Are Solid Wood Cabinets Practical to Build?

A long, highly informative discussion of the practical and other issues involved in building and selling cabinetry made from solid wood rather than plywood or composites. February 26, 2007

This past year I have had quite a few customers ask for cabinetry and other case goods constructed from solid wood, i.e. all edge glued panel construction in lieu of plywood. Is anybody else noticing this? Is there any good reason not to comply with their request? I know it's much easier to cut a piece of plywood and glue a piece of edgebanding to it. Is it possible that some consumers are becoming more sophisticated? Has anybody ever done a solid wood kitchen and how did it turn out?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor A:
Just don't try it! I can't begin to imagine all the warping, sagging, bowing, cracking, and splitting that'll happen to those cabinets. The only way you could make it work would be to somehow provide expansion joints all over the place. Let the customer know just exactly what they're asking for by requesting this. There's a real good reason why we don't use solid wood for cabinet interiors.

From contributor B:
There's a huge reason not to comply with their requests - contributor A hits on most of them. Most ordinary customers don't have a clue about cabinet construction and the reasoning for the methods behind it. If you are building with plywood, you are technically building a "solid wood" kitchen. There are reasons that there are multimillion dollar companies producing composite wood materials. They have to be used. When was the last time you saw a house being made out of oak? Been a long, long time but they used to make them that way. Advancements and technology offer faster and better ways of building things. Our field is just one example. Try to educate your customers instead of complying with what they think they want even if it's wrong.

From contributor C:
Solid wood construction can certainly be done without cracking and splitting etc. What will probably be the deal breaker is when you charge what it would cost to build common kitchen cabinets that way. Anyway, building with solid wood is certainly done in furniture making and the whole trick is avoiding cross grain construction. We cabinet makers get away with cross grain construction on narrow pieces like face frame members but when it comes to wide members like 23" across the grain end panels and carcass parts, cross grain construction will fail.

In other words, if the dimension across the grain in the solid wood panels is all oriented the same way for tops and bottoms, ends and partitions and fixed shelves, the wood will all move simultaneously with the seasons and the joints will be unaffected. The face and back of the cabinet, whether glued on - such as edgebanding - or dadoed in, will merely "go along for the seasonal wood movement ride".

If you want to add frame and panel ends you will have to use alternative joinery that will allow semi unrestricted movement between the cross grained members similar to the construction of a "breadboard table end" for instance.

From contributor D:
If you are talking about kitchen cabinetry, look at Smallbone and other English bespoke cabinetmakers. Most of their better cabinets are solid wood, and some of the finest work in the world. If you are talking about furniture, go back 100 yrs or more and look at how it's done. While even Chippendale and Sheraton were guilty of some cross grain construction, they understood and worked with the movement of wood to make their designs work.

As for "all the warping, saggin, bowing, cracking, and splitting that'll happen" you need to know what you are doing before you build - as contributor C suggests. Those who are terrified of the warping....etc., I'm sure are doomed to a life of steel and plastic doors, particle board fumes, MDF dust and more. Lack of understanding of solid wood has done a lot to fuel the push towards man made, predictable, engineered materials that have little soul or life.

That said, the public that is asking for solid wood has definitely had bad experience with Simu-wood, and wants the real thing, but has little understanding of the material difference or the methods used. This is a good chance for you to educate the customer and make a niche for yourself - two factors that will help insure success for you and your shop. All this is, of course, just my opinion.

From contributor A:
The reason I posted as I did is because if ordinary construction methods were used, there would be some major problems. Sure, you can build with solid wood and make it work, but very few customers would be willing to pay the price you would have to charge for it.

"Those who are terrified of the warping....etc., I'm sure are doomed to a life of steel and plastic doors, particle board fumes, MDF dust and more." I've never yet used a steel or plastic door on my cabinets. Most doors are solid wood raised panel, with a few jobs that are just an MDF slab door. We build face frame cabinets, and the frames are doweled together, and all the cabinet box pieces are dadoed into the frame. However, I admit to using melamine on almost all cabinet interiors. The only exception is on something like a bookcase, where we will use veneered MDF. Melamine looks good, is very durable, easy to clean, and I never have to worry about warping with it. Drawer boxes are built with Baltic birch sides and back (this is one place melamine would be a real bad idea), and melamine bottoms. I'd take white melamine interiors any day over plywood for my kitchen. The main reason is the wearability of the surfaces.

From contributor E:
If they can afford it, you can do it. I'd guess the cost of the kitchen would be about 5X in solid wood over plywood. You would have to change some construction methods but it could be done.

From contributor B:
Sure it can be done....I don't think that was the question or the issue. I believe the original post referred to should it be done and how many of us are doing it or have been asked to do it. I would venture to say that none of build cabinets this way and for good reason as Arthur points out. It's really no different than building a highboy dresser out of solid wood. I would certainly never build one of those or anything similar out of plywood, neither would any of the rest of us.....I hope. Bottom line is, it's really kind of ridiculous to even consider building cabinets this way in this day and age.

From contributor F:
We make solid pine bookcases and other furniture from all edge glued pine, and have never had a problem with wood movement. Call it what you want, but a box is a box in my opinion. Our bookcases with doors are nothing more than a big cabinet.

I would tell your client about the possibilities of wood movement. I would also tell him that most people just aren't willing to spend the time or labor to make them that way. We have 20000 sf of machines to process solid wood. I do have to admit that the notion of only having a beam saw or a nested based router system is extremely appealing, and that's why so many people do that.

From Dr. Gene Wengert, technical advisor, Sawing and Drying Forum:
The only reason that wood changes size or shape in use (including warps, checks, and open glue joints) is because the moisture is changing (usually drying out). So, if you get the correct MC in the lumber you use (and that means get the MC that the wood will have in use), you will not have warp, checking, cracking, etc. (This usually means you have to have a moisture meter to double check the MC as some suppliers say one thing but the truth is another.) Incidentally, pine moves about half as much as oak, so you have more room for error with pine.

From contributor C:
I donít agree that it is ridiculous to build cabinets with mostly solid wood. Itís just expensive. As pointed out in an earlier post, there are several English cabinetmaking firms that are doing quite well with that sort of product line. An American firm would have the competitive edge by virtue of location.

To answer the original post, the only good reasons not to comply with such a request would be clients who cannot afford such work or cabinetmakers who lack the skills and knowledge or inclination to build that way. I agree with Gene and of course he is correct about the moisture content of lumber needing to be correct for the type of product it is being used for. However, even wood that is at the optimum moisture content for its intended purpose will crack and split if its annual movement is restricted by incorrect methods of joinery.

From contributor H:
These forums are dominated by small shop woodworkers. One of the well established truths of small shop success is to find or create a niche and exploit it. You all can sit there in the trenches with the mud, blood and particle board, but the Chinese and the Big Boys haven't even started to clean your clocks. Once they start, you'll be out before you know it.

As contributor C says: "An American firm would have the competitive edge by virtue of location." He's talking about a (geographic) niche. The original questioner had noted an increase in interest in solid wood. Knowledgeable people posted, saying it can be done with skills and methods that are old, known, but rarely practiced. Skills, knowledge, market, customers requesting things... what's going on? 20,000 sf shop full of equipment for working real wood? No lawyers trying to explain the difference between wood, real wood, hand-selected wood, wood-like products and genuine melamine? How can this be?

This is what any businessperson would call a solid opportunity (note pun). Those that moan and groan and worry about that nasty solid wood doing unpredictable things need to realize that it is a great big ol' world, and plenty of room for those who want to move into what may seem to be new areas. Our job security comes from our knowledge - chiefly our skills. If we practice good craft, expand our knowledge of our craft, get damn good at it, and learn to value excellence, we will succeed. Heck, even if we don't, we will have had one righteous ride, heh? Seize the day and realize that opportunity is knocking.

From contributor I:

Pocket screws and melamine is the only way to go. Have those uninformed clients call me and I'll be happy to explain to them why you shouldn't build cabinets for them with worthless old joinery methods and outdated solid wood.

From contributor J:
In southeast Asia they seem to have it figured out. There are containers of solid mahogany (hand carved) furniture sent to this country every day. Granted, we can not go into the forest and strip it of all of its Mahogany, nor can we get masses of little hands to put it together anymore. The only valid point to the client should be the cost involved with solid wood construction, not whether it can be done or not. If you have ever seen a MacIntosh 15 foot solid oak buffet that looks like it grew that way and is worth 5 million dollars you would double think some of your comments. I am in the furniture trade and I am realistic to the trade restraints put on us but some of the most beautiful furniture ever made is solid wood.

From contributor K:
Building cabinets from solid wood can be done for sure. It would be a waste of good lumber though.

From contributor L:
I have had customers ask about solid wood construction. This is the time to qualify your customer. If the customer is looking for a $2000.00 bookcase then they have not done their homework. At this point it is time to educate on construction methods and choice of material. However we have some customers that live in multimillion dollar homes who have private jets. When they ask about solid wood I am pretty sure they have done their homework. When I give them a price that makes me want to run and hide, I know they will not flinch. I also know that they will be looking for solid wood with traditional joinery. If they can pay we will slow down and build it. It is kind of nice to do a job once in a while the old way.

From contributor M:
We will build almost anything that a customer requests and can pay for. That being said, the lumber available today is nowhere near the quality available even 50 years ago, much less 200 years ago. Many antiques and museum pieces are cracked, warped etc. In todayís home environment with climate control, temp and humidity changes are minimal so wood movement is less of an issue than previously. Personally I believe that well made PW is a far superior product for case construction than any other available today and I try to educate my customers in that direction. But if they insist we are happy to accommodate them by using traditional or contemporary methods of construction.

From contributor N:
A lot of good points already given, but one thing omitted is the incredible waste of resources in building the entire cabinet out of solid wood. Plywood exists for two reasons - stability, and conservation of materials. There is plenty of antique furniture in museums with plywood parts. You don't think all those delicate marquetry pieces are over solid wood slabs do you? I think people (including woodworkers) sometimes forget that plywood has been around for thousands of years and has been used in some of the most beautiful cabinetry and furniture ever made. They just assume solid is quality.

But my answer to the question would be first to explain to the clients why cabinetry is built the way it is with the materials we use. Second explain the increased cost to build entirely out of solid, (I would guess 4 to 5 times the cost) Third, if you get that far, explain the complete wastefulness of using solid wood throughout, and fourth if they still want it and are willing to pay, by all means build it. I personally have not had anyone ask for a completely solid wood kitchen. But I have had to explain to a few clients what materials I do use and why.

From contributor D:
Regarding the waste of materials in building in solid wood, this can be evaluated over time. That is, think of some plywood and particle board cabinets that go into the McMansion, only to be torn out and replaced in 10-12 years as styles change. More ply and goo goo wood, again, for a life of a few years.

Compare to very high quality and expense of good, even timeless design. Those cabinets/furnishings will still be around in 50 to 100 hundred years or more. They may get recycled, refinished, or restored, but the raw materials are still in place. Ain't nobody putting that MacIntosh Buffet in the yard sale.

The nugget is that we can't all build this way, every time. But there is nothing wrong with it as a goal and a way of doing business. This is something that can differentiate a shop from the noise that is cluttering the scene, and elevate our work beyond the mediocre.

From contributor O:
I was recently asked to do the same thing, but since I cannot do that much work now I declined. Otherwise I would not have, since it is kind of what I do. His thinking was quality, not price.

From contributor N:
T contributor D: I would almost agree with you except that I've seen people come into their newly bought house and gut the 50k+ kitchen that's a year or two old, just so they can put in a new one to their liking. Granite tops, stainless appliances, custom cabinets, gone without a second thought. These days it's rare to see something last 50 years, unless it's a piece of furniture that can be moved. Some people who have the money want to spend it just so everyone can see that they have it. I'm just trying to get a little bit of it for myself. Other than that I agree with you - if you can get, and make really high end work that stands out, run with it. I hope to be there someday, for now it's just one job at a time.

From contributor P:
Another consideration not mentioned as far as waste goes - if you wanted all solid wood kitchen cabinets, you could build them in place like they used to do, with face frames, shelves and end panels. Those could be raised panel. You do not need all of the box frame that is used today except that it makes the use of adjustable shelving a lot easier and it makes it so you can build the entire kitchen in your shop and install later, but it is a terrible waste of material.

From contributor Q:
This thread has intrigued me. From my reading, it sounds like the only problem you would encounter is something like applying mouldings to the cabinets, especially across the grain (front to back I suppose). The box, faceframe, etc. will be relatively stable.

From contributor C:
Well, itís not exactly that it would be stable because wood indoors will change dimension and grow wider across the grain in summer and then shrink again in winter. But, as far as a facing and a back, these parts do not restrict or bind the seasonal movement of the wood so they merely travel to and fro with the movement.

I am curious about all the statements along the lines of solid lumber being wasteful compared to using plywood. I am wondering how much raw solid wood it takes to make a 3/4" thick sheet of plywood, or a 3/4" sheet of particle board, or a 3/4" sheet of MDF compared to how much raw wood it takes to net 32 square feet of usable 3/4" thick solid wood.

Yes, I realize that the appearance of the wood in the cores of plywood make it less troublesome than hand selecting the faces that show but am still curious how many board feet of lumber or stumpage it takes to make these items, including the percentage of waste in each operation.

I recently bought 4/4 red oak for $2.91 per board ft. 2.91x 32 equals $93.12. The red oak plywood for the job cost $1.78 per square foot or $56.96 for 32 square feet. So, we can see that it costs more for 32 square feet of red oak lumber than it does for 32 square feet of red oak plywood. Although one costs more than the other (a waste of money?), which one actually uses more resources (raw stumpage) to produce the product (a waste of wood?).

According to Gene Wengert, there are currently more hardwood trees growing in the United States than there were at the turn of the 20th century.

From contributor N:
The Wood Doc could answer this better than I, but I'll give it a shot. A 4 x 8 sheet of Oak plywood has very little Oak in it. Basically a 4' x 8' slice less than 1/32" thick (depending on your supplier). The core veneers of that sheet can be less desirable woods and more importantly can be woods that grow much quicker, allowing for a continuous supply.

If we do a little math we can work out that a 1" x 12" x 96" Oak board could be sliced into 32 slices at 1/32" thick. With 8 slices (4 per side) to a 4 x 8 sheet of ply we can get 4 sheets of Oak ply from that one board. While we can build a handful of cabinets with 4 sheets of ply, we can barely get even one cabinet with the single board. Plus, we will generally create less waste in the shop with the ply than the solid. The solid would have to be crosscut to rough length, glued up, planed or sanded flat, cut to finish length, and final sanded. The ply just needs to be cut to size and final sanded, if it's not prefinished that is. This is even truer with MDF or particleboard as trees of lesser value, and rapid growth could be used. So less use of valuable woods overall.

As for the idea that there are more hardwoods growing today than a century ago, I can't debate that as the Wood Doc is better informed than I. But those trees are not the quality or size of the old growth trees that are so highly prized. More importantly though are the exotics. There are far fewer around now than even fifty years ago, and many on the road to extinction. And you will never see those come back, when theyíre gone, theyíre gone for good. Itís kind of a downer to think some of the wood in my racks may not be available in a couple generations. I don't have to worry either way though as no one has asked me to do a kitchen out of solid yet.

From contributor D:
In calculating the amount of materials in solid vs ply, it is also important to include the energy to process either to its final form. The economists would also include labor costs, and whether the materials are renewable. No doubt the engineered stuff is the commodity item of the future, just as it is today, though some of us will get to specialize in solids.
As for the more hardwoods today than in the past, 'tis true, of sorts. The larger picture will describe huge areas of this land covered with huge, slow growth trees - more than could ever be cut, as they used to say. The bigger ones were girdled, and then burned on the stump just to get them out of the way. At times in the early 1800's, the fires burned thousands and thousands of acres for weeks. There was a slash fire in Wisconsin that burned for 5 months.

A hundred years ago, it was over. The land cleared and plowed, the trees mostly gone. They are still repopulating. So, yes, there are more today than 100 yrs ago. Don't forget the ruse of big lumber - "planting 5 trees for every one we cut." And plant they did - 5 one-year-old saplings of a genetic breed to fall to the saw in 25 yrs or so, while they felled one colossal old growth tree after another in the Northwest, clear cutting millions of acres. The story of trees and wood use is an ancient one. Baghdad and most of Iraq was heavily forested, as was most of the Mideast.

From contributor R:
I know a cabinetmaker who only uses solid wood in all of his construction. Fixed shelves are all raised panel construction. The price for his fine furniture is very high. A large dresser can cost $7000, all cherry, all solid. The nice thing is that any color or grain you don't like can go into the raised panel shelves, saving the really nice stuff for the outside of the cabinet. So how much money is this educated customer willing to fork out? You could use lumber core sheet goods or Bamboo plywood. If they go for the Bamboo they would have "We Helped Save the Earth" bragging rights.

From contributor C:
Raised panel fixed shelves - now thereís a dust catcher if I ever saw one.

From contributor S:
I just came across this thread and had a good laugh. Now I donít feel like the lone ranger. The past few years I have steered my shop to pretty much specialize in quality doors and custom windows but still do some custom cabinetry and special furniture for old customers. Probably not good business but it keeps my woodworking skills sharp. I have never been afraid to work and think outside the box.

This past year we built a mostly solid walnut kitchen for a customer. It was solid walnut except for a few deep bases and a 4í wide peninsula. Looking back the whole thing could have been solid. Itís not that hard if you understand the wood movement. This was at the customers request and it cost him a lot. T and M cost plus. Our shop is well equipped to process solid wood and the carcass construction was not that hard. He had a lot of other special details that ran the cost up. This was in a historic house and I hope no one changes it for a hundred years.

I think this could be a good niche market for the small shop. It would take a lot of customer education. The problem is kitchens are a fashion market and styles change a lot every 10 to 15 years. Iíve been in business 30 years and like one of the posters above mentioned, Iíve seen good work torn out and replaced after 10 years. I think that is disgusting and a bad sign for our society. From what I have seen over the years my very wealthy clients are the worst for not appreciating how things are constructed and could give a hoot if the interior is melamine. The conservative educated upper middle class are the ones who appreciate good construction but have difficulty affording it.

In general the melamine euro cabinet or pocket screwed face frame with euro hardware will last 20 -25 years and that is what 95% of the population wants, with the emphasis on design, function and finishes. I have replaced worn out KV slides and Blum hinges on kitchens we built 30 years ago. If I was going to pursue this as a business model I would consider using 3 ply solid wood panels from Europe or the new bamboo panels from the East. The finish would be hot, hard wax oil and could be touted as a natural product, healthy with no off gassing.

A few years ago in northern Italy I went with a just married cousin to a kitchen showroom in the small village they live in. They were choosing cabinets for their first home they were renovating. Of course the budget was tight. They chose a laminated exterior, melamine interior kitchen that was actually very nice in that price range. For the upper end the showroom had solid wood cabinets made from same species 3 ply panels. (These panels are considered solid wood in Europe) In a few years the cousins said they would like one of the solid kitchens if they can afford it. I was impressed with their knowledge as consumers of the benefits and quality of solid wood.

From contributor K:
It really ticks me off that someone would waste perfectly good black walnut for cabinet boxes. I own several antiques that were handed down to me. Most are 150-200 years old. ALL of these pieces use secondary wood like pine, cypress, chestnut and oak for the "guts" of the cases. The exterior is where the fine woods were used.

From contributor P:
I also know that an incredible amount of fine woods such as walnut go to pallet mills because they are closest to the logger so thatís where they go. A lot also goes into firewood, or is left in the woods to rot by the logger. I have seen places that have been harvested of walnut and it would make you cringe. They take mainly the clear stuff, and leave all the best figured wood lay to rot.

From contributor C:
Rest assured that unless itís the case of an open section of cabinetry, most makes will use a secondary wood on the interior of furniture or cabinets made of solid stock when the show wood is a premium specie.

If you really want to lament about wasted wood, as contributor D pointed out earlier, a large percentage of the best hardwood trees this country ever had were simply cut down and burned to clear the land for farming etc.

From contributor O:
My father-in-law tore down an old building many years ago and guess what the floor joist were? Yes, black walnut and he had agreed to remove it for the material. No one knew what was in it.

From contributor K:
I'm not saying that there isn't terrible waste both past and present. I am just saying that it is wasteful to use face grade prime lumber for cases that will never be seen. Should I take the attitude that the logger is wasteful of material so I should be as well? It would be more responsible for us to educate the customer as to construction techniques and uses of primary and secondary wood.

From contributor C:
I donít think you need to worry much about that. Very few cabinet makers ever make solid wood kitchen cabinet carcasses and fewer still use premium show wood on the interiors.

Speaking of waste by loggers, it still goes on today. I live in Oregon where the Douglas fir is the chief wood harvested for lumber. 95% of the logging here is done "clearcut style" and is then replanted in Douglas fir. When an area is logged, all of the hardwood trees are felled along with the fir trees. The hardwood trees are then pushed into to large burn piles and burned along with the slash from the fir trees harvest. Enough ash, alder, maple and white oak go up in flames to build thousands of solid wood kitchen cabinet jobs interiors each year. And no, I am not saying anyone else should be wasteful too.

From contributor T:
I've seen a couple of solid wood kitchens and refinished one of them a couple years back. It was site built of cedar using a chop saw and a pin-nailer and finished with a wiping/sealer stain. It looked rustic and the homeowner liked it. I'm sure it wasn't at the top of the food chain price-wise.