26 January 2008

Particle Board vs. Plywood

A lot of people come to me, fresh from watching HGTV and its misleading commercials, and they specify that they want ply wood cabinetry in their new kitchen. So I put together a proposal using our plywood construction option and their eyes bug out when they see the price. Even worse, some of them run to a local distributor of cheap plywood-built cabinetry from China and spend their money on garbage that will fall apart in a couple of years. Some folks out there hear the word plywood and their eyes glaze over. "I want that!"

No one ever talks about the difference between grades of plywood. A two-ply sheet of plywood is technically plywood, sure. But it has the strength of a Kleenex. But a couple of levels below that, I want to know where the perception that it's always better and always superior comes from.

The standard-built, made-to-order cabinet sold in the world is made from particle board. And when I say made from I mean that the box of the cabinet -- its sides, back, bottom and shelves are made with a laminated particle board. Cabinet doors, face frames, moldings, etc. are almost always made from a combination of solid hardwoods and hardwood veneers. The industry realizes that particle board has been unfairly maligned and so they refer to it as "furniture board." The term furniture board strikes me as being a bit forced.

Anyhow, particle board is also graded; much the same way that plywood is. The some-assembly-required shelf system from IKEA is made from particle board. So is a one-of-a-kind set of kitchen cabinets from William Ohs. There is a profound difference in the quality of that particle board though.

Put simply, cheap particle board is made from sawdust and Elmer's glue. Good particle board is made from sawdust and airplane glue. Good particle board is water-resistant, strong, heavy and stable. It can also be milled consistently. As a manufactured product, it can be made to spec. If somebody wants it to be 1 and 11/16ths inches thick, then it will be.

You cannot be so precise with plywood. Plywood is also a manufactured product, but it expands and contracts in reaction to ambient temperature and humidity. That it responds to humidity tells me at any rate that it isn't very water resistant.

Plywood can be drilled, patched and repaired more easily than particle board can. Plywood also hold color better. Plywood is always a premium, price-wise. The industry knows that there is a perceived value and they run with it.

There are times when its use is warranted and there are times when it's a waste of money. One thing that plywood is not is automatically superior to particle board. It's just not. If it can save 20% on the cost of a set of kitchen cabinets to make them from Particle board, why not? You can use that 20% to buy better counters or something else you can see. Or do what I would do and just spend less money on your new kitchen. But what do I know? Hah!


  1. The criticism I've seen most is that particle board's weight can lead to sagging shelves. I'm looking at building engineered boxes with plywood shelves and face panels to reduce weight but not directly join the two materials. Does anyone have experience with this sort of set up?

  2. Particle board shelves can sag in a wide cabinet if the shelves aren't thick enough. Plywood shelves can do the same thing though. Shelves that are at least 3/4" of an inch thick and 30 inches or less wide shouldn't sag though.

    Building a cabinet box from furniture board and then using plywood for the face frame and shelves would make them lighter for sure. I'm not quite sure what you're asking, but for what it's worth I use a construction similar to what you're describing pretty regularly. If I need to match the veneers of a wall cabinet interior to a cabinets exterior (usually when there are glass inserts in the cabinet doors) I will use veneered plywood shelves because I think they look better. The face frames I use are always stained hardwood though, regardless of the construction of the cabinet box they're attached to. All of the shelves I use are adjustable though. We use a peg system on the interior walls of the cabinetry, so the two materials never com into contact other than where the face frome meets the cabinet box.

    Does that help?

  3. Honest Answer EXPERTS which is better MONEY is not an OBJECT ?
    (a) Which one will last longer
    (b) Which one is better


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