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The best wood for cabinet making

Updated February 21, 2017

Kitchen cabinets can be a major investment for many homeowners, so it's important to choose the best materials and techniques when making or buying these cabinets. Look for wood that's attractive in terms of colour and grain pattern, but is also durable and long lasting. Those preparing to make their own cabinets will also need to consider the workability and hardness of the wood they are considering. While cabinet wood selections often come down to personal taste, some woods are better than others when it comes to certain criteria.

Appearance

One of the key decisions for buyers to make about wood cabinets is whether the wood will be painted or stained. Because paint usually hides the wood's natural appearance, it's a waste of money to invest in high-end wood species if the cabinets will be painted. At the same time, stained cabinets can highlight the wood's natural colour and grain, so buyers will want to evaluate these features carefully before making a purchase.

For painted cabinets, paint-grade wood like medium density fiberboard (MDF) or hardboard is the most affordable option. It has a very smooth surface and tends to take paint well. When it comes to staining, buyers have many more wood species to choose from. Both pine and maple have a light golden colour and a fairly weak grain pattern. They can also have special features like knots or other flaws that can make cabinets look more rustic. At the same time these materials are very porous and can be hard to stain without creating streaks or blotches. Mahogany and hickory are both darker woods with deep, straight grains, but mahogany takes stain well while hickory does not. Oak is one of the most popular woods for cabinet making. It takes stain well and has a rich red or brown colouring. Oak, however, tends to have a pronounced grain, which some buyers may not find attractive.

Workability

Workability is described as how easy it is to cut, shape and sand wood into the desired cabinet design. Woods with poor workability tend to crack or split along grain lines or edges when cut, and can be hard to shape or sand evenly. In general, harder woods like oak, hickory, cherry or mahogany will have poorer workability than softer woods like pine or maple. MDF and hardboard are considered the most workable of all cabinet-making materials, and are very easy to cut and shape.

Durability

When choosing wood for cabinet making, it's helpful to understand the relative durability and maintenance issues associated with each species. Paint grade woods like MDF tend to perform the best over time, and are dense enough to withstand varying levels of moisture and humidity. Soft woods like pine and maple will be the least durable, and are highly susceptible to moisture. Most hardwoods like cherry, oak, mahogany and hickory are strong and durable enough to last for many years. They have moderate levels of moisture-resistance, but can withstand normal wear and tear caused by everyday use.

For the most durable type of wood cabinets, consider using wood veneers instead of solid lumber. Veneers are thin slices of real wood adhered to an MDF or plywood base. Cabinets made using this technique are much more stable and longer lasting than solid-wood units, and offer superior resistance to moisture and humidity. They also tend to be the more economical solution, and can contribute toward sustainable forestry by minimising the amount of wood required for each cabinet.

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About the Author

Emily Beach works in the commercial construction industry in Maryland. She received her LEED accreditation from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2008 and is in the process of working towards an Architectural Hardware Consultant certification from the Door and Hardware Institute. She received a bachelor's degree in economics and management from Goucher College in Towson, Maryland.