Cabinet Wood Species

Understanding Wood Species

When deciding how much your new kitchen will cost, did you know that the species of wood you choose will have a direct impact on the Cost? With so many choices available, knowing a little about each wood species will help you plan and stay within your builder’s allotted budget allowances.

Let’s begin with some basics that we all learned in high school shop class but may have forgotten. We all know that wood comes from trees and there are two major categories: hardwoods and softwoods. The terms “softwood” and “hardwood” have nothing to do with whether the wood is physically hard or soft. Softwood and hardwood are actually distinguished botanically and not by their end use, appearance, or hardness. In general, hardwood comes from a deciduous tree. Deciduous trees are trees that bear leaves, which they lose annually.

Softwoods are conifers. They bear pine cones and usually remain evergreen. Hardwoods tend to be slower growing; therefore, they are usually denser (but not always). Softwoods usually grow in huge tracts of trees, which may spread for miles, while hardwoods tend to be found mixed with a variety of other species. The majority of kitchen cabinets are made from hardwoods with the exception of Pine (more recently being used as Knotty Pine).


Oak, maple, walnut, cherry, hickory, and alder are all hardwoods. These are the most common species in the market. The decision to use one wood over another can drastically impact the budget of a kitchen project. A few years ago, red and white oak far exceeded any other species used for cabinets in the United States. In recent years, maple and cherry have increased in popularity, overtaking the demand for oak. Because of this reason, the price of oak cabinets has decreased while the price of cherry or maple has increased.



Pine – Pine is the only softwood species commonly used for cabinetry, and it dents more easily than hardwoods. This pale yellow wood can be stained, and it often features knots used to underscore traditional and country styles. Eastern white pine and Western white pine are found in select semicustom lines.


Oak -Oak has traditionally been the most popular wood for residential cabinets and will be found in many older homes. It has a very heavy visible grain and is very durable. There are several species of oak; the most popular being white and red oak cut either in a plain sawn, quarter sawn or rift cut. Prior to staining, red oak tends to have a slightly “reddish” color. White oak is light brown in color. Wide bold graining is a characteristic of most oak, based on the method boards, which are cut from logs and on logging of newer growth forests. In order to reduce this wide graining, oak can be either rift cut or quarter sawn. Both methods greatly reduce the harvest from a single tree and therefore increase the price.

Maple -Maple has a close, fine, uniform texture and is generally straight-grained, but it can also occur as “curly,” “fiddle back,” and “birds-eye” figures. The wood is hard and heavy with good strength properties; in particular its high resistance to abrasion and wear.

Cherry – Cherry wood has a fine, uniform, straight grain, satiny, smooth texture, and may naturally contain brown pith flecks and small gum pockets. When sanded and stained, it produces an excellent smooth finish.

Alder – Alder (a relative of birch) is fairly straight-grained with a uniform texture. When stained, it blends with walnut, mahogany, or cherry. While more costly than Oak, Alder is typically less expensive than Maple or Cherry

Hickory – Just a few years ago, hickory was seldom used for cabinets because it had quite a bit of character such as streaks, knots, swirly spots, and a busy grain. The pattern can be very busy. Today, that characteristic is what makes it so popular.

Birch – Birch is generally straight-grained with a fine uniform texture. The wood of yellow birch is heavy, hard, and strong.

Cherry usually costs 10-20% more than oak. Hickory is slightly more expensive than oak but still run close in price. Unusual cabinet woods like alder and birch will usually cost more than common oak.

Exotic Woods like Teak may add 100% to the cost of your cabinets.


Cabinetry that is not solid-wood or wood veneer is generally laminate or Thermofoil, both of which are applied to substrates. Laminate and Thermofoil come in a range of colors and patterns, including some that mimic wood

Laminates are made of three resin-saturated layers: a base layer of paper, a printed and colored layer (which may look like wood), and a protective transparent layer. Heat and pressure fuse a laminate to a substrate. The weight of the substrate makes laminate cabinets heavier than those made of wood. Laminate is used to cover exterior cabinetry surfaces, the fronts and backs of doors, and some interior surfaces. High-pressure laminates are difficult to damage, giving vertical surfaces the same durability as countertops. Low-pressure laminates, also called melamine, are less impact-resistant than high-pressure laminates and have a tendency to crack and chip. The use of better substrates reduces these problems.

Thermofoil is a vinyl film applied to a substrate with heat and pressure. The application process makes it possible for Thermofoil to resemble wood detailing more closely than laminate can. Most often white or almond, Thermofoil cabinets are easy to care for and less likely to chip than painted cabinets. Thermafoils are frequently used in Garages or Shop areas.

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