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Melamine vs. Plywood construction for cabinets

Who knew there were so many kitchen cabinet choices!? I'm thoroughly confused, but I've narrowed down my choices to two San Francisco semi-custom cabinet designers who carry what seems like pretty different products

KitchenSync in SF's Mission District: Ultracraft's Vision line. This seems to be the cheaper option, because the cabinet box is thermoset melamine and the only wood in the entire thing is wood dovetail drawers. I don't know what kind of wood. I am assuming plywood, but it could very well be particle board. http://www.ultracraft.com/browser.asp...

Timeless Kitchens in SF's Bayview District: Omega's Dynasty line. Definitely more expensive, but I don't have an estimate for how much more. Perhaps a few thousand dollars for my tiny kitchen. All hardwood exterior, all plywood interior. http://www.omegacab.com/constructionD...

It seems pretty clear to me, a cabinet novice, that the Omega is the superior product. However, I know zero about melamine cabinets and have never seen one (or at least have never noticed).

In terms of the durability and ease of cleaning for the exterior, the strength if the inner cabinets, and the quality of the hardware, is there any compelling reason not to save a few thousand dollars and just go with the melamine?

Or, to put the question a different way, does anyone have experience with Ultracraft vs. Omega?

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  1. Are you definitely choosing between these two lines? I don't want to hijack your thread into a separate discussion...
    I recently remodeled my kitchen (live in the Oakland) and had 100% custom cabinets made by a great place, and they were thousands cheaper than the next closest manufacturers. They are melamine boxes with wood doors. I believe that they will make the cabinets without melamine if that is your preference. It is my understanding that the melamine is very strong and not necessarily inferior to plywood.
    If you want the info for the place, I will post it. I apologize if this does you no good at all.

    3 Replies
    1. re: lamlex

      100% custom, you say? You could be doing me a huge favor. Please do tell!

      1. re: Pei

        Precision Cabinets and Trim
        (925) 634-5552
        Audra-Mia Lyons is the salesperson that I dealt with, and she was fantastic. I was referred to her by a friend of mine who is a contractor. Not that it matters, but you could tell her that you got her name from Lexie Cox.

        I have a small kitchen that required some strange dimensions to make the best use of space. I never would have been able to get that with semi-custom. They came to my house twice to measure (before remodel construction started), gave me a number of various design options, and did the installation.

        1. re: lamlex


          I just got a quote back for the Omega Dynasty: almost $7k just for cabinets in a 8x11' kitchen. That's about 10 feet of cabinets and a 3x7 island, with a normal 8.5' height. Anything above that becomes more custom-priced, and this is without any kind of roll outs or specialty drawers/cabinets.

          I think the Ultracraft is under $5k, but I'm not sure yet.

    2. I'm with lamlex. A few years ago my sister was remodeling her kitchen, and she was getting prices on medium-grade stock cabinets. I kept pestering her to talk to the guy who had done my custom cabinets and our parents' custom cabinets, and he ended up being better quality and cheaper than the stock cabinets. My parents' cabinets are almost 25 years old and look brand new. Mine are 17 years old and I'm still in love with them.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        What materials did you use? I know there is good melamine vs. bad melamine and good wood vs. bad wood, but I'm curious what it is that has lasted 17-25 years!

        1. re: Pei

          Mine were "paint grade" solid wood and IIRC they're poplar (honestly, the wood was so pretty it was a shame to paint them). I have a vague recollection that the upper cabinets for my parents are melamine boxes with wood facing, but I couldn't swear to that.

          Victor's (that's his last name, not his first) Custom Cabinets, on San Leandro (right behind Fruitvale BART) in Oakland.

      2. I've also been researching cabinetry for our current kitchen remodel. :) I've been told that in terms of strength and durability both plywood and particle board boxes (cabinet frames) are comparable. You can even get either of those materials made with formaldehyde-free glues -- although perhaps low-VOC are a requirement anyway in CA? (I cannot recall the law details.)

        The main difference between plywood and particle board, though, is how they respond when there are water leaks. Particle board is still known to swell up and buckle worse than plywood. But if you're vigilant about leaks and moisture, it shouldn't be too much of an issue.

        We've been pretty lucky to find a cabinet maker (in the South Bay) whose price for particle board+melamine and plywood boxes are the same. Instead, upgrades are charged for dovetail (vs nailed in), complexity of door styles, complexity of crown moulding, etc.

        1. As a woodworker/cabinet maker I'd suggest you look at the attached
          link - it's for a woodworking forum site that a lot of contractors use
          http://www.woodweb.com/knowledge_base.... probably won't answer your questions but will give you some food for thought. I believe the final choice is for you to decide on the installer then the material. A good or bad install can be accomplished with either.

          1. Almost all kitchen 'big-box' kitchen cabinets are made from melamine coated chipboard. This has the following pros and cons:

            Temperature and humidity stable
            Easy to clean
            Does not absorbs stain or odours
            Easy to replace as standard sizes.

            Chips, easy to damage, hard to repair.
            Edges can peel away
            Badly damaged by 'lingering' water, including floor washing.

            Melamine (particleboard) cabinets will support any weight you can realistically put on them (eg, granite or a 250lb light bulb changer). They are difficult to modify. They also look 'plastic'. Commonly they can be end-faced with veneered particle board.

            1. All of the melamine I have seen in the two cabinet shops I frequently use is applied over a MDF core. Heavy stuff! Melamine is two steps less quality than Formica and is about half as thick.

              I would look for a cabinet maker who uses a pre-finished plywood. The finish the manufacturer uses is normally a higher grade than any sprayed on finish a shop will use and the finish is more evenly applied making for a longer lasting cabinet.

              Solid wood drawers are usually made from hard maple. Look for dovetails and rounded top on the sides. Full extension drawer slider are best and soft self closing are much better. Also, if the slides are placed under the drawers, the side of the drawer looks cleaner and less industrial and the usable space inside the drawer is maximized.

              1. I'm really confused by what you're saying here.

                Melamine is a plastic coating applied over a wood-based substrate, usually particle board. There's no such thing as solid melamine cabinet boxes, as far as I know. It isn't structurally sound enough to accept fasteners. Melamine is very artificial looking, and even though it does sometimes come in "wood grain," it's still a plastic.

                The plywood in the Timeless Kitchens boxes isn't necessarily any better than particle board boxes. Yes, particle board is heavier, but it doesn't have the voids that cheaper plywood has (and yes, the stuff most cabinet companies use is likely to have voids).

                If you have a moisture leak in a particle board box, you'll have a bigger problem than in a plywood box -- but where is that really likely? In your sink and dishwasher surround, and probably nowhere else. And if you have a truly catastrophic leak, either one will be damaged.

                If you want wood fronts, please don't waste your money on fake-wood melamine fronts (if that's the way I'm reading your original post correctly). You'll regret them the moment you get them installed.

                If the only question, though, is plywood boxes vs. less-expensive particle board boxes, I'd never give it a second thought. Today's particle board is worlds better than the stuff made 30 years ago -- and I just spent over a month tearing out 1979 particle-board cabinets that were held together almost as tightly as welded steel even today. Yes, they're heavier, but if they're installed correctly, who cares? Your house isn't going to collapse into itself because your cabinets are 30 pounds heavier than they could have possibly been if they'd been made with mid-grade plywood.

                6 Replies
                1. re: dmd_kc

                  Sorry for the confusion. I was confused myself. The choice is between melamine-coated particle board boxes and shelve and plywood drawers, or hardwood fronts with plywood boxes, shelves, and drawers.

                  I tend to agree with you that I don't care how heavy the boxes are, I'm not the one installing them so who cares.

                  If a cabinet maker claims to use all Grade A plywood instead of shop grade, is that a reliable indicator that their materials are superior to particle board, or is there still variation?

                  And, lastly, since you mentioned tearing out cabinets, how hard is it to tear out cabinets? I'm looking at tearing out the 1927 cabinets currently in the apartment (ick). They look pretty dilapidated. Without any handyman experience besides building IKEA furniture (and I can do that like a champ), can I do some research, talk to some guys at the hardware store, buy some tools, and do this myself with a few friends?

                  1. re: Pei

                    My brother used PC Cabinets in San Leandro for his Omega Dynasty Line cabinets and was very pleased. He researched prices all over the Bay Area and they were the cheapest. He installed the cabinets himself so I'm not sure how much extra installation is. Good luck.

                    1. re: Pei

                      Tearing out cabinets takes no time at all with a sawz-all and a collection of wrecking bars.

                      The cabinet installation is easy, especially the Ikea ones. Hanging wall cabinets can be problematic with some if they don't have the flexibility to allow you to hit the joist. Much more problematic is the tiling the floor and walls, running the power cables, re-jigging the plumbing and ensuring you are up to code. You will probably need to do some drywalling as well. It is unlikely your 1927 kitchen meets modern codes in some of the following areas:

                      Venting (plumbing)
                      Lead piping

                      1. re: Paulustrious

                        Don't I know it. That's why I'm shopping for cabinets and tearing out the new ones. Someone else (a pro) is taking care of all that other stuff you listed. :) Thanks!

                      2. re: Pei

                        "Hard" in tearing out cabinets is honestly about as subjective as it gets. In '27, they were installed with nails -- meaning you can do it yourself with a wonderbar and hammer. You will damage the lathe and plaster underneath, but a qualified installer can overcome that very handily when putting in the new cabinets.

                        It's not hard, though. No need to get worried over a job like this. You can do it!!!

                        1. re: Pei

                          yes you can tear them out yourself - BUT realize it's dusty & dirty, so hang plastic sheeting between areas you can to exclude dust, and cover furniture to make clean up easier. If you have lathe & plaster walls behind existing cabinets, they will most likely get pretty messed up and need to be recovered w/sheetrock prior to install (easier than patching). Have a plan for disposal of materials and be ready if for some reason you do encounter asbestos in the kitchen area. For fast demo a sawzall otherwise called a recriprocating saw is your best friend but can cut thru a lot of stuff (electric wires, conduits, etc.) really easily. Don't forget that while your kitchen is naked you can relocate/add circuits, cat5 wire, coax whatever really easy. One last comment don't provide the beer until AFTER the cabinets are out.