Take a walk through most furniture stores today and you'll see truckloads of beautifully finished hardwood furniture. Cherry, oak, maple and many other varieties of stock. However, if you take a closer look at any of these pieces, you may notice that it likely isn't made from hardwood at all. Instead, the piece is most likely made from veneered particle board.
Why would furniture companies use a manufactured wood product simulated to look like hardwoods?
The answer is simple. Manufactured wood products are far less expensive to buy than hardwoods.
What is Particle Board?
Particle board is a manufactured wood product. It's actually quite environmentally friendly, as it is built from compressed shredded wood scraps and recycled wood held together with a type of resin. It is cheaper and denser than hardwood but is not very strong or resistant to moisture. It also does not take paint (let alone stain) well.
To combat these deficiencies, most particle boards are covered with veneers glued onto the exterior surfaces made to look like the desired hardwood. To the untrained eye, a piece of furniture made from veneered particle board looks like a fine hardwood piece.
Should Particle Board be Avoided?
Does this mean that you should avoid using particle board in your woodworking projects?
As with all manufactured wood products, there is a proper time and place for using particle board products.
For instance, white, melamine covered particle board is well-equipped for use in interior tasks such as building closet shelves. The melamine is clean and doesn't require painting, and if affixed properly, will be stable and strong for a long time. I have used melamine coated particle board for numerous shop projects, and it holds up quite well.
How to Use Particle Board
Are there any special steps that are required when using particle board?
For starters, a regular screw or nail that is driven directly into particle board will not hold very well. For connecting two pieces of particle board, use adhesives and specially-designed screws for holding particle board.
Second, the veneer or melamine covering on the particle board can chip when cutting with a circular saw. To combat this chipping, try scoring the particle board with a utility knife along the cut line. You might also try covering the cut line with masking tape before making the cut.
Another item to consider is whether the exposed edge of the particle board will be visible to the user of the project. If it will be visible, you may want to consider getting some edge banding that can be applied to the edge and conceal the particle board. This type of banding is often coated with a heat activated glue. The best method I've found to apply this banding is to use a common clothes iron across the face of the banding as it is positioned over the exposed edge. The heat from the iron will protrude through the banding and melt the glue on the back side, attaching it to the edge of the particle board.
There are some concerns that the resins used in the manufacturing of particle board may contain formaldehyde. This becomes a potential problem when cutting the particle board, as the saw blade tends to create very fine sawdust that you should avoid breathing. When cutting particle board, work in a very well ventilated area unless you have an extremely strong dust collection system.