Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) or Plywood?

If you are not a carpenter, a DIY person or a general handyman, in all probability you do not know the difference between the MDF and Plywood. For woodworkers it's an all important question. While plywood and MDF have their pros and cons, each can be preferred for individual applications. It’s important to know the differences between the two and the way they’re engineered.

The information given below will show you what each comprises of and the advantages and disadvantages of both. 

Image: Uisplayshowcase.com

Plywood

Plywood is a wood product made by pressing various sheets of wood veneer one over another into one piece of several layers. The number of layers can vary; hence plywood comes in different thicknesses. But it also comes in different grades, and it’s equally important to know which grade best suits your purpose cost-effectively. Lower grades are used in places, which need not look pretty. They can be used below flooring or in places like cellars, overhead storage and attics.

Higher grades are "stainable", look more elegant and have a smoother finish. Their wood grain is consistent; they generally have no knot holes or other imperfections. The surface of cabinet grade plywood is carefully sanded. Plywood also comes in various species of wood like oak and maple. So the look of the finished product before you choose.

Plywood bench
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Why Use Plywood?

Plywood is made with layers of wood veneer with the wood grain of each sheet running in opposite directions. This makes it a very strong construction material. It can withstand water damage because it does not allow liquid to quickly soak in and swell it as can happen with MDF.

Wood veneers
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You can treat plywood with a wood stain of your choice, which makes it ideal for kitchen cabinets, table tops and other wood furniture where a stained wood surface is desirable. Plywood holds screws tightly; as they pierce through various sheets of wood veneer and are very well embedded. Today many plywood brands come without VOCs like urea-formaldehyde, so you can also have better indoor air quality.

Stained Plywood
Image - Meredith.com

Why Avoid Plywood?

Though plywood is a relatively economic material it is pricier than MDF. Also, the higher the grade and depending on the species of wood, the more expensive it becomes. Plywood layers are visible on the sides and edges so you have to decorate them. You can do this with iron binding, finished pieces of wood or ornate molding. Plywood often splinters at the edges during cutting, and it may be difficult to get a smooth cut. Plywood also presents a difficulty when cutting detailed designs in it. The edges will splinter, and the layers will possibly expose voids in several places. Plywood may contain VOCs, which can pollute the air inside your home.

Splintered Plywood Edge
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MDF

Medium Density Fiberboard consists of wood fibers mixed with binders and pressed into large sheets similar to the size of plywood. Though there are other processes involved in the manufacture, this should give you an idea about the make-up of MDF. It is similar to particle board but much denser and stronger.

MDF does not carry wood grains because it’s composed of small wood fibers. There are also no gaps or voids like in particle boards because it’s compressed at very high temperatures. And like plywood, MDF also comes in varying thicknesses for different applications.

Medium Density Fibreboard Sheets
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Benefits Of MDF

It is usually cheaper that plywood. Since MDF has a very smooth surface, you don’t have to contend with knots, which makes it very suitable for painting. Before painting, it is recommended to apply a good oil-based primer. Do not use aerosol spray primers as they permeate the surface and tend to make it rough.

Because of its smoothness, MDF is also a good substrate for veneer. The constituent material is even throughout, so edges remain smooth and uniform after cutting. You can thus give it a decorative edge. MDF allows for easy cutting of ornate designs such as scalloped or scrolled motifs.

Painted MDF Kitchen Cabinet
Image - Diytrade.com

The Downside Of MDF

Just like particle board, MDF absorbs water and other liquids very easily and will swell unless it is properly sealed on all sides and edges. Again, a quality oil-based primer or paint or other suitable sealant is recommended

Water Soaked MDF Panel
Image - Izzylaif.com

MDF consists of very fine particles and may not hold screws very well. It is also susceptible to stripping at the screw holes. MDF is also very heavy, and can be very cumbersome to work with.

Like plywood MDF also contains VOCs. The escaping gases can me minimized with the application of primer or paint. However, care should be taken while cutting and sanding to avoid inhalation. It is recommended to do this outdoors while wearing a particle mask.

So even if you leave the carpentry to professionals, now you can decide which you will choose, MDF or plywood?


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