Not every furniture that is in brown color is made of actual wood! Don’t make this mistake especially if you are in the market to buy furniture.
At a broad level, wood comes in three categories – solid-wood, soft-wood, and wooden boards. Solid wood formats are teak, rosewood, mahogany, beech, oak, mango wood, etc. Soft-wood formats are pine-wood, rubber-wood (some consider it as solid), redwood, cedar, etc. Understandably, solid wood is the most expensive wood and engineered formats such as plyboard are the cheapest. As solid wood furniture made of teak or mango wood remain expensive, the furniture market has seen the need for common cheaper alternatives in the form of engineered boards and engineered wood. In this article, let’s evaluate the common options available in the market.
Let’s start with laminates. Laminates are popularly called as sun-mica in India, especially in South India. These are usually seen in furniture of kitchen, dressing table and center tables. It comes in the form of a paper (shown in the left picture). Laminate is made by pressing together a blend of paper and plastic. Brown paper and decorative paper soaked in phenolic and melamine resins are hard pressed together to form a stiff laminate sheet. This happens over several iterations.
In its final form laminate paper is pressed on wooden boards such as particleboard or plyboard to give that final clean finish to the furniture. The video below shows the detail of a hot press machine conducting this procedure.
Another common name in the same category of laminates is veneers. Veneers are very thin layers of actual wood such as teak or mahogany and they are pressed over boards in pretty much the same way as seen above. Veneers look more close to a wooden finish and can be polished, giving a wooden touch and feel to the customer. Below picture (left) shows the veneer sheet which is stitched together to make a long veneer sheet and the picture in the right shows the MDF board (machine) pressed with veneer sheet.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Laminate and Veneer
- Laminate is paper and plastic whereas Veneer is an actual layer of wood. Veneers get a wooden look with polish and good maintenance and add to the richness of the furniture. Laminates do look artificial and sometimes cheap.
- Laminates are water-proof and scratch resistant and come in various colors and shades such as glossy, matte and soft textures. On the other hand, Veneers come in limited colors and types of shades as they are layers of natural wood.
- Laminates are usually a better choice for kitchen cabinets, wardrobes, etc. and Veneers are a better choice for some furniture that is not frequently used but the aesthetic value of the furniture is important such as center table or coffee table.
- Veneers are much costlier than laminates as veneers come from actual wood and are not manufactured within factory artificially.
Now, coming to the question – what type of wooden board should these laminate or veneer papers be pressed on – we have 4 different options in the name of particle board, plyboard, MDF and HDF.
Particle board is a product made up of wooden particle waste from sawmill shavings and wood hips heat pressed with resin together. Various waxes, dyes, water-resistant agents, insect-proof agents and fire-proof agents are used in the final end product, which is made into a long board. Wooden chips of various weights are evenly distributed to make sure the finished board is not heavier on certain sections of the board. The board is then compressed in multiple iterations to create a tight bond between the resin and the wood bits and dust. Oriented Strand Board (OSB) is a popular type of particle board that generally available in the market and is used for most household furniture construction. Particle board is in general very weak and cannot be used with heavy hardware such as screws as the wood is not strong enough to hold screws and other fasteners. Particle board is extremely prone to water and hence it is commonly used along with water-proof laminates.
Plywood is a better form of wood compared to particle board and is usually used for cabinets and lightweight wardrobes. Plywood is a stronger construction and can hold screws and other hardware well along with better water-proof features. Plywood is made up of thin sheets of veneer and that is why one can see layers of sheets in a plywood cross-section (pic below). Each sheet of veneer is made of various grade of wood. The Plywood sheets that are commonly used in the making of wooden furniture are made from several thin sheets of individual wood veneers (layers/slices of wood). All these layers are firmly pressed and joined with each other to make a plywood sheet. If all these individual layers of wood are from hardwood, then the final finished plywood sheet is called a 100% hardwood plywood. Some of the different types of plywood are:
- Wooden plywood is all the layers are made of softwoods and/or hardwoods, or a combination of the two.
- Commercial plywood is all the layers are made of softwood and/or hardwoods but with a lower grade of veneers i.e. more knots, more natural stain, more flaws etc.
- Hardwood plywood is all of the internal layers are softwood and/or hardwoods but the exposed outer layer is a high grade of hardwood.
MDF stands for Medium Density Fibreboard, which is again an engineered wooden board made from wooden fibers instead of particles and therefore it gives better strength to the board. This is denser than plywood and also comes in HDF (high-density fibreboard) format.
The quality standards for the manufacture of engineered boards viz. plywood, particle boards and MDF as specified by BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards) are detailed in various IS documents.
MDF vs Plywood
Plywood is constructed of solid wood veneers with each sheet being glued with the grain perpendicular to the sheets above and below it. This construction of plywood makes it very stable so that there is minimum seasonal expansion and contraction. But, one should make sure that it is a hardwood plywood. Hardwood plywood glues well and hold screws securely. This makes for sturdy construction of furniture. On the other hand, Medium-density fibreboard (MDF) is an engineered wood product made by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibres, often in a defibrator, combining it with wax and a resin binder, and forming panels by applying high temperature and pressure. MDF is generally denser than plywood. The problem with MDF in using it for furniture is, due to its construction, it does not hold screws well. MDF is heavier than plywood (which might be good or bad depending on the purpose of the furniture) and swells if any water gets on it. So, plywood is a common better choice than MDF, but it depends on the use-case.
Each of these engineered wood types has their own advantages and disadvantages and are to be considered in furniture manufacturing basis the product requirement. Over the years, engineered wood has gained tremendous popularity and is one of the most sold wooden formats across the world as economic and light-weight furniture gains traction all over the world.
So, the next time you see a brown color furniture think about whether it is solid wood or soft wood or engineered wood and don’t blindly go for what the salesman says.