While solid wood offers a whole host of advantages that make it a preferred finishing material, it also comes with one glaring disadvantage: cost. Wood provides a polished look and unbeatable durability, but equipping any entire building with wood office furniture can simply be beyond the budget of many businesses. Furniture manufacturers often reduce the overall cost of their products by using MDF and/or particle board to construct underlayers, draws and paneling sections that aren’t constantly visible. These materials can also be used to create entire pieces of furniture, which makes them an option worth exploring.
Both MDF and particle board are known as composite materials. Rather than being harvested, they are created in the factory using various press methods to create boards that can vary in thickness and density. The big advantage is that these wood alternatives are much less expensive and can be created with a level of consistency when it comes to density and uniformity that simply isn’t found in nature. So if solid wood is out of your price range, here is what you need to know when it comes to choosing the right furniture composite material.
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What is MDF?
First off, MDF stands for medium density fiberboard. In some areas of the world, companies plant MDF plantations and grow specific species of trees which are then debarked, chipped into pieces and turned into a pulp that is then put through the composite manufacturing process. However, wood fibers that are considered “waste” materials created during solid wood manufacturing are also collected and used to create MDF.
Once the pulp or fibers have been collected, they are put through a blowline where a wax resin that prevents clumping and formaldehyde are added to the mixture. After the treated fibers have had a chance to dry, they enter a hot press that activates the bonding chemicals and evenly distributes the fibers into different sized boards.
- Cost: as mentioned above, MDF is a cheaper alternative to solid wood.
- Uniform product without knots or blemishes.
- Provides a flat, smooth surface that makes it ideal for veneer substrates
- Doesn’t include grain, which means that its properties are exactly the same in all directions
- Easily takes paint and other finishes
- Doesn’t expand and contract according to weather conditions like wood
- MDF tends to be absorbent, which means that it will suck up paint and can swell if it becomes wet.
- Needs to be properly sealed in order to prevent moisture damage and warping
- Nail holes can create a puckering effect.
- Inserting screw or nails into the edge of the board will result in splitting.
- The formaldehyde used in the manufacturing process is a known carcinogen. Many companies are phasing this chemical out of their production process and introducing safer alternatives.
What is Particle Board?
While particleboard and MDF are a part of the same composite board and fiberboard product family, there are some important differences to keep in mind. For starters, particle board is cheaper and considered lighter and weaker than other options. When it first began to be manufactured at a notable rate during WWII, it simply consisted of debris that was picked up of the floor of factories and glued together. Over the years, the manufacturing process improved and companies began to offer different grades of particleboard. For instance, you can now purchase grade-density particle board that uses smaller particles closer to the surface for added strength.
Manufacturing particleboard also involved more steps than with MDF. Machines have to sort the different sizes of wood chips and makes sure that they are distributed correctly. In addition, different chemical mixtures are used according to the properties that the final product needs to have. Particleboard can be made to resist water, fire and insects. Finally, particleboard relies on a cold-press rather than a hot-press process to harden and set all the necessary glues.
You might also be surprised to learn that in the 1950s, particleboard became a popular kitchen cabinet material, but was actually more expensive than solid wood. As the manufacturing process changed, the price dropped and companies began using it as a way to mass produce furniture at a low cost. Today, there are different quality particleboards, making it important to know exactly what you are buying.
Particle Board Advantages
- Not only is particleboard cheaper than wood, it is also less expensive than MDF and plywood. This makes it a great choice for construction applications like subfloors that are never seen anyway.
- Particleboard also provides a smooth and flat surface that easily accepts glue.
- It comes in a variety of grades, thicknesses and densities so that you can find the right choice for your needs.
- Higher grade products offer great strength and density.
- Does offer some environmentally friendly characteristics since it is made using scraps and waste.
- A lightweight product, which means that office furniture made with particleboard is easy to move.
- Furniture pieces are usually pre-laminated and feature a ready-made design. All you have to do is follow the instructions to assemble a finished product.
Particle Board Disadvantages
- A wide variety of chemicals, including formaldehyde, are used in the manufacturing process. When particleboard is cut and sanded, these chemicals are released, which means that anyone working with these materials should limit their exposure time.
- Particleboard is also sensitive to moisture. If it becomes saturated with water, it will swell and crumble.
- Cheap particleboard tends to sag over time. It is not ideal for long lengths of shelving that require lasting structural integrity.
When you purchase a product that includes MDF, you will have a clear picture of the possible disadvantages. With particleboard, you may way to take a closer look at the grade of particleboard you are purchasing. A cheaper option may be fine for drawer paneling, but not dense or strong enough to handle heavy loads. While a low price tag can be attractive, it is more important to think about overall value. Less expensive materials may need to be replaced sooner and not provide the ideal level of performance. Try to look for the best balance between cost and durability in order to find the best materials for your office furniture.