Building with Pre-Finished Plywood

Pre-finished plywood can streamline the construction and finishing workflow. Here are some tips and stories. July 12, 2012

I have noticed a number of posters utilize pre-finished plywood in their cabinet construction. I'm wondering how everyone handles the rest of the finishing if using prefinished ply. In other words, are you using one sided (interior face) prefinished plywood then staining/sealing the exterior faces and faceframes? If so, do you have to mask off all the prefinished surfaces first?

It sounds like it could be a money/time saver but I would have to significantly alter my work/design maybe to take advantage. I tend to do pretty custom work, so not sure if this fits in. Also, from what I'm seeing so far, most panels are prefinished with a poly or conversion varnish product, and I tend to favor lacquers although I've used the others also.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor K:
On exposed ends I use ply of the same species as the doors/face frames and apply prefinished 1/4" skin on the interior. On the bottoms of the upper cabs I also use the same species of 1/4" skins to cover pocket screw holes. Any finishing on exposed ends, bottoms, and faceframes are sprayed prior to assembly.

From contributor C:
3/4" applied end panels for bases and uppers. The same for doors or fronts, or if painted, scuff sand two sided pre-finished ply and paint. As far as scuff sanding, staining, and clear coating I wouldn't unless you go through all the finish of the pre-fin and that seems a hassle and prone to casualties. I sided pre-finished seams and itís hard to come by here in San Francisco but that would be my choice for stained ends. If not applied panel is the choice.

From the original questioner:
I'm thinking I may try using 1/2" pf for my back panels only. I use a lot of matching species 3/4 ply for my end panels and upper wall cab bottoms along with some beaded tongue and groove hardwood end panels. I currently attach my face frames before finishing too. It doesn't seem to take that much more time to just spray cabinet interiors while doing the rest of the cabinet. I do leave the back panels off till after spraying to make spraying easier, so back panels could be prefinished mat. I suppose I could use pf 3/4 ply for shelves too. Anyone know if there is a prefinished edgeband out there?

From contributor W:
I used prefinished ply on a euro frameless job. I used iron-on edgebanding, which frankly, came loose in some places. I would mask off the interior and paint the exterior, which worked. The b-side on the plywood had knots and such. I had to bondo some places. I don't have an edgebanding machine. Can you edgband a large cabinet, say like the refridgerator cab with an edgbanding machine?

From contributor B:
One-sided prefinished material is very unlikely to stay flat, which explains its lack of availability. Between the quality of the veneers and the unevenness of the crossbanding (unless using an armor-core product) in most prefinished material, I never use it for an exposed surface. On the rare occasions when I can't apply a finished end, I'll make the end panel from unfinished material, and then line the interior side with 1/4" prefinished so it'll match the rest of the case.

From contributor Y:
"Can you edgband a large cabinet, say like the refridgerator cab with an edgbanding machine?" Sure, as long as you have the handling space the bander doesn't care. We routinely run 12' panels.

From contributor O:
A lot of commercial projects like schools for example in our area use miles of lineal footage of birch cabinets with clear finish. The plywood is bought prefinished, 3/4 inch for gables, tops, bottoms and shelves, and 1/4 inch for backs. The 3/4 is prefinished both sides, it is cut on the beam saw or CNC, edged with matching 3 mm PVC edging, machined for dowel construction with backs dadoed in. Cabinets are put in a case clamp and that is the finished box. Doors are cut and edged with same 3 mm PVC edging. You have the finished cabinet, there is no finishing required. Most of these jobs have p/lam tops so you don't even need a finisher. I will add that all these jobs are overlay doors with euro hinges, there are no face frames.

From the original questioner:
I'm not convinced that this is cost effective for the type cabinets we produce. Backs might make sense, possibly shelves with the right edging, but the cabinets themselves are more traditional, high-end units. If I'm going to start lining inside parts with 1/4" PF ply, and masking off PF parts, I'm not gaining anything it seems to me. Thanks for all the feedback though.

From contributor O:
I think you are right in saying that this will not be cost effective in the way you do your high end custom jobs! That is very true, this stuff is not expensive and is meant for commercial applications! I can't see where you would ever use it in a high end kitchen.

From contributor M:
We use it all the time for "high-end" custom cabinets. We edgeband everything with a PVC tape to match finished doors. There are enough colors available that it will not be a problem. Exposed gables are sanded and then the appropriate veneer is pressed onto the show face. Itís a very efficient process. Occasionally we stain and finish the inside of cabinets but the cost is rarely worth it.

From the original questioner:
Although I can see where this might work for your product, we would not be using any PVC edgebanding in our cabinets as we do mainly very traditional all wood cabinetry. If we also offered euro-style or more contemporary work, this might work ok.

From contributor F:
Pre-finished ply is the only way to go. When you figure your labor and material for finishing the interior of your cabinets, youíre way ahead to get the stuff prefinished and you'll be hard pressed to match the finish that comes on the ply. What may be more important than anything is you letting someone else breathe in all those fumes. We all know that finishing the interiors of cabinets is the absolutely nastiest part of the job. Why not finish your frames before you attach them? It's much easier to spray them hanging or lying flat.

If you absolutely have to assemble the cabinet before itís finished it's still much easier to mask off the faceframe opening than it is to completely finish the interior yourself. I did it the stupid way for many years before I started using pre-finished. I would never go back to finishing the interiors myself.

From contributor F:
I'm not quite sure "high end" and PVC tape belong in the same sentence. It seems really low end to be in a high end cabinet.

From contributor U:
I think I'm the guy you needed to hear from. About six months ago I was on here asking the exact same questions you are now. Going from what you have posted, you and I build the same style of cabinetry (high end, traditional, face frames, etc.)

For 13 years I built my cabinets with all raw materials and took them back and started the finishing process. About six months ago I made the switch to pre-finished ply and I will never use anything else. First of all, the cost difference between the raw and the pre-finished is very little, only about three dollars a sheet for 1/2'' one sided. I can't even buy the finish for three dollars, not to mention having to spray, scuff, and spray again. Plus the finish on the pre-finished is better than what I was doing myself.

What I call a decent sized kitchen would normally have taken a five gallon bucket to finish and now I can do it with about 2 1/2 to 3 gallons. At $150 a bucket it saves about $50-$75 in finish which more than makes up for the extra cost on the ply. Another big plus is the labor savings in the spray booth. It takes nowhere near as long to finish a set when you are not spraying whole cabinets, just parts.

The biggest adjustment is learning a different routine. I am still adjusting every kitchen a little as I figure easier/better ways of doing it. Bottom line is, I use pre-finished anywhere I possibly can. The only thing I mask off is a bar island that has paneled sides and back and has to be built before finishing. Thatís not a big deal either since there is usually at least one 4x8 sheet of cardboard in every stack. I just mask the floor and cut the cardboard and screw it to the back of the faceframe and cover the top with another piece and it is done. When I made this switchover I bought a line boring machine just to do adjustable shelves, bought a $250 bench top edgebander to do the shelves, which is plenty sufficient for me since I only band the shelves. I use birch, pre-glued, and pre-finished banding. I can tell a major time difference in building cabinets this way.

From contributor T:
Over time you'll probably end up ditching the faceframes. That will, among other things, eliminate the masking chore. Faceframes are an unnecessary nuisance and aren't required for traditional high end all-wood cabinetry.

From the original questioner:
Thanks again for the additional responses. Contributor T - while I get the advantages to frameless cabinetry, I use faceframes to duplicate a "look" which does not include full overlay doors, but quite often features inset, beaded edge door/frame construction. I have built frameless before on request, but our specialty is more traditional designs. For instance, we did a reproduction "East Lake" style kitchen a few years ago to blend in with a homeownerís collection of East Lake style antique furniture. Frameless cabinetry would have never given the look they wanted. I'm interested in becoming more efficient but not at the cost of compromising the look that we offer that our competitors aren't.

Another example is drawer construction. I can buy prefinished 3/4" hardwood dovetail drawers fairly reasonably, but on occasion, for a high end piece I have built drawers with hand cut dovetail joints because that's what the customer wanted and were willing to pay for the difference. The challenge then becomes how to maximize the efficiency of cutting those dovetails (while not pulling out my router and dovetail jigs), which can be done. Does it take longer? Yes, but if they appreciate the difference and are willing to pay for it, I enjoy keeping my skills from getting too rusty.

The pre-finished ply is certainly tempting. How about types of finish available? Are these mostly available in conversion varnish or lacquer? I don't know if I like the idea of mixing different finishes in one cabinet. Also, do you find suppliers willing to sell small quantities, 5-10 sheets vs. full units? Again, thanks for all the input, this forum is a great source of information sharing.

From contributor U:
To the original questioner: I'm in Kentucky and my supplier runs a truck once a week and will bring me one sheet or all their truck can haul that week. I usually make a list after looking at what I have in stock and what the next job consists of. It looks something like this:

50 pf 1/2'' 1 side
4 pf 1/2'' 2 side
5 pf 3/4" 2 side

The finish that comes on my ply is a satin. I wouldn't care to use it on any cabinet no matter what color. I only spray CV. The debate between framed and frameless is definitely another thread and has been discussed countless times here. All I'll say is I'm sticking with the frames.

From contributor F:
Check your local hardwood supplier or lumber yard. I can get CV pre-finished from my local lumber yard in as few sheets as I need at a time and at a very reasonable price Ė less than $50 dollars a sheet for 3/4 finished both sides. I'm not sure what your concern is with mixing finishes in the same cabinet. I use pre-cat lacquer on the frames and raised panel ends. The CV is not affected by the lacquer as it is never mixed and the look is nearly identical.

From contributor N:
I too would like to try pre-finished also but like the questioner there are too many reasons why I canít. How can you do flush shelves with faceframes on the uppers, flush bottoms with faceframes on the bases, and all finished mitered ends with no hair lines? Itís not going to happen. Paint a faceframe first and then clamping to the carcass freaks me out. Will claw lock adhere well enough to the pre-finish where only a scuff is necessary for primer coat? Then thereís the fact that glue does not stick to pre-finished.

From contributor U:
I set my floors about 1/16 down from the ff. It makes a nice clean look. The only time I set a floor flush and fill and sand is on a bookcase. Why would you want to put claw lock on pre-finished when itís already finished? Perhaps the change of routine that it takes is too much for some, but for me it has saved me a lot of time, which equals money.