PARTICLE BOARD IN INDIA: Myth and Reality

India is a country with a tradition of ‘real’ wood furniture; of extensive usage of tropical hardwoods, teak (Tectona grandis), Indian rosewood (Dalbergia sissoo) and salwood (Shorea robusta) for furniture and carved handicraft, where sandalwood sits at the top of the scale of posh. Understandably, engineered panel products such as Particle Board have had tremendously poor press in a country where a worst-case scenario involves the use of plywood.

This seems ironic as India has kept pace with industry trends in the furniture and interiors sector with the more developed markets of Europe, and is a large purchaser of furniture products from Italy and Germany, much of which is made with high quality Particle Board.

In the coming series of blogs, we will try to understand the reasons behind the anomaly.

 

A quick look at the market

Indian suppliers offer a broad-spectrum range of products spanning all segments. While wood has broad usability and is used for the entire gamut of furniture, Particle Board has more specific areas of usage. In the residential segment, the range includes bedroom furniture; beds, wardrobes and side tables; living and dining room furniture such as sideboards, shelving, storage and partitions, television units and trolleys and full kitchens. Office furniture offerings include the complete array of modular office furniture, modular partitions, full-length partitions, modular workstations and storage, computer tables, as well as conference furniture.

Furniture products and intermediates for assembled furniture are supplied by three broad segments in the Indian milieu; largescale mass-manufacturers with sophisticated machinery and mass production capacities, medium-small scale manufacturers with mechanized production processes and small scale, atomistic semiskilled professionals who manufacture bespoke furniture for the broad populace and range in skill from high to low quality production. The levels of offering are vastly different between segments and cover a range of price and quality combinations.

Overall, awareness of engineered wood products as well as the basic Indian hardwoods is high across both consumers and producers.

 

However, the deeper one digs, the knowledge gaps become apparent.

While everyone has heard of Particle Board, a significant segment fights shy of actually using it, for reasons based on both myth and reality. The basis is cultural, since Indians prefer the use of the ‘real’ woods but often don’t actually use them, for reasons of economy or just the fact that the item of furniture might not validate the use of expensive timber.

 

current practice

In the residential sector, the traditional means of fitting out a home is to use the neighborhood carpenter. This is usually a semi-skilled artisan who has learned his skills in the time-honored convention of following Furniture products and intermediates are supplied by large-scale mass-manufacturers, medium-small scale manufacturers with mechanized production and small scale, semi-skilled professionals manufacturing bespoke furniture; a hereditary profession, learning on the job, often from a family member, and later setting up his own small practice and hiring apprentices, as appropriate.

Despite being technically untrained, the ’village carpenter’ method has worked well for rural, semi-urban and urban India, varying only in the degree of sophistication of tools used, and the ‘pattern books’ or design catalogs used for inspiration.

This segment of professional has recently, in the last few decades, moved from using pure woods to using engineered wood products like plywood. However, their acceptance of the other set of engineered wood products, Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) and Particle Board, is low. Based on the extensive research done within the market, it appears that low awareness, not of the material itself, but of the correct usage and appropriate applications is the issue.

This segment controls a significant proportion of the market, in terms of atomistic fit-outs for the residential sector, but lacks the know-how and the tools to manufacture furniture from Particle Board and continues the use of ply and wood, in the numerous small projects undertaken. C. M. Satheesh Kumar, Vice President Operations, Indian Furniture Products Limited (Zuari Furniture and Style Spa Furniture), Tiruvallur, says the size of this carpenter-driven segment though large, is falling. “When we started, the residential furniture industry was 93 percent in the unorganized sector, and this is now around 85%.”

The picture is almost completely the opposite in the commercial sector, which includes the office, hospitality and retail segments, where furniture and complete fit-outs are often done on a turn-key basis either by medium-scale OEMs or architects who control the project and have their own in-house team of carpenters, use a regular contractor or sub-contract an OEM to do the job.

The material of choice, in this sector, appears to be Particle Board, based on the nature of the furniture and fit-outs required and the commercials. Ashok Quadros, Director, MultiFlex, Mumbai says, “Particle Board as a material, has absolutely no problem. We are using it for the last 24 years to service numerous hospitality projects and projects for multinationals running into millions of sqm and we don’t have any issues because we use ‘virgin’ Particle Board i.e. boards made from a single species.”