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Particle board vs Plywood: The ‘Diamonds Are Rare’ Scam

Posted on January 29, 2010 at 3:39 am
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Why am I talking about diamonds in an article about kitchen cabinet materials?  Well, because plywood and diamonds have something unexpected in common. Read on to find out how one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time has you conned, and what that has to do with the whole particle board vs. plywood debate.

Diamonds Aren’t Rare

First let me tell you a few things about diamonds that you may not know.  Or maybe you think you do know all about diamonds?  If so, did you know that there is a diamond 2,485.5 miles in diameter?  Yup.  And you know what? Our sun is likely to become another one quite like it.

Ok, getting back down to earth, did you know that diamonds really aren’t all that rare at all?  The price of diamonds is an artificially created value; one not based on actual scarcity.  Granted, the vast majority of diamonds mined are industrial grade, but even leaving all of those out, modern mining has produced FAR more jewelry-quality diamonds than you think.

So why are diamonds so expensive? In the 1940’s one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time convinced the American public that diamonds were inextricably linked to love and romance.  In fact, the “A Diamond is Forever”  campaign (created by the N.W. Ayer advertising agency in 1947) has been named the “Slogan of the 20th century” by Advertising Age.  De Beers actually controls about 70-80% of the worlds diamonds via their subsidiary the CSO (Central Selling Agency) and with that majority they essentially set the prices worldwide. In fact, if De Beers were a U.S. based company it would be in clear violation of antitrust laws for price-fixing.

Anyway, what does the whole diamond scam have to do with cabinet materials?
In a word: image.

It was a brilliant advertising campaign that created the demand for diamonds, and another that prevented people from selling them by convincing them to hold onto them as “heirlooms.”  In much the same way, plywood is “better” than particle board because that’s what everyone believes. In reality, neither is “better” – it totally depends on the application.

Plywood and Particle board  - Advantages and Disadvantages

Plywood Advantages

  • Plywood is a LOT stronger in torsion (bending) and quite a bit stronger in shearing.
  • In compression (supporting a load that’s not bending the panel) they are much more evenly matched, though I’d still give the nod to plywood.
  • Plywood also weighs a lot less and is quite a bit more durable in scratching/gouging.

Sounds pretty good for plywood doesn’t it?  I mean, in terms of physical strength and durability it wins pretty much across the board. So, why am I bothering to write this article?  Because all of the above is pretty much irrelevant.

Particle board Advantages

particle_board_cross-section

IKEA AKURUM cross-section - click to enlarge

  • Particle board/MDF is dimensionally stable -  does not expand and contract as the humidity changes.
  • Can be precisely machined to fine tolerances, meaning you can produce the same exact pieces with the same exact physical characteristics every single time.
  • It’s a completely uniform material, so you get exactly the same result from every sheet.

Plywood Disadvantages

plywood_void

Plywood Void- click to enlarge

  • Plywood is pretty random stuff.
    • The face plies generally look nice, but what’s inside them varies greatly from sheet to sheet, even from the same lot.
    • The thicknesses are somewhat variable.
    • Voids (i.e. empty spaces inside center).
    • Wood fibers expand and contract with changing humidity of the air.

That fundamental variability makes it less suited for ready-to-assemble cabinets which need to be the same every time for a standard assembly process to work. If you like the look and added space of frameless cabinets, the argument is moot because you really need the precise tolerances and dimensional stability that particle board brings to the table. Plywood makes a very awkward choice if you’re going to use frameless cabinetry where everything has to line up exactly right.  With a face frame that sits on the front of the cabinets, the joints can be a bit less exact, and the alignment isn’t as crucial., however the downside of face frame cabinets is that you lose quite a bit of usable space, especially in drawers.

Particle board is Tough Where It Counts

Opponents of particle board often argue that it’s easily gouged or damaged by sharp instruments, but this is a faulty argument. In the vast majority of kitchens, the cabinets will be either underneath a counter, or hanging on a wall.  You will almost certainly have doors/drawer fronts on them. And in most cases any exposed sides will be covered by cover panels.  So where, exactly, are they going to be hit or gouged?

What the cabinets WILL be subjected to is the compression load from the countertop, not to mention a sink full of water.  For wall cabinets, the brackets that hold the cabinets to the suspension rail are specifically designed to transfer the load as compression, the one area where plywood and particle board aren’t all that different.

Particle board Isn’t Waterproof

Well, that’s true, but neither is plywood when you get right down to it. The melamine surface of particle board is waterproof – as long as the joints are sealed in a sink base, it should hold up to minor water leaks just fine. For those who worry about major flooding, ANY cabinets will be heavily damaged by major flooding, plywood or particle board, the base units will need to be replaced once the flood is gone. Plywood swells (albeit not as badly as particle board) and rots from long term leakage. That said, if you have constant and/or frequent water leaks under a sink, you need a better plumber not a different cabinet.

Plywood is Forever: The Sales Pitch

Companies that make traditional North American kitchen cabinets very often try to sell an expensive upgrade to plywood cabinet boxes (or carcasses as they are known in the cabinetmaking trade).  They extol the many fine virtues of plywood while minimizing the vices and paint a dismal picture of the durability of particle board. But the thickness of the plywood used is often 1/2” or less, and you have no way of telling what kind of core lies underneath the pretty veneer plies on the top.  A 3/4” high-quality particle board is better for kitchen cabinets than 1/2” iffy quality plywood, hands down.

Good quality materials perform well when designed and installed correctly.  Are high end cabinet boxes made of high quality plywood great, durable cabinets?  Absolutely.  Are high end cabinet boxes made of high quality particle board great, durable cabinets? Sure are. The trick is using the materials in the right way, and having good quality control in the manufacturing.

Don’t Fall For the Hype

Diamonds aren’t really rare, and they are lousy as an investment of any sort.  Follow the links above or try to SELL a diamond and see just how much it’s really worth if you don’t believe me.

Likewise, plywood has its downsides and its virtues are largely rendered pointless by the ways in which it’s used in most kitchen cabinet construction. By contrast, IKEA’s particle board gets the job done less expensively, it lasts very well (25 year warranty), and it has far superior quality control compared to the majority of mass market cabinets. Plywood just isn’t the holy grail of cabinet construction that you’ve been led to believe. Plywood isn’t forever.

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