25 January 2010

Particle board vs. plywood: final findings, advice and taking it to extremes

Last Monday I wrote a post about a little, unscientific experiment I conducted last week. I followed up on Thursday with my initial findings and here we are a week later with my final words on the subject. Maybe.

To reprise, I took two six-inch by six-inch samples made from a cabinet shelves. One was 3/4" particle board and the other was 3/4" fir plywood. They are entirely representative of the materials that go into contemporary, quality cabinetry in the US. I soaked these samples in bowls of water for 72 hours and fished them out to survey the damage.

The big surprise was how little damage there was to survey. Both were pretty much ruined but at the same time, neither had lost their essential shelf-ness. Frankly, I expected both of them to fall apart, but neither did. The particle board sample swelled and grew thicker by 1/16th of an inch. Though not exactly pretty, it would still work as a shelf.

The plywood's dimensions weren't affected at all and the veneer only bubbled and delaminated slightly. The finish got kind of funky but the underlying plywood didn't delaminate.

Final ruling? Don't have a flood where the water is allowed to stand for three days. I think either of those products will hold up to usual amounts of moisture encountered by cabinetry in a typical kitchen. Again, if there is standing water in your kitchen and it lasts for three days, you have much bigger problems than the condition of your cabinetry.

What I tested was an extreme. A more typical water exposure in real life is the slow drip from a plumbing leak. Left unaddressed, a plumbing leak will ruin either cabinetry construction. The plywood construction will probably last longer with that kind of exposure though.

With that said, I still think particle board cabinet boxes are a good option if you're looking to save a couple of bucks on a kitchen remodel. You just have to be smart about how to handle the sink base. Since the sink base is the cabinet most likely to experience a plumbing leak, there are two things you can do to lessen the impact of such a leak.

First, caulk the inside edges on the bottom of the sink base cabinet with clear silicone caulk. Water can only damage particle board by getting into the parts of it that aren't laminated, so seal all the open particle board. In most cabinets, that's in the areas where the cabinet floor meets the cabinet sides. Calk those joints and you'll preserve the life of your cabinetry.

The second helpful hint I have is to use a caterer's tray as a liner.

Slide a caterer's tray into your sink base and push it against the back of the cabinet. Be sure that the tray is directly under the P trap and water cut offs. Should they ever spring a leak, the drips will get caught by the caterer's tray and save your cabinet. Once the tray's been pushed into place, put back the all the stuff you normally keep under your sink.

So after all of that, I never get the destruction horror show I was hoping for when I dropped my samples in their water bowls a week ago.

One of my Twitter friends is Mike Hines and Mike's one of the founders of HomePath, makers of a conduit system called eXapath for wiring homes for cable, internet, sound and entertainment. Check out eXapath if you're looking for a great solution to wire your home. What makes it so great is that the eXapath system will allow you to change and upgrade your wiring in the future. It's pretty brilliant.

Mike, the good natured prankster, suggested that add some heat to my experiment. So I did.

Here's my samples in a bath of boiling water.

I boiled them for ten minutes and I got the destruction I was looking for.

The lesson here is don't install cabinetry next to a geyser or in the path of a pyroclastic flow. I was tempted to conduct tests on my samples involving throwing them from an airplane or under the wheels of a speeding train but I doubt "Don't throw cabinetry from high altitudes at high speeds" would have been a very meaningful finding.

So at the end of the day, my recommendation today is the same it was a week ago. Buy the best quality you can afford and particle board construction isn't automatically bad. I'm glad to know I haven't been giving people the wrong advice. Now I'm off to go perform some fire and acid tests on my samples.


  1. Reminds me of me very scientific tests I conducted to see whether bamboo, oak or sustainable hardwood would stand up best to dog claws. The answer - after I'd hit them with a hammer and dragged nails across - is that all wood (or grass) suffers if you abuse it enough.

  2. I have a whole new respect for product testers after this. It's always the same thing, buy the best you can afford and buy it once.

  3. Speaking of 'speeding trains' Paul, you are like a 'runaway train' when you get going.
    There is just no stopping you is there. Be careful of the fire and acid.

    SMILES -Brenda-

  4. What's life if you can't have some fun with it Brenda?

  5. Could you do some freeze thaw cycles Paul? During the recent two-week Ice Age here in Florida, I had to leave my faucents dripping almost continuously. Several of my friends needed instructions on what to do to avoid pipes freezing and bursting. Maybe you could demonstrate what would happen if a pipe froze and broke, then the water refroze again.

    If you really want to see acid in action, we have some high molar sulfuric and hydrofluoric acid that I could use to test on the samples. Oh, and a safety hood to do it in.....

  6. Oooooh, acid testing sounds fun! I'm coming to Gainesville, samples in hand.

  7. Re life, fun and fire .... the acronym which comes to mind is; "if you play with fire you get burned". With respect to Acid, I'm not familar with any acronym for it but then again I suppose it depends on what type of Acid we are talking about. In the Drug culture rumour has it LSD is fun.
    SMILES -Brenda-

  8. Hi Paul
    If you ever get the opportunity to tour a faucet manufacturer you will find the various types of testing they do for life cycle etc. very interesting. Also, I believe that Sonia tests it's bath cabinetry under water for a year and it stays the same.

  9. Funny you should mention that Michelle, our friends at Brizo have been offering me a tour of their manufacturing plant in Jackson, TN. I would love to see this stuff being made.

  10. Seeing the product made really gives you an appreciation for the value of the product and gives you a great story to tell your clients about the combination of automation and craftsmanship involved. I have not yet made it to the Jackson plant, but at the corporate offices in Indianapolis they have their life cycle testing labs and it is really cool to see. I've seen theirs and Kohlers and I find it fascinating how rigorous the testing is-- especially since they test for way longer than anyone really keeps a faucet! You should take them up on it. Six years ago I was able to tour their old Greenwood facility and see how the faucets were constructed, plated and pvd'd, but have not been to the new Jackson location and would love to go. Let me know your thoughts after you go, ok?

  11. Will do Michelle. I'll see all of those guys in New York in a couple of weeks and we'll probably set up something for a Jackson visit then.

  12. Very jealous! Have fun in NY!

  13. How can someone NOT have fun in New York? I'll be posting plenty while I'm up there. Plenty.

  14. nothing like a steamy hot bowl of plywood and particle board soup....when's dinner? :)

  15. Yum! I did smell good while I was boiling those samples. Sort of like the smell of a lumber yard. Well, I think that's a good smell anyway.


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