Laminate vs. Wood Cabinets [Pros & Cons]
As a homeowner, you’ve probably realized that home improvement projects = decisions galore. And choosing the right kitchen cabinets is no exception.
With an array of different styles and materials, how do you know which is best?
The word “difficult” is often associated with home improvement endeavors. We’re hoping to eliminate as much of that as possible; take the guesswork out so you can get the perfect cabinets installed.
We’ll review the pros and cons of the most popular material: laminate and wood, as well as their variants.
We’ve also slipped in some essential extras to ensure you make the right choice.
Cabinet Materials Overview: Laminate vs. Particleboard vs. Plywood
Cabinets are the unsung heroes of both kitchens and bathrooms. They conceal unsightly appliances and clutter and look good doing it.
Traditionally made of wood, cabinets have expanded to incorporate more versatile options, such as:
Let’s start by getting up close and personal. Pull open the door and peer inside as we examine today’s popular cabinet choices. Based on your requirements, we’ll show you what makes each a suitable option.
When people “ooh” and “ahh” over a home’s original features, you can bet that home contains some wood cabinetry.
Until the 1980s, you could find wood cabinets in almost every home. Visually appealing, wood cabinets feature uniquely gorgeous variants in the movement of the wood grain.
Overall, solid wood kitchen cabinets are pretty durable. However, they are susceptible to cracking or becoming warped with too much moisture and varying temps.
They are also a little harder to clean. On the plus side, wood cabinet refacing is relatively simple — a little sanding and staining will go a long way.
Pros of Wood Cabinets:
- Visually appealing
- Can add to resale value
- Durable and long-lasting under the right conditions
Cons of Wood Cabinets:
- Can warp and/or crack with temperature extremes
Here are some popular wood cabinet choices and their characteristics:
Able to withstand differences in temperature better than other hardwoods. Maple works well with light spaces but you can stain it to suit richer, deeper tones too.
The grain is usually subtle and uniform, without much color fluctuation.
Cherry is a hardwood featured in many high-end remodels. It darkens with age and sun exposure and can appear slightly reddish brown.
You’ll find white oak in most traditional cabinets. It is durable and usually has a light stain, as darker stains can cause too much variation in the grain.
Red oak has a distinctive slight curve to its grain and is the more affordable of the two.
With a swirly grain and knots, walnut comes in rich browns, as well as reddish tones and gray.
Hickory comes in a variety of colors, from light creamy hues to reddish brown and even black. With its unique patterns and fluctuation in grain, a clear natural finish takes full advantage of its appeal.
There are other great ways to incorporate wood into your home, see: Step-By-Step Guide to Building a Wood Bench
Laminate cabinets are usually less expensive than natural wood. They’re made from medium-density fiberboard and particleboard*.
Commonly distinguishable by their glossy finish, laminate cabinets are durable. The ease with which they can be made into custom cabinets makes them a slick and appealing addition to any kitchen remodel.
Depending on how they’re manufactured, there are different types of laminate material. High-pressure laminates are stronger and can withstand pressure and dings better than low-pressure.
Both high-pressure and low-pressure laminates can withstand heat and humidity. This makes them ideal for kitchen and bathroom cabinets in small or poorly ventilated spaces, prone to humidity and frequent use.
They are scratch-resistant, and laminate cabinet doors are easy to clean. Usually, a sponge or rag with hot soapy water does the trick and removes any buildup or grime.
One downside is that most laminate cabinets are heavier than wood and may need extra reinforcement. Additionally, the coating that hides the particleboard may peel over time, and restoring them is tough.
*Particleboard is engineered from wood chips and fragmented wood materials mixed with a synthetic resin.
Pros of Laminate Cabinets:
- Cheaper than wood
- Easy to clean
Cons of Laminate Cabinets:
- Might peel
- May not last as long as wood
Particleboard With a Wood Veneer
Those who love the look of solid wood cabinets but not the price may consider particleboard with a wood veneer.
Here, a thin layer of wood adheres over the cabinet material itself, usually particleboard. This is a great option for those who love the look of more exotic woods.
You can stain the wood to accentuate a natural pattern (although sometimes the strips are smaller, so on larger surfaces there may be interruptions in the wood grain). Or, you can paint it; however, if you desire a distressed look, the wood veneer is likely too thin and won’t be able to withstand sanding.
This cabinet is highly susceptible to water damage — if water penetrates and seeps into the particleboard, it will swell. This makes it unsuitable for bathrooms, lower kitchen cabinets, and high-humidity situations.
Additionally, it may chip on the edges and scratch easily (you can buff out superficial scratches with furniture polish). This type of cabinet is also harder to clean; due to the thin veneer, you must treat and handle them with care.
Pros of Particleboard:
There’s really just one (but it’s a good one). It’s a budget-friendly way to incorporate expensive-looking wood.
Cons of Particleboard:
- Susceptible to water damage and chipping
- Due to the thin veneer, it’s not as durable as other options
Working with a contractor? See: 15 Questions to Ask Your Kitchen Remodeling Contractor
Plywood is an excellent solution for those who prefer natural finishes but don’t want to splurge on solid wood. To construct plywood cabinets, narrow sheets of thinly sliced wood — known as flitches — are sandwiched and glued together in opposite directions.
Besides being less pricey than its solid wood counterparts, it’s incredibly durable, versatile, and water resistant.
Those interested in plywood cabinets should know that they come in different grades. The lower quality, less expensive option is more likely to crack and splinter.
Pros of Plywood:
- Less expensive than solid wood
- Natural option
Cons of Plywood:
- Quality plywood may be more expensive than laminate
- Low-quality pieces may splinter and crack
Kitchen Cabinet Style Options
Besides material, there’s another obvious consideration. What style of cabinets are you going for?
The style you choose significantly impacts the overall feel of the kitchen, and each décor scheme has a particular cabinetry look associated with it.
If you’re looking to spend more on higher-quality cabinets but need to keep them within a set budget, the style you choose can provide some wiggle room.
Let’s take a closer look.
Arguably one of the biggest trends in kitchen design, open shelving is affordable, too. At its most basic, your budget needs to account for the slabs of wood you’ll use as shelves and the brackets used to hold them in place.
The open shelving look is visually appealing when not too cluttered. You can display plates, glassware, and cookbooks artfully and practically.
The lower cabinets — usually the traditional type with doors — can house all the bulky, visually unappealing gadgets.
Open shelving also works well in the bathroom when incorporating the same minimalist principle.
A true craftsman look, gleaming glass framed doors on upper cabinets showcase what’s inside — framing it so it appears unique and precious.
Some cabinet designs select just a few upper cabinets to fit with peep-through glass (some even have illumination to really make the contents sparkle!). This can lead to a highly elevated look if the cabinet contents are not too cluttered, mismatched, or otherwise cracked and chipped.
Perfect for modern, traditional, and transitional kitchens, Shaker-style cabinets (named after the Shaker religious community who popularized them) are designed for simplicity and utility.
With this style, each cabinet door contains a simple thin trim framing the edges. The upper cabinets can be left as is or have handles or knobs attached.
All in all, the timelessness and versatility of Shaker cabinets make for an excellent design choice.
Flat Front Cabinets
A nod to mid-century modern design, flat front cabinets (also called slab doors or slab cabinets) are precisely that:
Flat front without embellishment.
This is an excellent style for when you want the grain of your wood cabinets to stand out or if you’re going for something sophisticated and minimal.
If you love the traditional look, raised panel kitchens are the way to go. Exactly as they sound, they have a panel framing the edge (sometimes in an arc as well as a straight line) and a raised panel emerging from the center.
Choosing the Right Cabinet Material for You
With different materials, styles, and price points — as well as space usage — there’s much to consider when upgrading your cabinets.
Space and Budget
The size, ventilation, and how often you use the space all factor in when it comes to cabinet choice.
If the space is smaller and well-ventilated, solid wood cabinets may still be in the budget because you need less of them.
If budget is a concern, or you care less about natural materials and prefer super low maintenance, laminate is your best bet.
If you love wood — even if you don’t have the biggest budget — there are still ways to slip it in so you don’t feel like you’re totally compromising.
What goes inside the cabinets is essential too. If you have a lot to store, you’ll need the cabinet space to store them.
In a smaller home, you may have to get creative with storage.
For those looking to pare down and declutter, there’s nothing like a kitchen remodel to inspire you into action. After you’ve moved everything out, it’s much easier to go through it all and see what you have. If you have duplicates (triplicates even!), you can let go of the excess.
Think about how great it will feel to fill your brand-new cabinets with only the things you value, love, and use.
Tips to make your decluttering efforts easier: Home Organization Ideas: A Room-by-Room Checklist for a Happy Home
Solid wood cabinets can positively influence a home’s resale value.
Choosing something simple and timeless, such as a Shaker design, is a safe choice. Trends or more intricate and specific designs may not appeal to everyone.
Additionally, you want your cabinets to fit in with the rest of the design.
What are your countertops made of, and how do the two work together, as well as with the kitchen design as a whole?
It goes without saying that the higher quality material lasts longer. For someone who uses their kitchen frequently and loves being in that space, maximize this however you can.
If a kitchen that you can render spotless quickly and efficiently appeals to you, choose materials that allow you to do that.
If you love the beauty and hardiness of nature and don’t mind taking a little extra care to keep these pieces looking their best, pick the wood that works best.
You may also like: How To Prevent Kitchen Countertop Seams During a Remodel
Overall, when considering cabinets, think about:
- How frequently you use the space
- Your expectations of the space
- Resale value — if that’s something on the horizon
- Your preferences (maintenance, quality, etc.)
- Your budget
So … are you team natural wood? Or team laminate?
The important part is choosing cabinets that fit into the overall scheme and provide you with functionality and ease of use for decades.