Buying kitchen cabinets online can save you a ton of money, often coming in at a small fraction of retail pricing. It also poses some unique challenges, however, like the fact that you can’t feel the cabinets while you’re narrowing down your options. Then again, feel can be a little deceptive; sometimes it’s best to know the facts. Here are some facts about what to avoid when buying kitchen cabinets online.
Avoid “Particle Board” Altogether
Particle board is something you don’t want in your kitchen cabinets. We mean at all, anywhere, in any element. You see, particle board is basically the sawdust produced from all the other wood processing done in a facility, mixed with glue and other binding agents, and pressed together to cure. Of course, it’s not quite that simple, and yes, there are other types of wood that are made in similar ways, and we’ll cover that next, but particle board uses a coarse grain, literally a lot like random sawdust.
The problems with particle board are many. First, it’s not very dense. If you cut it, you’ll see gaps and voids along the edges. Those voids go all the way through the particle board and make it weak from a structural perspective. It also doesn’t sand down very smoothly for the same reason, so you’d certainly never want it to be part of a visible surface.
Its problems aren’t just cosmetic though; particle board doesn’t hold screws very well and allows them to strip out very easily. It also tends to swell and gradually disintegrate when it’s exposed to moisture, making it an even more terrible choice for a kitchen, where moisture is inevitable! If you see “particle board” mentioned anywhere in the building materials for a cabinet, hit the “back” button, and run for the hills!
Treat MDF and HDF With Caution
MDF and HDF, medium density fiberboard and high density fiberboard, respectively, are at first glance, just glorified particle board. In truth, that’s not a terrible way to put it. However, MDF and HDF are much more highly engineered products. The particle size is very, very fine, and those particles are bonded together under much higher pressure. This makes it very dense compared to particle board, or even plywood or some solid woods. It also sands perfectly smoothly, to a silky, paper-like finish.
Actually, paper isn’t a bad analogy, with particle board analogous to the paper used in paper grocery bags, where the grain pattern is visible. MDF is more like high-quality printer paper, and HDF is analogous to top-end resume paper, smooth and flawless.
MDF/HDF’s major advantages are that they’re cheaper than solid wood, and hold complex edge shapes even better than solid wood, enabling more intricate designs. They also cut extremely smoothly, unlike particle board or plywood. Finally, they’re cheaper than solid wood, and not susceptible to warping.
Their disadvantages are mostly shared with particle board: they don’t hold screws all that well, and if they aren’t perfectly sealed around every edge, they soak up water like a sponge, and swell, often permanently. Even worse, for cabinetry, fiberboard doesn’t stain well. It soaks up the stain just like water and can swell and become rough, and it doesn’t have any wood grain pattern to make staining worthwhile.
The Verdict on Fiberboard
If the cabinets you’re looking at use medium or high density fiberboard, that’s not an immediate sign that you should reject them, like particle board would be. However, be aware that fiberboard is only good for certain elements, namely the same elements that solid wood is good for: doors, drawer fronts, and non-structural facing surfaces.
If the cabinets you’re looking at are painted rather than stained, and only use MDF and HDF in the doors and drawer fronts, you might be okay. Yes, it is lower quality than solid wood doors and drawer fronts, but if the price is also significantly lower, it’s worth taking a closer look. Some of our own budget options use exactly this formula. For example, Cumberland Antique White uses MDF for the door panels, set inside a solid birch frame, and our Arlington White Shaker kitchen cabinet doors are made of high-quality HDF. So trust us, it’s not all bad.
Buying kitchen cabinets is a big investment. Get your free downloadable copy of The Consumer’s Guide to Buying Kitchen Cabinets today. It will help you avoid ripoffs and costly mistakes.