Difference Between MDF and Plywood

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: September 21, 2023

       

Difference Between MDF and Plywood

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Introduction

It is quite common to see people scratching their heads, trying to puzzle out which is plywood and which is MDF when placed side-by-side at a store. Most people are confused because the difference between the two is not striking but subtle. Furthermore, beginners are at a loss as to which one is best for their projects most of the time. However, a seasoned woodworker has no trouble pinpointing exactly what he needs and strolling out with it within minutes.

MDF and plywood are excellent alternatives for natural wood. Things made of real wood are fabulous, but they are highly expensive, too. Engineered wood, such as plywood and MDF, are much more affordable. Plywood is made using thin layers of wood veneer (natural wood or bark). These layers are bound together using adhesives/resins with their wood grains perpendicular to one another. MDF is made of wood fibers (hardwood or softwood residuals) bound with wax and resin, which in turn form panels under high temperature and pressure.

MDF Vs. Plywood

Plywood looks more like real wood than MDF. The reason is that the former has wood grains (wood fiber patterns formed as the trees grow), whereas the latter has none. Plywood is more aesthetically pleasing than MDF.

Difference Between MDF And Plywood In Tabular Form

Parameters of ComparisonMDFPlywood
AffordabilityThe price of MDF and plywood depends on their thickness and grade. However, generally speaking, MDF is much more affordable than plywood.Plywood costs more than MDF, but the benefits they offer justify the higher cost.
DensityIt is denser than plywood; therefore, it weighs more.It weighs less than MDF. So, people find it easy to use when tackling DIY projects.
Eco-friendlinessMDF and plywood release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Therefore, both cause safety hazards. However, MDF creates more sawdust when cut, making it less environmentally friendly than plywood.Plywood is, figuratively speaking, the lesser of two evils.
DurabilityIt is less durable than plywood. MDFs tend to sag under too much weight and are susceptible to damage when handled roughly. (So, people cannot vent their anger by throwing down the MDF planks haphazardly unless they want their hard-earned money to be wasted.)It is much more stable and harder than MDF.
Water resistanceMDF is not water-resistant.Plywood is less likely to be damaged due to water or moisture.

What Is MDF?

Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) is a building material stronger than particleboard and is the preferred material for school projects. It dulls blades faster than other wood types, making it necessary for people to use tungsten-carbide-edged cutting tools while working with it. Many manufacturers are switching to veneered MDF due to the rising hardwood cost (sheesh, does nothing cost a nominal amount anymore?). Though neither MDF nor plywood can truly replace hardwood, people make do with them, as they are more affordable.

People can build many things from MDF. The following are some examples: chairs, shelves, castles (who needs sand castles anymore?), lighthouses, utility boxes, pantries, coffee tables, etc. Of course, plywood may be a better option, but people facing budget constraints or those who feel plywood is a bit expensive for what they are building can have fun working with MDF.

The drawback of using MDF is that its edges keep releasing urea-formaldehyde into the atmosphere. People may seal the edges by coating all the sides of the objects they build when painting them after completion. Wax and oil finishes are less preferable, as they are not as effective for sealing the formaldehyde. Moreover, special screws or sheet-metal shoes must be used when working with MDF since fine screws do not hold well in it (great, people have to spend more time searching for the right screws; sounds fun.).

Types Of MDF

Regular/Standard MDF

Standard MDF is relatively inelastic, meaning it is a stiff material. It is heavier than plywood and may take two people to carry it, as they are sold in large sheets. Standard MDF is usually tan or dark brown and is around 12- 34 inches thick. People are better off with ultra-light MDF if they feel like building miniature monuments (at least in their eyes) because working with regular MDF can be frustrating and daunting for those beginning to learn woodworking.

Moisture-Resistant MDF

This MDF type typically has green markings to indicate its moisture-resistant characteristic. This MDF is used to build things essential for kitchens or bathrooms due to its better moisture resistance. However, it is not waterproof. So, people should not go to war with their local stores when it is inevitably damaged due to high and continued exposure to moisture in the long run.

Fire-Retardant MDF

This MDF type will do everything in its power to slow down fire if one were to occur. It typically has blue or red markings, indicating it has fire-resistant properties. People should consider using fire-rated/retardant MDF (even if not required to do so under any building code), as it is better to be safe than sorry. After all, losing something important to a fire feels like dying (not something people want to experience).

Ultra-light MDF

The only difference between ultra-light and standard MDF is that the former is lighter (around 30% less heavy) and less dense. Therefore, saying it is an improved version will not be an exaggeration. People find handling this MDF type easy, fun, and soothing to some extent.

NAF/Formaldehyde-Free MDF

MDF specified as NAF (No Added Formaldehyde) is a better option for those worried about formaldehyde exposure. However, people need to realize that no MDF is entirely formaldehyde-free, as wood naturally contains formaldehyde. NAF rating merely indicates that formaldehyde emission is minimal (less than 0.04 ppm).

What Is Plywood?

Faced with the short supply of fine wood, Ancient Egyptians and Greeks cut thin slices of wood and glued them together using the cross-graining technique. Something done purely out of necessity led to the creation of the popular modern-day plywood – a versatile building material (humans are full of surprises!). Plywoods for indoor use are glued using urea-formaldehyde (less expensive and has limited water resistance, whereas those for outdoor use are made using resorcinol or phenol-formaldehyde (ensures high resistance to humidity). However, environment-conscious manufacturers are switching to less formaldehyde-emitting glues.

Types Of Plywood

People need different plywood varieties for various applications. The following are the various types of plywood:

Softwood

Softwood plywood is best suited for construction and is made out of cedar, redwood, Douglas fir, or SPF (spruce-pine-fir). People can use softwood plywood for roofing, flooring, or building subfloors. But that is not all; softwood plywood is used to manufacture affordable skateboards (now people know which material to thank for all the fun skateboards brought into their lives.

Parents wanting to bond with their kids can build doghouses (as Harry and Shinchan Nohara did for Shiro) using this plywood. Softwood plywood is a relatively inexpensive product (but still more expensive than MDF) that anchors/holds screws and nails well. They are highly versatile, which is why beginners love working with them.

Hardwood

Hardwood plywood is the favorite of those looking for something with high-impact resistance, durability, and strength. This plywood is an excellent option for building floors and wall structures, as they are damage and wear-resistant (due to their greater density). This plywood is preferable to softwood plywood, as it resists/does not absorb moisture. Musical instruments and flashy but durable skateboards are made using this plywood. Hardwood plywood is great for fencing, too (so, this plywood is an excellent option for building almost anything? No wonder its cost keeps increasing.).

Tropical

Many prefer tropical plywood to softwood plywood due to its superior strength, density, and quality. It is a plywood type manufactured from hardwood trees found in tropical forests, such as ebony, teak, mahogany, etc. Tropical plywood has a stunning effect on viewers because of its smooth grains and immense strength. This plywood type is great for building doors, panels, cabinets, dressers, etc.

It is a phenomenal option for structural building but most do not prefer it due to its expensiveness. Why waste money on tropical plywood when hardwood plywood will be enough for building the same thing? After all, tropical plywood, similar to hardwood plywood, is sourced from hardwood trees. The only difference is the region these trees are found. Yes, it is the highest-quality plywood used for general constructions or buildings, but for most people, hardwood plywood’s quality is more than enough.

Aircraft

Aircraft/high-strength plywood is made from mahogany, birch, and spruce (mostly African). Basswood is another popular aviation-grade plywood. As the name suggests, aircraft plywood is useful in aircraft construction and was used to build fighter aircraft during World War II. Aircraft plywood is superior in performance to other plywood types but (like everything good in life) costs four times more than standard plywood.

It is not used in general woodworking projects, as people do not see why they have to spend more to build the same thing. Of course, if people do end up using this plywood, whatever they build will (floors, walls, kitchen cabinets, etc.) last far longer, as it holds strong even when exposed to high temperature or moisture.

Decorative

It is no secret that MDF is the better option for building decorative pieces or furniture. However, plywood is no pushover; people can make stunning pieces using plywood, too. Decorative plywood is made from hardwood, such as ash, oak, birch, mahogany, maple, rosewood, teak, etc.

Marine

Marine plywood is characterized by its ability to withstand moisture exposure for long periods and resistance to delaminating or fungal attacks. It has a minimal core gap, meaning water is less likely to be trapped in it.

Flexible

Cutting fancy curves in MDF is not a complex process. That is why woodworkers still learning their way around the tools prefer it. However, it is relatively easier to make curved parts from flexible plywood compared to other plywood types (still not a better option than MDF).

It is also called wiggle boards or bendable plywood, as making any curve-shaped object is easy using it. Wooden wobble balance boards that small children love so much are made using flexible plywood. Some refer to this plywood as hatter’s ply, as single-ply sheets of veneer were used to make stovepipe hats (a type of top hats made famous by Abraham Lincoln) in the Victorian Era.

Main Difference Between MDF And Plywood (In Points)

  • Cross-graining reduces the possibility of the plywood splitting when nailed at the edges. On the other hand, MDF’s softcore splits easily.
  • People planning to paint their finished projects will be better off with MDF, as its smooth surface is perfect for painting. However, using an oil-based primer (seals porous wood surface) is recommended before painting MDF. Plywood looks better when stained (a stain is a type of finish that alters the wood’s appearance, specifically its color.), but people may paint it if they wish.
  • Plywood is not as easy to cut as MDF. The latter is remarkably satisfying to work with, as it won’t splinter or crack due to its lack of wood grain. Making curves, ridges, or carving intricate designs is not a complicated process. Therefore, MDFs are better suited for making furniture. Plywood is not suitable for elaborate curves, cuts, or carving.
  • People do not have to finish the edges of MDF, as it does not show the layers it is made of. However, plywood’s edges show the number of layers used to make it, meaning people have to finish the edges by banding or molding.
  • Plywood is the best option if people need to use a lot of screws for whatever they are building, as it won’t split easily when nailing or screwing, whereas MDF does not anchor screws well.

Conclusion

Plywood and MDF are easy to work with, and DIY enthusiasts will have a blast using either one. MDF has an edge over plywood if people want to make indoor furniture, cabinets, in-wall shelves, etc. with or without intricate designs. However, they are unsuitable for outdoor projects, as they swell or warp if soaked. On the other hand, plywood is the go-to option for outdoor projects such as building stairs, rails, roofs, floors, walls, etc. In short, plywood is more versatile, but MDF is more fun to work with.

References

  • https://www.angi.com/articles/mdf-vs-plywood.htm
  • https://www.bobvila.com/articles/mdf-vs-plywood/
  • https://www.livspace.com/in/magazine/mdf-vs-plywood-comparison
  • https://housing.com/news/mdf-vs-plywood-which-is-the-best-option-for-your-project/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plywood
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medium-density_fibreboard
  • https://www.timberblogger.com/softwood-plywood/#google_vignette
  • https://www.silvaris.com/woodworkers-guide-to-tropical-plywood/
  • https://andersonplywood.com/hardwood-plywood/#
  • https://www.plywoodexpress.com/types-of-mdf/
  • https://www.silvaris.com/what-is-aircraft-grade-plywood-used-for/
  • https://www.hunker.com/12364995/types-of-mdf-wood

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"Difference Between MDF and Plywood." Diffzy.com, 2024. Fri. 19 Jul. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-mdf-and-plywood>.



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