Wood For Kitchen Cabinets


Okay, so, what is the best wood for kitchen cabinets?  Well, the short answer is red oak, but, it also depends on what style, look, and feel you want.


I initially say oak, because working in the cabinet industry for over 15 years, we found out real quick that oak is the most durable and easiest wood to stain and finish (and believe it or not, the least expensive - at least in the United States). 

It is porous enough to take stain and finish well, while being just hard enough to resist dents, dings, and breaks. 

Just like the classic fairy tale Goldie Locks and the Three Bears, a wood like hickory that is much harder than oak is actually too hard - it splits very easily.  Something you need to know if you are building cabinets, although hickory cabinets are beautiful.  A wood like pine is way too soft - not good if you have children or if you are like most of us and your cabinets will be used and abused.  It dents and dings very easily.

Yes indeed, red oak is not too hard and not too soft. . . it is juuuuust right.

It is also the most forgiving wood, i.e. if you make mistakes such as leaving smudges while staining, or scratch it, those mistakes are don't show as much as any other wood, and any mistakes that you do make are usually easily fixed.

So, to sum it up, red oak is the best wood for kitchen cabinets because it's:

  • Strong - Durable
  • Cost effective
  • Takes stains and finishes well
  • Can be featured in your kitchen in it's natural color, or stained any number of hues and colors from the very light to dark enough to look almost like cherry, or even black.
  • A forgiving wood that lets you fix mistakes relatively easily.


If you do a little research, or you visit some of Europe's beautiful castles and mansions (like I was able to in 1999 - Neuschwanstein in Barvaria pictured at right), you will discover that oak was also the wood of kings, and definitely not the least expensive wood to use at the time.  There is a reason for that.  It is a beautiful, elegant, and long-lasting wood.

For the record, my husband's great-great-grandfather was a royal cabinetmaker for Belgium's King Leopold II. (strange  - or maybe not so strange - generations later, my husband and I owned our own custom cabinet shop and created this website:-).

That being said, you may consider another wood as the best wood for kitchen cabinets for any number of reasons.


What if you want to paint your cabinets?  Then, you usually do not want oak. WHY?  Again, oak is porous, and the pores will show through on your paint job - yuck.

For painting, choose a "paint grade" birch (you could use pine, but again, it's soft, and it's sap may cause you problems when painting - like you'll have to seal it better or put more coats of paint on it, and the sap could still show through). 


  • It's density is just right when it comes to paint.  It's pores are tight.  This means you'll have a smooth paint job.
  • It is cost effective.  Birch is known as "poor man's maple".  It is almost indistinguishable from maple and it's qualities are very similar, but it is lots cheaper.
  • Paint grade doesn't have to be used, but it is less expensive than regular birch or maple.
  • It's a strong, durable wood that will hold up well over time in your kitchen or bath.



If you want a very warm look, that will become richer and darker over time, cherry is a wonderful choice, and can be the best wood for your kitchen cabinets.  Cherry is a bit soft, and has some characteristics of pine.  The photo at right is a cherry island with fluted 45 degree corners, end access door, solid brass Amerock knobs, and granite top.

We've found that if you stain cherry, you could just as well have skipped the staining, save some money and elbow grease, wait a few years, and you'll have the same color as if you had stained it.  It ages that fast.  As a mater of fact, if you have two pieces of cherry, one on top of the other, you'll soon see the one exposed to light and air will be darker, even in a matter of days, than the piece less exposed to light and air.

Don't be surprised that real cherry has streaks.  It will have light and dark areas.  That is a natural part of the wood.  If you purchase factory cabinets that use heavy stains or glazes, those light areas will be covered up and what you'll be seeing is the finish, not the natural wood.  This maybe what you want, but don't be surprised if you go to a custom cabinet shop and see their samples of cherry have light areas.


Maple is a beautiful, wonderful, durable wood.  In my opinion it is the most beautiful when the natural beauty of the wood is allowed to come forth.  You do this by clear coating, or clear finishing the cabinet, without a stain.  If you don't stain your wood, it saves you time and money too.  We built the maple vanity at right.  It has shaker style doors and drawers with Amerock chrome pulls, or "bins".

For maple's simplicity and beauty, it could easily be considered the best wood for kitchen cabinets on looks alone.

If you decide to stain maple yourself, be sure to use a wood conditioner just as you would with pine, because it does get splotchy, but can look elegant and a bit antiqued if stained.

Factory maple that has been stained usually won't look as splotchy because their finishes are so colored and thick, for instance a glaze may be used.  That color is actually on top of the wood, not in it.  Because the color is on top, it doesn't soak into the wood's pores, so it doesn't cause splotches.


Hickory is a wood that you will want a natural finish on.  Regular hickory has beautiful lights and darks, actually extreme lights and darks.  You don't want to cover or blend those extremes together.  Hickory is prized for it's unique and irregular color combinations.  It can be the best wood for kitchen cabinets if you like the unique look of hickory.  It is extremely durable as well.

The kitchen at right is one we built and installed.  It is rustic hickory with a clear finish, and tongue and groove doors.

Because hickory is such a hard wood, any finish put on hickory is actually riding on the outside of it.  Very little seeps into the wood.  This demands a bit of extra care.  Try not to let any water sit on the wood, and do use handles or knobs to ensure you don't wear finishes off prematurely.

REAL WORLD EXPERIENCE:  Hickory heartwood is also sometimes called pecan.  Don't let your cabinet sales person fool you (or their ignorance mislead you).  Cabinets aren't made out of pecan trees (unless it is a specialty item in a custom cabinet shop that may, I stress may, have access to pecan trees - very rare).

Hickory heartwood (pecan) is a beautiful warm, brown color.  It will be more expensive than regular hickory, but not thousands more. And, it might just be your best wood for kitchen cabinets.


  • If you decide to stain wood, other than red oak, you may need to apply a wood conditioner to even out the absorption of the stain by the wood.  A few woods that need wood conditioners are pine, cherry, maple, and fir, to name a few.
  • Also remember, as with any wood (more so if you don't opt for red oak) use a good, hard finish.  A good polyurethane, lacquer, or catalyzed varnish on your cabinetry will do the trick.  Perhaps add an extra coat or two of finish as well.
  • If you want a look that is unique and a bit rustic, remember all the woods come in rustic, meaning you can get them with knots (and yes, surprisingly, it is usually more expensive to get your cabinets this way).  Don't accept knots that aren't solid.  And, just as in fine granite countertops where no two pieces are the same, be prepared to be pleasantly surprised by a rustic kitchen's unique style and look. It might just be your best wood for kitchen cabinets.   Click here to link from Wood for Kitchen Cabinets page to our Rustic Kitchen Cabinet page for more information about rustic kitchen cabinets.

And remember, the best wood for kitchen cabinets is the wood that you are happy with and enjoy.


Return to Kitchen Cabinet Idea page from Wood for Kitchen Cabinets.


Cabinet Finishes
Information about cabinet finishes with links to further finish sites.

Kitchen Cabinet Ideas
You can't Afford to miss this (if you want to save some money) - 20 savvy things to consider BEFORE you buy.

Kitchen Cabinet Finishing and Refinishing
Info about finishing and refinishing with links to staining and finishes.

Knotty Pine Kitchen Cabinets
Pros and cons of knotty pine kitchen cabinets and use of knotty pine as an accent throughout your home.

Staining Kitchen Cabinets
A nice how-to guide.


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