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Particle Board Underlayment: Pros, Cons, and Cautions


Pros and cons of particleboard as flooring underlayment

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New flooring can make a huge difference to the look and comfort of a home. Whether you are replacing old carpeting, installing new laminate or vinyl planks, or splashing out on hardwood floor or tile, it is important to prepare the floor to receive the new material. 

When choosing underlayment material, many people consider using particle board. Particle board has some pros that make it seem like a good option for underlayment, but the cons outweigh the pros in basically every situation. 

Read on to learn more about particle board, underlayment, and subfloors, and the pros and cons of using particle board. Then, I will briefly discuss the best options for underlayment for different flooring options. 

What is Particle Board?

Before discussing the uses and applications of particle board in flooring, it is important to understand how it is made. 

Particle board are usually sold as 4x8 sheets of wood product panels. Particle board is made from dry wood particles that are sprayed or dusted with a binder resin, then bonded together with heat and pressure. 

The wood particles can be made from practically any part or kind of wood, such as trimmings, shavings, and sawdust from manufacturing of plywood or other wood products.

Particleboard is sometimes called chip board, flake board, strand board, or wafer board, and for good reason

Because of its makeup of very small particles of wood, particle board has a smooth surface and soft texture that can “flake” into pieces. It is often used in furniture, shelving, and countertop substrates and covered with a veneer or laminate surface. 

Although particle board provides a smooth, level surface for flooring underlayment, it does not usually provide the best longevity, and it certainly is not a good choice for subfloors. Let’s look at why. 

Subfloor vs. Underlayment: Definitions and Purposes

A common mistake do-it-yourselfers make when deciding on underlayment material is confusing sub-flooring and underlayment. Both are important components of flooring that have very different uses. 

A subfloor is the layer of flooring that provides structural support. Although underlayment is often still called subfloor, in reality the subfloor is the thick wood layer that is screwed directly into the floor joists. Subfloors must be strong and resistant to damage.

Subfloors are usually constructed of OSB (oriented-strand board) or plywood sheeting. Although some finished flooring materials can be laid directly on the subfloor, it is often recommended to add another thin layer of underlayment between the subfloor and finished floor. 

Underlayment can stiffen the floor a little, but mostly it is used as a smooth, level, and strong backing for finished flooring. Underlayment can be made from many materials depending on the finished flooring intended. Particle board is one of the choices, but not necessarily the best option. 

Note: particleboard is nonstructural and has no code approval for use as sub-flooring or single-layer sub-flooring/underlayment (source). It does not provide the necessary strength and resilience necessary for safe sub-flooring. 

Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of particle board as an underlayment material. 

Why Use Particle Board as Underlayment

Probably the biggest pro for particle board is its cost. Particle boards sold in 4x8 size are around $10, while plywood underlayment runs $35+ a sheet. Obviously, that is a huge savings over a large expanse. 

Another pro of particle board is its smooth, soft surface. When particle board is used on top of sub-flooring as an underlayment, it provides a thick, solid base that is useful under carpeting, linoleum, or vinyl flooring.

One last pro of particle board is that it can also raise the level of the floor to the correct height for transitions between flooring materials. 

However, the pros basically stop there. Now, let’s look at the cons.

Reasons To Not Use Particle Board as Underlayment

Particle board may be inexpensive and smooth, but it has a few large cons against using it for underlayment. Let’s look at them in more depth:

  • Moisture Damage: The most obvious and severe con against particle board as underlayment is its propensity to moisture damage. 

Because particleboard is made of basically sawdust glued together, it is like a sponge for water. When it gets wet, it swells, warps, and disintegrates. Not only do the wood particles absorb water, but the resins used to bind them also hold moisture.

Even using adhesive glue to secure particle board to the subfloor or attaching finished flooring to the particle board underlayment can introduce moisture to the product. 

So thinking about the uses in a home, particle board would be a terrible choice for any space that has potential for water damage, such as kitchens, bathrooms, or laundry rooms.

These rooms often have resilient flooring materials, such as sheet vinyl or laminate, that can allow water to leak through cracks, seams, and edges onto the underlayment.

I lived through an experience with this. A house I rented had particleboard flooring under the vinyl in the kitchen and bath. The floor was very soft in the bathroom from moisture. By the time I moved out I was literally having to step over a soft area to prevent falling through the floor.

Although particle board is often recommended under carpeting, even this is cautionary. If a pet urinates on the carpet, a drink is spilled, or even regular carpet cleaning water seeps through the carpet and pad, the particle board will swell, creating a bulge and holding the moisture. 

This can lead to mold growth, mites, and a myriad of other health concerns, not to mention the damage to the flooring.

  • Installation Woes: Because particle board is so flaky, it is difficult to install with nails. Driving a nail into the surface usually causes chunks of board to flake off, therefore negating the smooth surface. 

Screws, ring-grooved underlayment nails, or staples can adhere better to particle board, as well as adhesive glues, such as hard-setting casein glue or polyvinyl acetate floor underlayment glue (which can, however, also lead to moisture damage).

Also, if you are attempting to attach the finished product to the particle board, or even foam pads for carpeting or laminate flooring, the particle board could suffer damage. It may not adhere well or create areas of flex and movement where the flooring pulls away from the particle board. 

  • Removal Woes: If you ever decide to remove the underlayment, or if you have particle board to remove now in order to refloor, you are in for a chore. Because particle board must be screwed and/or glued down, it is difficult to remove. Plus, it falls to pieces as you work with it. 

This video shows just how time-consuming this process can be:

How to remove particle board, when it has been nailed and glued down! TIME SAVER!

Chisels, power drills, crowbars, even yard tools may be needed, not to mention lots of time. So much work is necessary to properly remove the particleboard, and even so, some damage to the subfloor is almost unavoidable. 

The Best Ways to Underlay for Different Flooring

Hopefully you see why particle board is not usually the best option for underlayment, even in completely dry situations. However, that does not negate the importance of underlayment for the best installation of finished flooring. 

The underlayment used for flooring can make a big difference to the finished surface. Especially with thin materials like vinyl, every irregularity will show through the surface without it.

Although it is possible to lay many finished products directly on the subfloor, there are reasons to spend the money and time on proper underlayment. 

Some benefits of underlayment include:

  • Absorbs sounds 
  • Provides some resistance to compression
  • Absorbs impact from walking
  • Smooths and hides imperfections in subfloor
  • Levels the surface
  • Provides some insulation between subfloor and finished space

 Let’s look at the best choices for underlayment for several kinds of finished products. 

Finished ProductOSB or Plywood UnderlaymentHardyback or Cement BoardDirectly on Subfloor possible
HardwoodXX
CarpetX (with carpet pad)X (with carpet pad)
Vinyl SheetingX
TileX
Laminate PlanksX (with foam pad)X (with foam pad)

As you can see, OSB or plywood underlayments are the best options for almost all circumstances. Plywood underlayment is usually 1/4 inch thick and sold in 4x8 sheets. Plywood is recommended and approved as an underlayment by almost all flooring manufacturers, including resilient flooring like vinyl (source). 

Conclusion

Particle board is an inexpensive, smooth product that can be used for underlayment under carpeting and vinyl flooring. However, even in the best of circumstances, particle board is very susceptible to moisture damage. Even small amounts of water can cause particle board to warp, buckle, and fall apart. 

Likewise, particle board is difficult to work with, as it cannot be simply nailed down to the subfloor without flaking apart, while removing particle board is a time-consuming chore that is best avoided. 

If you have the ability, use plywood underlayment for your underlayment flooring needs. Plywood is more expensive, but it will provide all of the benefits of underlayment without the worry of moisture damage or the hassle of installation and removal.

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Paul

As a homeowner, I am constantly experimenting with making the structure of my house more energy-efficient, eliminating pests, and taking on DIY home improvement projects. Over the past two decades, my family has rehabbed houses and contracted new home builds and I've learned a lot along the way. I share my hard-learned lessons so that you can save time and money by not repeating my mistakes.

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