Particle Board is not a 4-Letter Word
Particle board has carried a negative connotation in the US and is often viewed as an inferior building product. What American consumers don’t realize, however, is that plywood is outlawed in many other parts of the worlds. In an effort to meet higher environmental standards, the European Union has banned plywood use as a cabinet material, forcing manufacturers to dedicate time and resources into creating a quality alternative. Particle board is an engineered product manufactured from wood particles, such as wood chips and shavings, which are mixed with binding solution and then compacted into shape using extremely high pressure. Since it is essentially made from recycled wood materials, Particle board is not only environmentally friendly but more cost effective than using plywood.
Not All Particle Board is Created Equal
A well-respected vendor will only use high quality particle board, most commonly referred to as Melamine, which will easily last the lifetime of the kitchen. But like all products, buyers need to be wary of cheap knock-offs. Large production manufactures will cover the show faces of particle board with very thin paper, giving it a finished appearance but leaving it prone to peeling. This is the primary reason people have a poor impression of Melamine because it does not hold up well. In addition to a cheaper outer layer, some particle board has larger air gaps after being compressed which allows manufacturers to use less bonding resin and less wood material. Screws and hardware are less likely to hold their place when drilled into lower quality boards. Some furniture manufacturers go as far as to simply put particle board parts on the edges while using honeycombed cardboard in the center. Ever notice how light Ikea desk tops are even though they’re 1 ½” – 2” thick? Or how it is almost impossible to re-assemble an Ikea cabinet in the event of a move? Now you know why. Quality vendors only use 90lb density particle board that hold screws and hardware easily. Always ask your vendor what kind of board materials your cabinets are made from, it’ll save you grief in the long run.
Plywood and its Proverbial Pedestal
For years plywood has been pushed down the throats of consumers. Cabinets made from solid wood, material cut from a single piece of lumber, were known for their fine craftsmanship and high quality but came at a steep price. Nowadays solid wood is typically only used as the front framing of American style cabinets, with the cabinets themselves being made with plywood, an engineered product made from thinly cut wood that is then glued together to form a panel. Plywood is simply a remnant from the solid wood cabinet days and is a vendor’s solution to keeping costs low while still allowing the consumer to think they are getting an all wood cabinet. This positive, and somewhat false, impression of plywood has become engrained into consumers’ minds and is constantly being reinforced thanks to the abundance of Chinese wood cabinets available.
Plywood vs Particle Board
Because Melamine is made from recycled material, it is more cost effective than Plywood. It also comes in a variety of color and textures, giving consumers more options while staying at a certain price point. With new tariffs placed on Chinese Birch Plywood, consumers can expect plywood cabinet prices to steadily increase.
Melamine is made from compressed wood chips and is denser than Plywood, averaging about 90lb for a 4×8 sheet. This gives Plywood an advantage since it tends to weight about 20lb less per sheet. The lighter the cabinet the easier it is for manufacturers and installers to lift and handle. Weight doesn’t necessarily come into play as far as quality is concerned but it can make the difference on which material your supplier recommends since it makes their job a little easier.
Cleaning and Aging
Since plywood is a natural product, it will carry the same characteristics as the tree species its made from. Most woods will be softer than compressed melamine, leaving it more vulnerable to dents and damage. Plywood does not offer a wipe clean surface and is also prone to yellowing over time. Since melamine is an engineered product, it has been designed to offer a wipe clean surface and will age gracefully over time.
Water and moisture resistance for both Melamine and Plywood are virtually the same. Melamine is actually a little better due to the glues used as well as its more protective outer surface. The wood layers in Plywood will wick water and the glue used to hold the layers together is not water resistant. There are water resistant plywood but these are never used for cabinet material. Many people claim high humid areas are not good for particle board. While cases like Hawaii are the exception, coastal homes like those found in Orange County will be fine. If humidity is a concern, your vendor may cover every exposed edge of particle board to seal it up.
As already explained, plywood is simply a remnant from the solid wood cabinet days and is a vendor’s answer to keeping costs low while still being able to tout an all wood cabinet. As a cabinet maker we love the wide use and versatility of Melamine. There are applications that require plywood and every material has an application and time but in general Melamine is normally our go-to material. However, many vendors use plywood for manufacturing all cabinets simply due to high demand. In this consumer driven society, they are pushed to sell any job and typically will not fight the consumer or contractor. After all, it is usually easier to give a customer what they want versus trying to educate them on alternatives.
Purchasing Plywood Cabinets
Not quite ready to jump off the plywood bandwagon? Don’t fret, you’re not alone. Many still hold plywood on a pedestal and can’t shake the false sense of security an all wood cabinets give them. And due to the demand of plywood cabinets, vendors typically do one of two things:
1) The vendor will use cheaper Chinese materials. Come vendors who use Chinese Plywood will call it Birch Plywood instead of using its full name: Birch Import Plywood. But even the “Birch” portion of Chinese plywood is deceptive, as the wood grown in other parts of the world often comes from a far off cousin of the Birch tree. And while technically still under the “Birch” family, this product usually results in poorly made boards with a micro-thin veneer outer layer.
2) The vendor will charge more for a “premium” product. For the vendors who refuse to lower their standards, domestic maple plywood is often the material of choice for cabinet construction. In this case, a premium product is actually being used and the added price is justified. Plywood often adds significant cost to an overall project, but some consumers are willing to spend the extra bucks. Only if the consumer is budget minded will the cabinet vendor offer Melamine as an alternative to prevent losing the sale completely.
But buyer beware: some vendors will take advantage of its consumers by doing both 1) and 2).
Always ask your vendor what type of wood they’re using, since they very well may be using cheaper Chinese material but still selling it at a premium price.