Saturday, August 7, 2010

On Particle Board

indsight is 20:20 they say. This is particularly true when it comes to the lesson I learned about furniture.

Like most cash-strapped young adults, I needed furniture rather badly when I moved away from home, and price was a most serious consideration. When you walk into a store like Ikea, you're instantly overwhelmed with the amount of decent looking furniture you can buy with your hard-earned scraps. But the picture quickly turns bleak.

You get the boxes home, and they weigh more than your car. They come with instructions in illustration form only, and with a pile of odd, custom hardware labeled L56 and DT205. It takes a few hours to put together; inevitably the veneer gets chipped, and you're either missing parts or you have some left over. And then over a short period of time, the Great Sag begins.

Almost all of that furniture is made of particle board: pulped wood chips that are bonded together with some sort of compressed glue. It weighs a ton. Since there's no grain, there's virtually nothing outside of the furniture's design to keep it from sagging. If you ever move, you'll quickly find that this type of furniture was made to be put together once. If you take it apart and reassemble it, it's extremely shaky. After vacuuming it a couple times, the fake plastic veneer begins to chip.

The price, though, still makes it attractive. But long term, it's like flushing away money. If you have to buy a bookshelf three times, you're paying for one that could have been made from real wood and lasted several lifetimes.

Instead, save your money. Look for real furniture in antique stores, yard sales, junkyards, or at the side of the road. Even if they don't look great, they can be refinished or painted. Couches and chairs can be re upholstered. You're looking for furniture where you like the shape or proportions and the "bones" (aka real wood) are still solid, and then go from there. It takes a little time and some initiative, but you'll be rewarded with furniture that lasts and even still holds some value when your tastes change.

As I mentioned at the start, hindsight is 20:20. I got caught up in the Ikea storm, and I'm now faced with throwing away a ton of crappy, particle board furniture that has sagged or fallen apart. I wish more than anything that I had opted for less pieces of better quality. Had I done that, I would not be faced with the unfortunate task of having to buy ALL my furniture over again. The value of what I have is $0, and I likely paid thousands over the past few years. Never again. If I have to live out of boxes or sit on the floor I'll do that before ever buying particle board again.

--A

Of note: When it comes to bookshelves, plywood construction with a real wood veneer is not a bad option. The shelves will be solid and will last, and the cross-grain construction of the multiple "plys" will prevent sagging or warping. Make sure it's at least 1/2" or thicker. But solid hardwood is still the best choice if you can hold out.

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