As one of the most prominent features in your kitchen, the cabinets have a major influence on the room’s look and feel. While wood might be the traditional choice for kitchen cabinets, it’s not always ideal. Thermofoil gives you a budget-friendly alternative to wood that fits beautifully in a modern kitchen.
Thermofoil itself is a thin layer of PVC (vinyl). Despite the name, it doesn’t contain metal. To make thermofoil cabinets, a layer of thermofoil is applied to a substrate, typically medium-density fiberboard (MDF). The covered substrate is placed in a heated vacuum chamber that causes the thermofoil to fuse to the substrate.
This is different from laminate, which consists of a base of high-density fiberboard (HDF), a layer of printed paper, and a protective coating all treated with resin and pressed together. It’s also different from melamine, which is a plastic coating used on plywood and fiberboard.
Pros: Affordable and Easy to Find
With thermofoil cabinets, you can give your kitchen a trendy minimalist look for cheap, and you won’t be stuck with onerous maintenance requirements.
Low cost – Thermofoil cabinets are some of the least expensive you can find. Stock cabinets, which are sold with little to no customization options, can be found for less than $100 per linear foot. Semi-custom thermofoil cabinets will run you a little higher, and custom cabinets can be had for around $350 per linear foot. Compare this to custom hardwood cabinets, which will set you back at least $500 per linear foot.
Widespread availability – Most large home improvement stores have at least a few models of thermofoil cabinets available in both stock and semi-custom designs. You’ll most likely be limited to white or off-white slab-front designs, but you won’t have to wait to have them special ordered and shipped in. If you want new cabinets in your kitchen as soon as possible and you’re on a tight budget, thermofoil is a good choice.
Resistance to warping – Solid wood, especially in lower quality cabinets, has a tendency to warp when exposed to the high humidity levels common in kitchens. This happens because wood grain is naturally oriented in a certain direction. Because the fibers in MDF aren’t oriented in any one direction, the material holds its shape better in humid conditions. Thermofoil also resists humidity-related peeling and bubbling better than painted wood.
Ease of maintenance – The smooth vinyl surface of thermofoil cabinets resists the buildup of dust and grime, and what does stick is easily removed. Occasionally wiping down your thermofoil cabinets with a cloth dampened in soapy water is all you’ll need to do to keep your cabinets clean. Laminate cabinets have similar maintenance requirements. Wood cabinets, however, require more frequent and more careful cleaning.
Modern and on trend look – Thermofoil cabinets are most often available in white or off-white with simply designed fronts, so they’re a perfect fit for the current trend toward white, minimalist interiors. Choosing a glossy rather than a matte finish will give you even more contemporary appeal.
If a white kitchen isn’t your style, you can find these cabinets in a wide variety of colors. Thermofoil’s application process also means it can produce a surface that mimics wood grain more closely than laminate can.
Cons: Limited Design Options and Susceptibility to Damage
The typical thermofoil cabinet design is less than eye-catching, and the surface is likely to suffer noticeable wear within 10 years.
Plain and impersonal design – Thermofoil cabinets are most often made with slab (flat) fronts or with simple raised-panel or shaker-style fronts. If you’re looking for detailed moldings, trimwork, and other intricate features, solid wood is a better choice. Even with imitation wood grain, thermofoil cabinets have a plastic-like look that can feel out of place in a traditional kitchen. They’re not ideal for creating a warm, homey feeling.
Susceptibility to water damage – Thermofoil cabinets are water-resistant, but not waterproof. While they’re unlikely to warp, they can gradually deteriorate when exposed to repeated spills or high humidity. Scratches in the thermofoil layer can cause it to bubble and let moisture reach the fiberboard substrate, causing the substrate to degrade faster.
Susceptibility to heat damage – When exposed to high temperatures, thermofoil is likely to peel or blister. You’ll need to either keep it away from the oven and dishwasher or install a metal heat shield between the appliances and the cabinets. While a heat shield minimizes damage, it might not be able to prevent it entirely.
Unattractive aging – As white and off-white thermofoil ages, it takes on a dull yellow cast largely due to exposure to sunlight and heat. Letting grease buildup linger on the cabinet hastens this discoloration. Yellowing is less noticeable on colored cabinets, but it still happens. Once it appears, there’s no way to remove it.
Short lifespan – On average, thermofoil kitchen cabinets stay looking good for around 10 years, provided they’re properly maintained. This relatively short lifespan might not be a problem if you’re looking for something that’s trendy now and you plan to replace or upgrade your cabinets when styles change.
You can remove the old thermofoil and paint the MDF substrate to bring new life to yellowed or scratched-up cabinets, although this will change the look of the cabinets. In comparison, high-quality wood cabinets can last 50 years or longer.
If you’re looking for low-cost, trendy cabinets you can install right away, thermofoil cabinets are an excellent choice. Protect them from heat and clean up major spills quickly, and these cabinets will serve you well for the next decade. If you want a little more durability at a budget-friendly price, though, consider laminate cabinets.