MDF and plywood are both important building materials, but in choosing MDF vs plywood, each has advantages and drawbacks according to your particular project. MDF and plywood are both engineered products and have gained popularity due to their low cost compared to solid wood and their versatility.
While they share many similarities, they have distinct characteristics that make them suitable for specific purposes.
In this comparison, we will explore the differences between these similar products, exploring their strengths, cost, and best-use scenarios to help you make an informed choice for your next project.
MDF vs Plywood
MDF and plywood are composite wood products, but they have significant differences that make them better suited to different purposes.
Both MDF and plywood are engineered wood products, so they are not solid wood. Plywood features thin sheets of wood veneer that are bonded together under heat and pressure with a strong glue. These veneers, or piles, are arranged in a cross-grain pattern. Plywood retains a strong wood grain pattern. Manufacturers create MDF by compressing wood fibers with glue under high heat and pressure. This creates a flat and uniform panel that is smooth and features no wood grain.
MDF and plywood are both strong building materials. MDF is particularly strong in compression strength because of its uniform density. This means that it can handle weight and pressure well. This makes it suitable for applications such as shelving. Plywood has more tensile strength than MDF because the cross-grained arrangement of the sheets resists pulling and pushing forces well. MDF is not as strong in this regard. This is of particular importance when applying screws and other fasteners. MDF does not hold screws and nails as well as plywood because it is not as resistant when subjected to heavy pulling and pushing loads.
Plywood and MDF are both durable under certain contexts. MDF has a particular vulnerability to moisture because it makes the wood fibers in the MDF swell. This causes the material to crack and even disintegrate. The moisture vulnerability of MDF has particular significance in outdoor or wet environments like bathrooms. Plywood is more durable than MDF in terms of moisture and heavy wear. While not waterproof, plywood can withstand moderate levels of moisture well. Exterior-grade plywood is the most resistant to moisture. Also, the natural wood grain and the layered construction of plywood make it resistant to impact and wear.
Manufacturers create MDF by pressing wood fibers and glue together. The result is smooth boards that are ideal for projects that require a flawless finish. MDF is great if you want to paint, laminate, or apply veneer. Plywood is better if you want the natural wood grain to show. You can buy plywood in different qualities and wood varieties to display the different colors and enhance diverse styles.
You can cut and shape both MDF and plywood, but MDF is generally easier to work with than plywood. It has uniform density and composition throughout the board, which allows for smooth and precise cuts with standard woodworking tools. The edges of MDF are prone to chipping and splintering. You can avoid this by edge banding or covering the edge with veneers.
Like MDF, plywood cuttable, but because of the unique grain of each layer, some planning is necessary to achieve clean edges. You can get a clean and attractive edge on your plywood projects by filling in the gaps in the layers with wood putty and sanding for a smooth finish.
MDF and plywood have different finishing options due to their different surface appearances. Because of its smooth surface, MDF is ideal for painting, veneering, laminating, or adding melamine coating that increases moisture resistance. Plywood has a natural wood grain which makes it better for enhancing with stain or varnish. Plywood also works as a surface for paint, but the wood grain will still be obvious.
The weight of MDF and plywood vary according to the thickness and the size of the boards, but as measured by pounds per cubic foot, MDF is the heavier of the composite wood options. MDF is densely composed of wood fibers and weighs between 50 and 80 pounds per cubic foot (800 to 1,280 kg/m³). On average, plywood is lighter. It weighs between 25 to 45 pounds per cubic foot (400 to 720 kg/m³). The weight of each material is not as important for many small DIY jobs, but it can gain particular significance on larger-scale projects. It is also a factor in furniture construction where materials are lifted and transported over long distances.
The cost of MDF and plywood will vary according to the quality, type, thickness, and size of the boards as well as the region of the manufacturer and the supplier. In general, MDF is more affordable than plywood because it is manufactured using wood fiber and residuals. This means that it costs around 20%-30% less than plywood. Plywood is more expensive because of the specific manufacturing process. The wood type that manufacturers use for the veneer is the strongest determiner of price as well as the quality of the adhesive. Specialty plywoods like exterior and marine-grade plywood are more expensive than standard interior-grade plywood.
Plywood and MDF differ in their overall environmental impact because of their differences in materials, manufacturing process, VOC emissions, and disposal. Manufacturers use residual products like sawdust from lumber mills that process timber to produce MDF, so this helps reduce waste and the use of raw materials, but both materials have relatively high energy production methods. Both materials also contain significant VOC compounds in their glue, which emit harmful gasses for the environment and for humans. Plywood has better recycling potential than MDF because its wooden components can be used for fuel, mulch, or other composite materials.
Best Use for MDF vs Plywood
MDF and plywood both have advantages and disadvantages that come into play when you are considering which to use for a particular project. Here are some of the best uses for each material.
- Cabinetry – MDF is useful in cabinetry in both kitchen and bathroom spaces, though it must be away from water and heavy moisture to function best. Its smooth appearance makes it ideal for painting, laminating, and veneering.
- Furniture – Manufacturers commonly use MDF in furniture design of all types and styles, including dressers, shelves, tables, and consoles. Its consistent density means it is easy to shape and cut into any design.
- Interior trim and molding – The smooth surface and workability of MDF make it ideal for interior trim, such as baseboards, crown molding, and door casing.
- Wall paneling – MDF panels work well as wall paneling because of their smooth surface, but it is best to use thin MDF sheets rather than thick ones because of their weight.
- Display and exhibition stands – The glossy finish of MDF boards makes them good for ever-changing displays at stores and exhibitions. Designers can readily modify the surface of the MDF using paint, laminate, or veneers to suit their display.
- Speaker enclosures – MDF is useful for speaker enclosures and other acoustic installations because the dense structure of the MDF absorbs sound.
- Structural applications – Plywood has high tensile and structural strength, so builders commonly use it for structural applications like subfloors, roofing sheets, and wall paneling.
- Cabinetry and furniture – Plywood is useful in cabinetry and furniture when builders want to give their projects an authentic wood look. Plywood is better than MDF for stained cabinets and furniture.
- Marine and boating – Marine-grade plywood resists corrosion and degradation from moisture, so it is useful for boat construction and for marine and outdoor structures like docks and decks.
- Exterior siding – Builders use plywood on the exterior of homes for siding. Plywood is most durable in outdoor environments when it has been treated with specialty preservatives and finishes.
- DIY projects – Plywood is especially popular in DIY projects because you can get different types that have different styles. It also is a good base for staining as well as painting.
When Should I Use MDF vs Plywood?
Using MDF vs plywood depends on a variety of factors that are determined by your budget, project requirements, and aesthetic preferences.
When to Use MDF
- Smooth finish necessary
- Interior applications
- Low-cost limit
- Weight is not an issue
When to Use Plywood
- Strength and durability required
- Natural wood grain
- Outdoor or moisture-prone environments
- Weight is a concern
- Versatile finishing options