Material Choices Demystified

Claudia Veihl Marketing Director and CAD Developer at Connecticut Closet & Shelf.

February 11th, 2016 No Comments

If you visit a closet or furniture showroom you will most likely hear the following mentioned: particleboard, MDF, plywood, solid wood and engineered wood. If you research the terms you will encounter numerous opinions about the different materials and may end up more confused than ever. In this short article we will explain how the different materials apply to a closet system.

engineered wood samples from CT Closet & Shelf
Examples of engineered wood: particleboard (top), MDF (middle), plywood (bottom)

Engineered Wood or Composite Wood Products:

Engineered wood can refer to any man-made “wooden” material used in the construction business, structural or non-structural. Composite wood products refer to a group of engineered wood panels which plywood, particleboard and MDF are examples of.

Particleboard:

Particleboard consists of wood chips pressed together with an adhesive (resin) under pressure.
The advantage of particleboard is that it holds screws better, is lighter and cheaper than MDF and has a smooth surface that can easily be laminated. Particleboard is the most affordable material for furniture and closet construction and because it plays such an important role I will explain it in more detail.

There are different grades of particleboard. “H” means “high density” above 50 lbs/cubic foot , “M” means “medium density”, generally between 40-50 lbs/cubic foot, and “LD” means “low density” less than 40 lbs/foot. Furniture is mostly made out of medium density boards. There are three different subgrades for medium density particleboard:

  • Commercial grade
    M-1
    Density of about 42 lbs/cubic foot
  • Industrial grade
    M-2
    Density of about 45 lbs/cubic foot
  • Industrial grade
    M-3
    Density between 47lbs and 50 lbs/cubic foot. About 10-20% “stronger and stiffer” than M-2 but rarely used for furniture construction.

Nowadays particleboard used for cabinets is usually industrial grade particleboard (M2) and very different than the kind used in the 50ies and later on. This quality will suffice for most closet applications. What to look out for is the thickness of the material. A lot of big box stores sell material that is ⅝” thick (and not necessarily M-2) versus ¾” used by closet design professionals. The ¾” material will allow a shelf strength of 100 lbs per square foot.

MDF:

Similar to particleboard but a much denser material without the voids found in particleboard. Very small wood fibers are combined under pressure with an adhesive. Because of its smoothness it is excellent for being painted and routered. The disadvantage of MDF is that it is very heavy and more expensive than particleboard.

MDF is most often used for a closet that will be painted and drawer fronts that have a profile (routered) . Once painted it will look like real wood but at a significant lower cost. So, if you want your closet to be painted consider using MDF instead of wood. If you have a high-moisture area or want a formaldehyde free MDF we suggest using Medex.

MDF Samples Painted and Unpainted
MDF sample door (unpainted) and MDF cabinet (painted)

Plywood:

Thin sheets of cross-laminated wood veneer bonded under heat and pressure with a strong adhesive.
Hardwood plywood consists of a plywood core and a hardwood veneer. The hardwood veneer is sliced off a high quality wood log and then applied to the plywood core. We use maple, oak and cherry veneer finishes over a 1” or ¾” plywood core.

Plywood vs. Solid Wood:

The advantage of high quality plywood is that it is dimensionally (expansion and contraction) more stable than solid wood.

Plywood vs. Particleboard and MDF:

Because particleboard and MDF have no internal structure they bend and crack easier and won’t hold screws as well as plywood. Plywood should be considered if:

  • structural strength is needed
  • weight is an issue and particleboard is not an option
  • a custom stain will be applied
  • the look of real wood veneer is desired

The disadvantage of plywood is its price. It is more expensive than both particleboard and MDF. It can even be a similar price or more expensive than solid wood.

Plywood material samples from CT Closet & Shelf
Maple (top) and cherry (bottom) plywood

Our Experiences:

Over time we have seen a shift from “wood” (solid wood as well as plywood veneer) to particleboard closets both in high end as well as in smaller installations.The cost of solid wood has become so expensive, closet companies as well as furniture makers and millworkers are now using more engineered wood products than ever and because they are made from recycled and recovered wood waste they are also an environmentally responsible and sustainable building material.

Often closet installations are a mix of different materials:

Vertical panels and shelves:

  • Particleboard (95% of projects)
  • MDF (less than 5%)
  • Veneered plywood (less than 1%)

Drawer boxes:

  • Vinyl wrapped particleboard (50% of projects)
  • Birch plywood (50% of projects)

Drawer and door fronts:

  • Thermafoil over particleboard (93% of projects)
  • MDF (5%)
  • Plywood veneer (less than 1%)
  • Solid wood (1%)

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