Cabinet construction is one of many options to consider when doing a kitchen or bathroom remodel. The two major choices for box (carcass) construction are plywood or particle board. There are costs and benefits with each style and the choice is often a comprise between plywood cabinets and particle board cabinets.
Before we go too far, it is important to work through some definitions and descriptions.
Plywood is a series of wood veneers, sheets of wood cut from a log, glued together in a cross grain pattern making a composite sheet. Because of the cross grain pattern, plywood is more stable than solid wood. Wood expands and contracts in the direction of the grain. By alternating the grain pattern in each layer of veneer, plywood cancels most of the nature stresses caused by moisture and heat cycling. Exposed plywood are finished by either veneer of natural wood cherry, maple, birch etc.., painted, or have a sheet on lower pressure melamine applied. (melamine is a paper product with a print or image on the surface hardened with an aluminum oxide coating)
Particle board is a composite sheet wood product. The sheet is made by combine wood particles with a binder and either shaping via a mold and press operation or continuously pressing process. Since the sheet is a composite of wood fibers, there is very little directional movement. Particle board products are classified by their particle size and overall density. The higher the density the heavier the product, in general terms. Additionally, sheet products have grades based on quality control standards set by the industry. Exposed surfaces can be finished with either wood veneers, painting if the material is suitable, or a laminate low pressure melamine.
Which is better in Plywood vs. Particle Board? Unfortunately, the answer is “it depends”. Both products have features and benefits and there is no real winner in the head to head match up.
Weight – Plywood has a lower weight per square foot. The weight advantage is not a major benefit to the consumer except in certain specialized installations, wall hung vanity cabinets or large hung units.
Dimensional Stability – Particle board and more specifically MDF (Medium Density Fiber Board) has a greater level stability. In the carcass construction the more stable the material the better. To the consumer this becomes a major benefit in painted finishes. Most highly finished doors are MDF because of its stability.
Moisture Resistance – Plywood has the advantage. Plywood will be damaged by long term exposure to water, but the failure is longer in the cycle due to roting rather than structural failure. Particle board has a tendency to swell and lose structural strength quicker and with less exposure.
Construction Longevity – Plywood holds mechanical fasteners (nails, screws) better than particle board. Additionally, plywood has greater effectiveness in holding glued joints. A glued joint has much better physical properties than a mechanical joint. Higher end cabinets will have glued construction.
Surface Quality – Because of the process used to make particle board, its surface is better for paints, lacquers, and exotic veneers. MDF is generally accepted as the standard product for highly finished doors.
Cost - In very general terms particle board has the advantage in costs. The process and volume through put of a particle board production line is higher than plywood line. Also the basic feed stock for particle board is less expensive, because the material is often considered waste. Many plywood manufactures also have particle board lines to utilize waste product from their plywood lines. Depending on the cabinet manufacturer the cost savings by using particle board box construction ranges from 7% to 20%.
Green Benefit – Monarch Kitchen and Bath Design will be spending a great deal of time devoted to this subject. For this particular discussion we are going to speak very briefly in terms of the glues used to make the finished sheet. “Green” products are products that do not introduce or emit toxins into the environment. The environment has several meanings. The first is in the broad sense, the global environment. The second is the local environment in which the product is placed. The glues used to make both plywood and particle board contain urea formaldehyde. The gases released over time from these sheets have been tagged as an environmental risk factor. Both plywood and particle board products used in modern cabinet manufacturing have certain level of these gases, unless specifically noted by the board manufacturer as being NON-urea formaldehyde based. Plywood cabinetry has a slight edge in this category, because there is less glue per square foot of finished product and therefore less potential off gases. However, there are several issues in the current market that doesn’t make this decision cut and dry. The importation of plywood from Asia and has caused concerns, because the higher allowable level of formaldehyde in foreign countries. Domestically produced board products are better choice in either construction method. **Note to the consumer** If cabinet company offers a plywood cabinet cheaper than a particle board cabinet, ask about the origin of the plywood and make an informed decision with all of the facts in hand.
Eco-Friendly – This is another topic Monarch Kitchen and Bath Design will devote a significant amount of time to. Good environmental stewardship is must and we urge everyone to take a role. The edge goes to particle board in this category. Because particle board is not dependent on large veneers, less desirable cuts that would not be used in plywood production can be used making it a bit more efficient. Also particle board can be produced from alternate fiber sources such as wheat, removing the need to harvest forest completely. However, there are a multitude of factors in the calculation and plywood has some strong points to be made such as farmed wood products and alternate veneer sources like bamboo. Eco-friendly has many meanings and the definition will continue to evolve over time.
Strength - Plywood has a marked advantage over particle board in tensile and shearing properties. In compressive strength plywood still has the advantage, but not as large.
When comparing carcass construction styles, there are many factors to consider and neither product has a clear advantage. You, the consumer, should look at your needs and make the determination which physical properties are the most important and balance those requirements against your budget. Monarch Kitchen and Bath Design offers cabinet lines that employs both styles of construction and will help you make a choice based on your needs.