DIY Standing Desk: Choosing the Right Desk Top
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MDF, Powdercoat, Laminate, 3D-Laminate, Reclaimed Wood, Hardwood, Veneer, Plywood — What Do They All Mean?
When shopping for standing desks online you’ll discover each seller has their own curated selection of desk tops that go along with their standing desk bases. But unless you were an office furniture salesperson in a previous life, many of these terms may be alien to you.
We asked our staff experts, who have been lab-testing standing desks for many years, to create this guide to help you wade through all the terminology, explain how different desk tops are manufactured, the pros and cons of each type, and the price range you should expect.
Laminated Desk Tops
Lamination sounds like a fancy term, but the idea is really quite simple. Lamination is the technique of manufacturing a material in multiple layers, so that the finished product (in this case a table top) is aesthetically appealing, and also attains strength, durability or other properties from the use of differing materials. Laminates span from vinyl wraps and natural wood veneers to melamine or even metal.
Laminates are bonded to “substrates” (usually a wood product in the case of desktops) using adhesives, pressure and temperature. It’s the same idea behind a laminated menu at a restaurant—the clear plastic laminate provides rigidity, durability and moisture protection from the paper menu.
In the case of desk tops used in standing desks, the substrate is usually a Medium Density Fiberboard, colloquially known as MDF. There’s cheap MDF and expensive MDF, depending on the grade. As a rule of thumb, the heavier the board the more wood fiber it has in it, hence why cheaply laminated desktops sourced from China can weigh a fraction of what a high-quality American-made desktop will tilt the scales at.
MDF is made by recycling scrap wood, grinding it down to uniform particles, adding a resin and other chemicals to bind everything together, and then pressing it into a very strong and uniform piece of wood under high temperature and pressure. It has some really great qualities, starting with the fact that it’s made from recycled wood, and is much, much cheaper than a solid plank of natural wood.
The uniformity of MDF planks makes it isotropic, meaning that it has the same properties in all directions as a result of having no grain, and no knots. It is easy to shape and bond laminates to. Once fully-laminated, MDF doesn’t contract and expand with temperature like natural wood can. Depending on the grade of the MDF used and what material is laminated to it, a particular maker’s desk tops can be stronger and more durable than others that sound virtually the same in a website description.
MDF is so stable that it can even be painted, albeit it cannot be stained like natural wood. And that brings us to its one primary weakness, which is that it’s extremely susceptible to moisture damage if not hermetically sealed. Tops that have grommet holes with exposed MDF can be utterly destroyed with one accidental spill of a coffee cup.
Mind you there are ways to protect exposed portions of MDF using waterproof paints or 3D laminates (see below), but this is something to be aware of when shopping for a laminated MDF desktop—they’re not all made to the same quality standards, and only the very highest quality ones will be hermetically sealed. How can you tell? They’re the ones with the five year warranties. Most desktops come with no warranty at all because they’re so easy to damage.
Is MDF The Same Thing as Particleboard?
While MDF and particleboard are sometimes used interchangeably, they are different products with different strengths and weaknesses. MDF is made of very small wood fibers, while particleboard is made of bigger, coarser fibers. So what does that mean for the final product?
Particleboard is weaker and less durable than MDF, while also being very susceptible to moisture damage. It doesn’t hold nails or screws as well as MDF. While particleboard is cheaper and lighter than MDF, it’s a lesser product in almost every other way for desktops.
What is a Powder Coated Desk Top?
The very cheapest way to laminate a piece of MDF is to use the powder coating method, which is literally spray-painting the wood. Powder-coated tops are highly-susceptible to damage because they add little or no protection from scratches, dents, or cleaning chemicals. In fact, many standing desk buyers have been shocked to find the paint coming off their desktops from spilled cola drinks, or from using a strong cleaning chemical. Anything more than wiping off with a damp cloth can literally strip the paint right off of a cheaply-made powder-coated top.
There are some higher-quality ones on the market with a moisture protecting seal but these add a bare minimum of hardness to the underlying MDF; the tops are still easily scratched and dented as compared to HPL and other superior materials.
Another drawback of powder coating is that it can only be used for solid colors. You won’t find a maple, cherry or mahogany in a powder coat finish, for obvious reasons. But it is dirt cheap.
What is High Pressure Laminate (HPL)?
HPL is the next step up from powder-coating a desk top, and has been around for generations. The vast majority of office furniture is built with HPL surfaces, made by bonding a laminate such as melamine (basically a plastic compound, commonly found on the inside of kitchen cabinetry, e.g. Formica or Wilsonart) to the top and bottom of a rectangular plank of MDF. Sometimes this is combined with high temperature to help the adhesives firmly bond the laminate to the substrate, in which case it is often referred to as Thermally Fused Laminate, or TFL.
The second part of manufacturing an HPL desktop is gluing some sort of edge banding to all four edges of the plank. Edge banding comes in many varieties, but you’ve surely seen it commonly as color-matched PVC strips (a plastic or rubber feel) that are glued to the thin edges of the desktop. One problem with edge banding is that it often shows visible seams, that not only make the top look simple and cheap but the glue usually dries out over time, leaving strips of edge banding peeling off at the corners. Any seams that are exposed to air, liquid, cleaners, etc., will eventually deteriorate.
Sometimes edge banding is a rubber strip wrapped completely around the tabletop with one seam in the center of the back edge. This allows for corners to be rounded, and to lessen bruising from running into the desk with your hip, but still leaves a 90-degree edge everywhere else.
In germ-sensitive areas like medical offices, the exposed seams of glue can also accumulate bacteria, and the glue can be compromised by harsh cleaning chemicals. For standing desks, where people often lean against the front edge of their desk, HPL tops are famous for leaving a reddish line in your forearm where they leaned against it. So those are the cons.
The pros are that HPL is very widely manufactured, including in China and Europe, and is very cost effective. It may not be the prettiest, most durable or most ergonomic, but it is cheap.
Note: so-called “whiteboard laminate” is usually about the same price as HPL and made the same way. Just watch your shirtsleeves!
What is 3D Lamination?
Technically, a 3D laminate is a film, or “thermofoil” that wraps around an MDF plank that has already been shaped. Sometimes called “ergo-contoured” these tops usually feature rounded corners, radiused edges and other features that you can’t get with the simple rectangle of an HPL top. The MDF plank is first shaped and then the vinyl laminate is bonded to it under higher temperature and pressure. As the laminate wraps around corners and through grommet holes it conforms perfectly to the shape of the wood. At least in a photograph, it is often very difficult to tell the difference between a high-end 3D laminated top and a hand-carved top made of solid hardwood.
There’s a wide variation in quality and technology when it comes to 3D lamination. There are differences in surface textures, image quality (i.e. a wood grain image), scratch resistance, dent resistance, chemical resistance, sunlight resistance and general durability of various 3D laminations. One clue is the cost. Another clue is whether you see exposed MDF in the grommet holes. Cheaply-made 3D-laminated tops are usually not even advertised as “3D”; they’ll just use the generic descriptor of “laminated,” or “vinyl-wrapped” MDF.
The best 3D laminations are designed specifically for office desk tops, commonly known as “HD” laminates (for Horizontal Dimension). These are literally two-ply vinyl films—a second, clear laminate is bonded to the top of the primary vinyl film that holds the color image, to add extra hardness and durability to the desk top surface. “VD,” or “Vertical Dimension” 3D laminates are single-ply and used on vertical cabinetry such as in kitchens and bathrooms. If you were to sign your name on a piece of paper held up to a VD-laminated cabinet door, for example, you’ll likely leave a permanent impression of your signature in the wood.
The very best 3D laminates for standing desks are obviously “HD,” and the best of those are Surf(x) or equivalent brands that were originally developed for the healthcare marketplace. Well-known 3D laminate manufacturers include Omnova and American Renolit. These are harder, more durable, and definitely more attractive than other traditional finishes, but only very slightly more expensive than MDF, if not equally-priced. 3D laminates are available in literally hundreds of colors; enough to match most any existing furniture at your company.
How can 3D laminate be so much better than HPL yet not cost much more? While high-quality 3D laminate material costs more per-square-foot than hard laminate sheeting (e.g. melamine or Formica), there is a lot less labor involved since there’s no second process for edge banding. The end consumer price turns out to be about the same, at least if you’re comparing American-made to American-made.
The reason that few standing desk manufacturers offer “HD” 3D is that there are very few factories that can afford the massive investment and square footage required to install the equipment and stock massive rolls of laminate; HD 3D lamination capability is certainly not something you’ll easily find in China, or even Europe. In the US the only standing desk manufacturer that utilizes this top-end 3D laminate is iMovR, and it’s why they can offer thousands of different color/size/shape combos on their desks—since every desk is made to order on an automated 3D-lamination line.
Probably the most popular aspect of high-end, ergo-contoured 3D laminate is that it has the look of natural wood at the cost of HPL. It’s also a necessity for the healthcare industry, where work surfaces need to be sanitized frequently without getting worn out. Because of its renowned durability it is also virtually the only lamination that comes with a warranty (five years from iMovR, e.g.)
3D laminate comes in hundreds of solid colors but also in wood grain images. An often overlooked difference between 3D laminate and solid wood or veneered wood tops is that any wood grain image in vinyl, is continuous. The image is photographed from a very large and expensive slab of natural wood at least 53″ wide (the width of the laminate roll). “Solid wood,” a.k.a. “real wood” tops are made by edge gluing planks of real wood together into something the size of a desktop. Same goes for veneer. The cost of the raw material is in part a function of the width of each plank that is used. These can be anywhere from an inch wide to as much as a foot, but are usually around 5″ to 6″ wide on a descent quality solid slab top. What that means is that a solid wood desktop is going to have lines between each plank where the grain changes, whereas on a wood grain 3D laminate you’ll get one contiguous wood grain image across the entire desktop.
Solid Wood Desktops
For the discriminating buyer there is simply no substitute for real wood. If they’re used to sitting at a real wood desk then they’re apt to search for real wood when buying a standing desk, too. So in recent years we’ve seen more and more real wood options being offered by standing desk manufacturers, and their popularity has been on a steep rise. These are pricey options that can run up to $2000 or more in exotic species, and often involve long lead times, for sure. Because of their high raw material costs real wood tops are typically not stocked in as many sizes and shapes as other options like HPL or 3D-laminated. That said, makers like iMovR that are “pull based” do offer an astounding array of colors and sizes, you just have to wait 3 – 6 weeks for production.
Depending on how much lacquer or other sealants are used to protect the top they may not be as durable, either, but they can always be refinished if they start looking too battered, whereas you can’t refinish worn 3D laminate or HPL. Most people seeking real wood tops just accept the fact that their desks will “retain character” as they get a little dinged up over the years. Refinishing is a very involved and costly affair, generally speaking. This is where craftsmanship and production quality can really make a difference, and as a rule of thumb, the higher the cost the better and longer it is likely to last.
Below you’ll find general information to help you navigate the differences between different makers’ real wood options, but be sure to check out our comprehensive round-up of Solid Wood Standing Desk Reviews to learn about specific real wood offerings that are available in the market today. Note that “reclaimed wood,” while technically a solid wood product, involves even more careful considerations when it comes to separating poor quality from top quality. See our comprehensive round-up of Reclaimed Wood Standing Desk Reviews for all the knowledge you’ll need to make a well-informed buying decision.
What is Natural Wood vs. Hardwood?
There’s a lot of confusion on this point as people tend to use the term hardwood as a synonym for solid natural wood, but there is a technical difference. Hardwood is specifically from dicot trees. These are usually found in broad-leaved temperate and tropical forests. In temperate and boreal latitudes they are mostly deciduous, but in tropics and subtropics, they are mostly evergreen. Learn more about how hardwood differs from softwood.
Regardless of whether a hardwood or a softwood, of paramount importance to any buyer of this kind of product should be knowing everything about how it is made. Whether the species is one that is highly sustainable or being harvested in excess of its new growth rate. Where it comes from, and the process it goes through from raw material to a finished, sealed, precision-machined tabletop.
What Are the Key Differences Between American-sourced and Imported Solid Wood Desktops?
The more exotic-sounding and inexpensive a desktop is the more likely it is to come from outside the USA, where environmental standards are far lower and sustainability is sacrificed for short-term profits. Highly sustainable stocks grown in the USA include maple, cherry, walnut, hickory, red oak and white oak, for example. Then there’s the question of the chemicals used to seal the wood after it has been sanded, and in some cases stained.
Cheaper solid wood products, especially imported ones, tend to use sealants that rely on solvents. These are toxic to the workers, to the environment, and ultimately to all of us. As with most product categories you’re usually best-off with USA-grown and USA-made real wood products, but be sure to ask the producer about how your top will be made. Not sure if a species is grown in the USA? Just google “where is [species] grown,” the answer usually comes right up. If it is grown Asia, Africa, South America or elsewhere you can bet it will not be of the same quality as a USA-made top, and likely harmful to the environment. Another clue is to look for “American” in the species name. “Natural Ash,” for example, is likely not “American Ash”—and may have different grain, hardness or other key attribute versus domestic species.
Some of the foreign-sourced solid wood desktops offered online by standing desk manufacturers include pleasantwood, rubberwood (a.k.a. plantation oak), wheatwood, African mahogany and acacia. Most certainly the WoodFree™ straw-based desktops are neither made of real wood or sourced in North America.
A lot of desks will be marketed as “made in America” even though the tops are imported. These companies will argue with customers that “most of the desk, i.e. the frame, is made in the USA,” but from an ecological standpoint and a purely legal standpoint this is a fraudulent answer. As we describe in our primer on American-made standing desks versus Asian imports, the Federal Trade Commission defines the standard as at least 50% of the cost of components and/or processes being American-sourced. If you plunk a $500 pheasantwood top onto a $385 base then clearly this does not meet the legal standard, yet these companies are small and know that the FTC does not have the resources to go after companies of their size for false advertising. So the best strategy is always to ask the question outright, and not rely on claims of a standing desk being made-in-America unless the desktops are explicitly described as being harvested and produced in America.
What is Solid Wood vs. Engineering Wood?
Hyper-technically, solid slab wood, just like it sounds, is made from a single plank of wood with no glued planks or layered veneers. Tops made from a truly monolithic slab of hardwood are extraordinarily expensive because there are only so many desktop-sized, uniform pieces available out of a single tree where there are few knots or other defects. These can usually only be sourced locally.
Besides the cost there are two other significant issues with using monolithic solid wood slabs for a sit-stand desk or table. Firstly, a large solid slab is likely to have a lot of defect patching, like epoxy fills and bowtie braces, because the bigger the slab the harder it is to find one without some defects that could affect the integrity of the whole board.
Secondly, since natural wood also exhibits natural “movement” (expansion/contraction at a different rate with-the-grain versus against-the-grain, leading to warping and cracking) a bigger singular slab also needs a properly-designed strong metal frame underneath to allow these movements while maintaining the integrity of the slab; this is very challenging for furniture designers, and nothing works forever.
It’s also worth mentioning here for the DIY aficionados who fancy the idea of fashioning a solid monolithic desktop from a fallen tree in their backyard, for example, that engineering for metal reinforcement around the board is something they really need to be aware of. Natural warping of the board with changes in temperature and humidity can not only impact the integrity of the surface, but it can also place undue torquing forces on the lifting base and lead to squeaking and ultimately premature failure of the sensitive electromechanical components in the lifting columns.
For all the above stated reasons, to our knowledge, there are no online sellers of standing desks offering true, contiguous, solid wood slab tabletops. But all the desk makers that offer real wood tops use the term “solid wood,” “real wood” or “natural wood” to describe their products. You can quickly tell from their photography that the tops are in fact formed from slabs that are first made by edge-gluing planks of real wood together; these planks will typically be between 4 and 6 inches wide so you will see four to seven delineation lines in the grain. And this construction is what makes these “solid wood” tops moderately affordable, as well as more resistant to warping and cracking.
Most sellers of solid wood desktops for standing desks offer a fairly simple product—a rectangular slab with hard corners and edges, and perhaps the option of adding grommet holes. Unlike HPL and other top materials, which almost always come with grommet holes for cable pass-through, about half of all buyers of solid wood tops choose to have no grommet holes, understandably putting aesthetics first. Advanced features on solid wood tops include ergo-contoured edges (more comfortable and durable than hard-edged rectangular tops) and faux “barkline” edging on the front and/or back edge of the desktop (generally these are not real “live edge” solid wood boards).
Engineered woods, on the other hand, are a completely different animal. They are made from thin layers (sometimes literally 1mm-thick veneers) glued together in alternating grain direction to give the plank strength it would otherwise not have. Examples of engineered wood include products like bamboo (see below) that aren’t even made from real wood, but rather woody fiber transformed into thin planks. Because they lack strength they are almost always made by bonding layers of thin sheets of bamboo in alternating “grain” directions to give them a modicum of strength for use as desktops (or in the case of floorboards, they are then bonded to super-rigid plywood hidden from view underneath the bamboo veneer).
Often in the case of engineered wood panels, the expensive natural wood is only used on the top, bottom and sides of the panel; in the middle are crisscross layers of cheaper “plywood” to give the desktop strength without breaking the bank. This is somewhat similar to a veneer top, where a very thin sheet of expensive natural wood is glued to a relatively inexpensive MDF core and then treated with stain and/or a protective seal coating. In some cases—like on really high-end conference tables—veneers can even be rounded at the edges for a nicer look, though for the most part veneer tops are as rectangular as HPL tops.
A New Lower-Cost Alternative to Solid Wood: Baltic Birch
An exciting new alternative to solid wood that runs about 1/3rd the cost, looks as beautiful as maple and is actually much more stable and strong than natural hardwoods is Baltic birch. iMovR has recently launched a new line of designer standing desks (their “Baltic Line“) using a gorgeous, top grade (B/BB) 12-ply birch panel, including the highly unique Captain’s Desk which we recently reviewed. Baltic birch like this has been used for hundreds of years by European makers of fine cabinetry and musical instruments because of how durable, stable and precisely machinable it is. It also takes stains as well as any solid hardwood plank does. (But beware of some cheap simulations out there; real Baltic birch is sourced from the second-largest sustainable forest in the world, along the shores of the Baltic Sea in Russia and Finland.)
The birch panels are made up of a dozen 1.5 mm-thick sheets of veneer that are bonded together in alternating grain direction. This makes for a void-free core that is exceptionally strong and stable, much more so than a plank of natural hardwood. While technically a “plywood” this is not the same animal as you’ll find in the bins at Home Depot.
For fine furniture, and especially anything you’re going to put on a height-adjustable base, only the top grade of Baltic birch should ever be used (B/BB). The grading refers to the exposed surfaces (listed as “face/back” quality), so if you’re comparing apples-to-apples you will want to be cognizant of the exact grade being used by the manufacturer, as quality (and cost) varies widely. One clue: if the grade isn’t mentioned in their marketing materials it’s probably a cheaper grade. Here’s the guide to these grading codes:
- B/BB: The face and back veneers are both single pieces. Face veneers are free of defects, clear and of uniform color. Back veneers can have 3-6 color-matched patches.
- BB/BB: The face and back veneers are both single pieces. Face and back veneers can have 3-6 color-matched patches and some light streaks. There may be tight pin knots.
- BB/CP: The face and back veneers are both single pieces. CP back veneer can have unlimited patches and knots, but can’t have open defects.
- CP/CP: The face and back veneers are both single pieces. Face and back veneers can have unlimited knots, repaired splits and patches.
- C/C: Front and back veneers can have patches, open knots, small splits. Voids are allowed in the core. This grade is not sanded and would be used for structural purposes.
Baltic birch fits next to solid wood in regards to quality but is significantly less expensive. It also has the advantage of being much less susceptible to flex and movement from changes in temperature and humidity.
Baltic birch also stands out with its lower environmental impact compared to natural hardwoods like maple, cherry or oak. It grows quickly and takes less than half the raw wood material to match the strength and rigidity of a natural hardwood plank.
Is Bamboo Really a Solid Wood?
Don’t let sleazy online marketers fool you. Bamboo is a grass, not a tree. It requires an immense amount of energy, water and adhesives to re-form bamboo into a wood desktop. While numerous e-commerce sites promote bamboo as an environmentally sensible choice for a desk top, this is a complete and utter sham. While bamboo can be grown quickly and very cheaply turned into wood products in China (where’s there’s no EPA to stop them from destroying the environment in the process) it leaves a scourge on the planet unlike most any other desk top material you can choose. Read more about this in our primer on Bamboo Standing Desks – Separating Truth From Fiction in Environmental Claims.
Besides the environmental costs, like many engineered wood tops bamboo tops are famous for delaminating with prolonged exposure to sunlight and moisture. They are a cheap and attractive option for desk buyers, but often result in serious disappointment and replacement hassle. No other desk top material gets as many complaints and returns as bamboo; our advice is to avoid it, at least for a few more years. Farms have been created in the Southeast United States that are growing domestic bamboo stock for the very first time, but it will likely take years before they have factories running here that’ll turn that stock into quality bamboo lumber for desktops. They will likely cost 10x more than Southeast Asia-sourced bamboo lumber.
What is reclaimed wood?
Reclaimed wood is such a huge topic on its own that we’ve had to break it out into a separate primer on Reclaimed Wood Standing Desks. As with solid wood desktops made from fresh-cut stock, when it comes to reclaimed wood you get what you pay for, and with more money you get a more visually appealing and durable product, with nicer finishing touches—i.e. species and stains to match the tone of your decor, smoother surfaces, softened edges, plentiful size choices, grommet hole options, etc.
A key point you’ll read about in our primer is that discerning consumers perceive “reclaimed hardwood” to mean something that was originally hewn by early American settlers from original old growth timber, to fashion structures that they lived and worked in, like houses, churches, lodges and barns. If this is what you’re really after, make sure to note whether the tops are marketed as “Antique,” meaning at least a century old. Antique reclaimed wood will cost a lot more but it will be authentically “reclaimed.”
There’s just so much information to consider when shopping reclaimed wood standing desk products, we urge you to read the full Reclaimed Wood Standup Desk Review to be completely informed before buying.
For more information on specific real wood standing desk offerings, see our comprehensive round-up of Solid Wood Standing Desk Reviews.
Anything to Know About Cleaning and Disinfecting Desktops?
YES!! See our article dedicated to the subject of How to Clean and Disinfect Your Standing Desk Workstation in the Age of Coronavirus. Spoiler alert: Surf(x) 3D-laminated tops are the only “healthcare grade” option for disinfection. Powder coat, bamboo, rubberwood, reclaimed wood and other low-cost desktops are the most susceptible to damage from harsh cleaning chemicals. And solid natural wood requires following the manufacturers specific recommendations.
What is the Relative Cost of Different Desktop Materials?
To make an apples-to-apples comparison of different desktop materials can be challenging because not all manufacturers produce the same dimensions and thicknesses, and many don’t price their desk tops separately from their bases. So we’ve used an index range of 1 – 10, with 1 being the least expensive and 10 being the most expensive, to give a relative sense for the prices of different desk top material options.
|Desktop Material||Relative Price Index (1-10)||Pros||Cons||Warranty|
|Powder Coat||1||Cheapest laminate possible||Poorest durability||None|
|Bamboo||1-3||Very cheap to produce, beautiful composite grain image||Extremely bad for the environment, highly susceptible to delamination||None|
|HPL||2-3||Most common, most traditional method||Open seams susceptible to drying out, sharp corners, limited durability||None|
|Surf(x) 3D||3||Infinite color, size and shape choices; most durable; the look of natural wood without the cost||None||5 Years|
|Reclaimed Wood||3-10||Antique look, re-purposed wood, scratches the hipster itch||High cost, lamination integrity, dimensional instability, inconsistent supply||None to 5 Years|
|Solid Wood / Natural Wood||6-9||The real deal, wows visitors that you dropped more coin on your desktop than on the base||Costly to very costly depending in country of origin and quality of finish.
Long delivery times are the norm.
|None to 5 Years|