Wooden furniture can be made of many type of wooden materials, be it solid wood, Medium Density Board (MDF), plywood and particleboard. And then there are also terms like "veneer" and "laminate". But what does all these materials mean? This condensed guide will clear all your doubts and chart you on your way towards being a savvy furniture shopper, maybe even onwards to become a wood guru.
A quick overall
Truth be told, different materials are good for different purposes. There is also the consideration of cost, which may make it prudent to invest more in furniture that are either more commonly exposed to moisture, heat or stresses, and/or are pivotal to your overall interior furniture design combination, like dining tables, chairs or tv consoles.
Solid wood furnitures generally have most of the desirable features but are expensive.
The alternatives are materials like MDF and plywood, but do note that they exist in a wide range of quality. By carefully selecting and using only high-grade ones, such wooden furniture can also last for years.
In general, you want to avoid particle boards, unless you intend for short usage.
|Solid Wood (Hard Wood)||Strong and have nice grains. Very durable. Can also be refurbished and made to look like new again.||Expensive and may be limited in designs as it cannot be made too thin to preclude warping.|
|MDF||MDF can be made thinner for attractive designs as they are more resistant to warping.||MDF will have to be veneered with a thin layer of wood veneer as it does not have grains. Hence, it cannot be easily restored when the veneer layer is scratched or has peeled off. MDF might pressure warp, and whether the veneer layer lasts is very dependent on workmanship.|
|Plywood||Have many different grades, and higher grade plywood are less likely to warp as compared to MDF and lower grade solid wood.||Cannot be refurbished unlike solid wood. Also needs to be veneered or laminated.|
|Particleboard||Cheap.||Outlook, shape and form doesn't last. Hydrophobic.|
Solid Wood Furniture
Most solid wood furniture are made from hardwoods with pleasant grain patterns such walnut, teak and ashwood. You may also have heard about cherry, maple, mahogany and oak. And then there are also other solid wood that furniture stores may try to pass off as equally good material — so buyers beware: not all solid wood furniture are born equal. A quality wood like walnut or teak, matters greatly over other cheaper ones that may generally not have the strength or properties to qualify for furniture usage.
So what is so good about solid wood furniture like walnut and teak? A premium dining table made out of walnut has very attractive grain patterns, and is very well-known for stability (maintaining its shape), and resistant to degradation over time.
Along the same strand, solid wood teak furniture are also very well-known to last for ages. Although we should also caveat at this point what you should go for is old teak. But a majority of the furniture industry will carry young plantation teak, and try to pass it off as premium. Young plantation teak really isn’t very much better than other mid-grade solid wood, and hence the raw material is actually not costly as well. Read more on our post on “All You Need to Know About Teak”.).
Besides walnut and teak, there are also many other hardwoods with attractive grains and good properties for you to consider. Other hardwoods that don't have attractive patterns like birch, rubber or other tropical hardwoods, are normally used for making chairs or sofa frames, or transformed into relatively good grades of plywood. The other factor to consider is how to seal the wood with a protective layer (which we use a plant-based hard wax called Rubio, for it's child-friendliness as well as to retain natural look). But that's another subject to cover.
Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF)
MDF is engineered from wood residuals, processed at high temperature and pressure. It is dense and heavy. Because it does not have wood grains, it is covered with a thin slice of wood called a veneer. The veneer is wrapped around the MDF and sanded to make it look almost like solid wood. For it to last, workmanship matters. This, unfortunately, is difficult to discern even for furniture importers, especially for for those who focus mainly on retailing and may not have any in-house carpentry capabilities.
However, a quick tip here is to check for signs of scratches on the showroom piece that may have been exposed to some wear and tear, to anticipate how it may degrade over time.
There are many types of plywood, but you should only go for hardwood plywood. You can easily differentiate this by knocking on it, and hardwood plywood will produce a sound closer to that of solid wood.
Hardwood plywood is very strong and usually can bear greater loads than solid or MDF. They are commonly used for the internals of chairs and sofas where it is out of sight, or wardrobe planks to resist warping.
Remember that we said that different materials are good for different purposes? This is where solid wood may not always be the cost effective material for load bearing purposes, like a wardrobe. And you might have seen some solid wood panels sagging over time.
This is where our Mila Walk-in Wardrobe comes in. On the outside, it appear as though it is made of solid wood (even sounds like it, if you digested our tip on identifying quality plywood earlier in this article). All factors considered (cost and practicality), we chose to make Mila with high-grade plywood on the inside to provide the strength to take on heavy loads, and wrap it with walnut veneer on the outside for appealing walnut grains and colour.
We start this section by saying, mostly you want to avoid particleboard.
Particleboard is the most common material used in IKEA furniture. Its outlook won't last and it is prone to deformation. In recent years, IKEA recognised this and started introducing a combination of MDF to reduce deformation.
While it is cheap, it generally cannot be made to look natural. It is common for the laminate layer (surface) to chip off or delaminate when exposed to water. Particle boards will deform easily, and is a poor choice to bear weight. The joints will also wear out very easily.
Veneering vs Laminating
When people talk about "veneer furniture", what they are really referring to, whether knowingly or unknowingly, is the technique of using a thin layer of wood to wrap around a wooden material. A veneer is obtained by taking piece of log, usually something premium with desirable wood grains like walnut or teak, and "peeling" it into a thin layer of wood, much like a pencil in a sharpener. It is used to wrap over MDF or plywood, or even solid wood sometimes. Identifying a piece of furniture as "veneer furniture" by itself has no real indication of its durability, as it boils down to workmanship. Given that it is difficult to tell the quality of the veneer work, it is usually better to go with a reputable furniture store to ensure that you get a nice piece of veneer furniture that will last.
Laminate is actually not a type of wood material but the technique of gluing a layer of engineered material, most commonly over a particleboard or plywood. You should avoid laminates unless you are out of budget.
You are now ready to go furniture hunting. Remember, you can safely buy solid wood, MDF or hard plywood furniture as long as you like them. Just avoid laminates and particle boards unless you are on a budget for unimportant items.