Is Particle Board or Plywood Better For Cabinet Boxes and Drawers?

Constructing Cabinets
Constructing Cabinets. Getty / George Peters

What You Should Buy

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

But considering other factors such as cost and quick availability, particle board cabinet boxes can be a good value.

It is important to note that some makers and retailers of MDF try to side-step the issue by calling their product by a different name.

 For example, Home Depot calls their MDF "composite."  27estore.com leaves it out entirely, saying that their MDF boxes are "[s]trong construction support using 3/4“ thick panels."

Cost

Cabinets made from particle board will be cheaper than those made with plywood. For example, the cheapest possible base cabinet found at Home Depot, its 30" Base Cabinet in unfinished oak, is about $100--a price that plywood box makers cannot touch.

A more realistic comparison is with Java Shaker, a dark brown-black Espresso color in Shaker style that many companies carry.  For a 30" sink base:

  • Home Depot:  $196 for MDF boxes (Ship to home = about $100)
  • RTA Cabinet Store:  $243 for all-plywood boxes (Ship to home = about $200)

Availability

Particle board boxes are slightly more available, since these tend to be the off-the-shelf cabinets found at Lowe's, Home Depot, and IKEA.  In most areas, it is difficult to find plywood cabinet boxes that you can purchase and bring home the same day.

Fixing/Refacing

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

Manufacturers/Retailers

Plywood Boxes:

The following RTA companies use only plywood for cabinet boxes.  Plywood boxes usually have shelves that are thicker than the sides.

 

Even if you do choose an all-plywood company, it is still possible to end up with MDF in the form of cabinet doors or drawers. See the Terminology section at the end of this article.

  • RTA Cabinet Store
  • The RTA Store
  • Kitchen Cabinet Kings

MDF Boxes:

  • IKEA:  IKEA's commitment to MDF cabinet boxes is one way it keeps its products so cheap.
  • Home Depot In-Stock:  Both the cheap no-name, in-stock cabinet boxes and Hampton Bay branded cabinet boxes are all made of MDF.  
  • Lowe's In-Stock:  Its house brand, Kitchen Classics, uses particle board for cabinet boxe.

Plywood/MDF:

  • Kraftmaid:  Kraftmaid liberally uses MDF for cabinet boxes, but it does have an All Plywood Construction option as an upgrade for extra cost.
  • 27estore:  This Las Vegas-based on-line retailer of Euro-styled cabinets uses MDF for its boxes, though it does have an extra cost upgrade for birch plywood.

What We Are Talking About:  Cabinet Terminology

  • Boxes vs. Fronts:  Kitchen and bathroom cabinets can be divided into two elements:  boxes and fronts.  A kitchen cabinet base is a box.  A cabinet manufacturer may, for example, offer only one 36" base cabinet.  But according to your design wishes, any number of door and drawer fronts may be attached to this one base cabinet.
  • Boxes:  Boxes are structural.  Aside from interchangeable door and drawer fronts, the other decorative elements are the veneered side panels.  For framed cabinets, the exposed vertical stiles (vertical sections) and rails (horizontal sections) will be veneered.
  • Fronts:  Doors and drawer fronts are the decorative face that you see, the part that most people are concerned with.  Common styles and wood species include Shaker, Tuscan, slab, cherry, and oak.
  • Particle Board:  Also called MDF (medium-density fiberboard), particle board can remain stable as long as it remains dry and is not subjected to undue stress.
  • Cabinet Grade Plywood:  Not the cheap plywood used for sheathing and construction projects, cabinet plywood often has twice the number of plies, better lamination, and a smoother finish.