21 January 2010

Particle board vs. plywood: the first follow up

OK, on Monday I wrote a post and detailed my plans for finding out what happens when a six inch by six inch sample of 3/4" veneer plywood and a six by six sample of laminated 165 lb. particle board get dumped in water and left for a few days.

The water immersion part of this test ended yesterday and before I get to what I've observed so far, let me state a couple of things. For starters, if your cabinetry ends up floating in water for a couple of days, how well it's going to hold up is the least of your problems. So the odds of immersion are slim at best. Secondly, this is not a scientific experiment by any means nor are the findings that follow some kind of a sweeping indictment or endorsement of these products' categories. All this test does do is test a hunch I had about these very specific samples. OK, with that out of the way, let's get to it.

On Sunday morning at 11:15, I dropped this sample

and this sample into two separate bowls filled with three liters of tap water.

It was 73 degrees and sunny on that fine morning and here's what the samples looked like when they first went into their watery graves.

So I went about my day and waited to see what would happen. I knew they'd be fine for the first couple of hours and sure enough they were. I fished out my samples and photographed them at 15 minute intervals for the first hour. Then I photographed them again at two hours, four hours, six hours and 12 hours. I won't bore you by showing you all of this but if you really want to see exactly what these samples looked like at any of those intervals, I'll gladly send you the images. OK, moving on.

On Monday morning, I fished them out and this is what I saw at the 24 hour mark.

Both samples were still pretty intact. The laminate on the particle board had started to to blister a little bit and its once smooth surface felt almost like an orange peel.

The plywood seemed to be faring better.

Though some of the veneer had begun to delaminate. Neither sample had warped.

At 48 hours things were a little changed but nothing really dramatic.

This is the plywood's edgebanded side. It's still pretty intact and hasn't warped.

This is the particle board's edgebanded side. The particle board's not faring as well as the plywood, but I expected that. It's still not warped but it's about a sixteenth of an inch fatter than it was 48 hours before.

From the side, the plywood looked like this. There's a little veneer delamination going on but for the most part it's still intact.

And this is the side of the particle board. Pretty much the entire surface now has that orange peel texture from the individual wood particles swelling.

At 72 hours I pulled the samples out of the water for the last time.

The particle board suffered the most.

This is the edge, fresh from the drink. The edge tape seems to have held the shelf together and the water got in through the seams along the upper and lower surfaces.

The side's pretty chewed up too. If you click on this photo it will expand and you can get a better feel for the orange peel texture this thing's adopting.

The plywood behaved a little better after 72 hours.

This is the edge of the plywood sample.

And here's its side. You can see some of the veneer bubbling along the left edge.

You can also see a seam where two pieces of veneer meet up. That's the line about 2/3 of the way up the sample.

All in all, this was nowhere near as dramatic as I expected it to be. And frankly, I thought the particle board would hold up better. The plywood's pretty unusable at this point too. I mean, any finished wood that's thrown in water for 72 hours will be toast. Despite that though, I expected both samples to be in far worse shape than they are. That's a good finding.

But we're not done yet. Each of these samples absorbed a fair amount of water over the course of this test and they are both drying out as I type this. As the absorbed water evaporates, the samples will start to shrink.

That my friends is phase two. What do you suppose will happen now? Once either of these engineered products endures a 72 hour flood, what do you think happens? Will either of them still be viable? The humidity's been pretty low so they'll dry out in a couple of days. I will photograph them one last time after they've dried. What wonders await I wonder wonder wonder?


  1. All of a sudden I have an urge to watch Bill Nye the Science Guy... we're going to have to get you a nifty little theme song Paul ;)

  2. I'd love a theme song, preferably one performed by the kids from Pomplamoose.

  3. I think too, you would have seen less of a spread with either one if all sides had been taped. The 72 hours allows for some wicking for both products, doesn't it?

    They actually both did pretty good. Most times when I see a flood (dishwasher hose lets loose with the client away for a couple of days), we're seeing some end panel replacement and baseboard replacement in both cases, but not much else.

    Thanks, Dr. Paul!

  4. Taping all the edges would have prevented the minor dimensional changes that happened, that's for sure. I cut up some old shelves for these samples and every manufacturer I know only tapes the leading edge of them. Again, this test is a pretty exaggerated version of a real life situation, but I wonder if shelves taped on all four sides is something worth doing from a manufacturing position. Hmmm.

  5. Clarification, my friend. Paul, are you sure this is 65# particle board? I read in one of the comparison charts from the Composite Panel Association that particle board only went up to 55#. MDF, is not the same as particle board, it is much more dense and rigid than particle board and is offered in 65#.

  6. Great informative post ~ we should swap blog links.
    Paula Grace ~

  7. Laurie: The manufacturer described it to be a 165 lb. particle board. That rating in pounds has to do with the material's tolerance for pressure exertion. I know for a fact that it's not MDF and what I know too is that it is a section of a 3/4" thick shelf used by a better cabinet manufacturer. Beyond that, I am at the mercy of the manufacturer's fact sheet.

    Paula: I'd love to exchange links. Anybody who comments on Sara Baldwin's blog is A-OK with me! Consider it done.

  8. German cabinet shelves are taped on all sides (looking at Leicht, about 6 years old) Standard toe board comes with plastic "shoe" which protects p-board from first 1cm of flooding. They also offer a special water-resistant toeboard if I remember correctly, at a premium. Sinkbases have bottom liner of aluminium extending about 2cm up sides and back as standard. "Vorsprung durch technic"?

  9. That's good to know. The damage suffered by that particle board came from water getting into its raw sides. I'll bet a fully-taped particle board shelf would have come away unscathed.

    So far as the sink base liner goes, I've seen that on a bunch of lines. Even the cheap Italian stuff. I have a work around for that and I'll unveil it in my next follow up.

  10. Actually I'm surprised that both 'weathered' as well as what they did. Not surprised though that the Particle Board is showing signs of Orange Peel and expanded, but I was curious to see if would break down 'n crumble which it hasn't YET? Wondering....-Brenda-

  11. It's been out of the water for a day and-a-half and believe it or not, that particle board's in better shape than it was while it was wet. Watch for an update over the weekend.

  12. Nim you read my mind.... I was thinking Dr. Paul the Science guy! Paul you didn't by chance weigh them before and after? Just curious how much water they both were holding. Very interesting experiment.

  13. No I didn't weigh them. No sooner did I dump those samples into the water that all of the controls I neglected came rushing back to me. I never meant this to be real science, more an anecdote than anything. Maybe some intrepid reader will take this idea and actually set up a real experiment. Who's up for it?



  14. Besides the weight check (doh!) think you were more diligent than lots of manufacturers are before springing their products on the public.

  15. Thanks George. I think you're right, there's a lot of reliance on third-party research and too much of that is accepted at face value.

  16. great post paul. we only use plywood so I am biased. I have my own cabinetmaker but after ivan we saw much particleboard disentigrate..and some plywood but hands down the particle board was worse...mostly in older homes. There you have my 2 cents!


  17. Hey Cheryl, thanks for your comment. My take on it is that each material has its role to play and for some things plywood works better and is a more practical choice. In some other cases, particle board can do the job at hand better. Each has its strength and each has its weaknesses. Like all building products, there are different grades of particle board and plywood. I say select the best grade of the material that will get the job done. In a flood zone I'd definitely spec plywood base cabinets at a minimum after having seen first hand what three days in a bowl of water will do. At the same time, I wouldn't hesitate to spec particle board base cabinets in an area that's not likely to experience standing water.

    See you in New York! We can have a round table discussion about this with a group of our peers. Woo-hoo!

  18. Hi Paul, just got a moment to follow up on the experiment. I, like you, am of the opinion you need to use the best product you can to get the job done. My biggest concern is always the sink base, and its constant contact with water drip drip drip, inside, outside, on the doors, and whatever is adjacent to the dishwasher. Living and working in a very damp climate, the SF Bay Area, on the coastside, plywood is always my first choice for clients, but higher end euro style mdf completely taped is ok too! Thanks for doing this test. The outcome is really interesting.

  19. Jane: My final follow up will be tomorrow. I learned a couple of things, had a couple of suspicions confirmed and came across more than one surprise. At the end of the day this is not going to change anything about how I do my job, but it sure has been interesting.


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