The type of wood used in flat-pack furniture varies greatly, depending on the brand, the manufacturer, and the costs. Unfortunately, there’s often no easy way to tell what’s inside of your furniture just by looking at it, so we’ve created this short guide and provided some tips on how to identify them.
We’ve outlined here the most common types of wood used in flat-pack furniture from cheapest and nastiest, through to most expensive and high quality.
What type of wood is flat pack furniture often made from?
Flat-pack furniture is a wonderful invention on so many levels. Compared to “standard” (non flat-pack) furniture, it’s incredibly efficient to transport from the manufacturer to the store, and much easier to bring to your home, and then to your next home when you’re moving house.
Flat-pack furniture is made from lots of different materials, typically, different grades and qualities of timber are used as the “core” and then layered with veneers (very thin layers) of higher quality timber (although sometimes it’s plastic which has been made to look like timber – gross!)
Cardboard flat-pack furniture
Yes, we’re serious. Cheap flat-pack furniture is sometimes made from a honeycomb cardboard structured core and then covered in a thin veneer (usually 3-5mm) of timber, giving the impression of substance, but leaving you with a really weak, crappy piece of furniture that will inevitably fall apart.
How to tell if it’s cardboard?
- It will be incredibly light. Pick it up and imagine it was a solid piece of wood, if it feels too light, it’s most likely cardboard.
- Knock on it. Does it sound hollow? It’s probably cardboard.
Flat-pack furniture made from MDF
MDF stands for “Medium-density fibreboard”. Similar to chipboard, except instead of “chips” or fragments of timber, MDF is basically made from sawdust.
There are many disadvantages to using MDF for flat pack furniture (or for anything), although the most concerning is that it’s made with glues that contain harmful VOCs such as urea-formaldehyde.
These VOCs are very harmful to the health of the people working with MDF, and continue to be emitted even once the furniture is finished and it’s sitting in your home or office.
How to tell if it’s MDF?
Because MDF has a smooth surface finish, it’s often left uncoated or uncovered on the underside of tabletops, or on the underside of drawers. So the easiest way to tell is to flip it over and see if you can spot it.
Chipboard or OSB flat-pack furniture
Chipboard and OSB (oriented strand board) alike, is what’s most typically used for flat pack furniture. Chipboard is an incredibly cheap material to buy. It’s made up of shredded timber of all kinds, then mixed with glue and compressed with huge forces and high heat, into boards.
From the aspect of being able to use waste timber material, it’s positive, although the glues used often omit harmful VOCs, and the manufacturing processes use a significant amount of energy.
The biggest downside of chipboard is its lack of durability. It is very brittle and can break apart simply from over-tightening a screw or bracket. If it gets wet – forget it. Chipboard HATES moisture, swelling up to 2-3 times the normal thickness and then falling apart.
How to tell if it’s chipboard?
Chipboard is a similar density and weight to “real” timber, so it’s hard to tell just by picking it up. Often undersides or internal edges of chipboard furniture isn’t covered by veneers, so try flipping it over and taking a look.
Flat-pack furniture made from Plywood
Plywood is a type of Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) product made from multiple thin layers (1-2mm), where the grain of each layer is rotated 90° from the previous. These layers are then glued and compressed together with a huge amount of heat and pressure, forming an incredibly strong material.
Did you know… Kilogram for kilogram, plywood (CLT) is actually stronger than steel! It’s now even being used to construct huge office and residential towers and comes with an incredible range of benefits over traditional construction methods.
There are a number of different grades of plywood both in visual appearance, types of timber, usage, and the glues used to put it together. Plywood is used to build everything from sheds and internal walls, to furniture, and even boats!
The most common types of plywood used in flat-pack furniture in Australia are:
A stunningly beautiful tree easily identified by their distinctive white or silver trunks, birch trees also make beautiful furniture with their light and bright coloured timber and beautiful grain patterns.
Birch is a fast-growing species that is mostly grown in plantations in North America and Northern Europe. There are no commercial birch timber plantations in Australia, which means if your furniture is made from birch timber, it’s unfortunately been shipped from somewhere on the other side of the world.
Radiata Pine Plywood
Radiata Pine is native to central and coastal California, however is now grown in many regions across most of the Southern Hemisphere, including here in Australia. It grows very quickly and generally grows very straight, which makes it great for turning into solid timber, or plywood as you get a very good yield from the tree (minimal wastage).
Radiata pine plywood is the most common type of plywood in Australia due to its strength, weight and appearance properties, and because of how easily it’s grown here. The availability of radiata pine trees also makes it quite an affordable timber to use.
Radiata pine is an introduced species to Australia and it is generally recommended to be treated as a weed, outside of plantations.
Hoop Pine Plywood
Hoop pine is a beautiful tree, native to south-eastern Queensland, and north-eastern NSW. Like radiata pine, hoop pine grows very quickly and straight, making it a wonderful sustainable timber resource – when grown in plantations.
Hoop pine is great to work with, has fantastic material properties, and has a beautiful grain pattern and appearance. A significant amount of work has been done in Australia over the last few decades between the government and the private sector to create an accreditation and chain of custody system to ensure the sustainability of this wonderful resource for centuries to come.
Hoop pine plywood makes wonderful furniture which is why our big strong flat-pack desks is made from it, ensuring the desk stays rock solid and beautiful for decades.
How to tell if it’s plywood flat pack furniture?
Because of its higher price, most flat-pack furniture makers won’t cover the plywood with veneers and pretend it’s something else. If it’s going to be covered up, they’ll usually use MDF or Chipboard. This generally makes it easy to spot plywood, as you’ll be able to see its distinctive layered edges on the edges of the furniture.
There are some exceptions in higher-end furniture (generally not flat-pack) where plywood is used as the core and then veneered with much more expensive and exotic woods. These are sometimes passed-off as “solid timber” which is technically true, although it’s probably not what you’re imagining if you’re buying a solid hardwood table, desk or piece of furniture.
Solid timber flat-pack furniture
Last but not least, is the use of solid timber in flat-pack furniture. The term “solid timber” usually refers to a single solid piece of timber (as opposed to veneers or composite materials such as plywood), although the term is generally expanded to include timber that has been made up from smaller pieces of solid timber.
Solid timber is usually used in furniture due to its strength and the integrity and visual appeal of using a single source of timber for a piece. There’s also a traditional appeal as this was the only way to make furniture before veneers and composite products were invented.
Solid timber isn’t used for flat-pack furniture as often as other materials due to its weight and higher price. There are a number of flat-pack furniture brands which do use solid timber, although you can expect to pay around 2-3 times as much as a non-solid-timber piece.
Whilst solid timber is beautiful and strong, on average it’s not as sustainable as plywood. This is due to a higher amount of raw material wastage, and the use of species that aren’t renewably sourced from plantations, instead of coming from old-growth forests.