Plywood kitchens: what you need to know about this material

If the mere mention of plywood conjures up images of some dodgy shelves your dad knocked up in the garage during his DIY days, it’s time to think again. This is a material few woods can surpass, not only in terms of practicality and durability but because it’s also super chic.

For the unacquainted, plywood is an engineered product made of layers – three, five or more – which are laid on top of each other, with the grain on each sheet placed at a right angle to the one underneath it. These are then glued together, creating an incredibly strong, perfectly flat surface, and graded in terms of quality.

Blue kitchen with wood fluted wood panelling and white worktop and splash back
Kitchen company Husk coated the cabinet doors with Fenix laminate in Verde Brac, leaving exposed ply edges and  adding brass handles from Dowsing & Reynolds. Photography: Charlie O’Beirne.

An A-graded ply really is top dog, while a D-graded product is, well, for things like packaging or for building works, where it does the job in terms of strength, but will have flaws and knots visible on the surface and is not as pleasing to the eye. 

Light green kitchen with real wood detailing in a Scandi-inspired space with lots of natural light and big windows.
Semi-recessed handles contrast with pastel drawers in this stunning, airy kitchen by Plykea, a company that specialises in precision-cut, FSC-certified plywood doors for standard IKEA units.

There is a whole spectrum of products in the middle ground, graded between A and B. Then, there are thin, hardwood veneers, which are tougher and more consistent in their texture than other, less expensive woods.

Finally, there is a name you might have heard bandied about: marine ply. The adjective “marine” suggests that the wood is waterproof. However, no ply is waterproof unless it has been finished with a hefty sealant, but marine ply is a pretty tough cookie, made from hardwood veneers and waterproof glue. 

Biophilic kitchen design with exposed  plywood and green details. Plants hang from the ceiling and there are open shelves.
The detailing on the raw birchwood ply cupboard doors adds interest to this kitchen designed by The Main Company

Plywood kitchen cabinets

If you are planning to have cabinets with a natural finish, then you can really pimp your ply by choosing a straightforward board that has had a decorative veneer added to the top, for an extra touch of glamour. In this case, walnut, maple and beech look better than some other woods because they tend to have a more even colour and grain, but Scandi-style pale woods are ever popular and very eco-friendly.   

Central island with veiny worktops, sink and tap, and two chairs in a green kitchen.
London Plane plywood cabinets sit alongside contrasting units finished in Bonnington Green in this stylish design by Pluck Kitchens. Prices start from £20,000. Photography: Chris Snook.

This multi-purpose material is definitely a furniture maker’s best friend and George Glasier, the co-founder of Pluck Kitchens – a company that really flies the flag for ply – explains why: “We use birch plywood for all our carcasses as it’s a sustainable and durable material and thus works as a fantastic foundation for our cupboards. 

“What makes it so practical for kitchen furniture, as opposed to, say, MDF, is that it doesn’t ‘blow out’ – that is, expand like a sponge upon contact with water. As with any wood, sustained exposure to water would cause permanent damage, though we also use non-toxic finishes to enhance the natural water resistance.”

Kitchen larder and wine rack made from plywood using exposed wood and coloured fronts.
Project by London architects Ekford Chong. Photography: French+Tye.

One of the major style features of ply, particularly in, for example, a kitchen scheme, is that the edges of surface-mounted cabinet doors can be left bare, making a feature of the material’s many layers, even if the front of the cabinet itself is laminated. In other designs, the layers might be showcased through handles in the form of an integrated, cut-out hole, or even a straightforward ply cabinet handle.

Wood & Wire mixed pastel-fronted ply cabinetry to create a light, modern take on a 1950s look.

So, what about MDF? 

In many ways, MDF is such a versatile product. It is made from wood fibres, mixed with glue, water and paraffin wax, then pressed into solid sheets. The finish is perfectly smooth, gorgeous to paint and is ideal for making cabinets, skirting boards – anything really. There are some major factors to take into consideration, however.

Not all products comply with UK and European safety standards and some MDF contains unsafe levels of formaldehyde and other chemicals, which can cause severe respiratory and skin reactions. And, if that’s not enough, another major drawback of working with MDF is that moisture is capable of penetrating even the tiniest hole or break in the surface, causing it to “blow out” or swell up like a Weetabix. Once that’s happened, there’s no going back. 

Plywood fluted cabinets with open shelving.
Vertical ridges on these warm ply cabinets, by renovation experts Beams, add a layer of texture.

Plywood benefits

Extolling the material’s virtues further, Tim Warren an expert from adhesive specialist Adkwik, says: “Plywood can be stronger than solid wood of the same thickness. It is also less prone to warping and cracking. Additionally, it’s lightweight, so great for furniture that needs to be moved around frequently. Plus, it can be painted or stained, and compared with other woods, it’s much cheaper than solid timber.”

And if all that isn’t enough, Tim adds: “Most plywood is made from trees that are specifically grown to be used in this way – and it can be recycled when it is not needed any more.”

If you already have a perfectly good kitchen but yearn for an upgrade, there are inspiring companies that specialise in making gorgeous replacement plywood doors for existing carcases, and in a host of wood finishes and laminates.

So, what are you waiting for? It’s ply time!

Natural plywood kitchen with scandi-style details like minimalist handles and white worktop and splashback.
Uniform maple-faced plywood teamed with white worktops create a light and airy feel. Kitchen by Life of Ply

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