MDF VS Plywood: Which is Better MDF or Plywood?


When doing renovations, it’s vital that you consider the kind of board to use that will meet your needs budget-wise and improve your property value. The two most common considerations are MDF vs. Plywood. What type of board do you want? This is a vital question to ask, and it helps you make the right decision. 

Generally, plywoods are better than MDF boards. Plywood doesn’t sag if you put a heavy load on it. Besides, MDF can’t handle moisture well, which makes it ideal for indoor use only like furniture. Humidity affects the strength of low grade plywood, and affects MDF boards which soak with water. 

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Lately, people have been asking me questions regarding MDF vs. plywood. People want to know what the differences are and which is the best choice to consider for property renovations. Today, I am sharing the differences and the best ways and places to use the materials on your project. 

What is MDF?

Medium-density Fiberboard commonly abbreviated as MDF is an engineered wood composite just like particle boards. However, it’s much stronger and denser than particle boards. Mostly because MDF is composed of small wood fibers, which means it doesn’t have grains or voids. The composite uses glue, heat, and fibers to create the light bonding board. Actually, MDF manufacturers use both hardwood and softwood, making it denser than plywood. It’s the composition that makes it a stronger material for construction. Veneer sealant helps prevent water damage. MDF comes in two types, i.e., Fire retardant and moisture resistant.

Advantages of MDF

  • Cheaper than plywood.
  • Smooth surface and you won’t have knots on the surface, making it great for painting. A great substrate for veneer because of the smooth surface.
  • Very consistent, and you won’t have issues with voids or splinters on the cut edges.
  • Easy to create decorative edges.
  • The smoothness and consistency allow easy cutting of detailed designs using jigsaw, band, or a scroll saw.

What are the disadvantages?

  • Basically, MDF is a glorified particleboard. The board sucks up water and swells unless you seal it well on both sides and edges using a primer or any other sealant products. I use a quality oil-based primer for this to make it resistant to soaking.
  • Consists of finer particles, which means it doesn’t hold screws well, and it’s easy to strip those screw holes. 
  • Very dense and heavy, which makes it difficult to work with if you are working alone. I always have a helper to make work easier. You should get one too.
  • MDF contains urea-formaldehyde. Always use a particle mask when sanding or cutting the board outside. 

Where Are MDF Boards Used?

MDF boards are common in kitchen cabinets. In fact, most kitchen cabinets are made up of MDF and solid wood elements. Besides, the boards are used in interior paneling and doors because they are easier to clean and don’t warp. 

However, it’s not only the kitchen but bathrooms when you buy one specially made for the damp environment or moisture resistant. Normal MDF boards get damaged in moist environments. 

The boards are highly recommended for fire protection. But you have to use a retardant MDF board. The board is common in commercial establishments and homes to provide protection in case of fire like in bedrooms and kitchens. 

Shelving is a common use, whether in an open shelf or inside the cabinet or a bookshelf. The smooth surface makes it a fantastic option. However, take care not to place heavy loads on it to prevent sagging with time. If you plan on using heavier loads, then consider reinforcing it using solid wood. 

Finally, MDF is a major material in both exterior and interior doors. Choose hardy, stylish, and durable, specially made MDF boards for this purpose. You can customize your doors as you see fit to improve the aesthetic appeal.  

What is plywood?

This is a versatile material made from plies of thin layers of wood veneer glued together. Plywood is durable and gives users an excellent foundation in renovations or building. Therefore, it’s used for many projects. The cross-graining helps reduce expansion and shrinkage while increasing the panel strength consistency.

Depending on the grade, you can use plywood for constructing homes, floors, boats, walls, and ceilings. Higher grades are commonly used for making cabinets. Plywood undergoes different treatments, which makes it suitable for both exterior and interior construction projects. 

The plywood grades are affected by variables such as type of adhesive, wood ply, compaction process, and thickness. Lower grades are suitable for subflooring in homes and buildings, while higher grades are perfect for shelving and cabinets. Therefore you should choose the correct grade for your project. 

What are the types of plywood?

  1. Hardwood – used for heavy-duty flooring and wall structures
  2. Marine – used for boats and docks.
  3. Aircraft – resistance to humidity and heat, its high strength. 
  4. Decorative – easy to make artistic work like drawing or dyeing
  5. Softwood – suitable for grooved flooring
  6. Flexible – best used for curved wooden sections.

What are the advantages of plywood?

  • Plywood has wood veneer layers running in different directions, making it a strong material to use for your projects. I recommend choosing the right grade, depending on your project.
  • The plywood doesn’t soak up water, which is a great feature for outdoor use.
  • Very sustainable. You can use it for your tabletops, kitchen cabinets, among other projects that need stained wood surfaces. 
  • Holds screws tightly because of the different wood grains giving your screws something to stick on. 
  • Most plywoods don’t contain urea-formaldehyde. You can choose pure bond brands as they don’t have any VOCs. 

What are the disadvantages?

  • Very expensive compared to MDF. But its higher grades are more expensive and made from special wood pieces. 
  • Layers show edges, which means you need to iron the edges using lumber pieces or decorative molding. 
  • Plywood splinters on the edges as you cut. There are no smooth cuts.
  • Difficult to cut the detailed designs as the edges splinter, leaving you with edges that show voids in other areas. 
  • Some plywoods contain VOCs or urea0-formaldehyde. So, take precautions while cutting and always have a protective mask.

MDF vs. Plywood: Comparisons

  1. Durability and strengths

Generally, plywood is harder than MDF. It means that you need to handle MDF carefully and not roughly. Plywood is stiff and can hold load while MDF sags easily if there is too much weight. For instance, if you use MDF for shelving, you should reinforce it to prevent sagging. 

Cross graining in plywood improves its dimensional stability as it reduces shrinkage and expansion. Cross-graining makes the plywood panels stronger and more consistent in all directions. Having an odd number of plywood sheets lowers the warping rate. Plus, plywood is not affected by extreme cold, nor is its strength or dimensions. 

  • Workability

How does this apply? It’s a useful feature when driving screws at the edge or your MDF or Plywood. MDF has a softcore that splits easily, and that’s why countersink drill bit is hardly used. the head of your screw may munch up chips or snap off instead of sinking.  In contrast, plywood doesn’t split even when a screw is nailed close to the edges. 

The non-dimensions grain in the MDF structure makes it ideal for cutting, drilling, and machining without experiencing chipping or splinters. The lack of knots makes it a perfect candidate for amazing finishes. 

MDF has a smooth surface that is ideal for interior design pieces to be painted later on.  On the other hand, plywood adds durability to the pieces making them stronger. MDF vs. Plywood features are the guiding principles that experienced DIYers use in their projects to determine the right material for the renovations. For instance, both plywood and MDF are often used in furniture pieces. 

Safety is important when working with plywood panels or MDF boards. Conduct any cuttings using proper protective equipment to avoid injuries or accidents.

  • Cost

MDF is cheaper than plywood. However, the cost depends mostly on the grade of plywood you are using and the type of wood used to make it. Higher grades are more expensive because of the aesthetic appeal. Higher grade plywood displays the natural softwood or hardwood grains, which gives you a beautiful look. Lower grades are common in construction work, like subflooring. 

Also, look at MDF vs. plywood in terms of thickness as it affects the pricing too. For instance, A 1/4-inch MDF sheet is more expensive than a Grade B-BB plywood sheet of similar dimensions.

  • Construction uses

In most cases, MDF is used in internal paneling and doors where moisture content is low to reduce the chances of damage. However, MDF is exclusively developed for furniture and mostly used for indoor applications. 

Plywood is commonly used for exterior stairs. Doors, flooring, shear walls, external cladding, etc. The material bends easily and can create curved surfaces. For example, some people use the top smooth surface to make curved skateboard ramps.

Screws anchor better, making plywood better materials for projects involving many screws or nailing. However, you should screw fasteners into the edges as plywood is prone to slitting at the edges. MDF doesn’t split or splinter on the edges. 

MDF is used in projects that need painting as it’s easy to paint. Consequently, you can use plywood if you want to stain the surface. MDF has a smooth surface and works like a charm when painting giving you the best finish.

It’s advisable that you start with an oil-based primer. Higher-grade plywood is better for staining as its solid-wood and gives you a great finish. 

When it comes to cutting, its easier to cut MDF boards than Plywood, you can cut along the edges to make your furniture pieces. Cabinet doors or frames with an elaborate scrolled trim.

The lack of grain in MDF makes it easy to cut, and it’s soft, which means it doesn’t crack on the edges. Besides, you can carve MDF boards in curves, ridges, or sharp angles. The stacked construction of plywood is not suited for fancy cuts or curves.

You can’t even make straight cuts on the plywood without turning out rugged edges. Its good to learn some tips on how to cut your plywood to prevent damaging it or getting unpleasant looking furniture. Finish the edges of your plywood by molding or banding.

MDF creates more dust during cutting than you experience with plywood. Therefore, exercise extra caution or work in a well-ventilated space and wear protective masks and glasses. 

MDF vs. Plywood – Which Is Better?

It all depends on your usage, budget, and the kind of project you have. MDF is perfect for indoor projects as it handles moisture well and easy to make decorations like  decorating furniture. Besides, MDF is a better choice as it requires specific drilling, cutting, and shaping because it doesn’t splinter like seen in plywood.

In case you want to use paint, then you should opt for MDF as it has a smooth effect, making it the perfect choice. 

However, if you are constructing doors, ceiling, stairs, or exterior projects, you should go for plywood. Plywood works best in areas with water exposure and can handle heavy weights or loads. Besides, you can consider using it for kitchen cabinets or framing walls. 

Are you thinking about costs? Yeah. MDF is the winning choice in this case, but if you want strength or durability, plywood is preferable. I guess it all boils down to your preferences and budget.

When you look at MDF vs. plywood, you realize that both have strengths and weaknesses, which makes it all exciting. However, all can be used for different purposes, and you should choose one that meets your specific needs and usability. 

On the surface, both MDF and plywood have real wood, but they have different finished forms. MDF is composed of softwood and hardwood fibers that are glued using resins and exposed to high pressure and heat to form the panels.

Plywood undergoes the same process but starts with thin layers of softwood and hardwood peeler logs, but come in different grades and thicknesses. Higher grades attract higher price tags.

Both plywood and MDF have weaknesses in their composition, which is why you need to choose an option that gives you the strength you need for the DIY project. 

Nevertheless, plywood is more durable and stronger than MDF, although people use MDF because its a cheaper option. Use plywood if you want better quality customized wood products, whether for cabinets, interior, or exterior purposes.

MDF vs. Plywood Cabinets?

As a homeowner engaging in a home improvement project, it’s vital that you know the difference between the two materials. MDF vs. plywood argument has been there for decades, and its time that you understand it in greater depth when it comes to cabinets. 

The features of the materials are essential when undertaking a renovation project. For long, solid wood has been the preferred material for furniture. However, MDF is changing that and consists of fibers, resins, veneer, and adhesives that give you equal benefits as solid wood. 

What do you get from MDF cabinets?

You get aesthetic value in terms of overall appearance as its easier to paint, or clean. Plus, it doesn’t warp easily, which makes it durable. Imagine having a cabinet made of such kind of material? It’s perfect, right!

Arguably, most cabinets are made from MDF material because it’s easy to join and outperforms solid wood. Most panel and conventional frame methods involve connecting separate pieces with four frame pieces because the cabinet needs to float for contraction and expansion. 

Because of density, MDF doesn’t float like other conventional five-piece wooden doors. The panel doesn’t float in the frame or rail joinery and doesn’t experience hairline cracks along the edges or at the style of your panel. 

MDF is readily available in larger sheets and sizes, which you can mill into wainscot paneling or beadboard panels. MDF finishes are fantastic as there are no grains, which gives the cabinet an extremely smooth finish. 

MDF is environmentally sound as it’s made from pre-recycled material and very stable.  Your cabinets won’t have any cracks. 

Plywood also produces excellent cabinets and a moderately-low cost material. Plywood gives you protection against dampness and its steadier than MDF. Most people I talked to prefer it because it’s also versatile. 

What about Strength?

Generally, plywood is believed to be a better material for making cabinets as it gives you superior construction and longevity. Plywood can hold screws or fasteners efficiently. Plus, it has superior shearing and tensile properties, which is advantageous.

The material resists movements and pulling forces. When looking at MDF vs. plywood strengths, you will find that the comprehension strength of plywood is impressive.

Besides, plywood weighs less than an MDF board. Having a plywood cabinet gives your dimensional stability, and it holds glue joints better than other boards. Plus, it’s more resistant to scratches and dents.

MDF has less chance of joint separation or warping, which makes it an excellent material for cabinets. Besides, you can paint your finishes to make it more appealing. If someone asked me what cabinet material I would choose, I would definitely say MDF.

What about costs?

MDF cabinets are cheaper than plywood cabinets, which is a useful feature to consider when trying to bring down your renovation costs. Besides, the two give you quality boards, which means you have to decide one way or another. I, for once, admire cabinets made from both materials. However, during renovators or when making cabinets, I have to choose the best material depending on what my specific tastes, which are my guiding principles. Otherwise, I would take both any day because of the various advantages they bring. 

The affordability of MDF is largely because of the composition, which is mostly leftover wood pieces. In fact, you save between 8-12% on cabinet costs when you use MDF.  Sounds perfect, right!

The only major downside people have with MDF is the general lack of moisture resistance. This is precisely where plywood scores highly in MDF vs. plywood cabinets war.  

What about Durability?

As much as MDF is bashed for its poor moisture resistance, plywood too doesn’t get a clean slate. Plywood is having durability issues, especially when exposed to continuous wet conditions.

Quality can vary and depends on the grade of plywood you are using. Plus, the quality of plywood depends on wood thickness, the number of plies, and how well the plies are glued together. 

Low-quality plywood has gaps or voids that make it unreliable and less durable. If you use the plywood for frameless cabinetry, you need like 3/4-inch thickness and 7-9 plies. In this case, 12-inch plywood is used for bottom, sides, and top to add strength. The shelves have 3/4-inch plywood to make it superior. 

Generally, plywood gives you superior cabinets, and the performance justifies the costs, which saves you more money in the long run as you enjoy the durability. 

What about Density?

MDF boards are denser than plywood. Consequently, the cabinets share the same comparison. Why? Because MDF is made of more wood wastes compacted together, which makes it heavier, denser, and gives it better quality.

MDF is a high-quality material. However, the heaviness makes some people shy away from using it in cabinets because it’s difficult to hang those large cabinets. 

Despite plywood having lesser density than MDF, it’s the better choice in the long-term.  However, most people prefer MDF because it’s less expensive, which is a reasonable choice. I guess it all depends on what you are looking for, right?

When making renovations, it’s good to consider the benefits when considering MDF vs. plywood cabinets against possible limitations of the budget to ensure you have the best choice.

Since MDF can’t handle moisture well, it’s more preferable for indoor use but only indoor uses like for furniture, cabinets, or decorative panels. 

Verdict

Select your preferred material, whether MDF or plywood. You can use custom made furnishings like furniture that supports heavy loads or for your kitchen cabinets. The MDF vs. plywood cabinets discussion helps you widen your scope of understanding as far as making the right material choice is concerned. Plywood is highly recommended for cabinets, but you can also use MDF depending on your budget or preference. The above comparisons of MDF vs. plywood give you a rational and judicious choice depending on your budget.

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