Just what is that product made of? You should know what it is that you're buying. There are a lot of terms; Architectural wood, Select Hardwood, Select Hardwood Solids, Pressed Hardwood, MDF, Engineered Wood, Particleboard, Flakeboard, Wood Solids, Presssed Wood, Plywood, and Masonite, to name just a few. Confusing, isn't it? Here's some help. And it's in layman's terms.

We'd like to thank the folks at Wood & Wood Products Magazine (especially for the wealth of information we found in their new publication "100 Years of American Woodworking"). We'd also like to thank the nice people over at the National Particleboard Association, and the Particleboard-MDF Institute, for helping with us with our research.

Select Hardwood

Well, it's enormously expensive these days to use hardwood for furniture manufacturing. Your great-grandmother's dining room table was probably made out of hardwood, and those beautifully finished surfaces were probably veneered. Today's substitute for hardwood construction is likely to be either plywood (where exceptional strength and durability are paramount) or (in most cases) Engineered Wood.


A process which has endured since ancient times. The Egyptian king Tutankhamen's great-grandparents had a bed which was decorated with veneers (it was discovered by archeologist Howard Carter many centuries later). Veneer is a very thin piece of desirable (and generally rare or otherwise expensive) wood, glued to a structurally sound, but less costly wood product. To put it into perspective, there is a quotation by T.W. Bousfield, in the book R.M.S. Queen Mary: Ship of Beautiful Woods. When speaking of veneers, Mr. Bousfield said: "If the beautiful woods you see on the Queen Mary were solid right through, half of the forests of the world would have had to be devastated..."

A word about veneer finishes. Veneer, good quality veneer, is expensive. Often manufacturers will use a more modestly priced product and stain it to match the expensive variety. Terms like "Mahogany" and "Cherry" Finish may simply mean that the sheet of Ash or Birch or another variety of less costly veneered particleboard or MDF from which a piece of furniture has been constructed, has received a mahogany or cherry colored stain.


It was eventually discovered that sheets of Veneer, obtained from less costly varieties of wood, when placed at right angles to each other and glued together, would make an enormously strong wood panel. From: National Committee on Wood Utilization, a 1929 pamphlet: "Plywood is a modern term describing an old product which did not receive serious technical and economic consideration until its adaptability to airplane and marine consideration was developed during exhaustive tests at the Forest Products Laboratory.". Giant panels of plywood had their origin during World War II, when a great quantity of plywood was needed in a hurry. Plywood was used for everything from dummy aircraft to pontoons. In the 1960's, plywood panels got even bigger. An Australian firm began producing panels up to 9 feet by 50 feet, and up to 1 1/4 " thick.


This product was accidentally discovered by Wm.H. Mason in 1925. Mason, armed with a blowtorch, an 18th-century letter press, an old automobile boiler, and his own ingenuity, was searching for a use for the huge quantities of wood chips that lumber mills discarded every year as useless waste. He was trying to press wood fiber into insulation board when he forgot to shut down his lab equipment during a lunch break. What he found when he returned, however, was a durable, thin sheet that would launch a world-wide industry. Hardboard, the generic term, is the dark brown panel you and I know as Masonite. Mason became the first person to successfully break down wood and put it back together using only the wood's natural binders. 7 billion square feet is produced annually and today hardboard manufacturers produce everything from wood-grain panels to intricately cut or molded furniture components. The most recognizable form of Masonite however, (for you and me,anyway) might be used as a back wall on a bookcase, or as a rear panel on a large-screen TV. In some cases, it acts in concert with an existing product (such as a better-quality, home-office type computer enclosure) to create a second wall or "false back", safely enclosing and protecting the product's internal wiring.

Engineered Wood

Remember all those different terms you kept hearing when you looked for home-office furniture? There's a whole bunch of them. Particleboard, Wood Solids, Presssed Wood, Pressed Hardwood, Select Hardwood Solids, Architectural wood, and MDF, to name a few. They all fall under the category of Engineeed Wood, although some may have vastly different quality ratings.


This is the generic name for a panel manufactured from lignocellulosic or plant materials. Technically, this is can mean anything from straw or Bagasse (sugarcane stalks) to wood. This material is combined with a synthetic resin or other suitable binder, and then bonded together under heat and pressure. The basic raw materials for particleboard are plant residues or low-quality logs. Some recycled material, where it is economical to use such a substance, is now part of the raw material supply. Particleboard remains the world's dominant furniture panel, although consideable amounts also go into structural applications, such as manufactured home floors, roof sheathing, wall panels, stair treads, and for house floors generally elsewhere in the world. Generally considered is the least expensive version of this category, Particleboard is not as densely compacted, will have rough edges and the interior may contain cavities. Particleboard might typically be used for your kitchen counter, where it would be covered, and thus protected from moisture, by a laminate material, such as Formica™.

MDF, or Medium Density Fiberboard

The same general procedure is employed to manufacture MDF, except that the panels are compressed to a density of 0.50 to 0.80 specific gravity in a hot press by a process in which the entire interfiber bond is created by the added [synthetic resin or other suitable] binder. A wide variety of raw material types can be handled in an MDF plant. These types range from pulp chips to planer shavings to plywood trim to sawdust. Other non-wood materials, such as bagasse, (sugarcane stalks) also make excellent MDF. MDF lends itself well as a substitute for clear lumber, and while it does not have a grain structure, finishes and overlays can be used effectively to provide a product that, in appearance, looks like wood. A considerable amount is now used for moldings or millwork, replacing solid lumber. Bottom line, MDF is subjected to greater pressure during manufacture than Particleboard, therefore the edges will be smooth and there will be no interior cavities. Thus, this product has greater strength than Particleboard. While utilization for each products properties are mutually exclusive (you would never use particleboard for an application which calls for MDF, and you would never use MDF on an application which only called for Particleboard), it is quite common for both to be used within a particular product. RTA furniture manufacturers, for instance, often make use of both MDF and Particleboard.

Veneer Substitutes

Modern technology is amazing. What might look like a beautiful wood veneer finish these days, might just be a photographic reproduction. Most of the time you simply can't tell the difference between these new products and the real thing. Unless of course, it separates from the particleboard side of your brand new bathroom vanity. Which is how we knew enough to ask the guys at the National Particleboard Association "Hey, what's that stuff that looks like really good ContactPaper™ ? in the first place. Their reply? "Ummmm--It's sort of like really good ContactPaper™". OK, it's actually a bit more complicated than that. Variables for finishes range from high pressure laminates, to decorative foils, to low basis weight paper fused to board, to vinyl films. Each of which is overlayed to the substrate by varying means. Ever select a vinyl transfer and have it heat pressed onto a T-shirt? You've got the idea.

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