Homeowners are faced with several difficult decisions regarding the design and maintenance of their homes, especially when remodeling. It’s exciting to change your living space into the home of your dreams, but there are so many choices and considerations for the future that the process can become more stressful than fun. Purchasing new cabinets for the kitchen involves several decisions all on its own, even when you already know what your layout will be and which sizes and types of cabinets you are going to use. You still have to find the right cabinets that bring high quality and durability together with the look you want.
One of the choices you will have to make when finding your ideal cabinets is what material you want them to be built from. The two most common materials are wood and laminate. In this article, we’ll compare and contrast wood and laminate cabinets to help you make this decision.
Wood vs. Laminate Cabinets: An Objective Comparison
When comparing wood versus laminate cabinets, it helps to get the basics out of the way first. How are these cabinets made, what kinds of wood are used, and what is laminate?
Wood cabinets today are usually made from a combination of plywood and solid hardwood, with maple being a popular choice. Plywood tends to be used for the cabinet box construction for its strength and resistance to warping, with the regular wood being used for the doors and drawer fronts — basically, the parts you’ll see the most often, so you’ll be presented with the wood’s natural beauty. Exposed plywood areas are covered with an end panel or skin, so a row of cabinets will not have a visible plywood side at one end. The entire construction is either painted or finished with a natural wood stain, and even the interior can look quite beautiful.
Laminate is an entirely different material, although it does use wood as one of its “ingredients,” in the form of wood particles highly compressed with another material such as melamine. The laminate is then coated with a thin layer, often a type of plastic, that provides protection for the inner laminate and also provides the “look,” which can be a solid color or have designs printed on it. The outer layer can also be completely smooth or have a texture imprinted, which is commonly a simulated wood grain. Since the color is provided by this outer layer, laminate cabinets are not painted.
Both types have some pros and cons as well as a few more subjective differences, like style and other unique traits that come down to personal preference. Let’s take a closer look.
Wood cabinets are more traditional, since the art of carpentry has been around for almost all of human history. It may come as a surprise that even plywood has been around for thousands of years — the ancient Egyptians and Greeks both developed it to get the most out of the small amounts of fine wood they had access to. So if you’ve been thinking that wooden cabinets using plywood are too modernized, think again!
Wood has a natural undeniable beauty, and has the upper hand in terms of resilience and longevity. Well-made wood cabinets can last for decades, although keep in mind that their construction methods play a huge part in how long they’ll last. Even the highest-quality wood can be sabotaged by cheap construction.
Wood cabinets are also timeless, and can fit in a modern home just as well as any other material. Although some people fear that wood cabinets are “old-fashioned,” this depends soley on their style. Some styles look incredibly dated today, while others still look current even if they’ve been around for generations. The Shaker style in particular has some real staying power, as it fits into contemporary homes despite being around since the 1700s. Its smooth simplicity allows it to match nearly everything, and makes cabinets easier to clean as well.
You’re not “locked” into a certain style with wood cabinets anyway, because if you want to change things up you can just replace the doors. As long as the rest of the cabinets’ structure is still in fine condition, there’s no need for a completely new set if a visual update is all you’re after.
Installing wood cabinets will also add value to a home, as their durability and beauty give them more prestige than laminate cabinets. You can consider them an investment regardless of whether you’re planning on selling a house or just want to build equity for future generations of your family.
The main downsides of wood cabinets are that they require a bit more maintenance and are not as easy to clean as laminate, although it’s important to know that wood cabinets are much simpler to repair; scratches and dings can be filled in and hidden with ease. Wood cabinets also cost more than laminate, as you might expect after reading about all their benefits.
Laminate cabinets have a more modern look, intended for completely smooth, sleek designs. Applied textures are minimal, if they are present at all. Laminate cabinets are often the go-to for homeowners and designers who specifically prefer a kitchen to look modern rather than traditional or cozy. Others feel that the perfectly smooth surfaces look too cold or professional, like a restaurant kitchen instead of a home. This of course comes down to personal tastes.
Laminate is also more stain-resistant and much easier to clean than wood, and can often be simply wiped off with water (although the same can be true for wood cabinets if they have a good finish). They are more resistant to heat, steam, and moisture, and are also cheaper than wood cabinets.
However, despite having these advantages against the byproducts of a kitchen environment, laminate cabinets are overall less durable than wood. They don’t last as long, and are more likely to need to be replaced. Repairs are much more difficult, and in some cases, impossible to do yourself — as one example, since the color is pressed into the outer layer and not applied later with a paint or finish, scratches are much harder to fix. You may not be able to find a filler or repair kit in an exact match to the surface, and you’ll still be able to see the remnants of the scratch when light hits it from a certain angle.
Since laminate is a layered material made with compressed wood particles, severe enough damage to the outer layer can actually compromise the structural integrity — although it’s worth noting that the manufacturing technology for laminate is always improving, so currently, this isn’t much of a risk except with the cheapest laminates. The recent advancements in laminate manufacturing have significantly increased the resilience of the material. The latest laminate cabinets on the market are made through a process called rigid thermal foiling in order to grant the material extra strength. Still, the outer layer can begin to peel off, and the method of attaching laminate parts together has not been improved so there is still the drawback of adhesive strength loss and peeling that manufacturers have not fully solved.
In short, you should not expect to be able to repair laminate cabinets yourself. Even the most minor cosmetic damage is still a challenge to cover up, and any actual cracks or peeling basically signal the end of that cabinet.
Since laminate cabinets are cheaper and less durable than wood, and so common, they don’t add any resale value to a home. They are also heavier than wood, which is something to consider even though it may not cause problems beyond making installation a bit more difficult.
Which Cabinets Should You Choose for Your Dream Kitchen?
Laminate cabinets are preferred by those who want to obtain a modern and sleek design and are interested in the huge number of colors and patterns available. The lower initial price and ease of cleaning also appeal to many. It helps to be aware of the disadvantages of laminate cabinets, understand the impact of damage, and expect that they are more likely to need a complete replacement if something goes wrong.
Wood cabinets are preferred by those who would rather make a long-term investment that will pay off in the end by lasting a lifetime (or more), and are more interested in traditional craftsmanship — which, as said before, can still look up-to-date and timeless. And just because laminate cabinets are “easier” to clean, it doesn’t mean wood is necessarily difficult to clean; especially with a nice finish, dirt can still wipe right off. You may not even consider this a factor.
Although laminate cabinets are less costly compared to their wood counterparts, this advantage pales a bit by comparison when considering the wood’s durability and other advantages. You can also offset the cost of wood by buying RTA kitchen cabinets and assembling them yourself at your home. This solution offers a bit of the best of both worlds, as you can get top-quality wooden cabinetry at a lower price than if you had bought it pre-assembled.
Ready to Choose Your New Kitchen Cabinets?
Wood and laminate both have advantages when it comes to kitchen cabinetry, and ultimately, the choice is up to you. If you still haven’t decided, make a list of what you personally want from your cabinets and then compare it to the facts in this article to see whether wood or laminate more closely matches your own requirements. As a rule of thumb, remember laminate cabinets are likely to need replacement much sooner than wood cabinets, which are more of a “one and done” purchase that you won’t need to worry about in the future.
One final thing to remember is that the construction methods are crucial for wooden cabinets, as cheap construction can shorten their lifespan regardless of the quality of the materials, wasting the potential of wood. It’s worth learning about the best cabinet construction methods to ensure you can make an informed decision and an investment that’s truly worth it.