You are planning on building some furniture around the home, or maybe you need to replace some of the components in your home because they have seen better days. You don’t want to use real and solid wood, so two choices that you may be considering are plywood and MDF.
No worries if you don’t know what these building materials are. That, as well as the differences between them, is what we are here to discuss right now.
Plywood and MDF: The Basics
Before we get into talking about the main differences between plywood and MDF, let’s first find out what each of these building materials is. Before we do that, however, we do want to note that both plywood and MDF are technically wood, but they are not solid wood, or in other words, they aren’t just trees that have been cut down, milled, and cut to shape.
Both plywood and MDF are known as manufactured or engineered wood, as they are made from wood, with the key point here being that both plywood and MDF are in themselves created through specific manufacturing processes. Let’s take a closer look at both of them.
Plywood is a manufactured wood that is made by taking veneers or really thin strips of wood off of cut lumber. Therefore, plywood is not made with reused or recycled wood but instead requires fresh lumber. These strips are then glued together using special water-resistant glue, and the strips are all glued at 90-degree angles to one another, thus creating a so-called cross-grain pattern that is very strong yet also flexible.
These strips are glued into layers, with most types of plywood having between three and seven layers, with some specialty kinds having up to 21 layers. There are many different kinds of plywood out there, well over 20 in fact, ones made of hardwood and softwood, ones for interior use, ones for exterior and structural purposes, and more.
MDF, on the other hand, stands for medium-density fiberboard, and yes, it is made out of real wood, generally a combination of both softwood and hardwood. In all reality, MDF is similar to particle board, and some people even say that particle board is a specific kind of MDF.
However, whereas normal particle board is made out of wood chips that are fairly substantial in size, MDF is made with wood fibers. These small fibers, almost like dust or sand, are then mixed with special types of resin and wax, and this mixture is then treated with a combination of pressure and heat to create smooth and flat boards.
Plywood vs. MDF: What Are the Differences?
Although both plywood and MDF are types of manufactured wood, they do have some pretty glaring differences. Let’s find out what those differences are right now.
We did already cover this above but do keep in mind that plywood is made by gluing strips of wood veneer together at 90-degree angles whereas MDF is made by mixing wood fiber with resin and wax and then pressing it with heat. This is very important because the difference in this manufacturing process is what leads to most, if not all of the other differences.
Strength and Durability
One of the most notable differences between MDF and plywood is that plywood is much stronger. The way in which the wood veneer is glued together at 90-degree angles to create several cross-grain layers makes it very strong.
Plywood can bend, but it does not easily crack or split, and while it will sag a bit under a lot of weight, its ability to hold up a large amount of weight is much better than that of MDF. MDF is also easy to damage in other ways. While it’s durable enough for basic use, it’s not something you want to have bearing much weight.
In terms of workability, plywood and MDF both have specific advantages and drawbacks when compared to each other. On one hand, due to the construction of plywood, it does really well at holding nails and screws in place, plus it will not easily crack or split due to the insertion of nails and screws.
Because MDF is made of fibers, it doesn’t hold screws and nails very well. On the other hand, due to the cross-grain build of plywood, sawing it without causing tear-out is nearly impossible, whereas MDF is very easy to saw into various shapes without issue.
Next, plywood is also much more flexible than MDF.
MDF will sag a bit when it has weight on it, but not far. Instead, MDF will split or crack when it is bent, and therefore is only ideal for flat applications. On the other hand, plywood is much more flexible and can even be bent into curved shapes, such as guitars and skateboard ramps.
One thing that plywood does quite well is resisting moisture, and it is all thanks to the waterproof or at least water-resistant glue that is used when making it. Plywood, unless constantly exposed to moisture over long periods, should not absorb moisture, and it should not crack, warp, bend, or shrink due to moisture. Yes, there are types of plywood that don’t resist water well, but marine and exterior plywood, among others, are perfect for this.
When it comes to MDF, this stuff soaks up water like a kitchen sponge, and once it does, you’re in trouble. MDF and moisture do not mix, not in the least.
One area where MDF excels is in smoothness. MDF is pressed into super smooth boards that are easy to cover in veneer, stain, paint, or whatever else. In this sense, it does also work better for decorative purposes. Plywood on the other hand is much rougher, it’s hard to sand, and you cannot paint it evenly either. MDF is definitely better for decorative purposes.
Going back in the other direction, MDF is very heavy, much heavier than a piece of plywood of the same size. Plywood is a much lighter building material that is therefore far more portable and easier to work with, especially when large quantities are involved.
Moreover, although MDF weighs quite a bit, as mentioned earlier, the material itself cannot really hold much weight.
Yes, plywood can be cheaper than MDF, but it would have to be low-quality plywood and high-quality MDF.
Other than that, for the most part, plywood is the more expensive option.
As you can probably guess, plywood, due to its increased strength, flexibility, and moisture resistance, combined with its lower weight, can be used for many more applications than MDF.
Plywood is made with strips of fresh lumber, which means trees need to be cut down to make it, whereas MDF can be made out of scraps, and is therefore much more eco-friendly.
In terms of the look, what is interesting to note is that MDF is made to look like real and solid wood, whereas plywood definitely looks manufactured. That said, there are ways to make both MDF and plywood look good.
Which of the Two Should You Choose for Cabinets and Other Uses?
If you are going for something that is easy to saw and paint, and something that looks quite smooth, then MDF is the way to go. However, if you are building anything that needs to hold weight, has to resist moisture, has a curve in it, or needs to be lightweight, then plywood is the way to go.
In all reality, plywood is a much better building material.
At the end of the day, both of these building materials have their uses, but only one of them is ideal for your specific purpose.
So, consider what features and advantages you need out of your building material, and then make your choice.