Particle Board vs. Plywood Cabinets for Kitchens and Bathrooms

Constructing Cabinets from particle board

George Peters / Getty Images

Those kitchen or bathroom cabinets look great on the outside, but what about their inner structures? Does it matter whether they are made of particle board or plywood?

At one time, cabinets were always made from solid hardwood or softwoods. Plywood came along and largely replaced solid wood for most consumer-grade cabinets. And then came particle board. Particle board is good for mills and manufacturers because it uses smaller diameter wood that would otherwise be wasted. But is it good for homeowners?

How Cabinets Are Constructed

Kitchen and bathroom cabinets can be divided into two elements: boxes and fronts. Extra pieces include side panels, stiles, and rails.

Cabinet Boxes

Boxes are the true heart of cabinet systems. Boxes, too, are interchangeable. A cabinet manufacturer may, for example, offer only one 36-inch base cabinet. But according to your design wishes, any number of door and drawer fronts may be attached to this one base cabinet.

For example, a kitchen cabinet base with no doors, fixtures, or countertop is a box. A kitchen wall cabinet (the type of cabinet that hangs from the wall) devoid of fixtures and doors is also a box.

Cabinet Fronts

Cabinet fronts are an entirely different matter. Doors and drawer fronts are the veneered decorative face that you see, the part that most people are concerned with.

Common front styles are Shaker and slab and popular veneered wood species are cherry or oak. Below this hardwood veneer front is a plywood base.

If not veneered, the cabinet fronts might be made of a solid wood like oak or hickory.

Side Panels, Stiles, and Rails

The other interchangeable elements are the decorative veneered side panels, which typically match the veneered fronts. 

For framed cabinets, the exposed vertical stiles (vertical sections) and rails (horizontal sections) may be veneered or may be solid hardwood.

Particle Board vs. Plywood Cabinets

Cabinet boxes are structural, and thus need to be strong. And this is where particle board and plywood come into play.

Particle Board Cabinets

  • Inexpensive

  • Widely found

  • Stable if veneer remains in place

  • Flat, predictable material

  • Damaged by moisture

  • Heavy

  • Can warp over time

Particle board, also called medium-density fiberboard (MDF), will be stable as long as it remains dry and is not subjected to undue stress.

As long as it remains veneered, either with wood or thermofoil, it can perform well for many years to come.

MDF often goes by different names, such as composite wood, fiberboard, or by the brand name Masonite.

Because particle board will swell up when it becomes wet (and the water is not quickly wiped up), it can become unusable. Swollen particle board cannot be sanded or planed down. Replacement is the only option for water-damaged particle board cabinet elements.

Particle board, being a highly engineered material, is perfectly flat. It has none of the imperfections or knots that are sometimes found in plywood.

Plywood Cabinets

  • Strong

  • Less susceptible to water damage

  • Lighter in weight

  • Firmly holds fasteners

  • More expensive

  • Veneer required

The type of plywood used for cabinets is not the home center plywood used for sheathing and construction projects. Cabinet-grade plywood often has twice the number of plies, or layers, better lamination, and a smoother finish. Plywood used to make cabinets cuts cleanly, with little splintering or damage.

Cabinet-grade plywood tends to be 3/4-inch thick and often is veneered on one side with a hardwood, such as birch, maple, oak, hickory, or walnut. Because plywood isn't usually appearance-grade, the veneer is required.

Plywood cabinet boxes are lighter than particle board boxes. This makes them easier to install for wall cabinets, where high lifting is required.

Plywood is known for holding screws especially well. So, hinges on plywood cabinets usually remain solid.

Cabinet Costs and Availability

Generally, cabinets made from particle board will be less expensive than those made with plywood. Particle board cabinets tend to be about 10- to 20-percent less expensive than plywood cabinets.

Particle board boxes are slightly more available since these tend to be the off-the-shelf cabinets found at home centers. In most areas, it is difficult to find plywood cabinet boxes that you can purchase and bring home the same day. In most places, IKEA is the only home design center where that's possible. The only other option is to buy RTA cabinets online.

Should you need to reface your cabinets later on, plywood cabinets are better candidates for refacing than particle board cabinets.

Cabinet Manufacturers and Retailers

Plywood Cabinet Boxes

Many ready-to-assemble (RTA) companies use only plywood for cabinet boxes. Plywood boxes often have shelves that are thicker than the sides. Be sure to check manufacturer specifications to make sure that they are using all plywood.

MDF Cabinet Boxes

  • IKEA: IKEA's commitment to MDF cabinet boxes is one way it keeps its products so cheap. None of IKEA's cabinets are made of plywood.
  • Home Depot, In-Stock: Both the inexpensive, generic in-stock cabinet boxes and Hampton Bay branded cabinet boxes are all made of MDF. 
  • Lowe's, In-Stock: Lowe's house brand, Kitchen Classics, uses particle board for cabinet boxes.

Plywood/MDF Mixture Cabinet Boxes

  • Kraftmaid: This popular cabinet company liberally uses MDF for cabinet boxes. But Kraftmaid also does have an option for all plywood construction as an upgrade for​ an extra cost.
  • 27Estore: This Las Vegas-based online retailer of Euro-styled cabinets uses MDF for its boxes, though it does have an extra cost upgrade for birch plywood.

Should You Buy Particle Board or Plywood Construction Cabinets?

On the whole, kitchen and bathroom cabinet boxes entirely constructed of plywood are sturdier, more durable, and hold veneer better than particle board cabinet boxes. If all other factors are equal, plywood is the best choice for kitchen and bathroom cabinets.

But considering other factors such as cost and availability, particle board cabinet boxes can be a wise choice, too. If moisture isn't an issue, then particle board cabinets can work nearly as well as plywood cabinets.