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What Is Compressed Wood? Its Uses, Benefits and Drawbacks in Your Home

compressed wood pieces

Hardwood furniture is usually one of the most attractive options homeowners can choose from; it’s sturdy, naturally elegant, and can handle itself against most accidents.

That said, hardwood isn’t always the best choice. That’s why compressed wood has gained a lot of popularity over hardwood over the last few years.

Affordability, weight, and even the likelihood of a bug infestation are only some of the reasons more people are choosing compressed wood nowadays.

If you’re one of these people and you’re considering using compressed wood in your home, this article is for you!

What Is Compressed Wood?

stack of compressed wood sheets

Compressed wood is an engineered material made out of bits of wood that are mixed with some chemicals like resin, glue, and wax then heat-pressed together to form a board.

This product is typically available in the form of boards or panels which are ⅛” to 1” thick and usually about 4’×8’ in terms of length and width, although many sizes are available.

While most types of wood are used without much fuss, some wood particles that were already heavily treated with chemicals can’t be used for compressed wood.

This is mainly because these chemicals can react with the additives that will be used in the process. 

This also means that wood that’s already been treated and compressed can’t be recycled, or at least is very difficult to recycle.

sawdust shavings to make compressed wood

So what kind of chemicals are used in the manufacturing of compressed wood?

There are quite a few. Most notably, formaldehyde-based resins and adhesives are typically used in most compressed wood varieties. 

Unfortunately, this chemical is known to be toxic, even in small amounts.

There has been a lot of discord about the use of formaldehyde in compressed wood. 

Some entities claim that the amounts off-gassed by newly made compressed wood products isn’t dangerous, while others claim that it can cause cancer within years.

What Are the Main Types of Compressed Wood?

laminated board pile

There are three main types of compressed wood.

Chances are you’re already familiar with most of these by its many names: MDF, fiberboard, particleboard, and pressed or pressurized wood. 

You’ve probably even dealt with it in your home, office, and building kits many times. 

So, what are the most common types of compressed wood used in furniture and construction?

Particleboard

particleboard with veneer

Particleboard is the lowest quality type of compressed wood.

It’s made out of wood waste of varying sizes, like sawdust, wood chips, and shavings.

Particleboard is made into large slabs and is exceptionally easy to cut in the manufacturing process, especially compared to hardwood.

It’s also very lightweight, which means it’s easier to transport. All of this is why it’s much cheaper to make and purchase.

Medium and High-density Fiberboard (MDF and HDF)

mdf wood boards example

The manufacturing process of MDF and HDF is very similar to particleboard, with one extra step: Wood leftovers go through a machine that breaks them down into fibers.

This makes the end product much more compact so it’s heavier and sturdier.

The difference between MDF and HDF—other than what’s in the name—is that HDF is thinner and heavier. This makes it a better option for flooring.

A quick note: Sometimes, people ask if this is the same as tension wood. It’s not! 

We’re talking about a mostly man-made material here. Tension wood just describes a naturally occurring growth characteristic of leaning trees and limbs.

Common Applications with This Material

mdf cabinet interior

From flooring to bedroom doors or bedroom furniture and even speaker boxes, the applications of compressed wood are endless.

Some of the most common ways compressed wood is used are:

  1. Kitchen cabinets
  2. Wardrobes
  3. Flooring
  4. Walls
  5. Soundproofing
  6. Door filling
  7. Cubicles
  8. Bedroom and Office furniture

These are just a handful of the applications of compressed wood in construction, but there are countless ways compressed wood is used otherwise.

compressed wood wall reinforcement

Due to the nature of its core, compressed wood is great at reducing noise, which is why it’s often used in suspended ceilings that cover air-conditioning, as well as recording studios.

Compressed wood logs are also common fuel for fire indoors or outdoors, as they make one of the best fireplace fuel options on the market.

These bad boys are all-around better than your average tree wood:

  • They burn hotter and cleaner because they have low moisture content (around 8% compared to the average 20% solid firewood)
  • They’re better for the environment; made entirely from recycled products, with some made 100% chemical-free
  • They leave less ash behind, so they’re easier to clean up
  • They’re super convenient; just chuck a brick of compressed sawdust in your fireplace and enjoy the extra warmth for 2-5 hours

compressed sawdust briquettes

Wood pellets are also used to heat homes but often require a heater made specifically for them. However, that’s not all that wood pellets can do.

Wood pellets can be used to collect cat pee! 

Yep, there is even cat litter made out of compressed wood.

Maintenance

Fixing damage in compressed wood can vary from extremely simple to a lost cause, and that largely depends on where it’s installed.

For minor scratches, swelling, or chips, all you’ll need is wood filling, a putty knife, and a sanding block.

If you have some damaged MDF cabinets or desk, rest assured, you can essentially remake the whole thing from scratch with resin, wood filling, and an added layer of veneer. 

In fact, most of the time, the problem will be more about the veneer covering your compressed wood furniture and not the board itself.

Finally, one of the most common problems you might face with compressed wood furniture is ripped nails. 

People often consider this a death sentence for their cupboards but it really doesn’t need to be.

Alternatives

There are quite a few alternatives to choose from if compressed wood won’t work for you, and most of them are also engineered wood.

Plywood

Plywood

Stained plywood used instead of MDF on this living room cabinet

Plywood is everywhere, and for good reason. 

It’s made from thin sheets of wood or bark, treated then pressed together with the addition of adhesives.

The grain of the sheets is alternated or cross-oriented, making plywood strong in either direction.

Structural Foam Board

There are lots of different types of structural foam boards, and one of the most popular in construction is reinforced polyurethane foam.

These boards are made out of solid, dense foam that’s reinforced with fiberglass. They’re great for lots of different reasons.

They’re possibly the most lightweight option, being up to 60% lighter than plywood. They’re also rot-resistant unlike wood or compressed cork foam boards.

Oriented Strand Board (OSB)

osb vs compressed wood

OSB is pretty similar to compressed wood, except that it uses strands or flakes of wood layered on top of each other, then treated with adhesives, heat, and pressure.

Unlike the other alternatives, however, OSB is structurally stronger from one direction only, since these flakes often get the same orientation.

Because of this, you’ll frequently find this material used on walls and floors in home and commercial construction.

FAQs

Is Compressed Wood Durable?

Not really. Compressed wood will do the job it’s meant for, especially with proper care, but don’t expect to hand it down when your kids move out for college.

Plus, compressed wood can get split by nails very easily, so removing or putting nails in a fiberboard is particularly risky.

The risk of splits is lower with particleboard since it has more room to expand around the nail. Not to mention how much it doesn’t take well to water.

How Waterproof Is This Stuff?

No, compressed wood cannot handle water. 

Given that it’s made out of compressed wood fiber, this material starts swelling when exposed to water, especially for an extended amount of time.

But with laminates and water-proofing, all you need to do to keep compressed wood from swelling is proactively keep water away and clean it up right away if an accident were to happen

compressed wood furniture example

Typical MDF dresser – it’s veneer can only protect the core so much.

Is Compressed Wood Eco-Friendly?

Yes, and no.

By choosing compressed wood, you forgo the product (solid wood) that’s one of the top three reasons for deforestation on our planet, and you get a product that is entirely recycled.

On the flip side, most common brands of compressed wood use a lot of toxic chemicals in the manufacturing process, which isn’t good for the environment and makes it very difficult to recycle.

Can It Hold up to Termites?

Yes, in fact, it keeps most wood pests away. 

Compressed wood is made with chemicals, including formaldehyde, which is toxic to insects.

However, this can also be toxic to pets or kids in the house.

Compressed wood releases small amounts of formaldehyde which can be toxic to animals especially if your pup likes the taste of destroyed furniture.

If this is concerning for your household, consider going for a formaldehyde-free MDF.

carpent building with mdf

Summary

Compressed wood is an extremely versatile material, but as you’ve read so far, it doesn’t come without some drawbacks.

Whether you choose to work with it should depend on whether it’ll be near water or heat, will be used or handled often, or if it’s within your kids’ and pets’ reach.

Another thing to remember is that it’s not very good at handling weight. 

So if you’re planning to put anything heavier than a lightweight decorative vase on that MDF shelf, perhaps it’s time to consider reinforced foam boards or solid wood.

All in all this material offers us many benefits for convenience and costs, and is seen pretty much everywhere around us in and outside of our home.

Sharing is Caring!

L. Crooks

Sunday 25th of December 2022

Questions: Which is more porous and apt to collect and hold bacteria and dirt 1.compressed wood, 2 plywood, 3 natural wood. Which is recommended for medical offices, laboratories, storage units


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