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Exterior Finish Materials for Kitchen Cabinets

Few decisions have greater impact on the style of your kitchen than the exterior materials you choose to finish your kitchen cabinets. Whether you plan to use wood or laminate, paint or stain, it makes sense to learn about the range of options available. Below are some pros and cons of the most popular choices.

Woods Choices for Cabinets

Maple is one of the most popular choices for kitchen cabinets. This hardwood has a tight, even grain, making it ideal for painting. Maple’s natural hue is relatively pale, and although the grain has less variation than other woods, some swirls and waves do appear, which can give it some character. Keep in mind that mineral streaks will occasionally appear which some homeowners might not like. When choosing a stain, light to mid-tone colors are best as maple tends to absorb darker stains unevenly, creating a flat, blotched appearance.

Cherry features a rich palate of colors that run from deep reds to reddish-browns, with warm undertones. The grain is generally tight and may contain pin knots and curls. Cherry takes stains well, creating attractive depth and luster. It also ages beautifully, usually darkening and reddening as it matures, adding to its remarkable character. Cherry is highly durable and finishes well, allowing for a wide range of stain and glaze options.

Oak is a wide-grained hardwood, in which the layers of grain dominate the wood’s appearance, giving even highly-finished pieces a rustic, rough-hewn look. Each piece can exhibit a broad range of character. The color varies widely, but often shows bands of white, pink, brown and red. Two common types of oak often used for cabinets are red oak and white oak. Red oak tends to have a wider grain and a reddish color; white oak tends to be white to dark tan. Oak is an especially strong material and the many natural characteristics in each plank makes it a distinctive, highly stylized choice.

Hickory and Pecan
Hickory and pecan are strong, heavy hardwoods with similar features. Their grain patterns can be fine, but they often exhibit wide ribbons of colors, ranging from near-white to dark brown. They stand up well to medium and dark finishes, as well as bleaching. The irregularities in hickory and pecan can make these wood cabinets unique and aesthetically bold

Alder is a straight-grained, even-textured wood, ranging in color from yellow to a soft reddish brown. While technically a hardwood, alder falls on the softer end of the spectrum. Because of its uniform grain and mellow coloration, alder stains well and boasts a range of looks, from a warm, honeyed finish to a rich red-brown that imitates cherry.

Birch is an even-textured, fine-grained hardwood, light in color and similar in appearance to maple. Its smooth, dense surface often features curly or waved patterns. Unlike maple, it does not exhibit mineral streaks. Because its color is slightly lighter, with more yellow undertones, birch stains best with light-to-medium tones. Darker stains can create a blotchy look because the grains tend to absorb more stain than the main body of the wood. Like maple, birch is a good choice for a painted finish.

Pine is an even-grained softwood that is white to yellow-cream in color. While pine is plentiful throughout North America, many cabinet makers choose not to work with it because of its softness. Pine is easily dented, gouged, and scratched, so most kitchen owners who choose it do so to fit a specific design aesthetic, with an understanding of its limitations.

Rustic Woods
In the cabinet industry, “rustic” is a term used to describe wood in which natural imperfections such as knots, mineral spots, and uneven areas are left alone. Nearly every kind of wood is available in a rustic. Rustic woods are a unique choice, and they can be ideal for creating a naturalistic style.

Exotic and Rare Woods
There are many specialty woods available, and each one has its own style. For example, mahogany has been a premier luxury wood for centuries, and ebony can be ideal for a stark but rich look. Other exotic woods include walnut, redwood burl, wenge, and zebra wood. While it is true that their price tags are generally higher, exotic woods can create kitchen cabinets of unparalleled beauty.

Synthetic and Laminate Materials for Kitchen Cabinets

Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)
Medium Density Fiberboard is a wood-fiber composite that can be molded into a cabinet door in a variety of door patterns, including routed, raised panel, recessed panel, and flat (slab). MDF can be factory painted or sealed with thermofoil, or painted on the job site. MDF cannot be routed to a finely detailed edge (like wood) and although it dings more easily, it will not crack at the seams as wood cabinet doors with changes in humidty. And while it is lower quality than solid wood, MDF can be a practical solution for the budget-minded kitchen remodel.

This reasonably priced and commonly available synthetic cabinet door material is a thin, tight, heat-sealed plastic wrap used to mold over an MDF substrate. Thermofoil cabinet doors can be a solid color or imitation wood grain. The cabinet boxes that accompany these doors can be finished in various materials such matching thermofoil, coordinating paint, and laminates. Thermofoil is available in a range of textures and sheen levels, the most popular choice being solid white with a matte sheen. For a budget kitchen remodel, a thermofoil cabinet door is an easy and economical alternative to white paint.

The downside of thermofoil is its greater susceptibility to heat and moisture compared to other materials. Heat-generating appliances such as coffee makers and toasters should not be placed too close to the cabinets. Heat shields can be placed between cabinets and major appliances such as dishwashers and ranges. Many appliances come with built-in shields; consult with your cabinet retailer and appliance manufacturer to find out if you need one.

High Pressure Laminate
High-pressure laminate is a synthetic product sold under brand names such as Formica, Wilsonart, and Pionite. Laminate doors are made by applying a decorative laminate on top of a substrate (usually MDF or particle board). Decorative laminate is made from a series of compressed, plasticized sheets of kraft-paper. The top few sheets are saturated with resins and dyes to give the laminate its color, design, and texture.

One drawback is that the laminate layer cannot wrap over the front and sides of the cabinet door or box without creating a seam. With cabinet doors, laminate can only form a radius edge in one direction—vertical or horizontal—and since the doors are 3/4” thick, the two other sides will require strips of laminate that will show seams where they join the main piece. These seams expose the color of the brown kraft-paper. Some manufacturers mask the seam by using a strip of color-coordinated PVC film instead of the matching laminate. Despite the drawbacks, laminate can still work well because of its durability, ease of cleaning, and resistance to fading. Laminate is available in a wide variety of colors, patterns, and styles.

Low Pressure Laminate (Melamine)
Similar to high-pressure laminate is low-pressure laminate, also known as “melamine.” Used on less-expensive cabinets, it is not as durable as the high-pressure variety. Low-pressure laminate is typically available in white, off-white, and almond tones, and the laminate layer is thinner and softer than high-pressure laminate. This product is often used in offices and apartment complexes.


Stainless Steel
For a contemporary European or commercial-style kitchen, stainless steel cabinet doors are an ideal choice. They are manufactured in slab, recessed panel, and ready-for-glass frame and are available in a variety of finishes, including brushed, patterned, and etched. The cabinet boxes that accompany these doors can be finished in various materials such as wood, decorative laminates, and matching stainless steel.

Aluminum is a lighter-weight, slightly whiter-hued kitchen cabinet finishing material compared to stainless steel. It comes with an anodized finish, which is important for protecting the metal over time as unfinished aluminum oxidizes rapidly. As with stainless steel cabinet doors, aluminum doors can be placed on a wide variety of cabinet box materials.


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