Plywood vs. Particle Board: Which Should You Use?

Plywood vs. Particle Board: Which Should You Use?

Handyman's World is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

If you are planning on doing some home renovations, whether it’s some walls or floors that need fixing, or you plan on building some drawers, cabinets, and other such things, two very popular choices that you have at your disposal include plywood and particle board.

So, what are these two building materials, and what are the differences between them?

Plywood and Particle Board: The Basics

Before we start talking about the differences between plywood and particle board, let’s first find out what each of these things are. Now, first and foremost, keep in mind that neither of these is solid wood, or in other words, they aren’t just trees that have been milled and cut down to size. Both plywood and particle board are known as manufactured wood because they are made in factories using specialized processes.

First off, we have plywood, which as the name suggests, is made out of several plies or layers of wood veneer, a fancy word for thin wood strips. Plywood usually has between three and seven layers, depending on the type, but in some cases may have up to 21 layers. These layers are glued together with a special kind of glue that is designed to resist moisture and shrinking. The strips of wood veneer are glued together at 90-degree angles to ensure great bonding and tensile strength.

There are many kinds of plywood out there, ones made with softwood or hardwood, ones designed for exterior and interior use, ones made for being seen, and others for hidden areas, and more.

On the other hand, we have particle board, another kind of manufactured wood. Here, instead of wood veneers or strips being glued together, wood chips are used.

These wood chips are specially treated and then, using glue and other substances, are pressed together, heated, and formed into a piece of particle board. There are a few different kinds of particle board, but the selection is not nearly as large as with plywood.

Plywood vs. Particle Board: What Are the Differences?

Although both particle board and plywood are types of manufactured wood, they are made in different ways and therefore have different properties. Let’s take a closer look at what makes these two building materials different from each other.

Manufacturing Process

One of the main differences between these two things is how they are made and what they are made of.

Plywood is made by gluing together strips of wood or wooden veneers at 90-degree angles, so the glued strips are always perpendicular to each other. Particle board, as opposed to wood strips, is made with wood chips. These wood chips get mixed with glue, the get pressed together with immense amounts of heat and pressure, thus resulting in a solid board.

Overall Strength

Due to the manufacturing process, particle board and plywood do vary greatly in strength.

Because plywood is made by gluing together wooden strips at 90-degree angles, thus effectively creating a repeating cross-grain pattern, it is fairly strong. Plywood does not easily crack or split, even when bent.

Particle board on the other hand is much weaker. Those wood chips are randomly glued and pressed together, and thus the grain pattern is inconsistent, with various weak points. Particle board is much weaker, it splits relatively easily, and it cannot hold much weight either.

Smoothness

In terms of smoothness, the winner here is going to be the particle board.

Due to the manufacturing processes and materials used, plywood ends up with a much rougher texture than particle board. Yes, you can try using some sandpaper to smoothen plywood, but it doesn’t work all that well. This can make it hard to apply decorative veneers or coats of paint, lacquer, or stain.

Simply put, if you want something that looks nice and is easy to finish with exterior layers, particle board is the way to go.

Workability and Flexibility

One thing that can be said about plywood is that it does tend to be very flexible, which is in part thanks to that cross-grain pattern it has. Plywood can be bent quite severely without the risk of snapping. This is why many things with curves are made of plywood, things like skateboard ramps.

Particle board on the other hand will just snap in half if you try to bend it.

Moreover, plywood is also much better at resisting splitting and cracking when screws and nails are inserted, plus it has a much easier time holding onto nails and screws. However, particle board is easier to saw through without causing as much damage and splintering as plywood.

Yet, in the grand scheme of things, in terms of versatility and workability, plywood is the definite winner.

Weight

One simple fact here is that not only is plywood stronger and more flexible than particle board, but it also weighs less, which is surprising. Particle board is actually so heavy that if you build a large cabinet or any other large piece of furniture out of it, it may actually break and collapse under its own weight. There is also the point that plywood makes for the far more portable building material.

Moisture Resistance

One thing that particle board does not do well at all is resisting moisture. Particle board will absorb moisture, and when it does, it will completely come apart. A piece of particle board left in the rain for a few weeks will more or less turn into mush.

Now, not all plywood is waterproof or water-resistant, but there are many types of exterior and marine plywood that are perfect for resisting moisture. On that same note, not only will plywood usually stay in one piece if it gets wet, but it also won’t bend, warp, or shrink. Especially so if you take the effort to waterproof it.

Eco-Friendliness

Particle board is the more eco-friendly of the two, and it’s because it is made out of old wood chips, and yes, this is usually old scrap wood that is leftover from making other things. On the other hand, plywood is made out of wood veneers that come from fresh lumber.

So, particle board is more or less recycled wood, whereas plywood is technically made from fresh wood. No trees need to be cut down when making particle board.

Cost

Although particle board does have very many shortcomings when compared to plywood, one clear advantage that is has is that it costs half as much, or even less, thus making it ideal for anybody constrained by a budget.

Applications

As you can probably tell, because plywood is much better at dealing with moisture, because it is stronger, lighter, and more flexible, it can be used for many more applications when compared to particle board.

Which of the Two Should You Choose for Home Construction, Cabinets, and Other Uses?

When it comes down to it, unless you are constrained by a really tight budget, there is no good reason to choose particle board over plywood, and this is true no matter the case. Plywood is stronger, more flexible, it can hold more weight, it itself is not heavy, and it resists moisture very well too.

The only reason we would ever recommend using particle board is for an exterior layer that you want to cover in veneer or paint, due to the fact that particle board is smoother and easier to finish for aesthetic purposes.

For more on what plywood is used for, check this article.

Summary

The bottom line is that in all reality, plywood is the far better option to go with.

It’s not like particle board is a bad material, and yes, it is fine for basic use, as long as it doesn’t really need to hold weight or deal with moisture.