A reader asks about alder cabinets

I LOVE the look of Alder wood cabinets.  But I am concerned with the
softness of the wood. How durable are the cabinets?  Our children are
grown.  But someday there may be grand-children! 


You know what? I love alder too.

In this case, we'll refer to Red Alder, or alnus rubra, which grows on the West Coast from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. I joke that even though it's a hardwood, on scale of low to high with low being the softest, it's clinging by its leaves.

On the Janka hardness test , which the flooring industry uses to define wood hardness, it's rated about 580-600. This rates it stronger than Eastern White Pine (380) which was used for masts for the British Navy in the 1800s, about the same as Douglas Fir (510-660), used for house framing, and half the hardness of Northern Red Oak (1290), used for cabinetry and furniture.

Even though we're not using it on the floors, it still means it can and will ding easier than other woods, like the old pine dresser, or the dining room sideboard. Bump the door with the edge of your vacuum cleaner and you may leave a mark, but it's not so soft it'll ding if you crack your elbow on the pantry door. What you have to decide is what your level of comfort is.

Softness aside, here are some very good reasons for selecting alder wood:

1. If you want to be green, here you go.

Alder is the bamboo of the Left Coast, growing at something like 6 feet a year (which, as a side note, makes it an excellent burn reforestation tree.) It's our wood, locally grown, reducing the steps from forest to home. I laughed reading the Wiki inclusion that said foresters devalued as a
"trash tree" because it grew like a weed. It's true! (But I don't think they're laughing anymore, unless it's when they're counting their money.)

2. It's simply a beautiful wood, with  nice grain, and a good range of colors from white to a slight red to brown. From a woodworker's perspective, it's a dream: it takes a stain
beautifully, it's easy to work with, and it glues together in a snap. My dad loved it. He was manufacturing cabinets and furniture from red alder back in the mid-70's.

Ok, Ms. Mary, I'm going to show you what happened to our current Alder showroom display. Now for those of you playing along at home, showrooms get far more abuse than most kitchens ever will. There are
baby strollers, clients with tiles and sharp corners of granite,
contractors with toolbelts; the list goes on. Everyone said, "Oh, are you sure you want alder in a showroom? It'll get dinged up and you'll have to replace it in two years!"

No, I won't; here we are almost five years later. I can count six dings in this display, and I had to really search for three of them. Let me show you one that isn't touched up yet:  a box filler next to the dishwasher. Poor thing was completely defenseless against a vicious and completely unprovoked stroller attack *sniff*:

 Alder damage

If we get a chance to touch it up, I'll add the "after" picture so you can see. In the meantime, here's a drawer bank and a door with the dings touched up. Can you spot them?

Alder cabinets 

Sorry, trick question. I can't spot them either. It's part of that "takes a stain beautifully" that I was talking about earlier.

Sometimes it doesn't matter what wood you select; nothing is going to withstand a carving knife or cast iron
skillet falling on it. Might never happen, but if it does? Cabinet doors and drawers fronts can be re-ordered.

Much as I love my family, I'm not sure I'd sacrifice my home selections
they *might* (and heavy on the word *might*) damage it one day.
Obviously if the future grandchildren come over and beat your cabinets
to pieces, you'll have a bigger problem than one small kitchen
designer can help you with. 😉

My Italian friends believe a room is defined by the characteristics and imperfections. "So what?"
they say. "That's the spot from the party in 2006 when we danced until 3 and Pascal
got carried away with the wine bottle. That's life."

And that's my two cents for the day.

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