foothold in the kitchen cabinet area as a result of the recently burst real estate flipping bubble where sometimes mildly cheaper materials were used to get something with a better profit margin that looks decent.

Now that I see how responsive the houzz community is I'm sure I'll have more questions as we continue the renovation like granite, or flooring which was alluded to in the comments above. Hopefully I can contribute my own experiences / results as we go through this to the benefit of others who may be in the same situation.

We are trying to keep our experiences documented on a blog as we go: http://elbafarmhouse.blogspot.com/

Thanks again!!
    Bookmark   February 21, 2013 at 5:24AM
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Blue Sound Construction, Inc.
Happy farmhouse jann0526! I'm sure it will be wonderful. And I fully agree with your assessment of the current prevalence of MDF being part and parcel to the bubble in housing. Unfortunately, I think it will take a long time to wean speculative builders from ultra-cheap finishes that 95% of their buyers can't identify as a potential problem. I've heard some people claim that mdf will be our generation's asbestos!
    Bookmark   February 21, 2013 at 9:10AM
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Wood definitely. A natural look and, I believe, much nicer for resale.
    Bookmark   February 21, 2013 at 9:13AM
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Blue Sound Construction, Inc.
piperreno: For open shelving, you can save a little money using poplar or birch plywood, bc the painted surface is not getting as intense visual scrutiny as the doors/drawers and it will still paint very well, but the edge banding is is even more important. This is the (usually) thin piece of wood that hides the edge grain of the plywood. On open shelves we like to apply it ourselves in the field by ripping solid poplar to 3/8" thick, glue and pin it to the plywood edge and sand smooth. This gives a beefy and durable front edge to the open shelves. Of course this portion of your project would need to painted onsite--so if you are going with pre-finished cabinetry, it will be difficult to make the finish match exactly.
And, BTW, I would consider walking on hot coals to be in Australia instead of Seattle right now!
    Bookmark   February 21, 2013 at 9:19AM
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Not sure what your budget is, but Cliq Studios offers plywood cabinets as standard. They have a limited selections of doors and finishes, but white and linen painted maple are among the offerings. We'll be using them to replace the condo cabinets, then adding some organizers from Rev-a-Shelf.
    Bookmark   February 21, 2013 at 2:56PM
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We just got back from meeting with the custom cabinet maker. He's quite passionate about what he is doing, not the over the top salesmen type of passion either. He had a nice shop with quality tools (unisaw, joinery machines). On a few points he explained how what he does is different than what we might get from the factory. Since he knows we are going with a painted finish he glues up a part of the stile that the factory might not pay special attention to since they usually manufacture their doors so they could be compatible with any finish. His joint quality and multicoat finish seems as close to flawless as one could hope. The roll out drawer hardware he uses is beefier than anything I've seen and allows the drawer to come a little past all the way out. The big box store didn't seem to offer 3/4 ply and that is all he uses for the cabinet and 1/2" on drawers (which bottoms are dado'ed in). His price is also very close to the big box pricing after all their upgrades which he just does standard. All the hardware had lifetime warranties. Very nice stuff from good local people, I think we are leaning that way.
    Bookmark   February 21, 2013 at 5:55PM
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Blue Sound Construction, Inc.
jann0526--Sounds like the right choice. Small custom shops are homes of the true artisans that put heart and soul into their work. And if he is anywhere close to the box stores in price, you have a rare find indeed.
    Bookmark   February 21, 2013 at 9:41PM
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Blue Sound thanks for the tip about painting open shelves, I think if I paint them a different colour for variety, the different paint finish won't be so obvious. Btw the Canyon Creek website was incredibly helpful and look like masters of their craft. I think this subject could have its own ideabook.

jann 0526 good luck with your new kitchen and I'd love to drop in on your blog occasionally to check your progress. A beautiful historic home lived in by your family for so long, I love that you're looking after her with such care and pride. And I especially love those photos from the 1970's !
    Bookmark   February 22, 2013 at 12:37AM
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Just an update. The 3/4" ply cabinets are slowly going in, we don't have doors yet but they should be ready soon. We just got our shutters installed as well: http://elbafarmhouse.blogspot.com/
    Bookmark   September 18, 2013 at 5:29AM
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