Cabinet Boxes: Particle Board vs. Plywood

Which Is Best For Your Kitchen?

Cabinet Boxes: Particle Board vs. Plywood

The Coastal Cottage Company’s last post focused on choosing a design for your kitchen cabinets – Shaker, inset, flat, or beadboard.  When building or remodeling, figuring out your style is the fun part.  But as important as style is, cabinets are worthless if they aren’t made of sound materials.  

Particle Board or Plywood?

One of the most important considerations to ensure your kitchen cabinets will survive typical wear and tear is choosing the right material for your cabinet boxes.  Because the box is mostly hidden, folks often don’t worry about its construction.  But much like your skeletal system keeps you upright and stable, the box keeps your cabinets sturdy.  Think about the abuse cabinets endure — they’re weighted down with dishes, their drawers are slammed, and their doors are kicked.  Thus, cabinet boxes must be strong.

Typically, homeowners choose between plywood and particle board.  Each has its own benefits and weaknesses but, generally speaking, plywood is considered the better option.

What’s the difference?

Particle board (sometimes called “furniture board”) is a wood product manufactured from wood chips, sawmill shavings, or sawdust, and a synthetic resin, which is compressed.  In contrast, plywood is made of thin layers of wood veneer, called “plies,” that are glued together with adjacent layers having their wood grain rotated 90 degrees.  This alternation of the grain is called cross-graining and has several important benefits: it reduces the tendency of wood to split when nailed; it reduces expansion and shrinkage; and it makes the strength of the panel consistent across all directions. There are usually an odd number of plies which helps to reduce warping.

Cabinet Boxes: Particle Board vs. Plywood
7-ply spruce plywood. Image from Wikipedia.

But not all plywood is created equal.  Jim Mallery, from Old House Web, recommends the following:

  • 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 or gaps in the plies.
  • And if you see any warping in a sheet of plywood, it is not suitable for cabinetry.

According to Kelly Gallagher, of Boston Building Resources, particle board quality depends on the size of the particles, the glue that holds it together, and the density of the board. Smaller particles make the board denser and heavier while polyurethane resin makes it more moisture resistant. One of the best kinds of particle board is medium density fiberboard (MDF), but it can be very heavy, making it difficult to hang large cabinets.

Cabinet Boxes: Particle Board vs. Plywood
Particle board of different densities. Image from Wikipedia.

How do you decide?

The biggest strengths of particle board are its lower price and smoother finish, but plywood tends to be more durable, less susceptible to moisture, and holds glue joints better.  When deciding, consider your budget and even ask your contractor if it’s possible to use both.  For example, choose plywood for areas where there may be more moisture (such as around the sink and next to the dishwasher) or use particle board just for shelves.  Whatever your decision, select the highest quality materials you can afford to ensure your cabinets will last for years to come.


Blog by Jessica T. Smith for the Coastal Cottage Company 

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