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 Natural 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 desk top or table top) is aesthetically appealing, and also attains strength, durability or other properties from the use of differing materials.
Laminates are bonded to “substrates” (in this case usually a plank of Medium Density Fiberboard, but in cheaper furniture products it could be particle board or plywood) using adhesives, pressure and temperature. It’s the same idea behind a laminated menu at a restaurant—the clear plastic laminate provides rigidity and moisture protection from the paper menu.
In the case of desk tops used in standing desks, the substrates are usually 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, hence why cheap 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 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 wood can. Depending on the grade of the MDF used and what material is laminated to it, a particular maker’s desk top 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 the 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 top-quality ones are 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 using a harsh cleaning chemical.
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 HPL, 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. HPL is also sometimes 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 can dry out over time, leaving strips of edge banding peeling off at the corners.
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. The sharp corners of HPL tops are also famous for giving people hip bruises when they brush too closely past the desk’s corner. For standing desks, where people often lean against the front edge of their desk, HPL tops are famous for leaving a line in your forearm where you leaned against the desk. 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 lamination” 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 with rounded corners, radiused edges and other features that you can’t get with the simple rectangle of an HPL top. The MDF is first shaped and then the laminate is bonded to it under higher temperature and pressure; as the laminate wraps around corners and through grommet holes it conforms to the shape of the wood.
There’s a wide variation in quality and technology when it comes to 3D laminations. 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 any grommet holes. Cheaply-made 3D-laminated tops are usually not even advertised as “3D”; they’ll just use the generic descriptor of “laminated.” If you see anything other than a rectangle with sharp edges, it’s likely 3D lamination.
The best 3D laminations are designed specifically for office desk tops, commonly known as “HD” laminates (for Horizontal Dimension). These are literally dual-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, chances are you’ll leave a permanent indentation in the wood with your signature.
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 melamine-type, hard laminate sheeting, 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.)
Natural Wood Desktops
In recent years we’ve seen more and more real wood options being offered by standing desk makers. These are pricey options that can run up to $1200 or more in exotic species, and often involve long lead times. They’re typically not offered in as many sizes and shapes as HPL or 3D-laminated tops, and depending the how much lacquer or other coating is used to protect the top they may not be as durable, but they can always be refinished if they start looking too battered.
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.
What is Solid Wood vs. Engineering Wood?
This is the more interesting question. Solid wood, just like it sounds, is made from a single plank of wood with no glues or layers. Solid wood tops are generally the most expensive because there are only so many large, uniform pieces available out of a single tree where there are no knots or other defects.
Engineered woods 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, 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?
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 online marketers promote bamboo as an environmentally sensible choice for a desk top, this is a complete 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) 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 long term 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.
What is reclaimed wood?
A lot of people like 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 gluing together 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. It pays to do your research when purchasing any reclaimed wood to make sure it is sourced and graded safely.
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 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.
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, nice looking||Extremely bad for the environment, susceptible to delamination||None|
|HPL||2-3||Most common, most traditional method||Open seams, hard 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||High cost, lamination integrity, dimensional instability||None|
|Natural Wood||7-10||The real deal, wows visitors that you dropped more coin on your desktop than the base||Very costly, often long delivery times and limited size, species choices||None|