MDF vs. Plywood — Differences, Pros and Cons, and When To Use What

Lately, I’ve had several people ask me questions about MDF.  What is it?  How is it different from plywood?  Why wouldn’t you just use plywood?

So today I want to share the differences between MDF and plywood, the pros and cons of each, and how I decide which one I’ll use on a project.

MDF – Medium Density Fiberboard

MDF vs Plywood - view of the edge of MDF

Image via KronoSpan

MDF is an engineered wood composite that is similar to particle board, but is much denser and stronger than particle board.

Imagine if all of the sawdust was swept up from other wood product manufacturing processes, and then that sawdust was mixed with binders and pressed into large sheets the size of plywood.  Okay, that’s way oversimplified, and it’s not exactly the process they use to make MDF :-D , but that gives you an idea of the makeup of the product.

Because it’s composed of such small wood fibers, there’s no wood grain in MDF.  And because it’s pressed so hard at such high temperatures, there are no voids in MDF like you find in particle board.  Here you can see the visible difference between particle board and MDF, with MDF on the top and particle board on the bottom.

Just like plywood, you can purchase MDF in different thicknesses depending on what you need for your project.

Advantages of MDF

  • MDF is generally cheaper than plywood.
  • The surface of MDF is very smooth, and you don’t have to worry about knots on the surface.
  • Because it’s so smooth, it’s a great surface for painting. I recommend first priming with a quality oil-based primer.  (Don’t use aerosol spray primers on MDF!!  It just soaks right in, and is a huge waste of time and money.  It will also cause the surface to become rough.)
  • Also because of its smoothness, MDF is a great substrate for veneer.
  • MDF is very consistent throughout, so cut edges appear smooth and won’t have voids or splinters.
  • Because of the smooth edges, you can use a router to create decorative edges.
  • The consistency and smoothness of MDF allows for easy cutting of detailed designs (such as scrolled or scalloped designs) using a scroll saw, band saw, or jigsaw.

Disadvantages of MDF

  • MDF is basically glorified particle board.
  • Just like particle board, MDF will soak up water and other liquids like a sponge and swell unless it’s very well sealed on all sides and edges with primer, paint, or another sealing product.  Again, I recommend a quality oil-based primer.  No aerosol spray primers!!
  • Because it consists of such fine particles, MDF doesn’t hold screws very well, and it’s very easy to strip the screw holes.
  • Because it’s so dense, MDF is very heavy.  This can make it more difficult to work with, especially if you don’t have a helper who can help you lift and cut the large sheets.
  • MDF can’t be stained.  Not only does it soak up stain like a sponge, but also because there’s no wood grain on MDF, it looks awful when it’s stained.  (Kind of like staining particle board.  Why would you bother?)
  • MDF contains VOCs (urea-formaldehyde).  Off gassing can be greatly minimized (but probably not eliminated) if the MDF is encapsulated with primer, paint, etc., but care needs to be taken while cutting and sanding to avoid inhalation of the particles.  I recommend cutting and sanding outside while wearing a particle mask.

Plywood

Plywood is also an engineered wood product that is made by pressing and binding sheets of wood veneer together into one solid piece.

MDF vs. plywood - view of the edge of plywood

Plywood comes not only in different thicknesses, but also in different grades, so you can choose the right one for your project.  Lower grades are used in construction of houses for subfloors and such.  Obviously these types of plywood don’t need to look pretty since they’ll be covered up.

The higher grades of plywood (stain grade, cabinet grade, etc.) are much prettier and smoother.  They have consistent wood grain showing, and generally lack knot holes or other major imperfections.  And cabinet grade plywood is always sanded very smoothly on the surface.

You can also find plywoods in various wood species, like oak, or maple, or pretty much anything else, so that you can get exact look you want for your project.

Advantages of plywood

  • Because it consists of layers of wood veneer with the grain on each layer running a different direction, it’s a very strong building material.
  • It’s less susceptible to water damage than MDF, and won’t soak up water and swell as quickly or easily as MDF does.
  • It’s stainable, which makes it perfect for kitchen cabinets, table tops, and other projects where you want a large stained wood surface.
  • It holds screws very tightly since the varying grains of wood on each layer give the screws something to hold onto.
  • While most plywood does contain urea-formaldehyde and other VOCs, it is now possible to purchase plywood without formaldehyde.  Look for the Purebond brand at Home Depot.

Disadvantages of plywood

  • It’s more expensive than MDF.  And obviously, the higher the grade, and the more special the species of wood, the more expensive it gets.
  • Because of the layers that show on the edge, you have to finish off the edges somehow.  This can be done with iron-on edge banding or with pieces of lumber or decorative moulding.
  • Plywood will often splinter on the edges when cut, so it’s harder to get a smooth cut with plywood than it is with MDF.
  • It’s more difficult to cut detailed designs into plywood (scrolled, scalloped, etc.) because the edges will splinter, and then you’re left with edges that show layers and might possibly have voids in some places.
  • Like MDF, most plywoods contain urea-formaldehyde and other VOCs which can off-gas into your home.  Take precautions while cutting.

How I determine which one to use:

Actually, we’re going to do this “pop quiz” style.  Are you ready? Don’t be nervous!  There will be no failing grades handed out in this class.  :)

1.  Scalloped console table

MDF vs Plywood - scalloped console table

For this project, I needed something that I could use my jigsaw on to cut out a detailed, scalloped design.  I needed the entire thing — surfaces as well as all cut edges — to sand perfectly smooth.  I knew I’d be painting the table (or covering it somehow), so staining wasn’t a consideration.

So which one would I use for this?  Plywood or MDF?

2.  The bottom shelf on my coffee table ottoman.

How to make a diamond tufted upholstered ottoman

I obviously needed a large, smooth surface for the shelf, but the main consideration here was that it needed something that could be stained to match the other wood components of the coffee table base.

So which one would I use for this?  Plywood or MDF?

3.  Scalloped decorative mirror

I needed to use something in which I could cut a detailed, scalloped design and be left with smooth edges.  I knew I would paint this piece, so staining wasn’t an issue.

So which one would I use for this?  Plywood or MDF?

4.  The upper bookshelves on my built-in bookcase wall

I needed something strong for building.  Since I would be painting the whole thing, staining wasn’t a consideration.  I also knew that I would be covering up all of the edges with trim, so that wasn’t a consideration either.

So which one would I use for this?  Plywood or MDF?

Answers:

Are you ready to see how you did on your quiz?  :-D

1.  For the scalloped console table, I used MDF.  It’s paintable and smooth.  The smooth edges allow for detailed, scrolled designs to be cut.  And the edges sand smoothly as well.

2.  For the lower shelf on the ottoman, I used plywood.  Plywood is stainable, where MDF is not.  I covered the not-so-pretty edges with pieces of 1″ x 3″ lumber.

3.  For the scalloped mirror, I used MDF, for all of the same reasons as on the scalloped console table.  (FYI, this also could have been made out of 1″ x 4″ lumber, cut into four pieces and mitered in the corners to make a frame.  Then the scrolled design cut on the inside edge of that frame.  The benefit of the MDF is that there are no mitered corner seams, and no extra work piecing together a frame.)

4.  This was a trick question.  :)  I actually used MDF on this project, but plywood would have been perfectly acceptable, and actually it would have been preferable.  If I had been building bookshelves that sat on the floor, where the edges might be susceptible to spilled water or even floods from plumbing issues, I would have definitely used plywood.  However, with these being just on the top, away from the floor, I used MDF to save money.

So how did you do?

If you have any questions regarding MDF vs. plywood, I’d be happy to answer them for you if I can!

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Comments

  1. DAF says

    Since you mentioned the condo, are you planning to finish it off and sell? I imagine it will be handy to hold on to it for now until you get your foundation fixed and once you get it finished and sold move into the house for good. Just wondering and anxious to see how it turns out in the end with the last bedroom and living area.

    • says

      We’re definitely going to sell it. We’ll put it on the market as soon as I can peel myself away from house projects and go over there to finish up some projects that need to get done before we put it on the market. :) I SO don’t want to work on the condo. It’s like taking 20 steps backwards. But it needs to get done. :)

  2. Brent says

    How do larger pieces (like your new console table) hold up with glue and brad nails? I’ve only ever made small-scale items with MDF, so I’d be curious to know how well it does when it has to support more of its own weight.

    • Susan says

      You could not have offered this at a more perfect time for me and my project. I’m refurbishing a table from Goodwill that I fell in love with. It’s a round pedestal table with a large leaf included. The table was slightly water damaged on top, but I thought it could easily be sanded out. I THOUGHT this table was all wood, but have found that it must be MDF–what I kept calling particle board. After attempting to sand it down, I found my error because after the veneered top, I was sanding into what seems to be MDF. I’m still using this as a practice piece in Annie Sloan chalk paint (tiffany color) and it looks great, except for the top that is not completely smooth. My plan is to go ahead and lacquer the top and get a glass piece to cover it. Would you recommend doing this?–other than the slight water damage on top, it looks wonderful. On closer inspection, I can see underparts that should have tipped me off on this not being all wood, but it’s very hard to pick out on this piece. Lesson learned!

      • says

        You might try using Zinsser primer on it first. Even though you’re using chalk paint, one of the great things about Zinsser primer is that you can put a couple of coats on, let it dry thoroughly, and then use fine sandpaper (220-grit) to sand it very smoothly. That might help eliminate some of the roughness of the MDF that is exposed from the sanding.

        I do think covering it with glass is a good idea. Not only will it protect it, but it’ll also make it look like a higher end table. :)

    • says

      Brent, I try not to make really large items with MDF if the piece of MDF will be horizontal, like shelves, table tops, etc., because MDF will certainly bow over time, much more so than plywood will. So you have to be really sure that you’ve braced the edges really well in order to keep it flat. And the larger the piece, the more likely it is that you’ll need to add support underneath it as well.

      In fact, even on the shelves on the built-ins at the condo, just the weight of the MDF alone made those shelves bow until I added support in the back (quarter round under the back edge and nailed into the back panel) and the 1″ x 3″ lumber on the front edge. (And I always use real wood lumber for supports like that — not MDF boards, even though they’re cheaper, cut straighter, and look just like wood lumber.) Once those supports were in place, those shelves were incredibly solid and sturdy. I’d be confident putting a set of encyclopedias on them at this point. But they were also only 12 inches deep. I’d hesitate to go much larger with MDF.

      So you definitely have to keep any horizontal pieces somewhat short and/or narrow, and you have to be very certain that they have support on the edges that won’t allow them to bow.

      My console table is pretty wide (64 inches), but it’s only 14 inches deep, and it has vertical pieces supporting it all the way around. Even though those vertical pieces are nailed into the edges of the top, rather than supporting from underneath, It’s still very sturdy and secure since it’s nailed and glued.

      But as far as the glue and nails, I always, ALWAYS use Gorilla Glue wood glue on my projects. I have a ton of confidence in that glue, and it hold incredibly securely. Once it’s dry, I never worry about my MDF projects falling apart.

      So that’s the long way of saying, I try to keep MDF pieces somewhat small unless I’m adding tons of support, because on it’s own, it’ll definitely bow and bend over time (and it doesn’t take long for MDF, either).

    • says

      Lisa, I always use wood glue (Gorilla Glue specifically) and then finishing nails in my nail gun.

      You can use screws with MDF, but just be very careful not to strip the screw holes. I also like to pre-drill the holes, and then add a little wood glue into the hole (or on the screw) before screwing the pieces together. That just makes it a little more secure. And of course, I also add wood glue to the two pieces that I’m securing together.

  3. Sue says

    Thanks Kristi. That cleared up a couple of things I wanted to ask before but didn’t. I ‘aced’ the quiz and surprised myself.

  4. Cindy says

    Oh my word, best article ever. Please consider teaching whenever the opportunity arises. You’re so good at it!

    I hate going into Home Depot and feeling like an idiot. An article like this gives me so much confidence. Thank you!

  5. says

    Hi Kristi! I have a big question for you… we are going to be refacing our kitchen cabinets this year with new shaker style doors. They will be painted (we can prime them first) – and I am not sure which would be better – MDF because of the smooth edges, or a nice maple plywood. Your thoughts??
    Thanks!
    Krista

  6. Diane Keys says

    You actually can stain MDF. The TLC program Trading Spaces used MDF by the truck load. They would paint or stain according to the decor. It takes a talented hand but with the right touch you can even give it a grained look.

    • says

      It’s possible, but it’s not pretty. :) You can do some sort of faux treatment on it with paint, though. But just keep in mind that those things on Trading Spaces were built quickly and cheaply, and we never saw them up close and in person. I’ve read horror stories from some of the homeowners who had their homes “decorated” on that show.

  7. Michelle says

    Thanks for the explanation. I had no idea about all the variables to take into consideration. Sounds like a little planning will save some heartache (and blisters!) down the line.

  8. says

    Kristi, this was a GREAT explanation. I have used both too and for many of the same reasons you mention – I like MDF because it’s smooth and straight and I get much better accuracy/smoothness when cutting, but it’s also heavy and very “processed”, exactly all the features you mention. Great examples of when you would use one or the other. You are my DIY idol! :) Sharon

  9. Sue N. says

    I love your blog and have been following for such a LONG time! I did just want to throw out there that we used MDF for a countertop in the basement craft area, even around a sink! if you seal the mdf with a mix of glue and water (you must apply this to all sides as poly alone just soaks right in!) then using a foam roller apply like 5 coats of poly you actually get a really great finished product! my hubby did router the edge with a chamfer bit and i love the contrast of the dark brown (the color it gets when it’s sealed) and the bright white cabinets.. A major fail for us was trying to use MDF for a radiator top. I thought, ‘heck, it’s going to be painted so it’ll be sealed” but when the steam rises, it curls up even though it’s had multiple coats of paint and sealer. Next time i’m going w/ solid wood for that! Keep blogging– i’m so inspired that I’m actually going to try upholstering– love that ottoman!! Thanks!!

  10. Gilmer Gal says

    Thanks for that informative tut. It all makes sense! So now I know what kind of sheets to buy and how to prime. I think I would have primed the MDF with aerosol primer, glad I know that’s not the right way. On a flip I did in San Antonio, I used MDF for the floor and door trim. It was beautiful (wide) and pre-primed. I’m thinking it was about 4″ wide and had a really nice scalloped (?) outside edge.

    • says

      Yep, they make quite a bit of trim out of MDF these days. I love it because it’s so consistent from one piece to the next. You don’t get that consistency with real wood trim. The drawback, of course, is that it isn’t water resistant unless you prime it on the edges and backside before installing it (which I never do), so if you have a plumbing leak, it can ruin your baseboards. I learned that the hard way. :)

      • Gilmer Gal says

        Good point! Hope the new owners of my flip keep the water off the backside! I didn’t prime that part. Uh oh…

  11. Laurie says

    What an awesome site, being a DIY’er myself it is awesome to see other peoples dreams come to life. It is a unique gift to have to take someone elses cast offs and give them a new life.

    I look forward to many more and possably sending you some pics of my own creations!

  12. Jeanne says

    This is a great instructional primer on sheet goods, Kristi. I’d like to add a couple of things, if I may. Another type of plywood that is great to use is Baltic birch. It comes in different thicknesses, but is usually just available in 69″X 60″ sheets. It has absolutely no voids, and the layers of veneers are all the same thickness, so the edges are often left exposed. They have a kind of striped effect (you’d like them!) and are quite attractive.

    For using MDF as shelving, it will not hold as much weight as plywood or solid wood without bowing, so they should either be shorter, or have more vertical supports, or have reinforcement on the front and back edges. WOOD magazine had an excellent article on shelves.

  13. Naomi Williams says

    This is the most informative DIY blog I have ever read, and this is the best post you have ever written. I forwarded it to my husband, and even he was blown away by the sheer amount of info it contained.

    Had to shake my head at yesterday’s (actually, tomorrow’s) post about the morons visiting your blog. Please don’t stop blogging! I daresay that the gratitude felt by myself and many others totally grinds their small-mindedness into the ground.

  14. Kate says

    You know, MDF is inexpensive, durable, and a good choice for many woodworking and carpentry projects. MDF is commonly used for shelving in closets and cabinets because it’s inexpensive and smooth. When I use MDF shelving for heavy loads, I simply beef it up with wood. Although medium-density fiberboard furniture isn’t of the same quality as solid wood furniture, it is cost-effective, often environmentally friendly, and incredibly durable. While painting it never use a water-based product for the initial finish coat. The only real difficulty that arises when painting MDF is what to do about the edges, which are more porous than the surface — similar to the end grain of lumber — and drink in most of the finish. I use drywall compound to fill the edges, whether they are cut squarely or shaped with a router bit, and I apply the compound liberally with a finger or with the palm of my hand.

  15. scottlenox says

    MDF weighs a ton,and the dust is horrible,you get dirty when you work it.Plywood is a lot lighter,cleaner,and smells better,and holds screws,nails,dowels,better.Plywood would repair better.MDF has it uses but for cabinets i would choose plywood,cost wise it isn`t that much more.

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