I read labels and descriptions on almost everything, a habit which brought me much confusion when furniture shopping. What is MDF, or veneers, or particleboard? Are these seemingly wooden furniture… even made of wood at all?
Particleboard and fibreboard
Particleboard, or chipboard, is formed when wood chips (hence the name!) and resin are compressed at high heat into a board. Fibreboard is similarly made, but with finer material such as sawdust, making it a denser and stronger product. MDF, or medium-density fibreboard, a favourite among low-cost furniture manufacturers and retailers, is an example.
Both particle and fibreboard are affordable but will expand upon contact with moisture. Hence, in many cases, they are primed and painted, or coated with veneer. That said, you should always mop up spills immediately or your furniture will warp! (I learnt this the hard way. ? )
These are great for cabinets, doors, and panelling.
The texture of particleboard and fibreboard respectively
Veneers are real wood layers that are only a few millimetres thick. They are typically glued onto particleboards or MDFs as a finishing touch, not used as is. The result is furniture that has the look of natural wood, complete with grain markings, but often cheaper.
Bind a few pieces of veneer together, and voila, plywood! It is strong, and does not warp or swell easily. Engineered wood is made by affixing veneer to plywood.
Laminate flooring, which is all the rage now, is made by placing a photographed design on top of many compressed layers of plywood. A clear protective layer tops off the floorboard. Perfect for budget-conscious home owners who want ‘wooden’ flooring—myself included!
Fun fact: laminate flooring is fixed on without any glue ?
What should I use?
The reality is that many off-the-shelf furniture, even customised cabinetry, are made of particleboard or MDF to make them accessible to home owners without deep pockets. They are still made of wood and if cared for properly, should have plenty of life in them.
If you absolutely love solid wood, there are affordable options found in softwood such as pine. If your budget allows, you can also invest in a statement piece to complement the other more affordable items. A personal favourite is suar wood dining tables, unique, single piece slabs which are absolutely striking.
Check out the beautiful grain markings on solid wood!
Hopefully this guide demystifies some of the terms you might see when out furniture hunting, and help you get more value from your shopping dollars. Came across other confusing terms? Email them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org — we are here to help!