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Particle Board
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Particle Board (MDF)

Lots of newer furniture is made with particle board.  There are different grades of particle board, and it comes in many styles.  Some people divide it into commercial and industrial grades, others divide it into particle board (the least expensive and the most like sawdust), medium-density fiberboard (MDF), and high density board or hardboard.  It comes with a variety of glues and surfaces, and each grade has different particle sizes.

 

MDF is used in more showroom-type furniture than particle board.  It has less variability in market specifications than particle board, and the edges can be exposed and finished without edge banding (like plywood). It can have routed (shaped) edges and can even be embossed.  The real inexpensive type of particle board (low density) is used for shelving and garage cabinets and the like.  It is easy to spot because it looks like glued-together sawdust.  MDF is much denser  (finer particles) and so is more durable than regular low-density particle board.

 

On the bright side, manufacturers are doing some nifty things to make particle board look like wood, and unless you look close and know what to look for it can be hard to detect.  Using MDF brings down the cost of new furniture while still giving it an appealing look.  Below is a queen headboard that has a combination of veneer and painted edges with some antiquing thrown in for added hiding benefit.

 

 

It looks like a nicely made wood piece, and the MDF is hard to detect.  That is, until you look on the back side (below).

 

 

The back side of the queen headboard shows the obvious MDF substrate (meaning the base wood under the veneer) and some solid wood support (the vertical board at the lower middle edge).  On older particle board pieces (and a few newer ones) a cheap veneer is sometimes used to cover this, but manufacturers are getting a little lazy anymore.  I guess you can't blame them because they are under such pressure from lower priced imports that it is hard to compete if they don't resort to these tactics.  On the other hand, if they made a stand for quality wood pieces, I think we'd see the market responding.

 

On the not-so-bright side, particle board is very easy to damage and very hard to repair, and even when a repair is desired it is usually not cost effective.  For instance, a six foot real wood dining table top is about $600.00 to refinish, but much more than that to buy new (if a matching one can be found).  A particle board (MDF) dining table top, on the other hand, even if veneered nicely, can cost as little as $300.00 to $400.00.  Plus, an MDF top will usually take more money to refinish, because the edge is usually not veneered but just painted and brushed to make it look like wood.

 

It is hard to match colors and textures of MDF, or to repair the veneer on top.  Repairs can be fairly close but are rarely perfect.  Unless there is a very strong reason for repairing, or the repair is small, it's generally just not worth it.  Some minor touch up can be made, and sometimes the finish has enough variation so that the repair blends in, like in the second picture below.

 

 

The movers must've dropped something on this edge.  The top is veneered, and the surrounding edges (of the dents) were puffed up as is typical with crushed particle board.

 

 

The above picture is after the repair.  The repairs blend in just enough that they are not really noticeable.  What you can't see from the picture, however, is that even with strong clamping pressure the edge of the damage is a little 'puffed up' because of the way MDF collapses when struck.  However, in this case you had to look hard and know what you are looking for to see it.  This repair cost in the neighborhood of $160.00, and there were several other areas that needed similar attention.  If it hadn't been an insurance job I doubt the client would've wanted it repaired.

 

Particle board really isn't a good choice for furniture that you want to keep a long time.  For tight budgets, and to compete with the cheap imports, it's okay.  But for truly beautiful, tough, and long lasting furniture, nothing beats real wood.

 

Copyright 2006 The Chair Doctor of Grand Junction
Last modified: 03/25/11