What is particleboard?
While particleboard has grown popular over the years and can be found in most high-street furniture stores, many people are still unsure of how it’s made.
In this guide, we’ll delve into the history of manufactured wood and explore the uses and advantages of particleboard in modern-day construction.
A bit of history
The first alternative to natural wood was ‘modern plywood’ - invented in the 19th century. Plywood is made from thin veneers of solid wood, bonded together by an adhesive. However, by the end of the 1940s there was a lack of timber available to manufacture plywood affordably – this is when particleboard shined as a popular alternative.
Particleboard, also known as chipboard, was much more readily accessible at the time as it’s made from a combination of waste materials - such as planer shavings, offcuts or sawdust – and mechanically produced wood chips. The chips are glued together and then compressed under heat in to a large board shape. It is then dried and cut into various sizes to be sold.
How it’s made
Essentially, particleboard is a type of manufactured wood made from compressed wood particles, but we’ve outlined the basic stages of production in more detail below:
1. Chipping: Before chipping, the logs may have to be debarked, if not already done so in the forests, as this will avoid blunting the chipper knives. Once the bark is removed, the wood is cut to a predetermined length and fed into a chipper.
Planer shavings and similar waste are milled to the required particle size. Surface and core chips are often prepared in different ways and held in separate storage.
2. Drying: Wood chips are passed through a dryer to reduce their moisture content to about 2.5 percent to facilitate gluing and hot pressing. Core and surface chips may be dried to slightly different moisture contents.
An alternative to rotary dryers is flash drying, which requires somewhat lower drying temperatures.
3. Gluing: The dry chips are blended with a synthetic resin and any other appropriate additives such as hardener or wax emulsion. Proportioning of glue and chips has to be very exact and may vary as surface chips often have higher glue contents.
At this stage, any special requirements such as fungal or flame retardant treatments can be added. The type of glue used can also determine the properties, such as the moisture resistance.
4. Mat forming: A mattress of wood chips coated with adhesive is formed by dropping them on to caul plates or belts. Depending on the type of mat-forming machinery, this will produce either consistent graded density or layered mats.
5. Pressing: Pre-compressing is commonly carried out and then the mat is further compressed to a predetermined thickness (usually about 5mm) in a high-pressure and temperature press, which may be multi-daylight, single daylight or continuous.
6. Trimming and sanding: After cooling, each panel is trimmed and then sanded to a desired thickness and to produce a smoother finish.
As mentioned above, there are many variations and modifications that particleboard can be put through to enhance it properties such as moisture resistance, fire retardant or acoustic insulation. Just some of these include:
Three-layer particleboard: Finer layers of manufactured wood flakes (processed from solid birch, beech, alder, pine etc.) are placed on the outsides of the board, with the central section composed of coarser, cheaper chips. Using more uniformed, manufactured chips gives the board a greater strength and appearance.
Moisture resistant (MR) particleboard: A melamine-urea formaldehyde resin is used along with a wax emulsion to provide water-repellent properties.
Cement-bonded particleboard: As the name implies, this uses cement as a bonding agent and as such, is highly resistant to moisture, impact, sound, fire and rot.
Particleboard is often used in furniture and interior applications, because standard particleboard isn’t suitable for areas that are prone to wetting or high humidity and is more affordable than solid timber.
Large companies like IKEA have popularised the use of particleboard in furniture with their reputation of suppling particleboard, MDF or similar for a high quality, at a low cost. It is mostly found in furniture that require large pieces such as table tops, desks, TV units and bookshelves.
Particleboard can either be bought bare or be covered with thin sheets of veneer or plastic laminate. While solid wood furniture is considered to be more attractive, these materials can simulate the look of real wood, while costing marginally less, therefore is a good alternate option when buying furniture on a budget.
When it comes to construction, particleboard is well suited for interior projects, such as attaching cabinet door hinges to the sides of frameless cabinets. While other materials, such as plywood, may feather off in sheaves when extreme weight is placed on the hinges, particleboard has the ability to hold the screws in place.
However, to connect two pieces of particleboard, a regular screw simply won’t make the cut – you will need to use adhesives, fasteners or specially-designed screws for holding particleboards together.
In comparison to plywood or solid wood, particleboard is less forgiving during the installation process, as portions of the particleboard may give-way when subjected to extension stress. This is largely due to lack of elasticity in particleboard resins.
It’s very prone to expansion and discoloration due to moisture. Therefore, it is rarely used outdoors or in places where there are high levels of moisture. To combat this, it can be covered with paint or another sealer to help it retain its shape and appearance.
If your particleboard has a veneer or melamine covering, it can chip when cutting with a circular saw. So to combat this, you can score it with a utility knife along the cut line before. You could also try covering the cut line with masking tape before making the cut.
Although melamine can be difficult to work with, in terms of chipping, because of its clean, smooth exterior, it doesn't require painting and if affixed properly, will be stable and strong for a long time.
Another tip when cutting particleboard is to work in a well-ventilated area (or failing that – an extremely strong dust-collection system) as cutting the particleboard tends to create very fine sawdust. This could be a particular concern if the particleboard contains formaldehyde.
Although there’s no denying the strength of solid wood in comparison, particleboard can offer advantages over solid wood on a cost basis, depending on the project. For example, thick particleboard (typically 3/4 inch) can support compressive loads such as countertops and appliances. Its adequate strength and low cost make it a popular choice.
So while it may never match up to the superior properties of natural timber, particleboard is inexpensive and really versatile, making it a great substitute product for many industries.
Hopefully the above serves as a decent overview of the production and the best uses of particleboard, but if you've got any further questions – be sure to get in touch via Twitter.