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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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15 Responses to “Particle board vs Plywood: The ‘Diamonds Are Rare’ Scam”

  1. laura says:

    Thanks for the article. I could only read it though by clicking the comments link. Your jump link doesn’t reveal the article.

  2. Tigratrus says:

    ::nods::

    Didn’t notice that till this morning. It should be fixed now… Apparently, having quotes in the title caused a problem with the url, wordpress’s permalink system wasn’t smart enough to strip them out, go figure.

    Thanks for the heads up!
    James (Tigratrus)

  3. Marilyn says:

    But what about formaldehyde?

  4. Tigratrus says:

    Actually that’s another advantage. IKEA Particle does NOT contain formaldehyde :-). They manufacture all their products to the strict standards that apply in any country that they sell products in. IIRC Germany was the strictest about VOC emissions (much more strict than USA), and IKEA’s cabinets pass them easily. IKEA made a commitment years ago to eliminate all Formaldehyde from their products, and it’s been gone for quite some time ;).

    IKEA’s kids products are also WAY better than US companies, they use naturally flame resistent products like wool instead of bromine and other chemicals where-ever they are allowed to do so by US law.

    Probably need to do another article on IKEA and VOC’s ;-)

    James (Tigratrus)

  5. quiltmaster says:

    Another myth busted! Two actually. Thanks!

  6. ecomod says:

    It’s the hot topic nowadays!

    shameless self reference:
    Newsflash! Particle board in cabinet construction is not evil!
    http://www.eco-modernism.com/blog/article/news/

    LinkedIn Cabinetry group discussion:
    Particle board vs. MDF, vs Plywood: Pros & Cons
    http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=1790963&discussionID=11843183&goback=.anh_1790963

  7. Abc says:

    As an experienced woodworker I thought I would point out issues with this article.

    Sorry, you over sold the particle board position. In general it is probably good enough for most applications that Ikea applies it, however it is inferior to plywood in every measure.

    Fact 1: Moisture absorption will expand both products similarly so your statement is factually wrong about particle board being superior. Specifically, wood fibers are insensitive to moisture absorption. It is the lignin (wood glue) that swells with moisture absorption. Plywood and particle board place fibers in multiple directions to prevent the lignin from swelling.

    Fact 2: Plywood can also be machined to precision values as well so argument two is also exaggerated.

    Fact 3: You did not mention that plywood is significantly stronger than particle board.

    Fact 4: Quality plywood does not have the amount of variation that you are questioning, certainly not from the same supplier. The thickness of a sheet of plywood is controlled to less than 1/64inch which is similar to the requirements for particular board.

    Fact 5: You misspelled shearing. You should have used bending instead of torsion in the positive statement for plywood. This is an important point for shelving. Too much weight on a particle board shelve will cause it to creep and have a large, permanent bow.

    Fact 6: Particle board does not hold fasteners well. Special fasteners have been developed so that particle board works better with them, but plywood would be better.

    That said, I have several of Ikea’s bookcases that include shelving made with particle board. They are 10years old and working well. The doors are made of solid wood which protect the softer particle board from most bumps.

    My kitchen cabinets use melamine coated particle board shelves. Several of them do have damage to the melamine due to pots bumping them which demonstrates their fragility.

  8. Tigratrus says:

    Thanks for the comments:

    I’m going to respond to your points below, but my response are based on my own personal experience from working on projects in my shop and living on/maintaining a wood boat for several years. I don’t claim to be the greatest woodworker (far from it!) though I have a lot of fun making sawdust :). So I freely admit that others may know more than I, but this is my understanding/experience:

    1. IME Plywood does in fact tend to warp more than particle board in response to humidity change, granted either of them are vastly less prone to warp than solid wood. It is NOT just the glue that responds to moisture changes as I’m sure you’d agree if you place a flat piece of wood outside overnight and see what happens :-). That’s not exactly what you meant, but I think you’re taking what I said a bit out of context above.

    2. Most plywood does NOT share the machinability of particle board. If you’re dealing strictly with super high grade baltic birch it can come close, but it’s still an inherently more variable product than particle board.

    3. I did in fact state that plywood is stronger than particle board in pretty much every way, in fact I repeated it at the bottom of the advantages of plywood “Sounds pretty good for plywood doesn’t it? I mean, in terms of physical strength and durability it wins pretty much across the board.”

    4. Very similar to 2 above. The point is decent particle board is more uniform than decent plywood. In other words you can get a lot more uniform product from particle board dollar for dollar than you can from plywood.

    5. Mea Culpa I did indeed misspell it :), thanks! I’ll fix it after I post this reply. But about specifying bending instead of torsion you’ll note that I actually said both “Plywood is a LOT stronger in torsion (bending)” in the plywood advantages section. In most kitchen cabinet configurations IKEA sells bending is really not an issue though as the shelves are 3/4″ and the width of the shelf if too short to lead to much sagging even under pretty heavy load. The worst case is generally the wide upper cabs designed to go over a sink, and they are still fine stacked with a ton of dishes.

    6. Particle board holds fasteners just fine as long as you use (as you point out) the right fasteners, and the manufacturing is done in a fashion that is designed to play to particle boards strengths instead of it’s weaknesses. Is Plywood stronger? Yup! We both agree on that. :-)

    As for banging pots into shelves, you’re totally right that that can chip particleboard shelves. But I’m not talking about the SHELVES I’m talking about the carcasses themselves. For pots I would TOTALLY go with the full extension drawers, which are BLUM tandembox drawers, and dang near indestructible. Super cheap too even with the blumotion soft close option.

    My main point in the article is that one has to look at where a particular material is going to be used before you judge it’s suitability. Plywood boxes used by many commercial kitchen cabinet manufacturers (especially the cr@p plywood I’ve seen used in a lot of bigbox cabinetry) is inferior in many respects to the particle board used by IKEA (which is quite high grade, formaldehyde free etc) in their kitchen cabinets. Basically I’m sick of the knee-jerk response I often see of people saying that particle board is a terrible material to make kitchen cabinet carcasses from, and plywood is the holy grail that folks should pay major up-charges for. That’s just not accurate.

    Anyway, thanks for the intelligent comments! Love hearing from other folks that like woodworking :-). I should probably mention that my preferred door style is Tidaholm, which is a lovely arts and crafts looking solid oak (looks like white oak, DEFINITELY not red oak!) door that IKEA makes, very nice grain and joinery. Indestructible door, love it. Unfortunately, my wife wants to PAINT it!
    ::gasp::
    ::stagger::

    :-).

    James (Tigratrus)

  9. John says:

    Gentlemen, I’ve read both of your articles and I’m impressed by your knowledge and expertise. The only thing I would like to add is this,
    I built my own kitchen cabinets using MDF, the reason, I found it easier to work with, I didn’t have to worry about splintering or filling, it was easy to cover with Melamine or laminate. My design was Contemporary White, I know, but this what my wife wanted. The point is the cabinets were up for over twenty years, no problems. When I finally took them down I installed them in the garage.
    I think both particle board and plywood have their place in construction;
    cost, design and final results should be kept in mine. All my cabinets were glued and screwed, no cam and lock system I’m not happy with that type of system at all.
    Something that wasn’t mentioned, plywood can be be purchased in mutilayers
    which add to it’s stability. Sorry for the spelling.
    Oh, by the way, I build my own furniture.

  10. Whiterabbit says:

    Thanks for the very interesting points above. Ikea fans seem to be a very intelligent subset. I’m impressed.

    I don’t have any Ikea products currently but am building my own house and hence my own kitchen too. The Ikea kitchen sounds like an interesting concept!

    I have severe chemical sensitivities and so the whole house I am building is being built VOC-free (as much as possible, and this includes glues, adhesives and caulks etc) and non-toxic. It has been fun designing these elements into the plans, but pretty challenging also. I was interested to hear that the Ikea particle board is non-formaldehyde, but would be curious to see just how healthy it really is. Anyone know the details on this?

  11. Tigratrus says:

    Hey thanks! :-)

    You might run a search on VOC or Formaldehyde in the search box at top right? I know it’s come up several times. We need to do a new version, but there’s also an older article about IKEA’s environmental standards: http://www.ikeafans.com/forums/ikea-brochures-documents/8221-environmental-standards-ikea-products-numbers.html that might help you out. Hope that helps!

    And If you’re thinking about doing a kitchen check out http://www.ikeafans.com/forums/kitchen-planning/ there’s LOTS of help there! We’d also LOVE to see how your project evolves, we’re all a tad Kitchen Obsessed around here ;-).

    James

  12. flyingstar says:

    Hi, going to decide on my kitchen cabinet package as I planned to move into my new house soon. Got several quotation and is so difficult to compare due to the way they put it up and also my lack of knowledge. Anyway, after reading quite a number of site esp this forum… I got my basic understanding. Thanks for the detail description. By the way,just would like to ask, since they coat melamine over the particleboard to be used for carcass… can v have something like particleboard but coated with veneer like oak and maple, so that i have better finishing and last longer?? or it is not the case, sorry that I am dummy in this and could have misinterpreted some of the facts.. Do correct me thx.

  13. Susan says:

    Flyingstar – yes, there are many different doorstyles available at IKEA – some are solid wood, some are veneer over PB and some are melamine over PB – all with different pricepoints, of course. Please check out the Kitchen Planning forum and read there as you will get a much better understanding of the IKEA system and all its quirks.

    Susan

  14. YossiD says:

    When cabinet door hinges loosen, as they inevitably do, I have found that tightening them in particle board is tricky since the material is prone to tear. This is especially true since the screws are short as they don’t have much thickness to go into. In my experience, plywood is better in this respect.

    Some cabinet door hinges have plastic inserts for the mounting screws but I do not know if that is the case with Ikea’s. Of course I have also seen the plastic inserts tear out and then the problem is even worse.

    Either way, when holes tear in particle board, I have found that the only good fix is to drill the hole out and glue in a piece of wooden dowel. that always works but it’s a nuisance. If the hole isn’t too big, wooden matchsticks or toothpicks can also do the trick.

    Plywood can tear too, but it’s less prone.

  15. scott lu says:

    please watch this test video. the plywood is much better .

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8×2VDxsOyLg

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