May 10, 2021
I was reading through a forum the other day, and one question that cropped up in that forum is about the pros and cons of using MDF and plywood. Many newbies and beginners in woodworking are a bit confused about these two types of wood products, and for this reason, they wanted to know which is better between these two wood products in that forum.
Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)and plywood, of course, differ from each other in so many ways. In this post, I will endeavor to differentiate MDF from plywood and elaborate on the pros and cons of using any of these two materials.
Understanding MDF Board
One of the engineered wood products you will find in the market today is the MDF. As an engineered wood product, it is a byproduct of combining different compounds and substances. By breaking down softwood or hardwood residuals into bits of wood fibers using a defibrator, manufacturers can create MDF. The resulting wood fibers are combined with a resin binder and wax, transforming them into panels via the use of pressure and high temperature.
The resulting wood product is denser than plywood, being wrought in separated fibers. You can use this wood product as a building material just like that of plywood. MDF is also denser and more robust than particleboard. Moreover, it manifests smooth surfaces and does not exhibit grain. It shares, however, several characteristics with particleboard.
Pros of Using MDF
- MDF exhibits a uniform and smooth surface and structure that is free of knots.
- It is less expensive than plywood.
- It is easy to use, and its smooth edges make it easy to cut. You can also carve out designs on MDF with ease.
- Moreover, it is stronger and denser than particleboard.
Cons of Using MDF
- MDF is porous and soaks up liquid quickly like a sponge, leading to swelling. Hence, it will be advisable to seal it well.
- It is also heavy, being denser than plywood.
- It doesn’t hold screws well, being wrought in fine fiber.
- It is also easily damaged and quickly sags if you don’t handle it with care.
- MDF produces a considerable amount of dust when you cut it.
- It is not water-resistant; thus, it needs sealing.
- MDF sags and bends under the weight.
- It comes with urea-formaldehyde along with phenol-formaldehyde resins, which are known to be carcinogenic. Thus, MDF can emit these compounds.
Understanding Plywood Board
Peeler logs are source materials for plywood. The logs are peeled by rotating them horizontally. Out of this process comes the sheets of veneer. These sheets of veneer are cut to the specific dimensions. Then, they are dried, patched, and glued together. Afterward, they are baked at 140 °C (284 °F) under 280 psi to form panels.
Plywood is also an engineered wood just like the MDF. The grain alteration in plywood reduces its tendency to split when you nail at its edges. Moreover, it reduces shrinkage and expansion, giving plywood enhanced dimensional stability. Thus, the plywood panels are consistent across its structure.
Pros of Using Plywood
- Plywood comes in multiple veneer layers, making them tough and ideal for use at home.
- It doesn’t soak up liquids easily compared to MDF. It is, therefore, not easily damaged by liquid.
- It is also easier to stain and are excellent materials for tabletops and cabinets.
- Plywood also allows enhanced hold on screws, being made of layers.
- It also comes in different thicknesses and designs.
Cons of Using Plywood
- Plywood is more costly than MDF.
- You need to finish plywood well using decorative moldings and timber since it comes in layered form.
- It is not easy to design since it is not easy to smoothen or get smooth cuts on it perfectly compared to MDF.
- It splinters quickly, and its edges may exhibit voids if you don’t cut it well.
- Plywood is still porous and water would damage it.
- Plywood also emits urea-formaldehyde, though you can buy plywood free of this compound.
Comparative Analysis of Plywood and MDF
A detailed look at these two wooden products using the categories of durability and strength, cost, weights, workability, dust level, paintability, and applications will help you decide which between these two wooden materials you will use:
Durability and Strength
If you would feel the texture and structure of plywood and MDF, you will notice that plywood is more rigid than MDF. Besides, if you don’t handle MDF properly, you may easily damage it. Plywood is stiffer as compared to MDF. Moreover, MDF may sag if you apply too much load to it. Thus, it will be helpful to reinforce the MDF if you are going to use it for your shelves to prevent it from sagging.
Plywood comes with dimensional stability because of its cross graining. This enhanced dimensional stability reduces shrinkage and expansion. Thus, plywood panels are consistent in any direction. Moreover, it exhibits an odd number of sheets, which lessens warping. Furthermore, plywood is not much affected by the vicissitudes of weather.
MDF, on the other hand, is made of a softer material than plywood. Thus, it may tend to sag or even split when exposed to heavy load. Therefore, you need to reinforce it when using it for your shelves.
As mentioned above, plywood is more expensive than MDF. Yet, it also depends on the grade of plywood you would buy. Higher grades, of course, are much more expensive and offer better aesthetics. Lower grades are cheaper than high grades. Additionally, it will help to note that both MDF and plywood are also priced based on their thickness.
The price of a plywood sheet 1/4″ thick and 24 by 30″ is around $10 on Amazon, while a Bendy MDF sheet with 1/4″ thickness and 24 x 48″ dimensions may cost about $22 on Amazon.
It is evident that plywood, which is less dense than MDF, will weigh less than MDF. But you may not make a big deal about this difference in weight when deciding between the two. However, the weights of these wood products will become critical if you are going to use these materials for applications that require you to raise or elevate them.
If you are going to use it, for example, for your ceiling or high-arching cabinets, you might as well consider their difference in weight. So, it will be useful to consider this factor when choosing between these two wood products.
Usability and Workability
You also need to consider the factors of usability and workability when choosing between these two wood products. For example, you need to consider how each reacts and handles screws. When driving, for example, a screw into the MDF edge, the screw can split easily. Moreover, the screw head might snap off if you are not using a countersink drill bit. On the other hand, plywood’s cross-grains reduce the abovementioned tendencies.
When it comes to cuts, the MDF does not have a directional grain. This property makes it ideal for machining, cutting, and drilling without chipping or splintering the edges. Moreover, the absence of knots in MDF facilitates finishing.
The smooth surface of MDF also makes it ideal for use for interior designing. Plywood, on the other hand, adds that extra durability when used for interior designs. For this reason, you will find MDF and plywood interchangeably used in many pieces of furniture by IKEA.
Applications and Use in Construction
Since MDF is more susceptible to damages due to liquid or soaking, you will find MDF mostly used indoors. You can use it for internal paneling and doors. On the other hand, plywood can be used for exterior stairs, doors, external cladding, framing, flooring, interior rails, interior stairs, balustrades, internal paneling, timber joinery products, and many more. You can also use plywood for curved surfaces, considering that it bends quickly.
Dust Production Level
You should likewise consider the amount of dust produced when you cut or let these wood products pass through cutters and saws. MDF, for example, produces more sawdust when you rip or cross-cut it as compared to plywood. For this reason, you need to be doubly careful when cutting MDF and ensure that you are working on a well-ventilated area. You should likewise wear a mask or respirator to avoid inhaling dust.
Many beginner woodworkers would ask me this basic question about which is more paintable than the two wood products. MDF, of course, takes paint quickly because of its smooth surface and absence of grain. But if you are desirous of achieving the best finish on MDF, you should use an oil-based primer. On the other hand, higher grade plywood can be stained and would still look good because of its solid grain, providing you with an excellent finish.
By understanding the pros and cons of using these two wood products, you are now better positioned to make a wise choice when deciding which to use between these two. If you’re short of budget, you might as well consider using MDF. Moreover, if you are going to use it indoors, MDF would be an excellent option.
On the other hand, if you want added durability for your wood projects, you might as well opt for plywood. Besides, if your project will be exposed more often to liquid, opting for plywood would be a wiser move. Yet, your decision will still boil down to your preference at the end of the day and your consideration of the different essential factors mentioned above.
Jason is a 40-year-old woodworker, carpenter and author who have been involved in the woodworking and woodcraft industry with 17 years of experience. He is expertise in technical aspects, woodcraft and furniture building projects.