Thermofoil Cabinets: Basics and Buying Guide

Kitchen With White Cabinets and Open Beam Ceiling
designbuildinhabit/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Few home building materials excite as much controversy as do thermofoil MDF (medium density fiberboard) cabinets. Thermofoil cabinets have many clear advantages. Easy to clean, inexpensive to purchase, thermofoil cabinets have long been a staple of budget kitchen remodels, apartments, condos, and even workshops and hobby rooms. Thermofoil cabinets are also perceived as being like the vinyl siding of kitchen and bathroom cabinetry, in the sense that they represent a lower quality, temporary product.

Thermofoil vs. Laminate/Melamine

Thermofoil is a deceptive name; it has no metal content. Instead, it is a thin layer of vinyl that is vacuum-pressed onto cabinet doors and drawer fronts that are typically constructed of medium-density fiberboard (MDF).

Melamine and laminate cabinets are often confused with thermofoil, yet they are vastly different materials. Melamine and laminate are thin, brittle sheets that are glued to the surface. Excess is removed with a router. Small shops and even DIYers can apply laminate sheets to MDF.

Paint Substitute

MDF alone is not an adequate material for door and drawer fronts. It easily chips, will swell when subjected to water, and does not take paint well. Due to this, MDF needs a solid, not liquid (paint) protective covering. Thermofoil fills that need as it adheres to MDF well.

How They Are Made

Thermofoil cabinets are made with a large vacuum press. Cabinet door and drawer bases are laid in the press. A flexible layer of solid color 100% vinyl is laid on top of that. The top is closed, then air is expelled from the chamber. High pressure and an adhesive on the bottom side of the vinyl fuse the vinyl to the surface.

Positives

  • Non-Porous: Thermofoil is seamless across the entire face of the surface. Being a plastic product, it is smooth and essentially non-porous. Water will not affect thermofoil.
  • Easy to Keep Clean: Thermofoil is impervious to most staining and is easy to wipe off.
  • Inexpensive: Thermofoil cabinets help manufacturers put out a more cost-effective product, which can result in lower costs to the consumer.
  • Color Consistency: Smooth, consistent color is one hallmark of thermofoil cabinets since the color is "baked into" the vinyl itself.

Negatives

  • Delamination and Peeling: Because thermofoil is a thin layer of vinyl, many homeowners report problems with delamination and peeling at the edges of doors and drawer fronts.
  • Chipping: A sharp blow to thermofoil can chip it. Again, edges tend to be the danger zone for this kind of damage.
  • Heat-Sensitive: High heat will damage thermofoil. Kraftmaid, a major supplier of thermofoil cabinets, warns homeowners against using high-heat appliances next to thermofoil cabinets. For extreme heat such as oven self-cleaning operations, Kraftmaid recommends removing cabinet doors and drawers. The company also sells a heat shield that protects cabinets during high heat activities.
  • Difficult to Resurface: Thermofoil-faced MDF cabinets cannot be painted. They could potentially be run 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.
  • Health Issues: Older MDF may contain formaldehyde. However, due to voluntary industry actions and legislation like the Formaldehyde Standards for Wood Composites Act, this may not be the case with newer MDF thermofoil cabinets.

    Manufacturers

    Nearly all major cabinet manufacturers offer some form of thermofoil cabinets:

    Builders and Designers Comment

    When the aim is a premium, high-end remodel, designers and builders generally recommend against installing thermofoil. Paul McAlary of Main Line Kitchen Design (Narbeth, PA) says that thermofoil cabinets were once popular but are no longer are acceptable for most kitchen remodels. Even if you like thermofoil cabinets, McAlary says that subsequent buyers of your home may not, rendering your home less sale-worthy. This sentiment is echoed by Nick Dellos, a general contractor and construction consultant in Granada Hills, CA. He says the problem is that thermofoil says money for builders but doesn't pass on value to the homebuyers. 

    On the positive side, a number of homeowners report owning thermofoil cabinets for up to ten years with no problems--not even chipping and peeling. Cabinet suppliers point out that thermofoil is a waterproof surfacing material that is easy to wipe off. With enough care, they say, thermofoil cabinets can serve a homeowner well for many years.