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Engineering design creativity.

As furniture designers discover the benefits of particleboard and MDF panels, they also unlock the creative potentials.

Furniture design partners Jack Schmitt and Leon Waxman can recite a long list of plusses when it comes to naming the benefits of using particleboard and MDF in their designs. "Consistency, stability, and availability," says Schmitt, "plus the key factor -- economics."

Waxman agrees that using composite panels versus lumber offers manufacturing economy. "It enables a designer to produce for promotional price points a dresser, case piece or occasional table with a fancy edge at an affordable price. MDF today is so uniformly dense that you can shape it to look like a more expensive piece of shaped wood. In addition to being cost effective, the piece is more stable and strong and won't warp like lumber can," Waxman says.

The two partners design for several RTA furniture manufacturers. "Composites are all they (RTA manufacturers) use and it keeps price points affordable. I don't think the RTA industry could exist without composite panels," Waxman says.

From his perspective as a furniture designer, Schmitt says he perceives the value that is engineered into today's wood panels. He is quick to add, however, that he is also aware that the quality of the panels is not always apparent to consumers. "Friends have said, 'Particleboard, isn't that just chips of wood?' It should be a goal of the industry to educate the consumer that particleboard and MDF are just as good and many times better than solid wood for furniture applications. Composites don't warp or split as easily as lumber can."

Schmitt says that composite panels are being used in products at all price points, instead of just at the lower end of the market. "When you see a veneer in a design, it is usually over a particleboard core. Furniture manufacturers may not call it particleboard or MDF but it is probably there," Schmitt says.

Design benefits

Waxman says there are many design advantages to using particleboard cores with certain veneers beyond simple price considerations. "Highly figured burls and fancy face veneers with lot of different grain directions are hard to stabilize applied to a lumber core. Using particleboard cores adds to the stability of the piece."

One of the clients that Schmitt and Waxman design for is Good Companies of Carson, Calif., which uses both particleboard and MDF for making bedroom furniture and occasional tables. "Routing, shaping, and embossing are all processes that work well with composites allowing us to create a lot of looks without a lot of expense," Schmitt says.

Waxman says the use of particleboard and MDF has expanded the designers' frontiers. "If you see a bedroom suite in a high-polished lacquer, the core of those surfaces is MDF. Solid wood would crack with such an application."

Another nice thing about particleboard and MDF is that they are not subject to environmental changes the way solid wood is. "Furniture has to exist in a variety of totally different climates. Florida is hot and humid. Arizona is hot and dry. Michigan is very cold. Manufactured products are much more stable and cause less quality control problems than solid wood," Waxman says.

Bob Anderson, chief resident designer for Stanley Furniture of Stanley, N.C., says most manufacturers work with particleboard and MDF today as opposed to 15 or 20 years ago when its use was negligible. "Solid wood substrates are just cost prohibitive for many companies. Also, the particleboard and MDF we see today is a much improved material. It is very uniform in quality," Anderson says.

"Particleboard and MDF have evolved into a material with many more furniture applications. You can put a veneer surface on particleboard and have less problems than solid wood. A solid wood joint, for example, can telegraph right through. Particleboard won't. Solid wood cores can swell if they pick up moisture and that slight bit of moisture in the wood is enough to ruin the surface. No two pieces of wood are the same, but composite products offer much better uniformity for density and moisture retention," Anderson says.

A hearty thumbs up

Jack Kelley, owner of Studio 222 in Grand Rapids, Mich., an industrial designer, and former director of design for Herman Miller, thinks particleboard and MDF are products without competition. "As far as I can see, there is nothing else competing with them. Nothing provides less warpage or the tremendous stability factors of these products. I suppose the greening groups could voice some concerns about chemicals, but formaldehyde levels are drastically reduced today," says Kelley, who specifies particleboard and MDF all the time in his work.

"They are widely used in furniture designs. I don't know of any project I have done that hasn't used one or the other or both. I would say much of the furniture produced today uses particleboard cores. Plus, the things that you can do with MDF -- shapes, profiles and more -- are fantastic. MDF just solved a design solution for us in one of our recent designs. Using particleboard we needed to edge a surface, but we substituted MDF. It was more dense and it solved the need to band because we stained it instead," Kelley says.

"Particleboard and MDF are very timely products. You can do so much with them. They have become standards of the industry," Kelley concludes.

RTA and Engineered Wood a good fit

Kevin Sauder, vice-president of Sauder Woodworking, the largest manufacturer of RTA furniture in the world, thinks that sales figures for his and other RTA manufacturing companies demonstrate increased consumer awareness of the benefits of Engineered Wood panels for furniture and cabinets.

"I think consumers are coming around. They might not know the exact terminology for particleboard and MDF -- calling it chipboard or pressed board instead -- but our research shows that panel products represent good value to today's consumer," Sauder says. "I think that once consumers are shown and told the benefits of using Engineered Wood versus solid wood, they turn around. They are willing to have their minds changed about products."

Sauder says particleboard and MDF would have a better consumer image if retail salespeople were better educated, a goal of the PB/MDF Institute of which Sauder Woodworking is a member. "I think there is still some negative selling going on in the industry. The people who tout their products as 'solid wood' imply that because the products contain no particleboard, it is somehow a better product. They don't openly criticize particleboard or MDF, but it is a negative approach just the same. It would be like a car dealer saying, 'We don't carry any green cars' and you begin to say what is the matter with green cars, when green cars are just as good or better as the red, white and blue ones."

New name, new image

Sauder further explains that RTA manufacturers, which are major users of particleboard and MDF, upped their image by discarding the name K-D, for knock down, in favor of what he calls the more positive ready-to-assemble term. "We found K-D had a bad connotation with consumers. We have worked hard to equate RTA with a product of value. That means the consumer takes home an item with all the screws included, holes that line up, with quality surfaces indistinguishable from hardwood, and complete with easy-to-follow assembly directions."

This accent on quality has paid off, Sauder says. "When we ask consumers if they would buy another RTA item, 98.9 percent responded yes. That tells me perceptions can be changed. Furniture made from Engineered Wood does offer a quality product that doesn't warp, delaminate or chip. Americans do change their minds in the marketplace. Just look at how we used to think of products made in Japan? 'Made in Japan' was once equated with cheap. Now 'Made in Japan' means a Lexus automobile," he says.

Improved products, increased consumer acceptance

Richard Pennel of Bush Industries, Jamestown, N.Y., another major RTA manufacturer, thinks consumers see furniture made of panel products as a good alternative because it is "cost effective and it creates a good looking product. We have definitely seen an increased acceptance of engineered wood and RTA furniture because consumers are discovering that RTA is functional and durable and of much higher quality than the early market offerings," Pennel says.

"The RTA furniture industry has great growth potential because it offers an answer to the customer looking for value. I would say about the only negative to some people is they have to set up and assemble it themselves. We are overcoming that reaction by making products as easy to assemble as we can," Pennel adds.

Engineered excellence inspires new product market

Institute member Bill Blankenship of the Weyerhaeuser Co. in Tacoma, Wash., says he sees an emerging market for MDF in the replacement of solid wood -- specifically clear Douglas Fir and clear Ponderosa Pine lumber used for such things as mouldings and millwork.

"I also see MDF use growing as a replacement for clear hardwood lumber used in door stiles and window parts," Blankenship says. "Particleboard's use is growing and will continue to grow in furniture and cabinetry replacing solid wood and plywood. There is a growing demand for panel products because of the reduced solid wood supply. In addition, using particleboard and MDF eliminates problems of splitting, warp and twist associated with solid wood. Plus, products can be made at a lower price point. As manufacturers realize the features and benefits of engineered wood we will see the expansion of existing markets," Blankenship says.

"Market changes, driven by availability and the volatility of lumber prices have resulted in a number of new applications for particleboard as well as the expansion of market penetration in traditional applications," says Bill Clifford, of Temple-Inland Forest Products Corp. in Diboll, Texas, "The shelving market for particleboard has traditionally been in the raw state with one edge either bull-nosed or square edged. In recent years, laminated, edge-boarded shelving has exploded in the do-it-yourself market, as homeowners and builders install value-added closet organizers and shelving," says Clifford, an Institute member. "Veneer wrapped particleboard is widely used in door jamb applications, replacing solid wood."

Refined production techniques have resulted in more consistent particleboard suitable for sophisticated end uses, such as high-gloss finishes, so popular in recent years, Clifford adds. "Work continues on many fronts as the trend to even higher-gloss levels increases the need for finer panel faces than are currently produced. Moulding and embossing of particleboard has been attempted for cabinet doors to replace more expensive substrates."

Clifford says that in traditional applications, the development of lower density particleboard is on the fast track at many plants in response to demands from the RTA furniture market. Along with lower density, higher strength properties are becoming the norm as particleboard is required to perform more demanding tasks such as long-span work surfaces in office furniture.

Ted Bauer of the Medite Corp. in Medford, Ore., says that continued pressure on solid lumber supplies has intensified the interest in using MDF to replace some of these traditional lumber uses. "We find the use of MDF for paint finish moulding and trim is expanding rapidly," Bauer says.

"Some DIY and conventional lumber outlets are featuring MDF presented in traditional lumber sizes as an alternative to clear lumber. The availability of moisture resistant and non-formaldehyde bonded boards has also expanded some markets. The moisture resistant board is developing a demand in high moisture exposure areas such as countertops, toe boards and base boards where repeated casual contact with moisture causes risks," Bauer says.

Bauer adds that non-formaldehyde boards are gaining interest and approval where indoor air quality is a concern or the pressure of formaldehyde could cause the deterioration of stored material or displays. "Several internationally reknown museums are using it for display casework," Bauer says.

Jim Wilson, product engineer for Georgia-Pacific Corp. in Atlanta, says other markets that are expanding include vinyl wrapped MDF raised panel doors laminated on a membrane press. "MDF has given furniture manufacturers the latitude to emboss in the raw state or with micro laminates to give a design appearance they couldn't achieve with wood," Wilson says, adding, that slot walls, used widely to display merchandise in retail stores, is starting to be used as den panelling.

The bottom line, according to Wilson, is that the predictability and consistency of particleboard and MDF panels give wood products manufacturers the latitude to create designs and engineer product excellence like never before.


"For me, the benefits of belonging to the PB/MDF Institute include taking part in an effort to change any negative perceptions people may have about particleboard and MDF. Consumers need to learn about the quality and benefits of panel products. The Institute is doing a good job of getting our story out to the public. Upgrading the perception of panel products will ultimately help my company's sales."

--Kevin Sauder, Sauder Woodworking


"Our customer relationships have traditionally been with manufacturers and distributors. With MDF and particleboard being substituted in an increasing variety of end uses, our product's image with retailers and consumers will be of growing importance. Membership in the PB/MDF Institute provides us with an opportunity to shape that image."

--Will Warberg, Plum Creek
COPYRIGHT 1993 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:the benefits of particleboard have led to creative potentials
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Engineered wood creates new hardware & assembly options.
Next Article:Postformed edge not just for countertops anymore.

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