18 January 2010

Particle board vs. plywood: an experiment

I get asked a lot of questions about the relative merits of cabinetry constructed with a particle board box as opposed to cabinetry constructed with a plywood box. I find that most people who ask that question are looking for me to agree with whatever their opinion is so I don't argue. It's a topic like religion or politics in a lot of ways. I have my opinions of course and I know what I think is right, but in the interest of peace (and commerce) I keep my mouth shut and nod my head yes.

Some people really, honestly want to know what I think and my usual answer is that plywood construction isn't an automatic indicator of quality or superiority. I tell people that each method has its positives and each has its negatives. Left to my own devices I use both, depending on the job at hand. Particle board tends to cost less and if I can't see it (in the case of a drawer base) why spend the money? Plywood is lighter and can be altered in the field better. See? Each has a strength and a purpose.

Now when I talk about particle board and plywood, I'm talking about the grades of those materials used in better cabinetry. I can't vouch for the inferior versions of those materials because I never deal with them. By better grades I'm talking about 3/4" veneer plywood and 3/4" 165 lb. furniture board that's pressure laminated with a PVC film. Each of those materials carries the same lifetime warranty so I assume they're of equal quality. Further, because the 165 lb. furniture board is held together with solvent-based glues, I've always believed it to be more resistant to water. In fact, I've been told by more cabinetry reps than I can count that it is in fact, more water-resistant than plywood.

When pressed, that's my opinion on the topic, but I have to say that I've never actually tested either of those materials nor have I ever read of such a study. I've always wanted to test it for myself and this week, that's exactly what I'm going to do.

Yesterday at 11:15am, I took a six-inch by six-inch square of 3/4" veneer plywood and a six by six square of laminated particle board and I dropped each of them in a bowl of water.

I've been fishing them out and photographing them at regular intervals and the results have been interesting. I'm going to let them soak for a couple of days and then write everything up in a separate post some time later this week.

In the meantime, anybody care to venture a guess about how this will end up? What do you think happens when these materials get wet? I had all kinds of assumptions about how this would go and so far most of them have been wrong. Who wants to go out on a limb here?


  1. I'll be looking forward to your results. I'm especially curious how long it will take before it STARTS to breakdown. Cheers.

  2. Great post! I love that you are getting real answers and not trusting what you've heard through the grapevine. I'm staying tuned.

  3. Considering how much I love to test things, I can't believe it's taken me this long to see for myself what happens.

  4. Here's my guess: both will swell quite a bit, but that's as much as I'll guess. Why? Not all panels are created equally, it depends on the glue used. With the new requirement for No Added Urea Formaldehyde glues by California the water resistance of both materials will increase, because the substitute is MDI resin, the same resin used in oriented strand board used for sheathing. It's waterproof. In fact its boil-proof. So the question is: what plywood and particleboard did you use? There is a difference between mills and product lines from the same mill.

  5. I have the technical specs for both products and I'll list them when I write the results post. I'm not pretending that this is a scientific finding, more a test of a hunch and the result will be an anecdote, not real evidence. It'll also b e interesting. I've been kicking myself all morning for not having weighed the samples before I started. Grrr.

    Anyhow, the hunch I'm testing too is something that really wouldn't happen in real life. An immersed cabinet means you've had a flood and if that's true you have much bigger problems than the condition of your cabinetry.

    I wonder how these products fare in more typical situations, like a slow plumbing drip. Maybe for a follow up I'll construct a drip cahmber of some kind. Hmmm...

  6. I am curious to see the results...

    However, as a residential framer for quite a few years, I have seen both materials get wet from exposure to the weather - and have seen the results of each...I have a personal opinion on which I would prefer to use in my cabinetry...

    Thanks for posting Paul.

  7. I'm every bit as curious as you are. The floating samples (and they are still floating) just passed the 24 hour mark.

  8. It looks like you're going to get an A on your science project, young man!

  9. Sounds like Mythbusters for designers. Can't wait to see what happens. My guess is plywood fares better than particle board.

    Mind you the cardboard counter tops already blew me out of the water once. So I wouldn't be too surprised if the particle board won.

  10. Nancie: Screw getting an A, I want cash!

    Urban: Thanks for casting a lot. All will be revealed in a couple of days.

  11. I am going to agree with Peter as logic tells me, much will depend on the glue or resins used in their manufacturing. Also when subjected to the elements (water in this case); does 'raw' Plywood not warp/rot whereas 'raw' Particle Board just breaks down? On another level, in the same experiement I wonder how MDF would fare. -Brenda-

  12. My guess is that the particle board won't fare was well as the plywood. But I'm going to use reverse logic and say the plywood will come out of the water worse for wear ;-)

    I wonder if the plywood's layers vs. the particle board's little pockets will effect how they respond to sitting in water.....


  13. As you might guess, I'm pulling for the plywood. I have a little background with the stuff, having spent most of my youth in Southern Oregon in the land of lumber mills. No lie, my dad was a foreman in a particle board plant. We had piles of the stuff in our barn which had a leaky roof and much of it got damaged over time from moisture --both directly from roof drips and just plain moisture from the damp atmosphere due to constant rain. That was a lot of years ago, and I'm sure technology has improved it's durability.

    I'd expect both samples to show damage over time after soaking in water --just like a sink base getting exposed to dripping from a leaky faucet that's gone undetected until the homeowner smelled 'something funky' under the sink.

    The difference I would expect is that once the materials absorb the water, the particle board will lose it's integrity more so than the swollen layers of plywood. Tell-tell signs would be little bumps starting to appear under the vinyl or plastic covering on the particle board sample. I'm assuming the plywood piece has it also on one side? Can't see in the picture,just the veneer, that should start to de-laminate.

    How long are you planning to conduct this artificial flood experiment? I really want to know how it turns out. I'd really hate to think I've been getting soaked all these years for the price of more expensive plywood and will feel like a real drip if I've been dispensing bad advice.

  14. We're coming up on 48 hours and I'll pull both samples tomorrow morning at the 72 hour mark. So far they are both holding up better than I expected them to. The real test will be to watch them as they dry out after I take them out of the water.

  15. Will check in tomorrow to see the result.

  16. What a great and timely test! I just brought clients to Home Depot to purchase cabinets based on a COLOR that I could not provide with my favorite, all plywood DeWils cabs that I've been selling for years. I knew the homeowner wanted a door style and color that only came in Kraftmaid. In order to save money, they elected to go for the particle board boxes. Not my choice, especially for the sink base. UNFORTUNATELY, the huge HD sale ends TOMORROW, but this is such a timely test. I too am interested to see what happens not only when they are full soaked, but how they respond as they begin to dry out. Most European cabinets are high quality Particle Board, for enviornmental reasons, and my own kitchen has very high end cabs with wood veneer over particle board, and I love them. 10 years and not a problem. But, for the sale, I usually push for the plywood. My interest is
    1. Warping
    2. Separation of material (does it get stringy)
    3. Change in ability to support weight
    I like your test! This is great. I thank Pam for turning me on to this post!

  17. I'll definitely be back to see the results!
    As for not having weighed them, Paul... could you cut 2 more pieces in similar sizes for an "estimated pre-experiment weight"?? Obviously it won't be 100% accurate to the 2 pieces currently sitting in bowls of water, but it will at least give you a pretty good baseline and allow you to include the weight of the after experiment, water-logged pieces in your findings! And like you said... this isn't a science experiment... I don't think an estimated before weight will mar your results.
    Can't wait!!

  18. Thanks Victoria, based on what I saw this morning when I checked in on everything, the weight really won't matter. So far this has made me want to recreate everything and re-run it later. I'll be more scientific the second time around and get a better feel for these products as categories. This time around the results will be an anecdote about these very specific samples rather than some blanket statement about categories. Still interesting though!

  19. Jane: Thanks for weighing in. Somebody went with Kraftmaid over DeWils? Ugh. Say no more!

    I will end the immersion part of this tomorrow and I'll write a post with the progress to date. The real interesting stuff will come over the next week as these samples dry out.


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