When designers talk about real wood cabinets, they are usually referring to the doors, the drawer faces and the cabinet facing — in short, all the parts you can see. The interior of the cabinets, including the structural components, the shelves and the drawers, are seldom made of the same material as the doors and drawer fronts, but that doesn't mean they aren't made of wood. Plywood is wood, and cabinetmakers prefer it over less-expensive particleboard, which actually is also technically wood. However, plywood and particleboard contain high percentages of synthetic resin.
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Distinguishing Real Wood From Laminates
When it comes to appearance, the door and drawer fronts of a kitchen cabinet matter most, and manufacturers are so adept at creating laminate products that look like solid wood that you have to look carefully to tell them apart. Busby Cabinets offers some dead giveaways:
- Check the edges of the doors and drawers. If they are solid wood, you'll see end grain on the tops and bottoms. If they're laminated, you'll see edging material with a longitudinal wood grain, which looks unnatural.
- Check the corners. Real wood corners are usually shaped or rounded, while laminated ones are sharp and square.
- Examine any nicks or chips. If they're deep enough or if they're on the door edges, they'll reveal the plywood or particleboard core.
If the doors are painted, you can usually see the grain running on the top or bottom edge of the door underneath the paint, and you can also tell by the corners whether the underlying material is solid wood or a laminate.
Wood Cabinets Have Dovetail Joints
Real wood is expensive, and it's rare for cabinetmakers to build entire cabinets with it. It's not unheard of, though, and when a cabinetmaker invests that much money into a cabinet, the workmanship tends to be top-quality. Dovetail joints are one of the most recognizable signs of quality craftsmanship.
Look inside the drawers and examine the joints between the door faces and the rest of the frame. If you see that the joint was assembled with interlocking notches and grooves, which is known as a dovetail joint, the drawer is made of solid wood. It's difficult to make these joints when working with plywood and impossible when working with particleboard. You might also see dovetail joints in the cabinet facing and in other places, such as the corners between the front and sides and in built-in features, such as a cutting board or spice rack.
Factory-made drawers can also have dovetail joints, and when they do, it means they're made out of solid wood. It may be inexpensive pine — and not a hardwood — but it's still wood.
Real Wood Isn't Necessarily Better
If inspection reveals that the doors are laminate, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Particleboard and plywood are less classy than genuine oak, maple and mahogany, but Boston Building Resources reminds you that they have their advantages. For one thing, they're less expensive, but that's not all.
Both plywood and particleboard are more dimensionally stable than solid wood. They expand and contract in all directions rather than along the grain, so they don't warp. That means that a cabinet made with either of these materials could well last longer than one made of wood. Particleboard's propensity to absorb moisture can be a drawback, though, especially in the kitchen, and swelling is another way to identify cabinet doors and drawers constructed with it.
Chris Deziel is a contractor, builder and general fix-it pro who has been active in the construction trades for 40 years. He has degrees in science and humanities and years of teaching experience. An avid craftsman and musician, Deziel began writing on home improvement topics in 2010. He worked as an expert consultant with eHow Now and Pro Referral -- a Home Depot site. A DIYer by nature, Deziel regularly shares tips and tricks for a better home and garden at Hunker and Family Handyman.