We have all seen it and most of us can’t stand it. But what exactly is particle board? Particle board is nothing more that a wood waste product (saw dust) mixed with large amounts of glue and pressed into sheets. The benefit of this material is that it is making use of saw dust that would otherwise be discarded and thus saving more trees from being cut down. The downside of particle board is its weight, lack of strength, lack of screw holding capacity, and its tendency to disintegrate or swell severely when moisture is present.
MDF or Medium Density Fiberboard is similar to particle board but is made of compressed wood fibers and glue and has the color appearance of dense cardboard. Although not a great structural material, MDF does have a use for which it is an excellent choice. It is exceptional when used as a substrate for veneer because of its relative stability and incredible smoothness, (however one should always veneer both sides of the panel even if one side is not visible so as to balance the panel and maintain its stability). MDF holds screws a little better than particle board but is considerably heavy, not terribly strong, can tear or shear, and can swell when in contact with moisture.
The sad truth is that although there is a place for these materials in the market place they have unfortunately become the materials of choice for many furniture and cabinet manufacturers. Most of the furniture items found at the big box stores and in many reputable furniture outlets are nothing more than particle board with cheap adhesive backed faux wood grain applied on its surface. This furniture is often junk that cannot survive someone sitting on it or spilling a glass of water on it and is priced so as to be cheap, disposable, and replaceable. A general rule of thumb is that if the furniture requires assembly it most likely contains large amounts of MDF and particle board. These materials are harder to spot on “nicer” furniture as they are usually used on the interior (out of sight) requiring one to investigate a little harder.
MDF should not always raise a red flag in a consumer’s mind if properly used, but particle board is seldom if ever the wise or good choice for most applications.
The bottom line as to why these materials have become so prevalent is price. Wood is expensive and wood by-products are cheaper. In addition to this fact consumer’s vote with their dollars and as long as poor quality furniture sells there will be manufacturers to produce that product. The sad irony of the situation is that most of these manufacturers have an economy of scale to produce higher quality products for a very small increase in cost to the consumer.