Don't Fear the Veneer!

fear-small.jpg Some of you know that I’m in the process of a remodel/rebuild of a home on Great Highway in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset district. I was going through some old emails that I had sent back and forth to my general contractor, Chas Voorhis of Abacus Groub Builders. Back in November of 2006, we were trying to figure out what material to use to build our kitchen cabinets.
We’d had REALLY bad experience with veneer in a kitchen. The place we’re living now is only about 20 years old. And the veneer around the sink is essentially gone. In many other places, the veneer has chipped off the plywood, or is just generally starting to look like… well, crap. The kitchen doesn’t look outdated (at least not horribly) but the cabinets look warn and crappy.
So when Jane Woodman (our designer) mentioned the cabinet maker was using veneer in the kitchen, we became concerned. We were thinking that the frames for the cabinets would be plywood, but that the doors and drawer fronts would be solid walnut (which was our original plan… which has since changed to wenge instead). So here was our dilemma… we have a fear of veneer, but Jane told us that solid wood warps. So I turned to Chas for his answer. I asked… “Can veneer be trusted to not peel apart from the plywood and/or chip? We do prefer solid wood, but if it costs more and is likely to warp, then maybe veneer is best. But if we do decide to live there a long time, we don’t want to redo the cabinets in 10 years when they look all worn and are peeling. So… your professional advice would be very much appreciated. What should we do???”
I expected a few sentences at most, but instead, this was Chas’ reply:

Hi Luba,
You ask a good question and it is certainly one that is important to consider. The answer really breaks down to four principal considerations: aesthetics; cost; performance; and maintenance. I shall discuss each of these separately since they all factor into your decision.
Aesthetics: This breaks down into two sub categories: style and appearance. Appearance: Solid lumber is going to appear inconsistent. There will be distinct variations in color and grain throughout the individual doors and drawers, as well as throughout the kitchen. This is usually addressed to some extent by staining everything to achieve a more consistent color. On one walnut job we did, we actually bleached and then stained the wood with a walnut dye back to look like natural walnut; expensive, but it worked well. The point is that woods have a lot of natural variations. Veneers are cut out of the choicest logs and will all match in color and grain since one log can do the whole kitchen. Almost all kitchens that have a sleek, contemporary architectural look are done in veneers. This leads to Style: Solid lumber will naturally want to expand and contract as ambient moisture changes and temperature varies. Thus, whenever a kitchen is designed with solid lumber doors, it is designed with a “frame and panel” type door which allows the lumber to expand and contract within the confined space of the frame which also helps control warping. Stylistically frame and panel doors have a traditional feel—even the most clean and contemporary versions. This is because the frame around the doors accentuates each door and drawer as the grain wraps around. It is this “busyness” that gives it the more traditional feel. If the frame is eliminated, the doors become very unstable and the reveals between each door need to be enlarged so the doors don’t bind.
Cost: A quality frame and panel door job in a premium material that is “color and grain matched” will add significantly to the cost (for the kitchen only, this added cost will be about $4,000 or so assuming no stain and a clear finish only.) If you want solid lumber without a frame and panel configuration (a.k.a. “lumber slab”), it will cost even more and comes with serious disclaimers on stability and performance.
Performance: The solid lumber option without a frame is something we will provide only if we are forced to do so; but we would strongly advise against this option. It is prone to severe warping. Also, the exposed end grain looks unfinished and is vulnerable to water issues. Lastly, the wood grain lay-up on the “lumber slabs” looks very “country” since the material takes on a bit of a “hodge-podge” appearance. The frame and panel doors perform well over time with the only issues faced being that they are vulnerable to water and dirt at the joint between frame and panel. This joint must be free to move as the lumber panel expands and contracts, thus it can’t be caulked or sealed. Otherwise, if the cabinets are going to be subjected to severe abuse, a lumber frame and panel will probably hold up best over time with refinishing being required periodically. Veneer doors have the greatest stability and when sealed with a quality finish, will remain stable and true for their life. However, if they are subjected to severe abuse and the finish is compromised near wet areas, they can begin to fail. However, abuse and poor maintenance are not the fault of the cabinets; it is the fault of the owner.
Maintenance: All cabinetry should be cared for and maintained. Whether it is solid lumber or veneer, if water gets at the material it will stain and degrade the material. Lumber will typically stain but not loose integrity, while veneers are more prone to loose integrity if the problem is not corrected in time. However, the veneers we use are custom made on a water resistant MDF core using water resistant glues. The combination of these unusual precautions results in a product that is able to resist prolonged poor maintenance and still refinish well. As far as chipping and flaking, the veneers will only do this if they are subjected to extreme abuse and poor maintenance. In the most extreme case, the doors and drawer fronts can simply be replaced. Although this sounds extreme, it is actually not that difficult to do and since all the cabinets are made with plywood they will last a very long time and door replacement will yield effectively new cabinets. HOWEVER, the most important thing for all options is maintaining a reasonable level of care for your cabinets. The most important thing you can do is avoidance: don’t let water saturate them; don’t beat and bash them; don’t let kids or animals scratch and gouge them. On the positive side you should keep the cabinets clean and dry and periodically examine them for finish failures. If the finish is compromised, address it sooner than later and you won’t have serious degradation. The real lesson is don’t beat the crap out of your cabinets and they’ll be fine—otherwise you will have cabinets that look they have been beat to crap (no duh…)
So what is my recommendation? I personally believe that it comes down to looks; if you want the clean architectural look of grain matched slab, go with the veneer. If you want the more traditional look of the frame and panel doors, go with that. The performance difference will not be significant between the two unless you are abusive, in which case, the lumber may survive a bit better; but both will look crappy with time and be expensive to repair or replace. The “lumber slabs” will look the worst, perform the worst and cost the most so I would not recommend them at all. I would make my choice based on aesthetics first and cost second. This is about all I have to say on the subject.
Please let me know if you have any questions,


Abacus Group Builders, Inc.
PO Box 746
Corte Madera, CA 94976
Ph. 415-927-0667

After reading and re-reading Chas’ answer… we went with the veneer, and eventually went with wenge instead of walnut for the wood choice. We were going for a very clean and modern look, and decided that for us, it was time to overcome our veneer-a-phobia (wonder if that’s a real sickness?) Be sure to check back in a few months. When the project is finally done and I’m all moved in, I’ll be sure to post some pictures so you can see how great they came out! 🙂
And by the way… if you do decide to give Jane Woodman (our designer)or Chas Voorhis of Abacus Groub Builders a call, let them know you found them on my blog!!!