For some home-building projects, only solid wood will do. But, as often as not, manufactured wood panels look and work every bit as well as solid wood. And they can save you time and money, especially if you don't have a full-scale home workshop.
Manufactured panels allow you to design and build cabinets and furniture that contain relatively large parts without the necessity of gluing together and surfacing many smaller pieces of solid wood. And panels often cost less than solid wood.
Various types of panels are available. Plywood panels are made by peeling or slicing a log into thin sheets called veneers, which are dried and then glued together.
Non-veneered panels, such as flake board, wafer board, oriented-strand board and particleboard are all made by chipping or grinding wood into small pieces, drying the chips and mixing them with adhesive to form a thick mat.
The differences in the various panels are based on the size of the chips and the way they are oriented in the mat.
Particleboard is small, compressed particles, often in layers, but with no grain orientation. Oriented-strand board is made from strand-like particles arranged in layers with the grain in alternate layers at right angles to each other.
Wafer board and flake board also consist of compressed particles, but they can be either randomly or directionally oriented. The basic difference between the two is the size and thickness of the particles, with flake board having larger and thinner flakes.
Plywood and other panels can span large areas like tabletops, doors or countertops in one piece. They also have greater dimensional stability than solid wood, especially across the grain of the panel.
Panels resist shrinking and swelling, can be face-nailed or screwed very close to the edge without splitting and make strong cabinet or case backs.
On the down side, panel products do not hold nails or screws well in their edges. And, because of their construction, the edges must be covered if you want the panels to look like solid wood.
Using panels can mean significant materials savings. Parts cut from random-width, random-length solid stock waste about 30% of Select or Better grades. Lower lumber grades seldom yield more than 50% usable footage. But because panels come in stock sizes, generally 4 feet by 8 feet, and have uniform thickness and quality, maximum yields can be 90% or more.
When buying panels, remember that hardwood veneers are relatively expensive. Structural panels are cheaper than hardwood-faced plywood, so use this material where you want the convenience of a panel but don't need its decorative appearance.
Since thin one-fourth-inch hardwood-faced panels cost half as much as three-quarter-inch, consider bonding one to lower-grade half-inch material when the back won't show. Also, one-eighth-inch hardboard makes good drawer bottoms, dust panels and case backs and costs a lot less than hardwood-veneered plywood.