Take a walk through most furniture stores today and you'll see truckloads of furniture that appears to be beautifully finished hardwood—cherry, oak, maple, and many other varieties. However, if you take a closer look at any of these pieces, you may notice that it likely isn't made from hardwood at all. Instead, the piece is most likely made from a particle board core covered by a thin layer of quality hardwood veneer. Most of the most expensive manufactured furniture now uses at least some particle board or other manufactured wood product in its construction.
Why would furniture companies use a manufactured wood product simulated to look like hardwoods? The answer is simple. Manufactured wood products are far less expensive to buy than hardwoods. Furniture constructed by applying veneers over core carcass of manufactured wood can cost a fraction of what solid hardwood costs, making good furniture more affordable for a wide range of consumers.
Particle Board Composition
The term particle board—also known as particleboard, low-density fiberboard (LDF), or chipboard—is an engineered product containing wood chips, sawmill shavings, and sawdust, bound together into sheets with chemical resins and glues. From one point of view, it is an environmentally friendly product, since it is made with repurposed wood scraps rather than harvested timber.
Particle board is denser and heavier than nearly all forms of solid lumber, but it is not very strong or resistant to moisture. And it does not accept paint or stain very well. To combat these deficiencies, most particle board is covered with veneers glued onto the exterior surfaces made to look like the desired hardwood. To the untrained eye, a piece of furniture made from veneered particle board looks like a fine hardwood piece. Particle board can also be covered with veneers of plastic laminate or a thin printed photo layer that mimics the look of stained, finished wood.
The various types of engineered wood products are sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another. Particle board is typically defined as a product that uses relatively coarse wood chips pressed together in sheets with a fairly low density. Higher quality forms exist, such as MDF (medium-density fiberboard). Some experts regard MDF as an entirely different product than particle board, although the manufacturing process is very similar. MDF can be considered a premium form of particle board. It is the form of particle board used in high-end furniture; cheaper furniture is more likely to use standard low-density particle board.
Another related engineered wood product is OSB (oriented strand board), which can also be considered a subset of the family of particle board products. OSB has layers of wood chips that are quite visible to the eye; it is used in sheathing applications, such as flooring underlayment, and siding and roofing sheathing, but has limited applications for furniture and other woodworking duties.
Various forms of particle board have many commercial applications in mass-produced furniture, but for the home woodworker, low-density particle board is primarily used in cabinetry or table projects, often as the core of box carcasses over which quality hardwood veneer is glued. Woodworkers can buy raw particle board or MDF sheets or boards, then apply veneers of their choosing. Or, they can buy prefabricated products with veneers of hardwood or laminate, or melamine surface layers, already applied.
Particle board, MDF, and other engineered wood products have characteristics that differ considerably from solid wood, requiring different techniques for cutting, shaping, and joining. For example, regular screws and nails driven directly into particle board do not hold very well. When connecting two pieces of particle board, adhesives and specially designed screws must be used. Other unique qualities of particle board include:
- The veneer or melamine covering on the particle board can chip when cutting with a circular saw. To combat this chipping, try scoring the particle board with a utility knife along the cut line. You might also try covering the cut line with masking tape before making the cut.
- Where the exposed edge of the particle board will be visible, you may want to use edge banding to conceal the particle board. This type of banding is often coated with a heat-activated glue. Use a common clothes iron across the face of the banding as it is positioned over the exposed edge. The heat from the iron will protrude through the banding and melt the glue on the back side, anchoring it to the edge of the particle board.
When to Avoid
As with all manufactured wood products, there is a proper time and place for using particle board products. For instance, white, melamine-covered particle board is well-equipped for use in interior tasks such as building closet shelves. The melamine is clean and doesn't require painting and, if affixed properly, will be stable and strong for a long time.
There are some concerns that the resins used in the manufacturing of particle board may contain formaldehyde. This becomes a potential problem when cutting the particle board, as the saw blade tends to create very fine sawdust that you should avoid breathing. When cutting particle board, work in a very well ventilated area unless you have an extremely strong dust collection system.