MDF and particle board are both engineered wood products that are commonly used in furniture manufacture and construction. They are a cheaper alternative to solid wood and both possess qualities that in many cases are more desirable than solid wood.
If you want to know how to select either MDF or particle board, then continue reading and explore each in a bit more detail.
MDF and Particle Board (Chipboard): The Basics
Before we get into comparing MDF and particle board, we should outline what each is exactly.
What Is MDF?
MDF is short for ‘medium-density fibreboard.’ MDF is manufactured using waste wood material, broken down into wood fibers, combining it with wax and resin binder and then forming it into panels under high heat and pressure.
It is available in a variety of differing sizes, thicknesses, and finishes to suit many applications.
What Is Particle Board?
Particle board, also known as chipboard or low-density fibreboard, is manufactured from wood chips combined with resin or other similar binder, which is then pressed and extruded to form panels.
It is the lightest and weakest type of fiberboard with the exception of insulation board and should not be confused with OSB (oriented strand board), which although similar in appearance, is a much stronger construction material.
Similarities of MDF and Particle Board
The size and shape of a panel of MDF and particle board are not the only similarities they share.
Typically the material used to make MDF and particle board is a by-product of the wood production industry. Both are made using similar methods taking wood particles or fibers and combining them with synthetic resins or other glues. Both are types of engineered wood.
2. Resistance to Moisture
Both materials are susceptible to degradation due to moisture. In their raw or unfinished forms, the surfaces, especially the cut ends, are porous and will suck up water or moisture in the environment like a sponge.
This can lead to changes in the strength and dimensional properties of each material through warping and separation of the wood particles from the resin holding it together. Because of this, MDF and particle board are typically used in indoor environments, away from excess moisture.
3. Use in Furniture Production
MDF and particle board are both used extensively in the production of low cost furniture products.
The low cost combined with modern mass manufacturing methods make furniture made from these materials an attractive alternative to solid wood furniture when working within a tight budget.
The appearance of MDF and particle board is improved by applying wood veneers or laminates. This also increases the durability and resistance to damage from regular use.
Differences Between MDF and Particle Board
On the face of it MDF and particle board may seem similar, but there are some key differences that you ought to consider.
MDF and particle board share similar composition and manufacturing methods, but they have different strength properties.
MDF is 1.8-2 times stronger than particle board. This strength is due to not only the resin, but the binding agents present in fibrous interaction (lignin). This extra strength gives MDF a higher load carrying capacity when compared with particle board.
Particle board, although weaker, is a cheaper material than MDF. So when used in an application where high strength or load bearing is not required, it is worth considering.
The price you pay for the higher strength found in MDF, is a significantly higher weight. A sheet of 3/4 inch MDF typically weighs around 97 lbs, whereas a sheet of particle board comes in at 85 lbs.
It may not seem a lot when you have only one sheet to move around your workshop or job site, but it can make a difference if you have a stack of 10-20 sheets to shift. If you don’t need the added strength of MDF, then you can save some money and save your back too!
It’s true that MDF and particle board are both low cost when compared with plywood or solid wood products, but it should be noted that MDF is significantly more expensive compared to particle board.
One sheet of MDF contains many more wood fibers than a sheet particle board and the production method is more expensive.
4. Screw Capacity
When done correctly by pre-drilling pilot holes for screws and using wood glue on joining faces, MDF can be joined effectively with screws. This is due to the density or quantity of the wood fibers that give MDF its name.
Particle board, otherwise known as low-density fibreboard, has too few fibers for a screw to get good enough hold to make a secure joint. Other joining hardware has been developed for particle board that make it possible to make solid joints. Cam screws, dowels, and bonded inserts are a few examples.
MDF vs. Particle Board: Which Should You Use?
MDF and particle board both have their pros and cons. So what should you use?
Well it depends on the job at hand. Here are a few examples:
Jig and Pattern Making
MDF is a great choice for making jigs and patterns. It’s uniformly flat and is stable in both length and thickness. Also, it cuts cleanly without tearing or chipping. It’s easy to drill precisely positioned holes due to the lack of large fibers to deflect the drill bit.
When deciding whether to use MDF or particle board when making cabinetry, cost is often the main consideration to make. Particle board is typically used in kitchen cabinetry. It’s cheap and strong enough to form the framework of kitchen units that once fitted, don’t have to move.
MDF can be used in the same way but also is often used for the visible parts like doors and drawer fronts. When painted, it has a better appearance and is more durable than particle board when used in these areas.
If you want to make a piece of furniture and your choices are limited to either MDF or particle board, then MDF is the clear choice. It’s much easier to work with in terms of cutting and shaping. Particle board has some degree of tear out when cutting that MDF does not.
Additionally, MDF is available in a wide range of colors, finishes and veneers. It’s also easier to achieve a good paint finish when sealed and prepared in the right way.
How Can You Tell MDF and Particle Board Apart?
Unfinished MDF and particle board are easy to tell apart.
MDF has a very smooth uniform surface that is devoid of grain pattern, visible on all faces of the board. Particle board usually is supplied with a melamine coating on the top and bottom of the panel. The exposed edges of particle board will be obvious when compared with MDF, with clearly visible chips and many air gaps.
Another way to tell them apart, although not nearly as conclusive is to compare the weight of one board to the other. The heavier or the two will be MDF.
Furniture that is designed to have its rear face against a wall often has unfinished/raw edges to cut costs in production. If you can get to it, this is the easiest way to understand if it is made from MDF or particle board.
So by now, you understand the basics of both MDF and particle board.
Their respective strengths and weaknesses as well as some idea of the best time to use either in your projects.
Both materials may lack the high-end appeal of solid wood, but sometimes it just makes sense to use them, especially hidden away where they might never be seen or when cost is the main consideration.