Is Baltic Birch Plywood Good For Cabinets?
Originating from the Baltic region of Northern Europe, baltic birch plywood is a strong and durable wood that can be used for many different things.
One question people often have about it, though, is whether or not it a good choice of material for making cabinets.
For building cabinets, you’ll struggle to find a better option than baltic birch plywood in terms of strength, resistance to warping, and its ease of gluing, holding screws, and creating clean joints. It’s much lighter than MDF – although baltic birch plywood is about twice the price ($125 vs $60).
So, before you go and spend your hard-earned cash on one of the most expensive types of plywood out there, let’s figure out whether baltic birch is the right kind of plywood for your upcoming cabinet project.
Advantages of Baltic Birch Plywood for Cabinets
1. Increased Strength and Stability
There are two main types of ‘birch’ plywood available; plain old birch plywood, often referred to as veneer birch plywood, and baltic birch plywood.
The main difference between the two is quality, with baltic birch typically having twice the number of ‘plies’, or layers, as the conventional birch type.
The face veneers of baltic birch plywood are usually thicker, too – 1.5mm in most cases – which is around twice the thickness of that found on most standard types of US hardwood plywoods (these are usually around 1/30″ thick, although the faces on some varieties can be even thinner).
Sometimes referred to as ‘birch throughout plywood’, baltic birch plywood features layers that are all birch wood, instead of the cheaper inner layers or softwood or hardwood sandwiched between two outer layers of birch as found in conventional birch plywood.
Another advantage of baltic birch plywood is that it usually has far fewer voids than cheaper plywood types. As a result, there is a greater surface area for the glue between the various plies of the sheet and the gluing surface of two cut pieces to adhere to, increasing overall strength.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that using a greater quantity of thicker layers and a better quality material with fewer defects leads to a more robust and stable material that is ideal for cabinetry, especially in thicker sheets.
When combined with the altering grain pattern that comes from swapping the orientation of the layers in plywood, this leads to even greater strength and stability versus other types of plywood and other common cabinet materials like medium-density fiberboard, or MDF.
However, it’s important to remember that thinner sheets of baltic birch plywood can still be prone to bowing despite all of the above, especially in larger sections.
2. Better Screw Holding
The combination of using birch layers throughout (as opposed to a softer, cheaper secondary wood as found in some types of plywood) and thicker face veneers, in addition to baltic birch plywood’s largely void-free internal structure, makes for a very solid and stable platform for screws to bite into and grip against.
This is ideal for cabinets where screws are to be used instead of glue, for example, where disassembly or reassembly is required later, or where screws are to be used in addition to glue for added strength or for reducing the clamping time needed.
3. Better Quality Joinery
You’re probably sick of hearing about baltic birch plywood’s void-free properties.
You get it.
Aside from increasing overall strength and increasing the ‘bite’ of screws though, the lack of voids also goes a long way to improving the look and quality of various types of joint you may choose to use.
Suppose you’ve ever tried to cut dadoes, rabbets, fingers, or miters in cheaper-grade plywood. In that case, you’ll be sure to appreciate the fact that baltic birch better resists chipping and splintering to produce cleaner overall cuts.
Joints that not only look better, but that are stronger too due to increased glue coverage that will help your baltic birch plywood cabinets withstand the tests of time.
4. Better Quality Finish
Baltic birch plywood is available in a variety of grades ranging from B/BB to WG.
Looking at B/BB for a moment, the first ‘B’ refers to the face side (i.e. the side that will primarily be on-show), with a largely clean appearance and only minor natural defects like tiny knots being present.
The ‘BB’ refers to the other side of the sheet, which can feature large knots or color-matched patches.
B/BB provides the ideal platform for clear finishing where you want the pale, natural grain of the plywood to shine through, for example, by applying a clear coat of polyurethane or lacquer.
Clearly, better grades of baltic birch plywood will be more expensive (we’ve written an article explaining why baltic birch plywood is so expensive). Still, it’s good to have the option to buy largely defect-free material for cabinet carcasses or doors where a better quality finish is a priority and for situations where the grain will permanently be on display.
Where price is a concern, for example, on larger projects like an entire kitchen’s worth of cabinets, you can pair cheaper grades of baltic birch plywood with a decorative veneer. Provided knots and defects are filled and sanded beforehand, you should get a very good level of adhesion, and this can be a relatively quick and inexpensive way to improve the finish of less-than-perfect baltic birch.
5. Available In a Variety of Sizes/Thicknesses
Given its Baltic origin (Russia or Finland in most cases), baltic birch plywood typically comes in 5′ x 5′ (1525mm x 1525mm) sheets for the European market.
This is the most common size imported into the United States.
Some retailers also offer baltic birch plywood in 4′ x 8′ and even 5′ x 10′ sheets, although these can be much harder to find.
Like standard hardwood plywood, it’s available in a variety of thicknesses ranging from 1/8″ (3mm) to 1″ (25mm), making it hugely versatile and ideal for a variety of cabinet-related requirements like cabinet carcasses, cabinet doors, cabinet dividers, and drawer bottoms to name but a few.
Disadvantages of Baltic Birch Plywood for Cabinets
1. It’s Expensive
One of the major disadvantages of baltic birch plywood is cost.
It’s hardly surprising when you consider that not only is it a premium-quality project, but that you’ve got the transportation and import costs for getting it from Northern Europe to your local lumber yard to factor in, too.
The problem is that it isn’t just a little bit more expensive. Nope…a 3/4″, 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of baltic birch plywood can be over twice the price of MDF and over six times more costly than particleboard, as shown below.
|Approximate Cost (3/4", 4' x 8' Sheet)|
|Baltic Birch Plywood:||$125|
|White Oak Veneered Plywood:||$90|
For commercial projects, using baltic birch may be a relatively easy decision where the client is footing the bill.
For home projects, though, it might be that you’d prefer to sacrifice quality in favor of affordability by using a cheaper grade of baltic birch plywood or even MDF instead.
2. It Can Be Difficult to Source
Although it’s becoming more and more popular in the United States, baltic birch plywood isn’t as easy to find as many US-manufactured hardwood plywood alternatives.
Firstly, it needs to be imported into the United States (or wherever else you’re purchasing it). While this might not sound particularly complex, the size and weight of baltic birch plywood can restrict how much is transported/imported at a time, making it harder to find.
Not only that, but baltic birch is already a premium product with a premium wholesale price as a result, and the addition of transport costs and import duties only increases that cost further.
There’s a limit to how much people will be willing to spend on lumber that has a whole host of alternatives, and so a lumber yard stocking baltic birch plywood might not make sense from a business perspective if there’s little profit available.
For these reasons, baltic birch plywood may prove problematic to find for your next project.
3. Exposed Plywood Edges Can Be a Bit ‘Marmite’
Let’s talk about exposed plywood edges for a minute.
They’re a bit ‘Marmite’ in that you either love them or hate them.
If you’re firmly in the hate camp, it can be a hassle designing ways into your project to keep the internal layers hidden and only the exterior face grain on display.
You have a few options for hiding the edges, for example, applying edge-banding, using mitered edges, or building a face frame from the likes of poplar that you can paint or stain.
Whichever option you end up going for, it can require a lot more time and effort versus using the other go-to material for building cabinets, MDF.
Alternatives to Baltic Birch Plywood for Cabinets
Let’s look at two popular alternatives to baltic birch plywood for constructing cabinets:
Medium Density Fiberboard, or MDF, is similar to plywood in that it is classed as an ‘engineered wood’.
Whereas plywood contains multiple layers glued together, MDF is made from fine particles of broken-down hardwoods and softwoods mixed with wax and resin before being subjected to high temperature and pressure.
Both are popular choices for woodworkers the world over, but which is the better choice for your next cabinet project?
Let’s compare the two:
|Baltic Birch Plywood||MDF|
|Ease of Cutting:||3||4|
|Ease of Screwing Into:||4||2|
|Ease of Finishing:||3||3|
|Resistance to Moisture:||3||2|
|Issues From Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs):||3||2|
In summary, baltic birch plywood is stronger and lighter than MDF. It also has a natural grain that can be stained (whereas MDF has no grain and so would require painting), and it is also better at withstanding moisture.
MDF is easier to cut and route detailed profiles as it won’t split at the edges, although it will produce very harmful dust and so a respirator and goggles should be used as a minimum (we’d still recommend this for cutting plywood).
The various benefits and higher overall score of baltic birch plywood come at a price – unfortunately, it’s considerably more expensive than MDF.
Ultimately, suppose you’re building paint-grade cabinets, or you decide that the lower strength and extra weight associated with MDF aren’t major issues. In that case, you might decide that the increased cost of baltic birch plywood simply isn’t worth it.
The benefits versus cost are something that you’ll have to weigh up for each.
Should cost be a concern, and you don’t want to use MDF, you may wish to opt for a cheaper plywood alternative.
It could depend on where the cabinet will ultimately be used, with better quality baltic birch plywood perhaps being preferable for use in the kitchen or bathroom, especially if you’re only planning on doing a bit of sanding and applying a clear lacquer or polyurethane to keep the wood’s natural appearance.
For workshop or garage cabinets, however, cheaper-quality regular plywood could be OK, especially if you’re going to be spending time filling, sanding, and veneering the plywood to improve its appearance.
Here’s a comparison between the two:
|Baltic Birch Plywood||Hardwood Plywood|
|Ease of Cutting:||3||3|
|Ease of Screwing Into:||4||3|
|Ease of Finishing:||3||3|
|Resistance to Moisture:||3||3|
|Issues From Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs):||3||3|
It’s worth remembering that cheaper quality plywood won’t hold screws as well due to there being more voids between the layers, but this shouldn’t be a massive issue if you’re using wood glue as well on your cabinets.
The cabinets won’t be as strong either, so you might need to rely on thicker sheets of cheaper plywood to achieve the same levels of strength and rigidity that you would get with sheets of baltic birch plywood.
As with baltic birch plywood, the cheaper plywood won’t be waterproof even if it boasts the use of external-grade glue (here’s a helpful article where we cover what happens to plywood when it comes into contact with water).
Some form of sealing will be required, especially if the cabinet is likely to come into contact with water or is used to store liquids.
Baltic Birch Plywood for Cabinets – Our Verdict
As you can see, there are plenty of things to consider when it comes to using baltic birch plywood for cabinets.
Budget permitting – you’ll struggle to find a better option in terms of strength, appearance, and the quality of joinery you can achieve.
Yes, it’s expensive; it just is what it is. If your newly constructed cabinet ends up looking and performing better for longer versus a more cheaply-built alternative, though, well, surely that’s an investment that is worth making?
Having said that, if baltic birch plywood’s cost does turn out to be a major issue, we hope we’ve shown you that MDF and cheaper-quality plywood can still be a good option if you’re prepared to accept some minor sacrifices and spend a bit more time finishing.
If you have any particular questions or queries that you can’t find an answer to above, drop us a comment below, and we’ll do our best to get back to you as quickly as possible.
Thanks, and good luck with your project.