MDF vs Plywood, Which is better?

MDF vs Plywood

If you’re currently in the market for engineered wood, there are a lot of options to choose from. There’s no doubt that you’ve heard about the various types of man-made wooden boards, but when it comes to availability and accessibility, MDF and Plywood are among the best. Both offer up similar capabilities for wood-working projects, be it furniture, construction or just as a general purpose material. Both also have certain pros and cons in relation to their unique abilities or attributes. In this post we’ll take a deep dive into these two engineered wood products and see which one will come out on top. 



MDF or Medium density fiberboard, is a wooden board made entirely out of wooden fibers, glued into a solid panel using wax and special adhesives. Then they’re then compressed using heat and pressure into their final form, ready to be used. MDF boards’ surface has no distinctive wood grain, unlike solid wood or plywood, giving it a rather unassuming look. Although this can be fixed by either applying a layer of wood veneer or a melamine/laminate finish on the surface. 


A normal board of plywood usually consists of layers of wood veneers from hardwood and softwood trees, peeled from tree logs. These veneers will then be fixed together by either normal glue or special waterproof adhesives then afterwards, subjected to heat and pressure to shape them into a complete piece of plywood. Certain high quality pieces of plywood will have thin decorative veneers from good looking wood species glued on their sides, intended for indoor furniture use. 



The wood fibers used in MDF are often broken down hardwood and softwood, creating residuals that can be used to make solid MDF boards. Due to this, MDF has an incredibly dense core, making it very hard and durable, albeit much heavier than plywood. Thanks to its lack of grain, MDF is a highly workable wood; allowing it to be cut and shaped easily. This is also its downside, however. As MDF doesn’t have the integrity of plywood, it can sag under too much weight and become damaged. 


For plywood, the veneer layers from the core of each plywood board will be arranged perpendicular to each other. This will create a type of strength and durability that is superior to that of MDF. However, the veneers used to make plywood can sometimes carry defects on them, such as voids or knots. Although patched up or repaired during the manufacturing process, these defects can still significantly decrease the overall integrity and quality of plywood boards, even more so if they affect the outer layers. 



Both rank equally in terms of indoor applications. You can use MDF and Plywood to build a variety of furniture and cabinets, although plywood is more popular in the furniture department thanks to its wood grains. Outdoor is a different story, though, since MDF has very low water resistant capabilities with a high tendency to soak in a lot of water. Plywood, on the other hand, would take in less water due to its layered configuration. Moreover, plywood can be manufactured with special waterproof glue that can make it completely waterproof. This makes plywood an ideal material for outdoor use.



The pricing of these boards depend on a lot of factors, but generally, you’ll usually find MDF relatively cheaper than plywood. However, plywood is classified into many different grades based on its appearances and wood quality, so prices can vary wildly. There are some very thin, low quality plywood that can get cheaper than MDF, while high end waterproof Birch plywood can go as high as doubling the price of an average MDF board. 



MDF boards are made of what is essentially saw dust, which they produce a large amount of when cut. As you can imagine, this is not exactly healthy to work with without protective gear. Unlike MDF, plywood is made of pure (very thin) panels of wood, which makes them a bit trickier to work on but the amount of saw dust created is little compared to MDF. However, both of these wood products release VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and formaldehyde into the air due to the adhesives used in their manufacturing. While these chemicals are not fatally harmful, they can still cause damage to your lungs and nervous system. Although formaldehyde-free MDF and plywood exist, they cost significantly more than standard boards. 


Which one will it be?

As I have stated before, each board has its strengths and weaknesses. MDF is a solid budget choice due to its relatively low price and workability, but often held back by its inability to compete with plywood in several categories. While it is easy to pick out plywood as the winner, you still need to remember that plywood can come in so many different qualities. A low end plywood board might still cost more than an MDF board while offering significantly less capabilities. Finding the right plywood for your needs can be tricky. Which is why it is essential to have sufficient knowledge when you are looking to buy plywood, either through your own research or seeking professional help. If you’re looking for a place to start, check out our Birch plywood article:

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