When you're shopping for wood to make new cabinets, you may turn up more options than you expected, and you'll probably find yourself balancing budget and quality. Not surprisingly, the best cabinet materials are the most expensive, but unless you're a seasoned woodworker with a full shop, you seldom need the best. In fact, economical hardwood-veneered plywood, which looks like solid wood on finished cabinets, can be the preferred material for a number of projects.
Making the Grade
You won't find the best selection of top-quality cabinet-grade hardwood at your local building supply outlet. Instead, you'll probably have to go to a hardwood specialist where you'll find two or three grades of many domestic and exotic varieties. The top grade is called First and Seconds (FAS), and any board with this grading is free of knots and blemishes on both faces. FAS One Face may have blemishes on one face, but the other side is clear. The grades below FAS are Number 1 and Number 2 Common, and some boards, which have characteristics of FAS and Common grades, may be graded Select.
The Common Choice
Although FAS is the top grade, the boards are usually too expensive for use on cabinets -- they are more appropriate for small furniture and specialty items. Number 1 common is the grade that most cabinetmakers use. The grading system, which was established by the American Hardwood Export Council, requires that each Number 1 Common board be blemish- and knot-free for two-thirds of its length, and that no clear area be smaller than 3 inches by 3 feet or 4 inches by 2 feet. This ensures that the cabinetmaker has enough blemish-free wood for most projects.
Made in the USA
Some exotic hardwoods, with their rich colors and vivid grain patterns, make stunning cabinets, but besides being rare and pricey, many are so hard that working with them is impractical. Domestic hardwoods, besides being more readily available, are about half as hard as the densest tropical varieties, and you can always add luxurious tones by staining. Oak is the most abundant domestic hardwood and the default choice for most projects. Maple, birch and ash are good choices when you need a blonde wood, and if you're on a budget, you can make an attractive hutch or kitchen array with a softwood, such as pine.
Although it isn't a natural material, hardwood-veneered plywood has advantages over solid hardwood that make it a wise choice for many projects. It's made of laminated layers, so it won't warp, and it comes in 4-by-8-foot sheets, which are wide enough for the sides and top of any cabinet. Moreover, it's precisely dimensioned, so you can put away the surface planer and jointer. You need to cover the edges with beading, but that's an opportunity for creativity, because the wood you use for the beading doesn't have to be the same as the face. Best of all, it's easy on the pocketbook.