Common Characteristics and Wood Species Used In Kitchen Cabinets

To help you strike the perfect balance between style and structural support when choosing your cabinets, here’s a rundown of the most common cabinetry materials.

Cabinets That Stand the Test of Time

Quality cabinet makers create classic, sophisticated, cabinets using select hardwoods and veneers. The cabinets are built to stand the test of time, and the unique beauty of each variety of hardwood emerges as the cabinet is crafted, joined, and finished. The end result is attractive variations in color and grain. If you prefer a more uniform look, paints and stains give a more consistent appearance. Here, we’ll talk about the most popular wood choices and then discuss common natural characteristics the woods share.

Top Cabinet Woods

  • Oak, by far the most common wood used for solid wood cabinets, has a strong “flower” grain that comes through just about any color stain. If you want a less red look, use white oak. If you prefer red oak, choose a stain in the dark brown range. A cherry stain enhances the natural color of red oak.
  • Pine is the only softwood commonly used for cabinets. The pale yellow wood often features knots and looks beautiful distressed or antiqued. You’ll often find it used in English, French, and American country settings. Eastern and Western white pine are used in select semi-custom lines.
  • Cherry is hard enough to withstand knocks and marring. This elegant wood is used primarily for formal cabinets with raised panels such as the French or English style. Cherry’s design versatility can give a kitchen a contemporary personality.
  • Hickory, lighter than oak, is similar in grain pattern and strength. Because it’s a more rustic style, it’s rarely chosen for custom and semi-custom cabinetry.
  • Birch is a very pale and durable fine-grain wood that takes stain well. It’s often used for contemporary cabinets and raised and recessed panel doors.
  • Ash, similar in strength and durability to oak, has a lighter color and very little graining. It’s often used in cabinet interiors and takes stains well.
  • Hard maple is a light, fine-grain wood that can be stained but is often dressed with a natural finish to achieve a light, contemporary look.

Common Natural Characteristics

Wood lends a natural warmth and texture that’s a welcome contrast to modern appliances and tiling. All woods have defining characteristics that contribute to their beauty and those “imperfections” can be highlighted by stains and glazes.

  • Bird pecks are small marks in the grain pattern caused by – you guessed it – pecking birds.
  • Burls are swirls or twists in the grain of the wood that doesn’t contain a knot.
  • Gum streaks are mineral-like flashes of color that occur only in cherry.
  • Heartwood is the mature, darker wood that extends from the sapwood to the pith.
  • Mineral streaks of color range from olive to blackish brown and usually follow the grain pattern.
  • Sapwood is the lighter color parts that grow from inside the bark to the heartwood.
  • Sound knots are solid across their face and show no indication of decay.
  • Sugar tracks are yellowish to dark brown streaks that run throughout the wood.
  • Wormholes are small holes that range in size up to 1/16 of an inch.

How to Choose

How do you choose between custom, semi-custom, or stock cabinets? Since families spend a large portion of their time in the kitchen, it makes sense to buy the most durable cabinets your budget will allow. Custom cabinets tend to last longer and come with a longer warranty, but you can also opt for a mix of all three types, using custom cabinets for hard-to-fit areas or as focal pieces.

The wood your cabinets are made of affects how they look and how they’ll stand up to use through the years. Most cabinets are made from hardwoods, but for cost-saving reasons, the woods are often applied as veneers over another layer, or substrate, such as plywood.


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