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Shopping for wood furniture can be a struggle if you’re unsure how to tell if furniture is wood or particle board.
Fortunately, there are a few ways you can figure out whether what you’re getting is the real thing or not.
When choosing furniture, you want to find the best quality possible. Most people will tell you to buy solid wood only.
It holds up better to time and the elements, and it tends to look better, too.
But when you’re in the thick of furniture shopping, it might be hard to tell if a piece of furniture is wood or particle masked to emulate solid wood.
You should check the weight, construction, cost, and detail work of the piece if you can't tell if you’re looking at wood or particleboard. These will all be good indicators of the material.
Is Particle Board or Solid Wood Better?
More often than not, solid wood is the way to go for furniture. But why is that? Well, there are quite a few reasons.
But first, you’ll need to understand the main differences between wood and particle.
How to Tell the Difference Between Wood and Particle Board
The main component of solid wood furniture is raw or finished lumber. The piece might have a veneer in some cases, but not always.
On the other hand, particleboard is a wood-based material many furniture-makers use for their pieces.
It combines wood waste, including chips, shavings, or sawdust, with resin, dyes, wax, and other materials to create plywood-shaped boards.
In other words, it’s the scrapple of the wood-working world.
Particle furniture will have a veneer or laminate to cover the board’s speckled look and to hold it together.
In many cases, the veneer will be solid wood, which is how manufacturers can get away with claiming a piece is real wood.
Which Is Best for Furniture?
Choosing your furniture based on materials is never a bad idea, so you should always do that.
Knowing what particle board is, you might be wondering if it’s ever worth buying furniture made from it.
So, if you’re wondering which is best for furniture, the answer is, it depends.
When you want your furniture to stand the test of time so you can pass it down to your kids, go for solid wood. If properly treated, wood lasts longer and will hold up to abuse well.
However, if you’re buying cabinets for your kids’ playroom, particle board might be your best bet.
Kids are messy, and when the craft supplies come out, the last thing you need is your solid wood furniture to end up with an unwanted paint job.
How to Tell if Furniture is Wood or Particle Board
You can look for several things to determine whether a piece of furniture is solid wood or particle.
Read the Description
First thing’s first. If you want to know what a piece is made of and you’re buying brand new, check out the item description.
You’re getting particle board if you see “engineered wood,” chipboard, MDF, or fiberboard listed. You might find engineered wood and solid wood listed together in some cases.
That generally means there are solid wood and particle components.
Of course, if you’re purchasing a used piece, you might not have access to an item description. If that’s the case, try the following methods.
Check the Weight
One key difference between the particle and solid wood is their weights. Most solid wood is heavy, while particleboard can be pretty light.
That said, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. For example, if you’ve ever purchased a bookshelf from IKEA, you’ll know that some particleboards can be heavy.
Likewise, some solid wood furniture, such as pine, can be very light. However, the general rule is, that if it’s a heavy piece, it’s probably wood.
If you’ve checked the weight of a piece of furniture and still aren’t sure what it is, it’s time to look at the joinery.
Joinery is where two pieces of wood meet. There are a few different ways woodworkers will join two pieces of wood together. The most common are tongue-and-groove, dovetail, adhesives, or dowels.
Solid wood furniture will almost always have tongue-and-groove or dovetail joinery.
Woodworkers will cut each piece of wood with notches that fit perfectly inside each other. In some cases, they’ll also apply an adhesive.
Particle furniture won’t have these notches because it would decrease the board’s stability.
So instead, you’ll usually find dowels holding two pieces of particle board together.
Tip: If you're assembling particle board furniture with dowels, don't hammer them in too far or hard because they can cause the board to crumble.
Check for Damage
It’s always a good idea to examine used furniture for any signs of wear. One thing to look out for with particle board is damage on the edges and corners.
A tell-tale sign of particle construction is smashed corners.
When you drop a piece of particle board furniture, the individual grains and resin will crumble, and the veneer might crack.
On the other hand, solid wood might dent, but it won’t crumble.
Tip: Particle board is especially vulnerable to crushed corners, so focus your attention on those when you examine a piece.
One of the main reasons people buy particle board furniture is the cost. Since it’s easy and cheap to make, particle furniture usually isn’t very pricey.
That’s why it’s so easy to grab a bookshelf or TV stand for less than $50 at your local big-box store.
On the other hand, solid wood furniture tends to carry a high price tag. Some woods are rarer than others, and more work goes into preparing solid wood for furniture.
One area where particle board has a leg up on solid wood is with warping.
Since it has a lot of resin, wax, and other materials holding the wood waste together, particle board is much better at resisting warping.
On the other hand, solid wood, especially unfinished solid wood, can warp over time if it’s exposed to too much moisture. That is true for solid wood veneer, too.
So, if you’re shopping around for used furniture and come across a severely warped piece, it’s most likely solid wood.
However, if it looks like only the veneer is warped, take a peek underneath because it may be the particle.
Tip: Don't discount a piece of furniture with warped veneer because you might be able to put a new piece on.
The last thing you can look at to determine whether your furniture is wood or particle is the detail work. That includes any embellishments on the piece.
Intricately carved features, such as vines or flowers, would be difficult to achieve with particle board.
This type of material doesn’t stand up to fine detailing like that. It typically crumbles if you apply too much force to small points.
On the other hand, solid wood is excellent for carving small or intricate pieces.
A woodworker can easily carve a piece of wood into a fancy design, while particle board would likely crumble.
Tip: Solid wood carvings are often glued onto particle board, so you should still confirm the material.
So, now you know how to tell if furniture is wood or particle board. As you can see, there are several ways you can figure out the difference between these two materials.
Sometimes it might be immediately evident, but other times, you might have to look at a piece of furniture a bit more closely to know for sure.
Once you know what you’re looking for, you shouldn’t have any problem finding the correct type of furniture for you.
And remember, just because something is particle board doesn’t make it bad.