Wood vs. Laminate Kitchen Cabinets

Laminate cabinets and solid wood cabinets perform the same functions. Neither is superior to the other. Deciding the best option for your needs involves cost, maintenance, durability and other factors. Each type has a definite niche, with special qualities that make it desirable.

Contractor Writing Estimate
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Estimating cost of laminate or wood kitchen cabinets.

Cabinet Anatomy

Wood cabinets are not entirely made with solid wood. The majority of cabinetry relies on a combination of plywood and hardwood solids. Laminate cabinets are build with medium-density laminate -- a combination of wood byproducts and resin glued together under heat and hydraulic pressure. Durable plastic is laminated to both sides to produce solid sheets of material that's cut and assembled into cabinets.

Longevity

When properly cared for, laminate cabinets have longevity, but wooden cabinets typically last longer. Laminate itself is very tough. It's hard to dent or scratch. Problems occur when edges or corners of laminate lift slightly. Once the glue loosens under the laminate it can get worse. It's difficult to reattach with any real success. The problem is worsened by high humidity, causing laminate to loosen at a faster rate. Wood cabinets also expand and contract with changing humidity. It can be an issue with raised-panel doors, but most other types of doors aren't affected much. Wood corners and edges break or blunt, but can also be sanded and repaired more easily than laminates. Depending on price, some laminate cabinets contain particleboard shelves and jambs. Real wood cabinets are more likely to contain shelves and jambs made of plywood, which is considered more durable.

Cosmetics

Appearance is the single most differentiating issue between wood and laminate cabinets in a kitchen. Both varieties are functional and durable, but wood has the edge when it comes to tradition and style. Laminate cabinets can be purchased in a variety of designs including imitation wood grain, but real wood looks more natural. Some high-end laminate cabinets are hard to distinguish from real wood from a distance, but up close, the tell-tale reflection and lack of depth is easily recognized. The way the cabinets feel is also important. Laminate cabinets may have sharp edges. Wood cabinets typically have rounded or sanded edges that feel nice. Laminate cabinets have a utilitarian or clinical appearance. Solid wood cabinets reflect warmth and a home-like atmosphere.

Cost

When comparing an average set of cabinets, laminate cabinets can typically be purchased at half the cost or less of a comparable set of wooden cabinets. This difference alone can make laminate cabinets a good option for remodeling on a budget. However, if you plan on selling the home at a later date, the extra value gained from installing solid wood cabinets adds resale value to your home. Take the resale value up a notch by adding more expensive, commercial-grade laminate cabinets. This type of laminate is manufactured under high pressure. It's more dense, extremely durable and offers lots of variety. High-pressure laminate can rival the cost of cheaper wooden cabinets.

Clean Up

Laminate kitchen cabinets clean up more efficiently than wood cabinets. The slick, hard surface responds to a damp cloth readily. Dirt, grime, spills, water spots or food cleans up fast and doesn't penetrate. Many commercial businesses, hospitals and clinics install laminate cabinets for this reason alone. Wood cabinets are more difficult to clean, and special products designed for wood cleaning should be used to prevent damage to the cabinet. In cases where wood cabinets have not been cleaned regularly, deep-down dirt and grime can be very difficult to remove without sanding.

Do I Look Heavy?

Wood cabinets weigh less than laminate cabinets. The difference might not be noticeable on smaller cabinets, but larger cabinets that attach to the ceiling and walls may need extra bracing for support. If you're building a set of cabinets, the individual sheets are heavy, and it typically requires two people to cut them. Laminate doors are also heavier. Bigger doors, such as full-length pantry doors, might need more security, including bigger hinges, more hinges, and longer screws to support the extra weight.