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For many, the single most important consideration when it comes to kitchen cabinets is the material used for the cabinet doors. This choice, encompassing more visible surface area than any other single element, affects the look and feel of the entire kitchen. For some, the material used for the cabinet boxes is also an important consideration. In the end, the choice of material for both the cabinet doors and the cabinet boxes often comes down to the best look possible at a particular price point. However, there is more to materials than just look and cost, including durability, resilience, ease of repair, and health effects.
From a geometrical perspective, a cabinet is a box with six sides - a top, a bottom, a right side, a left side, a front, and a back. However, from a visual standpoint, only one side out of the six seems to really matter. The backs of cabinets are usually against the wall and invisible. The sides of cabinets are flush with either other cabinets, appliances, or walls. The tops of cabinets are either covered by countertops or, in the case of wall cabinets, too high up to see. The bottoms of cabinets are either against the floor and invisible, or, as again in the case of wall cabinets, below the eye line. This leaves just one surface, which is the front of the cabinet, as being primarily visible to kitchen user and visitor alike. Consequently, it is the material used in the cabinet doors which receives the greatest attention from both consumers and cabinet makers.

However, the material used for the cabinet boxes, even though it has less of a visual impact, is still important. From the perspective of durability and resilience, certain materials last longer and are more resistant to chipping, warping, and weakening than others. From the perspective of air quality, certain materials release a greater amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the surrounding space than others. In turn, these VOCs can lead to a variety of negative health effects. The impact on quality of life and the cost of treatment down the line may be much greater than the price savings associated with the higher VOC-content materials. Consequently, it is important to understand the potential hazards of different materials before making the final decision on a new set of kitchen cabinets.

Arguably the most popular material for cabinet doors is natural wood. This refers to solid wood which is not engineered or combined with other chemicals. Natural woods are classified as either hardwoods or softwoods, depending on the tree type from which they derive. Hardwoods come from angiosperm trees, also known as broad leaf trees, while softwoods come from conifer trees, also known as fir trees. In some sense the terms "hardwood" and "softwood" are misnomers because some hardwoods are actually softer than some softwoods. For example, yew, which is a softwood, is significantly harder than balsa, which is a hardwood. However, these terms have entered into popular usage because, even though there are exceptions, most hardwoods are somewhat harder than most softwoods.

From the perspective of cabinet construction, the hardness of the wood is an indicator of durability. The harder the wood, the more durable and resilient the cabinets. However, the primary consideration when it comes to woods is not going to be hardness, as the majority of wood species provide sufficient hardness for kitchen cabinets and their susceptibility to nicks and stains will be more dependent on the choice of post-construction finish than the choice of underlying wood. Rather, the primary consideration when it comes to wood cabinets is the look and feel of one wood species versus another.

The most popular choices of wood for kitchen cabinets are also typically the less expensive wood species, which are oak, maple, birch, hickory, and ash. Pine and poplar are even less expensive, but they are much softer and may buckle after years of substantial wear and tear. Oak and ash are popular because they are timeless woods that are strong and durable with an attractive natural grain that can look beautiful either stained or covered with a clear topcoat. Hickory is an incredibly hard and durable wood with a unique and distinctive grain pattern that is particularly effective in rustic kitchen designs. Birch is an interesting choice because it offers greater strength at a lower cost than maple combined with a uniform grain that can be finished to resemble more expensive woods, such as walnut or mahogany. For each of these woods, the actual coloring and grain depends on sub-type (there is more than one kind of oak, birch, or ash, for example) and whether the source is heartwood, which is the inner part of the tree, or sapwood, which is the outer part of the tree. These woods work for a wide variety of kitchen styles, from traditional to Arts & Crafts to Old World to rustic.

Medium priced woods which are valued higher include maple, walnut, cherry, butternut, bamboo, and mahogany. These are considered to be upscale choices for kitchen cabinets, typically associated with semi-custom or custom designs. With the exception of bamboo, these are beautiful, warm woods that offer both durability and elegance. They can work in a wide variety of kitchens, including traditional, transitional, country, and even contemporary. Over recent years, these woods have become more accessible and more affordable and now there are even RTA and stock cabinets available which utilize maple and cherry. Bamboo is a special case, as it is not as durable as the other woods, but it provides a unique and interesting look which transcends the Oriental style with which it is traditionally associated and which provides a feel of understated sophistication.

In addition to the woods mentioned, there is a number of exotic woods which can be crafted into beautiful kitchen cabinets, but which are only available for custom orders and which are orders of magnitude more expensive than the regular woods. These include teak, wenge, zebrawood, ebony, rosewood, and bubinga. Teak is not only a stylish wood, but also an incredibly strong and durable wood which retains its look much longer than most other wood species. Wenge is a beautiful chocolate brown wood which can make a bold statement when used for kitchen cabinetry. Zebrawood derives its name from its unique striped grain of tans and browns. Ebony is a nearly black wood that can be truly eye-popping, particularly when coupled with a contemporary kitchen design. It is also one of the hardest woods in existence, more than three times as hard as oak. Rosewood and bubinga are two other darker hued hardwoods that can be visually stunning because of their richness and gorgeous graining. Any one of these woods could be used to create luxurious kitchen cabinets, but their cost would add tens of thousands of dollars to the kitchen's price tab.

With any solid wood, an important decision that must be made is whether to use the wood only for the cabinet doors and front-facing frames, or for the cabinet boxes as well. Using solid wood for the cabinet boxes is orders of magnitude more expensive, as four to five times more wood is required, significantly increasing the cost of materials. In addition, the option of using solid wood all around is usually only available for custom cabinets. Most cabinet makers go the route of making the doors and, sometimes, frames from solid wood and the rest of the cabinet box from a less costly material. The rationale, as explained above, is that the doors are usually the only visible parts of the cabinets.

From a health perspective, solid wood is one of the best choices available. Certain wood species, particularly softwoods, contain higher levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic chemical which is released into the air over time through a process known as outgassing, or offgassing, which refers to a natural reaction in which a volatile organic compound evaporates from a solid substance into the air. Still, the amount of formaldehyde in natural wood is much lower - by a factor of 10 times or more - than the amounts present in many engineered and manufactured home products, as we will discuss subsequently. In addition, the gasses inside natural wood can be effectively locked in by utilizing a sealant.
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A lower cost alternative to natural wood is engineered wood. This type of product is produced by taking pieces of wood in the form of wood strands, wood particles, or wood fibers and binding them together using chemical adhesives. The resulting composites are both structurally stronger than the equivalent natural wood and less costly, as they can be made of smaller fragments and lower quality wood, such as sawmill scraps, chips, and flakes.

There are various types of engineered wood, but the most common types used in kitchen cabinet construction are plywood and fiberboard. Plywood is made by bonding laminated wood veneer sheets, also known as plies, atop one another with powerful, moisture-resistant adhesives. Fiberboard is made by breaking down wood residuals into individual fibers, combining the fibers with specialized resin binders, and then using high temperature and pressure to form the resulting mass into boards. Depending on the process, fiberboard can either be made more or less dense, ranging from particle board, which is the least dense, to hardboard, which is the most dense. The densities used in kitchen cabinet-making are particle board and medium-density fiberboard (MDF).

Engineered wood is generally stronger, stiffer, and more durable than the natural wood from which it is made. They are more consistent in terms of internal structure and provide great versatility in construction applications. However, a great deal depends on the specific grade, thickness, and specifications of the particular engineered wood. Some lower cost, interior use designated engineered woods are actually more prone to soaking up humidity and experiencing warping than the equivalent solid woods.

Because of its low cost, structural strength, and amenability to construction techniques, engineered wood is a popular choice for cabinet boxes. The surface of engineered wood products can be easily laminated, veneered, or painted to provide an attractive look that retains the warm feeling associated with wood. Engineered wood also provides a low cost alternative for cabinet doors, which are generally made by taking an engineered wood panel and applying a surface finish.

Two common surface finish materials for engineered wood cabinet doors are melamine and thermofoil. Melamine is the name given to engineered wood - usually particle board - which has been laminated with a top layer of decorative paper, using melamine resin as the bonding agent. By contrast, thermofoil refers to a layer of engineered wood - usually MDF - which has been thermoformed with a top layer of decorative vinyl, usually PVC. Both melamine and thermofoil can be made in a wide variety of colors. However, of the two, thermofoil is the stronger, more durable material, less vulnerable to chipping or scratching than melamine. In the case of plywood, the surface finish is usually not melamine or thermofoil, but rather stain, paint, lacquer, or veneer. For more information on the various types of cabinet door finish and their corresponding advantages and disadvantages, please see our cabinet designs section here.

Between plywood, particle board, and MDF, plywood is generally considered to be the better material, although some experts disagree. Plywood is more moisture resistant, lighter in weight, easier to drill, less susceptible to scratching, and more flexible than particle board or MDF. On the other hand, particle board and MDF are more dimensionally stable with changes in humidity, more uniform, and more amenable to high precision construction than plywood.

Another advantage of plywood is that it generally has less outgassing of formaldehyde than particle board or MDF. This brings up a key consideration for any type of engineered wood. Many of the high powered resins and adhesives used as bonding agents in the manufacture of engineered wood outgas chemicals into the air which are harmful to your health. The most common type of resin for fiberboard and, to a lesser extent, for plywood is urea-formaldehyde (UF), which has been conclusively shown to emit toxic formaldehyde into the air for years after its production. A much less toxic option is phenol-formaldehyde (PF) resin, which is also used in the manufacture of certain types of fiberboard and plywood. However, manufacturers prefer UF resins because they are cheaper and less time-consuming to use than PF resins. In purchasing kitchen cabinets which utilize engineered wood components, you would be well advised to determine the type of resin used in advance and, if possible, avoid any products using UF resins.
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Another low cost alternative to natural wood cabinetry is laminates. The term laminate generally refers to the bonding of plastic surfaces with other materials, creating a multi-layered, synthetic composite which is strong, durable, easy to clean, and can be made in a wide variety of looks. There are many different types of laminate and they have different profiles in terms of their physical properties. Some laminates incorporate engineered wood layers between plastic, while others utilize layers of specialized paper. Higher pressure laminates are substantially more durable than low pressure laminates, but they also tend to be more expensive.

Laminates generally provide a stronger, more scratch-resistant surface than melamine and, as a result, they are somewhat more costly. However, compared to natural wood, they are still a substantially less expensive option. Laminates are also very versatile, offering the broadest range of colors and patterns, ranging from the sleek glossies of a contemporary kitchen to a faux wood which can look right at home in a traditional kitchen. The colors will not fade over time or change tones as a result of prolonged exposure to sunlight. Cleaning laminated surfaces is very easy as they are resistant to stains.

On the other hand, laminates are definitely not an upscale option and they look it. Visually, there can be no mistaking the look of natural wood on the one hand and the look of a plastic laminate on the other. Given the way laminates are constructed, repair can be difficult and doors will generally have to be replaced if the laminate surface is damaged or the adhesive loses its grip. By the same token, refacing a laminate kitchen is a more involved process which can require specialized paints and materials.

From a health perspective, many types of laminates are known to emit toxic VOCs into the air. Laminates which incorporate certain kinds of glues or engineered woods can outgas unsafe levels of formaldehyde. However, there are also much more environmentally friendly laminate surfaces that are available for cabinet construction. The key considerations are the type of adhesive used for lamination, the type of substrate utilized to bond to the plastic layers, and the type of paint used for the finish.
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An option that is in the opposite direction from engineered wood and laminates in terms of cost is stainless steel cabinets. Stainless steel is an incredibly strong and durable type of steel that is highly resistant to corrosion, rust, and staining. Stainless steel cabinets are a somewhat eclectic option which is far less common than wood or laminates, but they can offer a unique look coupled with excellent functional properties.

Quality stainless steel cabinets will provide many years of service and, in fact, may not need to be replaced for decades. This particular metal is incredibly durable. Unlike wood or laminate products, it is also resistant to warping, chipping, cracking, peeling, and staining. This makes upkeep straightforward and provides the security of knowing that the cabinets will not wear down, fade, or show other signs of wear and tear over time.

In addition to its longevity and durability, stainless steel offers a unique look which can work incredibly well in a contemporary styled kitchen. It also simplifies the design process, as there is no need to make decisions regarding the color or finish of the cabinets. Stainless steel comes in a sleek, semi-reflective silver which lends a modern, sophisticated, and almost futuristic look to the kitchen. However, the look is not for everyone. For some, stainless steel lends too much of a cold, clinical feel to the cabinets.

Many appreciate the fact that stainless steel represents a sterile surface which is resistant to heat, which is easy to clean, and which does not hold on to odors. However, stainless steel does pick up fingerprints easily, so if you have small children in the house, your lower cabinets can quickly come to be covered in oily finger and hand prints, requiring frequent cleaning.

From a health perspective, stainless steel is an excellent option as it does not leech any chemicals into the surrounding environment or outgas any VOCs into the air. It has no pores or cracks to harbor either dirt particles or harmful bacteria. Stainless steel is acknowledged as an incredibly hygienic surface, which is why it is the material of choice for commercial kitchens in restaurants and hotels.
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Another eclectic kitchen cabinet choice which has been gaining in popularity is glass. Unlike stainless steel, generally it is just the cabinet doors which are made from glass, or from glass and another framing material. The doors may be glass, but the cabinet box itself will be constructed from either natural wood, engineered wood, or, in some cases, stainless steel.

Glass has a number of benefits which set it apart from any of the other materials. Glass is incredibly versatile: it can be made clear, frosted, colored, textured, or stained, and feature such decorative elements as etching, bubbling, ribbing, and beveling. Glass can also be made to incorporate wooden mullions or metallic cames, which are thin dividers that create a pattern by subdividing the glass pane into smaller panes of various shape and size. Depending on the type of glass used and the texturing elements utilized, a glass door can be perfectly transparent, perfectly opaque, or somewhere in between.

Transparent glass doors can turn the kitchen into a China cabinet style showpiece, with beautiful dishware, cookware, collectible, or ceramic pieces on display behind glass. The use of inside cabinet lighting adds to the effect, creating beautiful accents. In addition, transparent glass doors serve to expand the kitchen space, where solid wood or steel doors do the opposite, actually shrinking the space.

Whether clear, opaque, or semi-opaque, glass has wonderful light reflecting properties which serve to breathe life and cheer into the kitchen space, making it actually appear bigger. Frosted glass kitchen cabinets coupled with under cabinet lighting can create the illusion of the cabinets actually floating in space. Using glass to bring more light into a space can be particularly effective as an offset to dark colored counters, floors, and walls.

Glass can work effectively in virtually every type of kitchen design. Frosted, bubbled, ribbed, or beveled glass works for a contemporary kitchen, mullioned or camed glass is at home in a traditional kitchen, stained glass looks beautiful in an Old World kitchen, and etched or tinted glass can be an interesting choice for a country kitchen. The glass elements do not have to be used for every cabinet door, but can be incorporated into a particular section within a run of cabinets.

As a material, glass is resistant to scratching, chipping, warping, or peeling. Glass is also easy to maintain and to clean, with a felt cloth or paper towels coupled with a few squirts of liquid glass cleaner usually sufficient to return the glass to its original condition. New manufacturing techniques are making glass increasingly strong, which means that it is less likely to shatter or crack from an accidental impact. In addition, from a health standpoint, glass is generally a safe material that is not known to outgas harmful VOCs into the ambient air.
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