Thermofoil Cabinets Basics and Buying Guide

Modern Kitchen Interior with Island, Sink, Cabinets, and Big Window in New Luxury Home.
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Few home building materials incite as much controversy as thermofoil cabinets do. Thermofoil cabinets do have many clear advantages.

Easy to clean and inexpensive to purchase, thermofoil cabinets have long been a staple of budget kitchen remodels, apartments, condos, and even workshops and hobby rooms.

For all of their plusses, 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.

As with many controversies, thermofoil cabinets lie somewhere in the middle: not necessarily the go-to finish for all kitchen and bathroom cabinets, but hardly as inferior as the detractors claim.

Thermofoil

Thermofoil is a surface finish where a thin layer of plastic is applied to wood.

What Thermofoil Cabinets Are

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

Raw 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.

Thermofoil cabinets usually are considered to be inexpensive or builder-grade cabinets often used in spec homes or in apartments.

Thermofoil vs. Laminate/Melamine Cabinets

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 do-it-yourselfers can apply laminate sheets to MDF.

By contrast, thermofoil is a thin sheet, much like thin plastic sheeting. It must be applied to the wood with industrial-grade vacuum presses.

How Thermofoil Cabinets Are Made

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

Pros

Nonporous

Thermofoil is seamless across the entire face of the surface. Being a plastic product, it is smooth and essentially nonporous. 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.

Cons

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.

Thermofoil Cabinet Manufacturers

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

Builders and Designers Comment

When the aim is a premium, high-end remodel, designers and builders generally recommend against installing thermofoil cabinets.

Paul McAlary of Main Line Kitchen Design, in Narberth, Pennsylvania, 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, California. He says the problem is that thermofoil saves 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 10 years with no problems—not even chipping and peeling. Cabinet suppliers point out that thermofoil is a waterproof surfacing material that is easy to clean. With enough care, they say, thermofoil cabinets can serve a homeowner well for many years.