Every building material on the market has its specifics and plywood and MDF are definitely not an exception from this rule. If you are wondering which one of the two to use in your planned home renovation project or you are a passionate DIY-er, who just wants to learn more, you are definitely in the right place.

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In this article, we are going to cover everything you need to know about both options of engineered wood – how they are made, the different types you can get on the market, how and when to use them, and even a full-on showdown between both choices.

What is Plywood?

Plywood is a versatile material that has many applications, which include: wall and floor covering, moulds for concrete structures, packaging, and even designer furniture. The boards are made from at least three thin layers of real wood, which are glued one to the other. The more layers a board has, the thicker the plywood, of course. It’s named “plywood” because the wood layers are called “plies”. You can get the sheets in different sizes and thicknesses, as well as they could be made from different types of wood. What you choose will depend on your individual needs and budget.

The types of plywood

  1. Hardwood. Hardwood plywood is an expensive material, due to the fact that it’s usually made of red oak, birch, mahogany, ash, or maple. This type of plywood is available in 48-by-96-inch sheets and can be found in 3/4-,1/2-and 1/4-inch thicknesses. Also, the material doesn’t have as many imperfections as other cheaper options.
  2. Softwood. Softwood plywood is made from fir lumber and has large and rather noticeable defects, which make it unsuitable for furniture projects. This plywood option is strong and is often used for structure building purposes. You can buy softwood plywood in 48-by-96-inch and in 3/4-, 5/8-, 1/2-, 3/8 sheets, with a thickness of 1/4-inch.
  3. Exterior. This plywood option is perfect for places that are prone to water or weather exposure, due to the fact that is made with waterproof glue, which makes the sheets more durable. Exterior plywood is mainly used for flooring, roofing and in rooms like kitchens and bathrooms. As the name states, you can use this sort of plywood for the exterior of your home – in the construction of transoms and dormers or as support for masonry.
  4. Composites. If you are looking to build some furniture by yourself, composite plywood is the perfect solution for you. The sheets are made from traditional layers of plywood but are enhanced with two additional layers of high-density fibreboard on the outside, which also has a thin veneer of hardwood covering. This material is the №1 choice for many woodworkers and also comes in the same measurements as traditional plywood.

The positive sides of plywood

  • It’s one of the strongest materials for flooring.
  • Plywood doesn’t soak up water, which makes it resistible to water damage.
  • It has a great stained effect for decorative purposes.
  • It holds onto screws better than most other boards.
  • You can purchase the sheets without urea-formaldehyde and other VOCs.

The negative sides of plywood

  • Plywood is a bit more expensive than other flooring options.
  • The wood layers are visible on the edge of the sheet.
  • You can often end up with splinters on the edges.
  • If you don’t invest in plywood that doesn’t contain urea-formaldehyde or other VOCs, you can get off-gas in your home.

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What is MDF?

MDF or medium-density fiberboard is a wood building material made from glued up particles of broken down softwood or/and hardwood that have been obtained with defibrator. The glue itself consists of wax and resin adhesive, which when combined with the wood fibres and pressed together at a specific temperature, forms panels. In the end, you get a smooth and no-grain wood board. Similar to plywood, MDF comes in different sizes and thicknesses.

The types of MDF

  1. Particle Board. This sort of MDF is created from wood chippings, shavings, and sawdust that are processed by a wood chipper to create fine dust and then, combined with a raisen. After that, the mixture is poured into a shape of a sheet and a weight is placed on top to bind the particles together. This type of wood board is perfect for furniture projects.
  2. Fibreboard. Fibreboards are made in a similar way like the particle ones. This type of building material is eco-friendly, because organic fibres, like sugarcane and vegetable starch, are mixed with the wood chippings. Fibreboards are commonly used for their soundproofing qualities.
  3. Laminated Board. This sort of wood sheet is made by putting wood fibres under high pressure and heat. If you are looking for a more durable option, you can buy ones that are made from several fibreboards, which are glued together. They are stronger, denser and overall, better in quality than ordinary fibreboards.
  4. Veneered Board. If you want the look of real wood, without breaking the bank, veneered boards are your best chance. This type of sheet can be decorated with pattern to mimic natural wood lines by applying high pressure and specific stretching techniques. Keep in mind that only simple designs can be created, because there is a big chance for the material to break and crack, especially if the curves are more exaggerated or sharp.

The positive sides of MDF

  • It’s a lot more budget-friendly than other options on the market.
  • The surface of this type of board is very smooth.
  • You can paint over it with the right preparation.
  • MDF does not form any splinters and rough edges when cut.
  • You can use this material for creative decorative edges.
  • Intricate shapes and designs can be easily achieved, you just need the right instruments and power tools.

The negative sides of MDF

  • If you get MDF wet, it’ll swell and deform.
  • MDF can’t hold screws well.
  • MDF is really heavy, making it a nightmare to work with.
  • The MDF boards soak up paint, leaving behind a horrible and sloppy look.
  • Similar to plywood, MDF contains chemicals like urea-formaldehyde, which create harmful off-gas. You can minimise the effect slightly by priming the boards with paint or a primer.

Should I Use MDF of Plywood for Flooring?

If you’re looking for a temporary affordable solution, go for MDF. The material is easy to work with, looks and feels good. But you can’t install it in your kitchen or bathroom, because it’ll puff up as soon as you spill something on it. If money is not an issue, choose plywood flooring. It’s a much more durable option and looks a lot better. Again, the downside is that like MDF, plywood also doesn’t have the best relationship with liquids.

Should I Use MDF or Plywood for my Ceiling and Walls?

It comes to how much you want to spend, in which room you want to place the boards and what effect you are looking for. Don’t install either plywood and MDF in a room, where they can get wet. However, if you are looking to soundproof a room, MDF is the way to go. It’s affordable, easy to use and very effective in terms of keeping sound in. You could also purchase plywood for the same purpose, but like we said earlier, this type of wood board is on the expensive side.

Should I Use MDF or Plywood for my Project?

If you want a plywood door, we would suggest reconsidering. Strong as it is, this material won’t last long. Still, you can see plywood door installed in cheap hotels and hostels.

Building plywood stairs is a good interior design solution. The boards are strong, they hold screws well and can be painted over. However, keep in mind that the “Don’t wet it” rule still stands. If you break it, you’ll have a nice, big, swollen mess, hanging around at the centre of your home.

We suggest you use composites (a type of MDF) for your furniture project. It’s a bit stronger than other sorts of MDF and not that expensive. However, remember that MDF soaks up paint, which means that if you want to colour your furniture, you have to prep the surface, first.

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As you can see for yourself, determining the right type of building material for your project is extremely important. If not careful, you can easily buy the wrong type of wood board and end up with a swollen floor. We hope you found this article helpful.


Feel free to share thoughts, suggestions, or experiences about the use of MDF or plywood in the comment section below. And of course, happy renovating!

Image source: Smit/shutterstock.com

  • Last update: June 10, 2019

Posted in Home Improvement

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