Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ikea, Glue Blocks, Ikea Hacking and Bob Flexner

I don't like Ikea.  Don't get me wrong, some of their stuff is great, but when it comes to their non-wood flat-pack furniture made out of that press/chip/particle/fiber/wafer board, I'm not a fan.  Sure, it is finished really nicely, but it isn't wood.   This "rant" applies to all of the ilk, not just Ikea.  I've heard people have good success with things like kitchen cabinets and closets that you build in, and never move.  But after a few years go by and moisture gets under the finished surface, or a corner curls, or a screw or two gets loose in a hinge...  Well, you get the idea.  Don't get me wrong, some of their real wood furniture items really do wear well. However, as most of their furniture is flat-packed (flat case pieces, bags of fasteners and other hardware and a couple simple tools to assemble them with) and made to be assembled without glue or clamps, the joint is usually a mechanical one - the quick / cam metal fasteners are holding the piece together.  Nothing wrong with that...  ...until you move it.  Metal fasteners are stronger than wood and they don't give.  Ikea engineers do a pretty good job of making sure that the furniture can resist the stress of normal use, but as soon as something gives a wracking force jolt, the metal hardware will do its best to keep things together, but what ends up "giving" is the MDF / chipboard - it will flake, dent and delaminate if you look at it wrong.  And, as soon as a piece starts to get wiggly, it is only going to get worse.
Ok, woodworkers / cabinet makers are not the target audience of flat packed furniture.  However, I'm sure I'm not the first that has been roped into assembling one, or been asked to fix after it has started going bad.
I have a couple suggestions:
First, use glue - it isn't going to help as much as if the product was wood, but it will help a lot.  Some people think glue and Ikea are a bad combination, but the basic argument is that it makes it take longer to assemble, and you lose the flexibility of being able to break it down later.  Well, most folk I know don't move so often that this is an issue.  But, something to consider if you are putting something together for a teen or someone college-age.
Second, replace flimsy backs with plywood.  A lot of Ikea backs are just for show, not to prevent wracking stress.  Some of their backs are only 2mm thick, and are basically finished paper.  If you want, you can glue that back to plywood, and then attach it to the case.  I got this tip from my friends Don and Sue, who replaced the backs of some of their bookcases many years ago to help make them more earthquake proof / allow them to secure them to the wall.

Third, replace screws with nuts and bolts (not always possible, mostly screws are used for blind-side applications.)  Screws strip out.  Not all Ikea screws are the nice Spax (shown at left) or Confirmat screws that are made for MDF / particle board. But, when you can, upgrade fasteners.  Sometimes the upgrade has to be gluing hinges rather than replacing fasteners.  FYI, Spax screws are available at both Lowes and Home Depot & although you still need to pre-drill, you don't need to use a special drillbit like you do for Confirmat.  You do have to be careful using them in plywood though.
Fourth, use Glue Blocks.  The reminder I got for doing this was from Bob Flexner, in this article. Glue blocks have been used forever, why not use them to upgrade Ikea furniture stiffness?  Glue blocks for Ikea furniture will do (potentially) three things - give you more surface area to glue two elements that join at 90 degree angles, provide a 90 degree square for assembly and (if needed and is possible to do in a way that won't show) allows you something to anchor screws in.  Yep, when you can, pre-drill and drive drywall screws through the chip board, into the hardwood blocks you've added, for more strength.
Finally, if you are stuck with an Ikea product that is falling apart, and wasn't doing exactly what you wanted to anyway - hack it!  These folk repurpose Ikea stuff for some fun results.  I especially like this one.
Oh, another good tip is that Ikea does sell replacement parts - handy if a leg or bit of hardware fell off during a move.  If a panel was damaged, consider replacing it with plywood - same arguments as for using glue blocks, above.
To conclude, I still like used solid wood furniture better than new Ikea.  But if you have to deal with it, I hope the above tips help.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I followed the link and I saw the picture but I still dont understand. What is a glueblock?

Sue said...

Hi, Sue here (2nd half of Don and Sue). Just wanted to give credit where it's due - we didn't think of putting plywood on the backs of our shelves. Our friend Andy suggested it, and it's worked great for the eight-plus years we've been living in our Oakland, CA house. We've had a few 3.5-4 earthquakes and nothing has moved and the shelves are as solid and safe as ever.

Quin said...

The idea of a glue block, or a rubbed joint glue block is simply using a small piece of wood to reinforce any place 2 pieces of wood come together in a 90 degree joint. Always some hidden area, the glue block gives more surface area for a glued joint to work & acts as a brace. I've seen them as rectangular & with corners shaved off, and as triangles - I think mostly to keep them from showing. Glueblocks work best when the grain is going the same direction as what it is being glued to. A rubbed joint glueblock is simply a glue block used with a glue that sets up fast - and is held in place by its "tack" rather than with fasteners or clamps. You "rub" it into place and when you let go, it stays. Frankly, I'm not the right person to ask, as I tend to overbuild things & my "glue blocks" end up as part of the design & are often held in by a wood joint, or with fasteners and tend to run full-length of a joint... ...which is probably overkill.