Melamine Versus Plywood for Kitchen Cabinets

It's an apples-to-oranges comparison, but one that sets off a thoughtful exchange of views about workability and performance in this thread from the Cabinetmaking forum. June 28, 2005

We do kitchens euro style with melamine, and I was wondering if plywood has any advantages over melamine? I know that plywood is stronger, but melamine seems strong enough. If melamine is strong enough, why pay extra for plywood? I was also wondering if anyone had any ideas on what premium to charge for plywood.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor O:
I agree that melamine is perfect for all types of cabinetry. You still get the same quality, and it is easier to clean and you don't have to worry about getting poor quality plywood. I've seen plywood (pre-finished and finished) warped, peeling apart, etc. But melamine always looks good, is straight, and comes in many colors. If you sell the right color, you can have melamine interiors that match your finish without all the extra labor.

Has anyone ever tried staining and spraying the interiors of an entire kitchen? I would think that in a high end kitchen, the interior should be the same quality and look the same as the exterior. Plus it's difficult to scratch melamine. I have nothing against plywood, and I use it for all the finished ends etc, or where I need it.

From contributor K:
I have a bunch of reasons why I donít use melamine boards:

1. The way it looks. When I show a perspective client a finished piece of plywood vs. a piece of melamine, 9 times out of 10, after looking at the depth of the wood, they are more inclined to warm to the VC finished plywood than the melamine.
2. It's heavy.
3. Does not hold a screw well (even confirmats). As an example, I disassembled a melamine kitchen recently (only a few years old), glued and stapled 3/4" material with only a hammer, and it only took 10-15 minutes to knock down about 12 cabinets. They literally fell apart with a couple of blows. It is also very easy to rip the doors and hinges off as well. There was one box in the group which must have been added later that was made of 1/2" ply, and had dadoed shelves. It took me about 3 minutes to turn that one cabinet into a stack of rubble (mostly because of the dadoed shelves).

4. It smells!
5. Chips easily when cutting if the blade is not sharp all the time.
6. Difficult to work with.
7. Have to edge-band it.
8. De-lamination issues.
9. Surface breaks when using screws (try and get it right the first time - otherwise it looks awful - even with the hole-tab).
10. Sub-materials degrade over time (joints loosen).
11. Hinges loosen easier over time (door sags).
12. Does not hold moldings well without glue or nailers.

I am not totally against melamine. I actually love the material, just not the sub-materials. I do use it, but only when I absolutely must.

Now to be fair, the reasons I love melamine:

1. Easy to disassemble.
2. Makes great platforms for glue-up tables.
3. Cheap (both ways).
4. Easy to clean (although this is not generally a major issue in most cabinets where clean dishes are going into).

I guess if melamine could be produced to be light, non-smelly, chip-resistant, and able to hold a screw, I would be more open-minded about it. But the easy-clean argument isnít enough for me.

From contributor M:
We build frameless melamine boxes with plywood exposed ends finished interiors. The melamine has a natural maple finish to it. I have two displays across from each other, so when the customer asks what the difference is, I show them both and let them decide. 99% go with the melamine. We will build all plywood boxes but I have to charge more for the material, and there is more waste on defects. I can't recall having to replacing a box due to bad melamine though.

From contributor O:
I'm typically as hard headed when it comes to materials. If a customer asks me to build them a beautiful maple kitchen, but they want white interiors because it is what they have currently and like it, I'm not going to tell them all the reasons why I donít want to use it. I will simply save the money and give them what they want. I've built frameless kitchens out of melamine and I've built frameless kitchens using pre-finished maple.

The reality of this whole situation is that each of the materials - melamine and plywood, both have their ups and downs. Like Contributor K said, melamine is weak, chips easy when cut, and holds screws poorly. Plywood, however, is hard to get in perfect - itís straight, has defect free sheets, and has have a tendency to peel. They also chip on the bottom if you don't have a sharp blade. And no matter what, you have to put some kind of finish on them, whether it's paint or finish.

From contributor G:
I've been using shop grade birch or maple for paint grade cabinets, but to get a really smooth finish, it takes a lot of primer and too much sanding. Itís really too much work. On stain grade, I've been using mdf core veneer, which looks great, but is incredibly heavy. It's been a while since I used anything else for stain grade.

Sometimes for panels, I've just sanded the melamine and painted over that. That produces a really smooth finish, and so far (knock on wood) it hasn't failed yet. The last cabinets I did were shop birch import, painted white then antiqued. The customer complained that you could see a bit of grain showing through. So it didn't look plastic enough, I guess, because I didn't fill the grain. This was a display cabinet and it was pretty wide, so I used plywood for strength and to finish it inside and out.