Manufactured wood is one of those materials that have been getting increasingly popular as of late. Yet, many people aren’t completely clear on what manufactured even is.
Is manufactured wood real wood? Is manufactured wood toxic? What are the key points in the manufactured wood vs solid wood comparison?
And, most importantly, which of the two is right for your furniture, home, or construction project?
Let’s explore all of these points and more below.
What Is Manufactured Wood?
Manufactured wood – or engineered wood as you may have also seen it called – both is and isn’t “real” wood, depending on how you look at it.
That’s because this type of wood is manufactured from the byproducts of solid woods, i.e. leftover wood chips and sawdust.
Instead of throwing these byproducts away, however, the manufactured wood industry reprocesses these wood chips by mixing them with synthetic adhesives and turning them into manufactured wood boards and panels.
The exact way these wood chips are mixed and processed with the synthetic adhesives varies between the different types of manufactured wood. We’ll cover them below but here’s a good video showcasing the basic process.
In essence, manufactured wood is “real” insofar as it’s made from real wood chips. However, it’s also not real solid wood as those wood chips are mixed with a lot of adhesives and chemicals, and go through a long manufacturing process.
Why is all this done, however?
What Is the Purpose of Manufactured Wood?
Depending on who you ask, you can get several different answers here.
From a purely business point of view, manufactured wood is made because people figured out they could make money out of the wood chips they’d otherwise throw away.
Yes, the manufacturing process requires some investment. Yet, the sheer quantity of perfectly usable end products you could make from just wood chips and glue turned out to be more than worth it.
People also make an environmental argument in favor of manufactured wood. It goes like this – because the industry is able to produce extra wood-like products without having to cut down more trees, this eases the environmental pressure on the world’s forests.
There is a counterargument to this, of course, and it’s that manufactured wood itself is environmentally harmful. For one, the excessive quantity of synthetic adhesives produced for and poured into manufactured wood is really environmentally harmful.
Additionally, because of those adhesives, manufactured wood isn’t really recyclable. Once furniture and structures made from this product get past their use, they can only be thrown away in a landfill – that’s hardly “environmentally friendly.”
Aside from this issue, however, manufactured wood is clearly useful not just for the manufacturer’s bottom line but for the consumers too.
Manufactured woods are significantly more affordable than most solid woods and they are endlessly customizable as they come on large uniform sheets that you can cut any shape and size out of.
Types of Manufactured Wood
There isn’t really a difference between manufactured wood vs engineered wood as the two terms are basically synonyms. There are plenty of actual subtypes of manufactured or engineered wood, however.
The chief differences between these subtypes are:
- The quantity, type, and size of wood chips used
- The way those chips have been treated
- The amount of sawdust left in the end product
- The type and quantity of synthetic adhesives added
- Any subsequent treatments
- Whether or not wood veneers have been used
So, while all manufactured wood is made from solid wood leftovers and adhesives, the exact type of leftovers and the way they’ve been bonded can lead to some differences. Let’s explore those next.
One of the basic types of manufactured or engineered wood is fiberboard. It’s quite dense and is more resistant to breaking and chipping than most other manufactured wood products.
Fiberboard is made by bonding tiny and heat-processed wood fibers with resin and adhesives. Depending on how that’s done, fiberboard comes in several subtypes – hardboard, softboard, and medium-density fiberboard or MDF.
We will discuss MDF separately below as it’s one of the most popular types of manufactured wood.
As for softboard and hardboard, the difference here is quite self-explanatory.
Softboard is quite flexible and isn’t particularly dense. It’s typically used for insulation, packaging, and soundproofing.
Hardboard, on the other hand, isn’t very flexible but is quite dense and strong. It’s used for paneling, furniture backing, and pegboards.
Also called chipboards, particle boards are compressed panels made out of wood chips, sawdust, and adhesive. They are inexpensive and have very low density. They can be mistaken for MDF but have a more coarse surface.
That’s also why woodworkers often put veneers on top of particle boards to enhance both their looks and their strength.
Overall, however, particleboards are mostly just used for false ceilings, wall paneling, underlayment, and as the core material of doors.
Oriented Strand Board or OSB
As the name implies, OSBs are formed by pressing the wood strands and adhesive into separate layers and then stacking and glueing those together while orienting the direction of the strands of each layer in different directions.
This gives OSBs a bit more strength and durability compared to other types of manufactured wood thanks to the surface tension between the different layers.
Essentially, OSB can be seen as a middle ground between the two most popular types of manufactured wood – MDF and plywood – as it shares some of the characteristics of both.
Because it’s such a middle ground, however, OSB isn’t as popular as either MDF or plywood.
Medium-Density Fiberboard or MDF
MDF is so popular that many folks often think it’s something different altogether and ask for “manufactured wood vs MDF” comparisons.
MDF is just another type of manufactured wood, however, and it’s really just a subtype of fiberboard that’s just very popular.
Made out of heated and pressed wood fibers, wax, sawdust, and resin, MDF is very smooth and has a good balance of density and flexibility.
As such, it’s often used for indoor furniture, cabinets, doors and frames, soundproofing, and even flooring.
Still, even MDF isn’t as strong as solid wood or plywood, of course, and – like all of the manufactured wood types above – it’s not very moisture resistant.
This is an important point because some manufacturers have started advertising new types of MDF as “moisture resistant” but that isn’t really the case.
Yes, newer MDF products often have a layer of melamine that gives them some short-term moisture resistance.
This isn’t quite enough for long-term moisture resistance, however, so it’s still a mistake to use MDF for any outdoor projects.
Also, like all the manufactured wood types we’ve discussed so far, MDF is made with quite a lot of synthetic adhesives. This means that working with MDF releases quite a lot of synthetic glue into the air.
So, let’s take a look at some other types of manufactured wood that are a bit different and close to solid wood.
Before we discuss the other most popular – and arguably best – type of manufactured wood, let’s first take a look at what veneer wood is.
Unlike the manufactured wood types we talked about above, veneer wood isn’t made out of tiny wood chips or shavings. Instead, these are whole wooden slices that have been cut out of solid wood.
These thin but usually wide veneers of real solid wood can then be applied on top of other manufactured wood products such as MDF, OSB, or particle boards to give them a more natural appearance.
Most veneer wood sheets are usually thinner than 1/8 inch and can be used for anything from furniture to walls, flooring, as well as artwork.
Finally – plywood or laminated board is the strongest, safest, and most widely used type of manufactured wood.
Unlike most other types, plywood isn’t made by just mixing wood shavings and glue into a dough-like substance and then pressing it into sheets.
Instead, plywood is made by taking multiple thin veneers of real solid wood and simply gluing and pressing those together.
This means several things:
- By pressing the different veneers together and making sure that every two layers’ grain direction is perpendicular to each other, plywood manufacturers ensure maximum strength.
- Plywood does contain synthetic adhesives like all other types of manufactured wood but there is much less of them as they are only needed to keep the veneer sheets together. This means much less Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) are released into the air when working with plywood.
- Plywood’s surface layer looks like real wood because it is – the veneers are cut from solid wood, after all.
- Plywood takes stains and paints much better than most other manufactured wood.
- While it’s still not “moisture resistant” in a true sense, plywood is much better in that regard compared to MDF and other types of engineered wood.
For a more visual representation of the differences between plywood and fiberboard/MDF you can check out this video.
So, is manufactured wood worth your attention and money?
To find that out, let’s go over the characteristics of manufactured or engineered wood in a Pros and Cons style list.
Pros and Cons of Manufactured Wood
Looking at the types of manufactured wood above, most of your questions have probably already been answered.
Is manufactured wood durable? Some types are, others aren’t.
What is manufactured wood furniture and is it good? Most furniture nowadays is made from various types of manufactured wood and it’s usually more affordable because of that but manufactured wood never lasts as long as solid wood.
Advantages of Manufactured Boards
- Manufactured wood is typically much more affordable than most sold woods
- Manufactured wood boards are very customizable because they come in uniform sheets that can be cut in any size and shape you want
- These boards are seen by some as environmentally friendly because they are made of solid wood byproducts and don’t require deforestation
- Manufactured boards are typically much more lightweight and easy to work with than solid wood
Disadvantages of Manufactured Boards
- Many types of manufactured wood are much more susceptible to moisture damage than most solid woods
- Manufactured wood is weaker than solid wood
- Temperature changes can lead to warping or swelling much more easily than with solid wood
- This type of wood is manufactured using certain chemicals that can cause respiratory problems in people
- While manufactured wood is “good” for the environment because it doesn’t require deforestation, it isn’t recyclable and it includes a lot of synthetic products which is very harmful from an environmental standpoint.
Manufactured wood has revolutionized woodworking in many ways – some good, some bad. Whether we like it or not, however, it’s here to stay.
So, the trick for getting the best results is to know when to use manufactured wood, which type to choose, and when it’s better to go with solid wood.
All in all, going for the right type of manufactured wood for the right piece of furniture can save you a lot of headaches and gift you with a fantastic end product.