Material Expectations

Doing What Particle Board Does

This last week one of my shelves fell off the wall.

It was pretty embarrassing. I had a client in the studio and right in the middle of a recording project one of my shelves crashed onto the floor. Yes we were moving things on and off the shelf at the time, so it was getting stressed, but still, a shelf failing is an alarming experience no matter what.

It’s really tough to embarrass me, but this experience made me feel foolish.

I have put dozens of shelves up in my life.  This has never happened. I’m very cautious too. I almost never use wall anchors. Whenever possible I adhere the brackets to studs in the wall.

In this case I actually attached the shelf to an exposed 2x4 stud on the edge of the cyc wall in the studio. There was no guessing where the stud was.  I attached the bracket dead center on the stud. It was as strong as can be.

In this situation, however, I had to adhere part of the shelf to a weaker part of the wall, but I figured the bracket in the 2x4 would provide enough stability that it would support the weaker part.  And it actually did.

But the shelf still fell. I clearly overlooked something. It wasn’t the bracket and it wasn’t the weak wall. It was something much less obvious.

It was the shelf itself.

The shelf was 3/4 ” thick and it was made of particle board with a white veneer. I used a number of ½” screws to attach the particle board shelf to the bracket. And that is where things went wrong.

We temporarily put something heavy on the front edge of the shelf. I admit it looked precarious and it concerned me, so I felt the stability of the shelf for a moment. It seemed perfectly secure. So I turned my back for a moment and BANG! The shelf was on the ground. I looked up and the bracket was still firmly attached to the stud.

As it turned out, the particle board wasn’t strong enough to hold the screws. The extra bit of weight on the front of the shelf pulled the screws right out of the board.

If the shelf had been made of solid wood, it would have been fine. If it had been made of plywood it would have been fine. But the particle board didn’t have enough structural stability to hold those short screws in place when the extra bit of stress hit. So when the screws failed, the weaker bracket suddenly took all the weight, and then that bracket failed. The whole thing took less than a second. There was no time to react.

It was embarrassing.

You may not realize how many things in your life are made of particle board. You normally can’t tell because it is covered in some sort of veneer, but particle board is widely used today, especially in furniture. Particle board is used for some very specific reasons.

It is less expensive than solid wood or plywood.

It doesn’t warp and bend like wood and plywood.

The surfaces can be so flat and smooth that it appears almost flawless when finished.

In my particular case, I originally bought the shelf at Home Depot. It had previously been installed in our office in Denver, Colorado. The finish was a solid white, it looked very clean and professional. Aesthetically it was exactly what I wanted in that part of our office. And because of the thick veneer, it kept moisture away, which is the primary thing that can destroy particle board. So not only did it look nice, but it was easy to keep clean.

Particle board is nothing more than tiny scraps of wood glued together to make something that looks like a piece of wood. Particle board is a little like a granola bar. You put a bunch of ingredients in a bowl, mix them together, add something that acts as glue, and then shape it all into a rectangle.

The quality of the particle board can vary widely based on the size of the particles and the glue. But no matter how good the particle board, it will never be as structurally sound, for holding things like screws, as a regular piece of wood.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it, indeed in many cases, like mine, it’s actually what I wanted aesthetically. I liked how it looked compared to regular wood and plywood. It simply means you need to work within its limits.

For example, if I had attached the board to the bracket with a bolt, nut and washer, it would have been virtually indestructible. The structural integrity of the particle board wouldn’t have mattered at all. I could have had my nice, perfectly shaped, smooth, white finished shelf, and it would have been perfectly solid.

Many failures in life are just like that shelf. We get upset that the shelf didn't perform as we anticiplated. But there was nothing wrong with the shelf. The problem was I was expecting it to do something it can’t.

I shouldn’t be upset that the particle board didn’t act like regular wood. It’s not regular wood. I bought it specifically for properties that regular wood doesn’t have. The problem was, I still expected it to act like regular wood. But even though they are both called “wood,” they have very little in common.

I think most of us have the same approach when it comes to dealing with human beings. Just because all the people in your life are humans doesn’t mean they have anything in common. Disappointment and frustration are often the result of people not living up to our expectations. But whose fault is that? Are you expecting something from a person that they are simply not capable of doing?

I shouldn’t be upset that particle board doesn’t act like plywood, or vice versa. Those expectations only lead to frustration and disappointment. It’s up to me to manage my expectations and work within the limits of the material I am using. And when I know the weaknesses, it’s up to me to reinforce those areas and avoid stressing them.

Don’t expect a person, or substance, to have properties or strengths that it simply doesn’t have. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of each person in your life, especially those you have to work and be productive with. Take advantage of the areas of strength and don’t put pressure on the areas of weakness.