Practically everyone has some furniture made from compressed wood, as it is very common in shelving, desks, and bed frames. If you’ve ever bought furniture from a certain popular Swedish store known for products you have to assemble yourself, then you certainly have experienced compressed wood. Its lightweight and affordability make it a smart choice both for people furnishing a home for the first time and those looking to replace old, worn-out furniture.
What is compressed wood? Compressed wood is an engineered, man-made wood product made of wood fibers, sawdust, wood particles, wood shavings, and a veneer facade. It has a wide range of common applications, most notably in furniture, cabinetry, and trim work. Its many distinct advantages over natural wood make compressed wood ideal for many applications.
Though the use of layers of veneer has been around since ancient times, the first modern compressed wood was invented in Germany in 1887. It became common after World War II and spread worldwide due to its affordability and mass producibility. Initial versions were made simply from swept-up wood shavings mixed with glue, though, over time, the process has become more sophisticated to produce a more uniform, sturdier product.
These days, compressed wood is usually made from wood chips, shavings, sawdust, or fibers, which are mixed with synthetic resin and compressed under heat. It is important to understand the process of making compressed wood and how it differs from other types of engineered wood, as well as possible drawbacks, before choosing it for your project.
Types Of Compressed Wood
There are several types of compressed wood, such as particleboard, medium-density fiberboard, and high-density fiberboard. It is important to understand each before you choose one for your building project.
One of the most common is particle board, which is the most cost-effective form of compressed wood because it is made from small pieces of the waste left behind from other wood production. It can also be milled from larger pieces of wood and sorted so that larger pieces are left out, making a more uniform end product. The small pieces are combined with resin and formed into a sheet, which is compressed multiple times under cold and heat before being cooled, sanded, and trimmed. In some cases, a veneer or laminate surface may be added (“Particle Board,” n.d.).
Particleboard is lightweight and easy to cut during the manufacturing process. This makes it ideal for furniture and some types of cabinetry since it holds screws better than many comparable products. Since particleboard is produced in large sheets initially, it is easier to trim to specific sizes than natural wood, especially when mass producing an item. Because it is uniform, it also reduces the need to check for flaws that would appear in natural wood.
Particleboard is also used in construction, though you must be careful where you use it due to its limitations. It can be used as wall partitions as long as the walls are not load-bearing. It is a good insulator both in terms of temperature and sound, so you’ll find it used for false ceilings in air-conditioned rooms, as well as throughout auditoriums, movie theaters, and recording studios. It is also used as the core material of many types of doors (“7 Uses of Particle Board in Building Industry,” n.d.).
Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is similar to particle board but is much more dense and durable. Hardwood and softwood are broken down into fibers in a machine called a defibrillator. The resulting fibers, which are much smaller than the pieces used in particleboard, are pressed into a sheet with wax and bonding resin. The sheet is heated briefly to activate the resin, resulting in a solid sheet of manufactured wood.
The increased density and durability comes from using fibers instead of chips, shavings, and sawdust. Due to this higher durability, MDF has many applications in building. Its interior is more uniform than particleboard, and it is free from knots and grain. It is often used in the same manner as plywood, such as in flooring substrate, with a veneer or laminate placed on top. It is also perfect for molding and trim work. However, MDF is susceptible to swelling if it gets wet, so it’s not recommended for outdoor projects, like a deck for example (“Medium Density Fibreboard,” n.d.).
Much like particleboard, MDF is a great insulator for sound. Therefore, it is commonly used to build speaker boxes for high-end audio applications. The fiberboard exterior allows the sound to come from the speaker itself rather than rattling through the wood.
Moving even further along in density is High-Density Fiberboard (HDF). Though the production process is very similar to that of MDF, HDF is even denser and thinner, which also means it is heavier. This produces an even stronger product ideal for flooring. However, much like with MDF, the fibers will swell if they are exposed to water, so outdoor applications are not recommended. In general, HDF can be used almost anywhere MDF would be used, if you want a denser, more durable product and don’t mind the extra weight (LeGros, n.d.).
By using different resins in the production process, medium- and high-density fiberboard can be given moisture or fire-resistant properties. This expands the uses for these products considerably but also increases the cost. These resistant versions are usually labeled by color: green for moisture-resistant and red for fire-resistant.
Engineered Wood and Compressed Wood
Compressed wood is just one kind of engineered wood. Engineered wood is a broad category that includes particleboard, MDF, and HDF, but also plywood, beams, finger joints, laminated veneer, and many other products. While these engineered products share similar manufacturing methods, the processes can vary greatly. The resulting man-made wood products have a variety of qualities, and therefore a variety of uses.
One of the most common engineered woods is plywood, which is created by combining thin layers of hard or softwood in alternating 90-degree alignments with adhesives and pressure. The result is a durable wood product that is very different from compressed wood. Plywood has a wide range of applications. It is primarily used in building construction, along with beams and finger joints, but it is also used in boats, packaging material, furniture, and more. So while plywood is much more durable and sturdy than compressed wood, the trade-off is higher costs and a heavier weight (“Plywood as a Construction Material,” n.d.).
Is Compressed Wood Durable?
The durability of compressed wood can vary depending on the type and how it is used. Particleboard is commonly used in furniture due to its lightweight and low cost, but the resulting furniture shouldn’t be expected to last for generations like older, natural wood furniture. Chances are you won’t be handing down furniture made from particle board to your grandchildren. Furniture made from particleboard can be expected to last three to five years, depending on how often it is moved and what it’s being used for.
Everyday wear and tear will eventually cause breakage, and moving particle board furniture greatly increases the chances of it coming apart. If you’ve ever had to move a piece of particle board furniture, you’ve likely experienced some of the problems that can arise. Legs can break off if mishandled, corners dent and crack easily, and screws will often strip out of their holes when moved around, resulting in rickety joints and an increased chance of collapse. Also, once it is assembled, it can be very difficult to take it apart and reassemble, so pieces often need to be moved whole. It is even easily damaged during shipping, meaning you could order a piece of furniture only to find it damaged before you’ve even had a chance to assemble it.
In addition, particleboard is not immune to moisture and humidity. Though a veneer on the outside of the particleboard can protect it to some degree, the interior can swell if it gets wet. In addition to weakening the wood, this is also just unattractive. However, if you’re looking for a piece of furniture that won’t be exposed to water, and won’t need to be moved much, then particleboard is a great choice. This is why you commonly see things like TV stands and entertainment centers made from particleboard since people tend to leave their TVs in one spot.
Finally, particleboard cannot hold as heavy of a load as other types of compressed wood or natural wood. While it is a common material for the shelving, you must be careful about what you place on it. Thankfully, modern TVs are lighter than those of the past, so this is not quite as big of an issue as it once was when opting for a TV stand or entertainment center made from particleboard.
MDF is more durable than particle board, but it still doesn’t handle excess moisture very well. A sealant can help, but it’s best to avoid uses where it may encounter water or other liquids. Building a deck from MDF, for example, is not recommended unless you choose a moisture-resistant product. Additionally, if the surface is chipped or scratched, it can lead to unattractive flaws, as the inside of the wood looks quite different from the sanded surface. It is hard to repair when damage does occur and cutting it down into different sizes can lead to flaking.
Advantages of Compressed Wood
We’ve discussed a few of the drawbacks to compressed wood, but its many great qualities give it an advantage over natural wood. As long as you are aware of its limitations, you may find these advantages offer plenty of reasons to choose compressed wood for your project.
First, compressed wood is much more affordable than natural wood. This is especially the case with particleboard, where the manufacturing process actually uses some of the waste that comes from manufacturing natural wood. Using up sawdust and shavings that are already around is smart and efficient, and it helps manufacturers keep costs down. In addition, since most compressed wood is mass-produced by machine, skilled carpentry work is rarely required. This also helps keep the costs low.
Compressed wood won’t splinter like natural wood. Due to the process of bonding small pieces of wood together, the pieces simply aren’t big enough to splinter off. Though particleboard can break and release small fragments of wood, it’s still not like the splinters that can come from natural wood. MDF and HDF are even less likely to fragment, especially if you aren’t trying to cut them down. Though we’ve talked about the durability problems that can arise with compressed wood, this is one area where it beats out natural wood.
Moving particle board furniture can lead to breakage, but the good news is that if you must move it, it is lightweight. MDF and HDF are much heavier than particle board, but MDF, in particular, may still prove lighter than plywood. HDF, on the other hand, can be quite heavy due to its increased density. A bed frame or shelving unit made from compressed wood may be slightly bulky to move, but it won’t be as heavy as the same piece made from solid, natural wood. Of course, the lightness of the wood product is a decent indicator of its durability, so keep that in mind when choosing compressed wood for a project. In general, the lighter the wood, the less durable it is.
Compressed wood can be ideal for craft and decorative projects as well as for building furniture. MDF and HDF are easy to paint, though their absorbent nature means you should not use aerosol spray paint (it will just soak right into the wood). Starting with a quality, oil-based primer is recommended, and it’s important to make sure the edges are sealed or they will simply absorb the paint. One way to seal the edges is with a thin layer of drywall compound, which, once dry and sanded, will create a smooth edge ready to paint (Noonan, n.d.).
Additionally, medium- and high-density fiberboard can be cut easily, though be aware that repeated cutting can cause the wood to flake. In addition, its high density means it will dull steel blades quickly and attempting to cut with a dull blade will increase the chances of flaking or breakage. Carbide blades are recommended for this reason (“MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) Guide / FAQ,” n.d.).
Compressed wood is environmentally friendly as well. The manufacturing process uses up wood scraps that would otherwise have no use and would be discarded. Some MDF and HDF products have even included a recycled paper in their construction. Though formaldehyde has been used in the resins involved, many manufacturers are moving away from its use and are using more environmentally friendly adhesives such as natural lignin-based resins (Beutel, 1996).
Compressed Wood as Firewood
Another area where compressed wood is used is as firewood. Though these man-made bricks are different from the particleboard or fiberboard we’ve talked about previously, the manufacturing process is similar. Compressed wood bricks are usually made from sawdust and are free from other chemicals or binders due to the natural lignin in the sawdust itself. The dried sawdust is formed into bricks and then placed under extreme pressure, releasing the natural lignin in the wood. Lignin is a compound that basically acts as a natural binding agent, adhering to the sawdust together. The result is a product that is lighter and more compact than traditional cord firewood, and yet it can produce even more heat due to being dried out during production.
It is easier to handle than traditional firewood as well, making it perfect for your living room fireplace but also for backyard fire pits or camping fires. The bricks take up less space than traditional firewood, and since they are made from recycled sawdust that would otherwise be discarded, it is a more environmentally friendly product. It also burns cleaner, producing less smoke and leaving less ash and residue to be cleaned up later. Many people combine compressed wood bricks with traditional cordwood to get the best of both worlds: a long burning, consistent fire that still gives the snap and crackle of a traditional wood fire.
As you can see, there are many advantages to using compressed wood over natural wood. Though not perfect for all applications, particleboard, MDF, and HDF are great choices for building furniture, molding, trim, cabinetry, and decorative projects. In addition, compressed wood firewood is becoming a more popular choice due to its ease of use and environmental advantages. The important thing is to be aware of compressed wood’s limitations before choosing it for your project and proceeding accordingly to ensure a product that will succeed just as you intend.
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