Desk Tops for Standing Desks | The Ultimate Guide
MDF, Powdercoat, Laminate, 3D-Laminate, Reclaimed Wood, Hardwood — What do they all mean?
When shopping for standing desks online you’ll discover that each seller has their own curated selection of desk tops that they offer to 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’ve been lab testing standing desks for many years to create this guide, to help you wade through all the terminology and explain how each desk top type is manufactured, its pros and cons, and the price range you should expect to see for it.
We’re going to break this down into a couple of categories, Laminated Desk Tops and Solid Wood Desktops.
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 an 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.
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 anywhere be 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 $1200 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.
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.
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. Hardwood contrasts with softwood; you can learn more about that if you’re interested, on Wikipedia.
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.
The more exotic-sounding and inexpensive 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 [pheasantwood] 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.
What is Solid Wood vs. Engineering Wood?
This is the more interesting question. Actual, real solid wood, just like it sounds, is made from a single plank of wood with no glues or layers. Tops like these are extraordinarily expensive because there are only so many desktop-sized, uniform pieces available out of a single tree where there are no knots or other defects. These can usually only be sourced locally.
To our knowledge there are no online sellers of standing desks offering true, contiguous, solid wood tops. But all the desk makers that offer real wood tops use the term “solid wood” or “solid slab” to describe their products. You can quickly tell from their photography that the tops are in fact formed out of slabs made by edge-gluing planks of real wood together. And that’s what makes these “solid wood” tops moderately affordable.
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 simulated “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 layers. Usually the natural wood is only used on the top, bottom and sides; in the middle are crisscross layers of cheaper wood to give the desk top strength without breaking the bank. This is somewhat similar to a veneer top, where a very thin sheet of natural wood is glued to an MDF core and then laminated with protective clear 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.
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?
A lot of people are attracted to the romance of reclaimed wood, imagining giant beams of old growth timber recovered from a cabin in the forest, getting a second life as a desktop. Whatever the source, reclaimed wood tops are made by edge-gluing strips of recycled wood into a new desktop, and then laminating the finished plank with clear coats. Some people like the antiqued look, but they’re not as environmentally sensible as marketers would have you believe.
It often takes more time, energy, adhesives and other resources to make a a reclaimed-wood top than to make a new one, hence their high consumer cost at the end of the day. Supplies can be inconsistent and there usually aren’t a lot of size and color choices when choosing a reclaimed wood top for your desk. Plus, there are safety concerns with reclaimed wood that can arise from the wood’s “previous life.” Mold, lead paint, pesticides, and a host of other hazardous substances can seep into wood over time. Knots and pitch streaks can crumble out of the slab if not properly drilled out and filled with color-matched epoxy. It pays to do your research when purchasing any reclaimed wood to make sure it is sourced and graded safely. No two pieces will look alike so you’re taking a little bit of a chance on receiving something that looks substantially similar to the photo on the website you bought it from.
From a practical standpoint the biggest problem with using reclaimed wood for standing desk tops is material instability. All woods will expand or contract to some degree with changes in temperate and humidity. A standing desk is designed to have expansion/contraction tolerances within the narrow range one can expect in an office environment. Tops made with MDF (e.g. HPL, 3-D laminate or powder coat) are generally very highly stable, as are kiln-dried natural woods. Reclaimed wood, however, is notorious for having far less dimensional stability than all the other desktop wood products that we discuss here. Our staff experts recommend avoiding it for use in a precision application like a standing desk. Some standing desk makers have stopped offering reclaimed wood desk tops due to high return rates. And as we keep pointing out, good luck finding one with a warranty.
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|
|Power 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||6||Antique look, re-purposed wood, scratches the hipster itch||High cost, lamination integrity, dimensional instability, inconsistent supply||None|
|Solid Wood / Natural Wood||7-10||The real deal, wows visitors that you dropped more coin on your desktop than on the base||Very costly, long delivery times are the norm||None to 7 Years|