Maple vs. Oak, Cherry, and Birch Cabinets

Contemporary Kitchen Cabinets
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More than just utilitarian structures that store plates and towels, your cabinets contribute a lot to the ambiance of your kitchen and bath. Because the wood they’re made of influences their character and dependability, it’s one of the most important factors to consider when you choose new wood cabinets.

Maple offers a nearly unparalleled combination of durability, refined beauty, and reasonable cost, but other commonly used wood species have their own advantages. Distinctive oak, elegant cherry, and sleek birch are popular in cabinetry for a variety of reasons.

Maple Cabinets: Classic Simplicity

Maple Kitchen Cabinets
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Pros

Understated beauty – Maple is light in color with a reddish tint, ranging from pale blonde to light cinnamon. Its fine, even grain gives it a consistent appearance even across large surfaces and allows for the wood to be sanded to a smooth finish. Both factors make maple well suited to modern interiors where a rustic, coarse-grained wood might look out of place.

Durability – Maple stands up well to daily use in kitchens and bathrooms, where temperatures and humidity fluctuate considerably. It resists warping and cracking, and because it’s one of the hardest woods used in cabinetry, dropped pans and kids’ toys are unlikely to dent it.

Moderate price – A mid-priced hardwood, maple is typically less expensive than oak, cherry, and walnut, but more expensive than birch, hickory, and alder.

Availability – Maple trees are fairly fast growers that thrive in nearly all parts of the United States, helping to make the wood both low-cost and environmentally sustainable.

Cons

Staining limitations – Maple is relatively easy to stain, but it isn’t the easiest option. Dark stains, in particular, can come out blotchy.

Color changes – As maple ages, it takes on a yellowish cast that can make it look tired and worn. If exposed to long hours of direct sunlight, maple cabinets can become dull within just a few years.

Oak Cabinets: Traditional Warmth

Oak Kitchen Cabinets
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Pros

Earthy appearance – Oak’s clearly visible grain emphasizes its natural origins, making this wood a good fit for traditional and farmhouse-style kitchens. Both red and white oak is used in cabinetry, although red oak is more common. Despite its name and distinct red undertone, red oak is lighter in color than white oak. Both have defined grain patterns, but the grain of red oak is more prominent with wavy variations and knotholes.

Durability – Oak is one of the most durable woods used for cabinets. Its hardness and strength help it resist rot and warping in humid environments, as well as stave off scratches and dings.

Timeless appeal – Don’t let those cheaply made honey oak cabinets from the 1990s put you off. High-quality solid oak cabinets never really go out of style. Oak’s naturally neutral color goes with nearly any decor, and its uncommon grain patterns lend it a quiet dignity.

Reasonable price – Oak is moderately priced and less expensive than maple or cherry.

Cons

Potential for flaws – As they grow, oak trees sometimes develop mineral deposits that result in noticeable streaks of brown and yellow in their wood. Red oak’s variable grain and frequent defects might add interest, but they’re not something everyone finds attractive.

Uneven staining results – Oak’s porous surface means it stains well, but stain can also excessively darken the grain, making the cabinets look streaky.

High weight – As a particularly dense wood, oak is heavier than most other hardwoods. White oak is even heavier than red oak. The weight of this wood can make installing oak cabinets somewhat more difficult. On the plus side, oak’s density is a big part of what makes it so durable.

Cherry: Standout Appearance

Cherry Kitchen Cabinets
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Pros

Rich coloring – Cherry wood is loved for its natural reddish-brown color that’s hard to duplicate with stain. Cherry cabinets can warm up an otherwise pallid, lifeless room. If you want an even darker wood, cherry also takes dark stain better than maple and oak. Its grain is fine, yet distinct, so it’s perfect for those who appreciate the character of natural wood, but want to avoid anything too rustic. Like maple, cherry can be sanded to a high polish.

Widespread use – Because cherry is easy to shape, polish, and otherwise work with, it’s popular with cabinetmakers. If you decide to buy stock or semi-custom cabinets in cherry, you’ll have a wide variety to choose from.

Cons

Susceptibility to damage – Cherry is a bit softer than maple, oak, and birch, so it’s more susceptible to scratches and dents. Because of this, it’s not ideal if you have young kids who might be banging into the cabinets.

Unpredictable color changes – This wood darkens over time until it reaches its famous deep red hue, so there’s always some risk your cabinets will darken unevenly. The stain you choose affects how much your cherry cabinets darken, so you have some control over the change.

High cost – Cherry is one of the pricier hardwoods, although it still costs less than walnut and decidedly less than luxury woods such as teak and mahogany.

Birch Cabinets: Budget-friendly Beauty

Birch Kitchen Cabinets
Photo Credit: David Veno

Pros

Quiet grace – Birch sapwood is a pale beige while the heartwood is tinted with copper and is slightly darker than maple. When polished, birch takes on a satiny sheen. Its light color, fine grain, and smooth texture make birch a good choice for modern, minimalist homes.

Warp-resistance – Birch is one of the most warp-resistant woods, so moisture and temperature fluctuations are unlikely to cause problems for your cabinets.

Low cost – As an abundant, fast-growing tree, birch provides the lowest-cost hardwoods and also one of the most eco-friendly. The fact that it’s so easy to work with also keeps the cost of finished cabinets down.

Cons

Susceptibility to scratches – Somewhat softer than oak, birch cabinets are prone to scratching if treated or cleaned too roughly. Minor scratches easily blend in with the wood’s grain pattern, though.

Hard to stain – Staining birch is possible, but because some parts of this wood tend to be more porous than others, the results could turn out blotchy. What’s more, birch is even less accepting of dark stains than maple is.

Maple’s hard-wearing, classic beauty, and modest cost make it an all-around good choice for cabinets in both traditional and modern homes. Its naturally light color can brighten up a dark room, but because it stains well, it also gives you a range of options for color.

Other popular wood species might be better options when there’s a specific look and feel you want to create. For a warm, homey look, consider oak. If you love the elegance of dark cabinetry, cherry is ideal. If you’d prefer something with a simple, modern appearance or you’re just looking for budget-friendly wood cabinets, birch is the way to go.

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