Quarter-Inch Plywood for Cabinet Backs

Cabinetmakers discuss whether it's wise to economize by using quarter-inch plywood and a stiffening strip for cabinet backs, rather than half-inch or three-quarter-inch material. July 5, 2006

In my last two kitchens, due to price increases, I've been using a modified back. Normally I use 1/2" glued and stapled flush. I still use 1/2" on uppers, but on the lowers I've switched to 1/4" with a glued 1/4" nailer applied on the outside of the back - similar to putting a traditional 3/4" nailer on the outside. This provides a 5" section where a screw won't pull thru.

My plywood costs are getting out of control - $45/sheet 1/2" bare maple, $55 1/2" prefinished maple. The 1/2" prices are approaching my 3/4" prices. I can get away with the 1/4" prefinished on the lowers with the glued on nailer. I'm curious if anyone else uses this method. It seems like a real money saver. I cut my backs 5" taller and then rip the extra 5" off and staple/glue it right over the back.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor A:
As a standard, we use 1/4" backs dadoed in with 1/2" nailers on the back side. I guess the 1/4" would work the way you describe it as long as the nailer is glued. It sounds like you need a new supplier. What part of the country are you in?

From contributor B:
Your prices sound really high to me too! A good $10 a sheet.

From contributor C:
First off, if you are being charged more for plywood, pass this increase off to the customer. The difference in price, which can't add up to more than a couple hundred per kitchen, shouldn't cost you a deal, so don't pay for it for the customer. If you do, it's coming out of your pocket. Besides, it becomes harder to distinguish a custom product, from stock product, when you water down the materials.

In any case, we tried this years ago and found that it ended up costing us money, once we looked at the separate storage, cut-off sorting, additional cuts for the nailers, etc. It was costing us more in processing than having all one size. Not to mention, it became a royal pain. Also, if you order less sheets of the 1/2" to order the 1/4", depending on your supplier, it might affect what you are getting the 1/2" for. Instead, use it as a negotiating tool with your supplier. They make more on the 1/2", so tell him what you are considering, which would generate less revenue for the distributor and less commission for the rep, and tell him you would rather continue ordering the 1/2", and he might generate a discount. Don't ask if he'll discount it, but how much of a discount if you continue ordering the 1/2", instead of reducing the 1/2" order, in favor of the 1/4". You never know until you ask. In our case, we stock only 3/4", as anything we make with 1/2", we can make with 3/4". Itís easier on ordering, stocking, etc., plus it's one more distinguishing factor for the customer.

From contributor D:
I went from 1/4 backs to at least 1/2 or usually 3/4. We use the backs to square it all up and 1/4 just doesnít cut it. Right now cost is not prohibitive (we always suggest melamine for boxes). If they have to be wood then we use a rotary cut and 1/2" for the backs. The only exception for any of these scenarios is the case of glass door uppers - then we have to match the doors and sides, 1/2" plain cut.

From contributor E:
We use 3/4" prefinished for everything - in unit quantities it's about the same as 1/2" - saves stocking and waste in a small shop, and, with a handful of confirmats, you've got something that's pretty much bulletproof! If you're going to add a nailer, probably using 1/2" is a better idea. Around here, the 1/4" material doesn't seem to have a lot of structural integrity.

From contributor F:
Do you even need a nailer with a 1/2" back?

From contributor E:
Sorry, I wasn't clear - I meant to suggest using a 1/2" nailer over 1/4" back as opposed to just doubling up the 1/4". With a 1/2" back one a nailer isn't needed - that's the way we did it for years until I got tired of having a corner full of 17" rips of 1/2" that never got used.

From contributor G:
I've been building a few tract homes for a builder. For his price range I've been using 3/4" Melamine at just a tad under $20 a sheet. I was told thereís a major price increase coming soon, and he's been unable to lock prices down for his big customers. The increase is something like 20% and fairly soon.

I did see a new Ultra Light Plywood that was developed for the high end RV manufacturing trade, 3/4" Luan looking like stuff for $29 a sheet. It looks like a 9 ply, very flat, no defects, and the 1/2" is $27. Normally I use 3/4" Maple ply (C-3) at $40 a sheet, but this stuff looks great, and those few Melamine jobs are so heavy. I might go with this new stuff. I'll go for the new ultra strong, ultra light stuff and save my back, and at $10 a sheet savings thereís not much argument. Besides customers like the fact it's new, high tech (sort of) and it was made for million dollar RV's. I didn't catch the name of this stuff, but I do have samples and it's in stock, and easy to get around here. Emerson Hardwoods out of Oregon carries it.

From contributor E:
Around here we're offered 9-ply Okome ply in the low-mid $20s/sheet that has a luan look to it. Itís absolute garbage. It has lots of thickness variation, delamination, dimensional instability, tension. On the other hand, it is light and cheap (as opposed to, say, inexpensive).You might want to take a gander at the casework in an expensive RV before using it as some sort of marketing yardstick. We're fighting the increase in material pricing like everyone else, but I'm finding that we're better off using high-quality material. Cutting around defects, trying to keep sizing accurate, and wasting time making judgment calls on when, where, or if to use a particular piece eats profit way faster than the material costs. One delamination in a finished, installed piece (why is it they're unnoticeable before the countertop goes on?) more than reflects the cost difference between a unit of good versus marginal material.

Somebody way smarter than me had the saying "when you buy the best you only cry once"!

From contributor H:
I have to agree with contributor C in that if your materials go up, so do your prices. One thing you can count on is that materials will continue to go up. They will never start getting cheaper. If you keep making your cabinets from cheaper materials what will you be building with twenty years?

I don't do a huge volume and as such I pay much more than you. The kitchen I am building now cost me about $68 a sheet for 3/4" and $69 for 1/2" all prefinished 2 good sides. The 3/4" is less than the 1/2" b/c I bought a full bunk. My costs for building stay the same. It seems like you would lose the cost advantage of 1/4" ply by extra labor in cutting and assembling the nailing strips?

And how much is the additional cost for the whole kitchen? If prices go up $10 a sheet for the 1/2" and you use say 6 - 10 sheets for a kitchen, that's $60 - $100 for a $10-20k job. If I am bidding a kitchen at $14,300 or $14,370 I don't think it's going to make or break my chances of getting it. Things cost what they cost, and I try to build quality at a good value to the client. I'll use a less expensive slide, say a 3/4 extension instead of the full extension to save the client money, but I won't reduce overall quality.