WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE: PLYWOOD VS. MDF VS. PARTICLE BOARD?

Kevin Dean | Kitchen Designer | Dean Cabinetry
By Kevin Dean

This is an honest comparison of the building materials used in cabinet construction: plywood, MDF, and particle board. Each has pros and cons, and our aim is to unbiasedly explain them so you can make the most informed buying decisions.

How is wood paneling used in cabinet construction?

In the cabinetry world, plywood and its comparable materials are used to make cabinet boxes, partitions, and shelves.  They provide the structure and rigidity of a cabinet. Therefore, it is important to choose quality materials that will provide this structure for many years.  There are many lumber suppliers and many cabinet manufacturers. Typically, the price of the cabinet will relate to the price of the lumber. Less expensive wood equals less expensive cabinets, usually stock cabinetry.  More expensive wood equals more expensive cabinets, usually custom cabinetry. Learn more about the difference between stock and custom cabinets.

What is plywood?

The term plywood is used loosely and can often refer to multiple products.  By definition, plywood is made up of thin sheets of veneer or “plys” of wood that are glued together.  The layers are typically glued in a perpendicular grain pattern to give strength to the plywood. The visible faces of the plywood will be a higher grade veneer than the core veneers.

Plywood Cabinets

What are the pros and cons of Plywood?

Plywood is the most expensive type of wood panel.  It is very strong due to its veneered layers, so it can be used in interior and mild exterior situations.  It has interior strength, which means it is great for securing to walls or other surfaces.

What is MDF?

MDF stands for medium-density fiberboard.  MDF is made of sawdust, wood shavings, resin, and wax.  These ingredients are mixed together, pressed into panels, and intensely heated.  This process forms rigid sheets of MDF which are sanded smooth.

MDF

What are the pros and cons of MDF?

MDF and real wood have very similar properties.  In the right application, MDF can actually be better than plywood or solid lumber.  MDF has great strength, does not noticeably shrink or expand with temperature, and has a uniform surface without grain or knots.  It is also less expensive than plywood. For these reasons it is commonly used by woodworkers in cabinetry and other projects. It is great for painted countertops because it is so smooth.  It is also used for the interior panels of doors because it does not shrink and expand. The disadvantages of MDF are that it is very heavy, very dusty to work with, and commonly contains urea-formaldehyde.  Interior MDF will swell or disintegrate with water, but exterior MDF is very water-resistant. Additionally, MDF lacks interior strength.

What is particle board?

Particle board is a common type of wood paneling that often has a bad wrap.  It is similar to MDF. Particle board is made of small chips of wood that are dried, glued, heated, and pressed together to make panels.  Most particleboard panels are then coated with a melamine-urea formaldehyde resin to provide water resistance. These are the particle board panels that most people are familiar with.

Particle Board

What are the pros and cons of particle board?

Particle board is less expensive than plywood.  It is great for interior cabinetry and shelving.  The melamine coating gives color options and doesn’t need to be painted.  The main drawback is that it does not have interior strength and screws can easily strip.  

What happens to plywood, MDF, and particle board when exposed to moisture?

In general, most wood products do not do well with moisture.  It really depends on the coating used with the wood product. For example, a melamine particle board is water-resistant until the melamine coating is penetrated and water touches the wood chips.  The same goes for plywood. However, plywood will last longer in comparison to particle board and MDF when exposed to water.

What is the best material for your cabinetry?

This is a tricky question and there is no one size fits all answer.  It depends on the type and use of cabinetry. For interior and exterior strength, plywood is the best.  However, this does not rule out MDF and particle board. MDF is the best for painted door panels. Particle board is the best for inexpensive cabinetry.  In general it is best to trust your woodworker or cabinet supplier.

The only thing you really need to avoid is particle board and MDF in very wet environments.  However, plywood will not do great in this environment either. Moreover, cabinetry in general does not do well with water.

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