Wood kitchen cabinets are built to last—here’s what to know about all the different options out there.

By Lauren Phillips
January 15, 2019
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Kitchen trends change, kitchen color schemes come and go, and preferences for kitchen tile backsplash ideas shift, but wood kitchen cabinets remain a tried-and-true look for cookspaces everywhere. Whether they’re part of a new construction or they’re replacing outdated or damaged kitchen cabinets, wood kitchen cabinets are a trustworthy pick—though going with wood cabinets requires choosing a type of wood, and that may be a bigger challenge than even picking a kitchen cabinet paint color.

It all depends on the look you want the kitchen to have, says Dave Murphy, national technical director at N-Hance Wood Refinishing. With wood kitchen cabinets, the two primary styles are a stained look that puts the grain of the wood on display and a smooth, painted surface. Any type of wood cabinet will last decades, as long as they’re well-built and the wood quality is good. Plus, unlike laminate cabinets, wood cabinets can be refinished and painted to suit new trends.

Walnut, alder, oak, hickory, and cherry

Wood materials with a lot of character and texture are best for the stained, more organic look. Murphy says walnut, alder, oak, and hickory all work; cherry and Brazilian cherry are also good options.

Stained wood cabinets have unique patterns and wood grains, so every kitchen will look a little different, even if the cabinet materials are the same. Hickory and alder are used often now, Murphy says, though alder has been the most popular wood cabinet material for 15 years or so. Before that, oak was the top choice; oak is also one of the easiest to work with, he says.

Maple

“If you want to paint [the cabinets], you want to go with what’s called a paint-grade, and that’s going to be maple,” Murphy says. “You can’t feel or see the texture of maple.”

Maple has a small grain, which makes it great for smooth, painted kitchen cabinets of any color. Some maples are called soft maples, Murphy says, and they tend to be more affordable than standard maple cabinets, though they’re still a solid pick for kitchen cabinets.

Poplar and pine

Poplar and pine are what Murphy calls economy selections for wood kitchen cabinets. Poplar is light and doesn’t hold up quite as well as other options, he says, and pine has a soft look to it. Still, either may be a more affordable pick if the kitchen budget is tight.

The durability of wood kitchen cabinets is excellent for sustainability, but not so great for keeping up with quickly moving trends (if that’s even a priority at all). Fortunately, giving already-painted cabinets (often maple) a new coat of paint isn’t too difficult, and even those textured, stained wood kitchen cabinets can be painted a new color, even white.

“You’ll have to do some extra work,” Murphy says. Any knots or whirls in the material will need to be filled before they’re painted over—not too difficult.

Right now, painted cabinets—especially those painted white or light gray—are most popular, Murphy says, but he expects another trend shift soon enough. “It won’t be long before we go back to the traditional, nice cherry or walnut, when you’ll see the wood grain,” he says.