While it’s hard to match the natural beauty of solid wood, it’s an undeniably pricey option. Fortunately, for many projects, the two main substitutes—medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and plywood—are less expensive, yet perform just as well or better than solid wood for a wide range of projects, including furniture, cabinets, shelves, and decorative accents such as wainscoting. Still, choosing the right material—MDF vs. plywood—for your project can be a puzzle.
On the surface, both MDF and plywood contain real wood but are highly engineered into their finished forms. MDF starts off with hardwood and softwood fibers, which are glued together with various resins, and then subjected to high heat and pressure to form panels. Plywood undergoes a similar process, but instead of wood fibers, starts off with very thin layers of wood from peeler logs. At a big-box home improvement store, you’ll find both in sheet forms of different thicknesses and grades—the higher the grade, the higher the price.
While they may appear similar, these two popular wood composites are not interchangeable. Both have their strengths and weaknesses based on their construction. To help you decide between them, we’ve addressed their primary differences in the categories that matter most to the average do-it-yourselfer.
In general, MDF is cheaper than plywood.
While the price depends on the thickness and grade of the material, in general, MDF costs less than plywood. If there are zero other factors pushing you to one material over another, and you’re watching the bottom line, MDF wins the price wars
MDF weighs more than plywood.
As it’s quite a bit denser than plywood, MDF weighs considerably more. This can be a major issue if you’ll need to lift, hold, or clamp panels in place or construct something that requires an overhead reach, such as elevated shelves.
Screws anchor better in plywood.
Because it’s soft, MDF doesn’t anchor screws very well. So if your project involves many screws or nails, plywood may be the better choice. However, if you’ll be screwing or nailing fasteners into the edge of the wood, be aware that plywood is more prone to splintering or splitting at the edges than MDF is.
Both plywood and MDF tend to emit VOCs and formaldehyde.
Both materials off-gas formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are lung and nervous system irritants. Formaldehyde-free plywood is available, however, although it’s more expensive than regular plywood. Painting, priming, sealing, or staining the MDF or plywood does help reduce the problem, but will not entirely eliminate it.