Easy to clean and inexpensive to purchase, thermofoil cabinets are a staple of budget kitchen remodels. Thermofoil cabinets are the equivalent of vinyl siding on kitchen and bathroom cabinetry. Thermofoil is a non-porous coating for medium-density fiberboard (MDF), a sturdy alternative to solid wood. Raw MDF chips and swells when subjected to water and does not take paint well; thermofoil makes MDF a viable, lower-cost builder's option for kitchen cabinetry.
Thermofoil cabinets are not necessarily the go-to finish for all kitchen and bathroom cabinets, but it's not the worst option like particleboard. It is generally considered a builders-grade quality. We talked to two designers and builders to get their opinions on thermofoil. Both worry about thermofoil cabinets bringing down the resale value of a home. Designer Paul McAlary says that subsequent buyers of your home may think they make the home less sale-worthy. Builder Nick Dellos agrees, stating that thermofoil saves money for builders but doesn't pass on value to the homeowners or buyers.
Meet the Expert
- Paul McAlary, president and senior designer of Pennsylvania-based Main Line Kitchen Design, is an internationally recognized kitchen design authority.
- Nick Dellos, general contractor, construction consultant, and owner of Nick Dellos Construction in North Hills, California, has over 30 years of building experience.
Read on to learn all the considerations you should think about before buying thermofoil. This guide will review costs, styles, and pros and cons.
What Is Thermofoil?
Thermofoil is a surface finish made from a thin layer of plastic. The term comes from "thermo," meaning heat, and "foil" for a thin sheet. Cabinet manufacturers use heat or pressure to apply a white, colored, or faux wood grain vinyl coating to an inexpensive base material like medium-density fiberboard (MDF) to make cabinet doors and drawer fronts.
Before Buying Thermofoil Cabinets
If your kitchen needs new cabinet doors or drawer fronts and you have a limited budget, then thermofoil cabinets will serve in a pinch. Since it's a vinyl finish, they are consistently one color—better than any paint job would yield. Aesthetically, they can revive a kitchen in need of sprucing up.
In addition, they are non-porous, which means you can use a sponge and warm water for easy clean up of drips and splatter. They are generally scratch and stain-resistant. However, they have several drawbacks that many consider not worth the hassle. Consider these factors before you buy:
- Peeling and chipping: Because thermofoil is a thin layer of vinyl, many homeowners report problems with delamination and peeling at the edges of doors and drawer fronts. A sharp blow to thermofoil can chip it. Again, edges tend to be the danger zone for this kind of damage. Once thermofoil peels or chips, any exposure to water will make the MDF swell and look unsightly.
- Hard to resurface: You cannot paint thermofoil-faced MDF cabinets easily. You could potentially run them through another thermofoil press, but the cost is prohibitive. The best bet would be to purchase entirely new thermofoil doors and drawer fronts while retaining the cabinet boxes.
- Susceptible to high heat: High heat will damage thermofoil, according to Kraftmaid, a major supplier of thermofoil cabinets. If they're too close to the stovetop, there's a much greater risk of damage. Kraftmaid recommends removing cabinet doors and drawers around high-heat appliances for extreme heat, such as self-cleaning oven operations. The company also sells a heat shield that protects cabinets during high heat activities. If you're concerned about high heat damage, consider installing thermofoil cabinets in the bathroom and choose another type for the kitchen.
Buying Considerations for Thermofoil Cabinets
Space (or Room Layout)
Thermofoil cabinets are most often used in showrooms, spec houses, fast-flip remodels, apartments, and condos. You would expect to see them in kitchens and bathrooms; they're also used anywhere you have cabinets, such as workshops and hobby rooms. Although designer Paul McAlary says that thermofoil cabinets were once popular, they're no longer acceptable for most kitchen remodels.
Thermofoil cabinets are made with a large vacuum press. The cabinet door and drawer bases are most often made of MDF or engineered wood. A flexible layer of solid color 100 percent vinyl is laid on top of the surface. The top of the press is closed, and the air is expelled from the chamber. With high pressure and adhesive, the vinyl fuses to the surface.
The thermofoil surface matters. Most thermofoil cabinets manufacturers use MDF since it's a durable choice. However, plywood or particleboard are also used. After MDF, plywood is stronger, can bear more weight, and is durable. It can better resist shearing or bending. Particleboard is made from compressed sawdust and other waste wood products and is more likely to break, crack, or snap.
These cabinets come in standard, stock sizes and can be made to be custom-sized too. The options are limitless for thermofoil cabinets.
Its best features are ease of cleaning and smooth, consistent color. Thermofoil is seamless across the entire face of the surface. Being a plastic product, it is essentially nonporous. Water will not affect thermofoil. Thermofoil is impervious to most staining and is easy to wipe off.
Smooth, consistent color is one hallmark of thermofoil cabinets since the color is "baked into" the vinyl itself. This cabinet facing will keep their color long after painted wood doors fade. However, nothing lasts forever; they can yellow and peel.
Types of Thermofoil Cabinets
The beauty of this product is that you can get these cabinets in many finishes or colors. You can get them in matte, glossy, and textured or wood grain finishes. Consider matte or flat finishes in high foot-traffic areas or for homes with small children and pets since they hide dings, scratches, and dirt a little better. This product is best for people who do not have the time or inclination to take on a resurfacing project but want quick results without breaking the bank.
Flat or Matte
Matte means it has a flat or dull sheen, which doesn't reflect light much. It tends to absorb light, but it doesn't mean it looks drab; many modern, high-end kitchens use flat or matte finishes. Matte finishes are also great for traditional, country-style, and transitional kitchens. Matte Shaker-style cabinets with recessed modular framing will create shadows giving some dimension and contrast. Marks and dirt are less visible with matte finishes. A downside with matte finishes is it can sometimes make kitchens feel smaller. Even if you're going for a cozy feel, a tiny kitchen feel is more challenging for resale.
Glossy cabinets are sleek and shiny, designed to reflect light around the room. Glossy cabinets are a great option if you're working with a small space since reflecting light helps the area feel bright and airy, even if it's relatively small. It's a similar effect to hanging a mirror in a small room, making the space feel larger than it is. Unfortunately, glossy surfaces show dirt, imperfections, and scratches easily.
Textured, Wood Grain
Thermofoil cabinets with an imitation wood grain have a plastic-like, unreal look that can feel out of place in a traditional kitchen. They are noticeably fake at first glance. With solid-colored cabinets, it's harder to detect that they are not wood.
Thermofoil cabinets are some of the most affordable cabinets on the market. If you’re opting for stock Thermofoil cabinets with no customization, cabinets cost, on average, about $100 per linear foot. If you opt for semi-custom or customized cabinets, the price jumps to about $350 per linear foot. However, compared to hardwood cabinets, which average about $500 per linear foot, you still see remarkable savings. To reface the cabinet doors and drawer fronts for a small kitchen with thermofoil, it can cost about $1,000.
How to Choose Thermofoil Cabinets
Generally, thermofoil is a good choice if limited by money and time. Thermofoil is a wallet-friendly alternative to laminate, melamine, or wooden cabinets.
Thermofoil vs. Laminate or Melamine
Melamine and laminate cabinets are often confused with thermofoil, yet they are vastly different materials. Melamine and laminate are very similar. Both are thin, brittle sheets glued to a wood or engineered wood product. Small shops and even do-it-yourselfers can apply laminate sheets to MDF. The excess is removed with a router. Thermofoil is less expensive than laminate or melamine. Here's the difference between the two:
- Laminate is made from paper and resin being pressed together under heat. High-pressure laminate is a higher quality product that does not chip and crack as much as a low-pressure laminate. However, low-pressure laminates cost less.
- Melamine is a plastic coating material also used as a surface for plywood and fiberboard. Technically, melamine is a laminate-type product since it is made of paper and resin, but melamine costs less to produce. Low-quality melamine is not as durable as laminate.
By contrast, thermofoil is a thin sheet, much like thin plastic sheeting. It must be applied to the surface with industrial-grade vacuum presses.
Thermofoil vs. Wood
Wood is the gold standard for cabinets. The most durable wood for kitchen cabinets is solid hardwood made of red oak, hard maple, and walnut. Because of the wide variety of woods, wood cabinets have vast variations in price. Ultimately, you will pay much more for wood than thermofoil.
The most significant benefit of wood is it lasts the longest. You might look at replacing your thermofoil cabinets within 10 to 15 years. Meanwhile, wood is more sustainable and can be resurfaced, lasting more than 50 years. Thermofoil can't be resurfaced easily. The vinyl finish will eventually peel, chip, and start yellowing; you can't paint it over easily. Ultimately, it's less expensive to toss out thermofoil products and buy new ones than to try to recoat their surface.
Thermofoil is your best bet for something trendy or in the short term. Thermofoil kitchen cabinets stay in great shape if adequately maintained, but thermofoil's lifespan is relatively short. If you're willing to replace or upgrade in a few years, then thermofoil is your go-to option.
Non-porous and easy to clean
Peels and chips
Hard to resurface
Many wood types, styles, and colors
May warp with high humidity
Because of the wide variety of wood types, wood cabinets can cost between $6,000 and $12,000 on average for materials and installation.
Where to Shop
You can buy thermofoil cabinetry at home improvement stores, most brick-and-mortar cabinetry stores, and online cabinetry suppliers. Your most significant benefit for going into a showroom is seeing firsthand the quality of the construction, color samples, and getting a good idea of what to expect. Most in-store transactions involve a home improvement or installation expert who can help you plan your renovation. Make sure you see a cabinet door or drawer front sample before buying.
When browsing the store, see what kind of finish you prefer: matte or flat vs. glossy. Sometimes, you need to see it to get a feel for translating it into your space and design aesthetic.
It's also important to ask about the surface material used with the thermofoil coating. Is it solid wood, MDF, plywood, particleboard, or a plywood/MDF hybrid? Solid wood coated in thermofoil will be your best option in terms of durability; however, solid wood-coated cabinets are just as expensive, if not more, as solid wood cabinets.
Also, ask about installation packages, timelines for scheduling installation, and any other hidden costs, such as removal and disposal of old cabinets, cost differences based on the size of the kitchen, and installation costs of trim and molding. Ask what kind of warranty the products have or if they guarantee their work. Also, if you need to replace or move electrical outlets or plumbing, can they handle that too?
When buying online, in most cases, you are buying cabinetry sight-unseen. This risky move can be problematic if you plan to reface an entire kitchen or bathroom and what arrives is not what you're expecting. For this reason, it's crucial to check return policies or make sure you get samples shipped to you before you buy. Also, online cabinetry outlets have design experts, usually a phone call away to help you plan your remodel. Take advantage of that service if starting from scratch. Also, will they do the installation, or do they recommend a local installer to complete your kitchen renovation?
Where to Buy Thermofoil Cabinets
You can get thermofoil cabinetry from stores like Home Depot and Lowes, online cabinet suppliers, and even Amazon. Nearly all major cabinet manufacturers offer a form of thermofoil cabinets:
Can thermofoil cabinets be painted?
In short, yes. Thermofoil can be painted, but only if the cabinets are in excellent shape. They will require a lot of prep before painting. It's cheaper and less time-consuming to get new thermofoil cabinets. If the thermofoil is chipped, peeling, or in rough shape, discard them. If not appropriately treated, MDF can swell or bubble when exposed to the moisture in the paint.
How do you clean thermofoil cabinetry?
It's recommended that you clean the cabinet fronts at least once a month to remove dust, dirt, oil, grease, or splatter stains. Use a damp cloth or non-abrasive sponge to clean stains and wipe using water or a surface cleaner safe for vinyl. Gently rub.
How do you keep white thermofoil cabinets from yellowing?
Direct sunlight speeds up yellowing. Use shade and blinds during sunny times to prevent them from turning yellow. Also, wipe clean your cabinets regularly. Smoke, oils, and grease can wear down and discolor thermofoil. Also, keep high heat away from your cabinets—another yellowing culprit.