When you hear a dealer refer to cabinets as "real wood," it's mostly true. Cabinets consist of a variety of wood products. Plywood is real wood, and so is particleboard. If you want to get more precise, ask about solid wood.
Sides, Tops and Bottoms
Cabinets are rarely made entirely of solid wood. Sides, sometimes called jambs, are typically hardwood plywood. Shelves, bottoms, tops and structural jambs are fir plywood or particleboard -- and it's to be expected. Drawer sides are usually plywood or particleboard but may be solid wood. Drawer bottoms are always plywood or hardboard, which is a dense particleboard product.
Faces and Doors
Cabinet face-frames are rarely built with anything but solid wood. Doors and drawer fronts may be solid wood, hardwood plywood or a combination of both. Raised-panel doors and drawer fronts are solid wood. Inset or Shaker-style doors and fronts have a solid wood frame, with a hardwood plywood center.
Manufactured Wood Products
- Photographic print of wood grain on a thin plastic coating.
- Coarse, particleboard core.
- Cheapest of all the faux wood products.
- Can be thin -- 3/8- to 5/8-inch.
- Sometimes referred to as melamine, MDL or medium-density laminate.
- Dense particleboard core.
- Typically 3/4-inch in thickness.
- Hard, glassy and water-resistant.
- Grain pattern printed or embossed into the finish.
- European-style cabinets are an example of MDL.
- Midrange in cost.
- Thin veneer of real wood on both sides.
- May contain oak, ash, mahogany, cherry or other wood species that match solid wood components.
- Visible layers when viewed from an edge or side.
- More expensive than laminates.
- Ranges from 1/4- to-3/4-inch in thickness.
How to Tell the Difference
Examine The Side
Examine the side of a door or along an exposed edge anywhere on the cabinet. If it's solid wood, the grain pattern wraps around corners and edges, and matches on the front and back of the door. Side-grain patterns on solid wood are elongated, running parallel with the edge. Faux wood has grain patterns that typically join at 90-degrees along edges.
Look for Seams
Look for seams along edges. They might appear slightly whitish where glue has not been completely removed. Loose flaps and open cracks on seams are another indicator it's not solid wood.
Laminated products typically have sharp, square corners. If you see rounded, blunted, shaped or profiled edges, it's solid wood.
Run your hand over the surface. Real wood has texture where pores and grain lines interrupt the surface, and you can sometimes feel them, even if it's finished. Laminates and plastic has a glassy, hard feel.
Remove a screw from a door or cabinet. If it's solid wood, you're more likely to see splinters or fibers in the hole. If it's a laminated product, you're more likely to see chips and dust.
Stand back and look at the cabinets. If you can spot a repeating grain pattern, it's not solid wood. Solid wood is similar to a snowflake: No two patterns are the same.
Solid wood typically has a lacquer finish. It's usually semigloss, and reflects more light than laminates. Laminated products typically have a dull appearance and don't reflect as much light as a lacquered wood finish. Lacquer feels softer to the touch than laminates.
Don't be too determined to purchase cabinets made entirely out of solid wood. It's not always the best choice for shelves and structural parts such as vertical jambs, tops and bottoms. Solid wood expands and contracts, leading to cracks and splits. Plywood and particleboard components resist expansion and contraction, so they will not split. Cabinet shelves and jambs made with premium-grade melamine or MDL resist moisture better than solid wood.
Specializing in hardwood furniture, trim carpentry, cabinets, home improvement and architectural millwork, Wade Shaddy has worked in homebuilding since 1972. Shaddy has also worked as a newspaper reporter and writer, and as a contributing writer for Bicycling Magazine. Shaddy began publishing in various magazines in 1992, and published a novel, “Dark Canyon,” in 2008.