Consumers Need To Know: Composite Wood Based Cabinetry in the Garage
June 27, 2016
Customers who are also considering wood cabinetry for their garage often ask for my professional opinion on what I think of wood-based storage cabinets.
Before I answer their question, there a few details that are helpful to know to better understand what priorities are most important to them arriving
at a decision that is the best fit to match their space needs, storage needs and budgetary expectations.
Some of the background that is important to understand, include: Where do they live? Is the garage climate controlled for temperature and humidity?
Will the cabinets be storing heavy or bulky items? If so, how important is durability? Is it a working garage? Is price the single most important
Your intended use of the cabinetry, your expectations for their performance, as well as your preferences for style, color and finish will influence your decision on what you will purchase. If long-term durability and trouble-free performance is important, material selection is the single most important consideration. In the case of wood cabinetry, there are several strengths and limitations that will determine whether or not they are a fit for your garage.
Kitchen, Bath or Closet Cabinetry in the Garage?
Having spent a number of years with a large industrial timber and lumber company, I have a deep reverence for the beauty of wood. Increasingly, I am
witnessing wood-based cabinets that would normally be used in a kitchen or closet, being re-marketed for use in the garage, particularly at the
luxury end of the market.
Yet, unlike the kitchen, bath, or closet, the garage is a very harsh environment. Garage cabinetry is subject to use and conditions not present inside the home. Garage cabinetry must:
- Store heavy items such as tools, sporting goods, gardening equipment, paint cans, large plastic totes and boxes, and countless other over-sized bulky items that are often heavy.
- Be durable enough so that they are not easily scratched or dented.
- Resist contact with automobile fluids, chemicals, cleaners, paint, and other items, some of which can be hazardous, that are commonly stored in the garage.
- Hold up to the extreme fluctuations in temperature and humidity that can cause failure of wood-based cabinetry over a short span of time.
Admittedly, wood cabinets look beautiful. They make a logical visual transition from the garage into the interior of the home, which is the way they are marketed. And, while wood-based cabinets offer consumers the flexibility of nearly unlimited size options and appearance packages, I have strong reservations about their performance, which have never been designed or built for use in the harsher garage environment. Wood laminate cabinets are highly susceptible to scratches, chips, burns, and stains and can warp if exposed to excessive moisture and humidity. More importantly, they were not engineered to handle the extreme weight loads that garage organization and storage demands.
Despite price or reputation, even some of the finest wood cabinetry brands contain components that are not well suited for un-tempered environments. A closer look at wood materials will help explain why.
Composite Wood-based Panel Products
Many consumers are unfamiliar with the material from which wood cabinetry is manufactured today. The majority of wood-based cabinetry being marketed and sold into the garage is constructed of panels made from wood fiber, either industrial particleboard or medium-density fiberboard (MDF), both of which are man-man alternatives to real (solid) wood. These products are made by blending scrap wood particles or fibers with glues or resins (some of which contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen) that are compressed under high heat and pressure to form large sheets. These sheet surfaces are then covered with melamine (a resin-impregnated paper), a vinyl sheet, high-pressure laminate, veneer or painted.
These composite panel are also used for the cabinet box components, but are frequently used for the doors, drawer fronts and drawers. Some manufactures offer doors, drawer and drawer fronts that may be constructed from solid wood as a premium option.
One of the key benefits of wood-based panel products is their relative low price, when compared to metal cabinetry for instance. Melamine covered particleboard is easily machined and can be shipped in a flat pack, ready for assembly by the installer or consumer.
Some Tradeoffs to Consider
While wood composite based products are generally affordable, there are some major trade-offs. First, particleboard and MDF panels are not waterproof, which can be a major issue for homeowners who live in a high-humidity environment, where composite wood based panel products can absorb ambient moisture in the air.
Particleboard and MDF will absorb water through contact with damp or wet surfaces like concrete floors. Water spills, particularly around cabinet joints or unsealed edges can be absorbed, cause swelling, lead to delamination of the melamine, laminate or paint from the substrate and weaken the joints and in some cases, which could lead to failure of the assembly. Once delamination occurs to the surface of a composite wood based cabinet it can be rendered unsuitable for use and must be repaired or replaced.
While both industrial particleboard and MDF can be manufactured with ‘moisture resistant’ formulations, few manufacturers use them. Ask your supplier to provide you with a material specification sheet to verify that the cabinets you are considering are moisture resistant. That said, if your space
is not air-conditioned and you live in a humid environment, composite wood based cabinetry might not be the best choice for lasting beauty and
Generally speaking, composite wood-based cabinetry does not possess the characteristics for strength, load bearing and moisture resistance of metal.
Cabinet and door surfaces simply do not possess the resistance to impact and abrasion compared to metal.
In terms of its structural integrity, a wood-based cabinet is a much weaker assembly incapable of holding weights carried by metal cabinetry and are
less rigid than their metal equivalent and are more prone to failure. How much weight-load a cabinet is capable of handling is an indicator of
its strength and durability. The average maximum weight load of a wood-based cabinet shelf is 90lbs and 75lbs in drawers. By comparison, the standard minimum weight-load capacity for all VAULT® cabinets are 400lbs on shelves and 225lbs within drawers.
In a working garage, wood drawer boxes and glides are generally of a much lower load rating than their metal counterpart. The durability, cleanability
and resistance to oil, grease and solvents are generally lower with a wood-based drawer box than with metal. It is for these reasons why you will
seldom find wood based cabinets or tool chests in a professional mechanics garage and why no major manufacturer markets wood-based cabinets to
So, in evaluating a composite wood cabinetry versus metal, these are a few characteristics to remember. If quality, durability and reliable performance
over the long haul are your high on your list, a wood based cabinet for your garage might not be your best option; however, they can provide an
economical, low-cost storage, short-term alternative to storage solutions.
This article was written by Chad Haas, founder of VAULT®.
Note: All VAULT® products are manufactured in the United States in an ISO 9001 certified factory.