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Plywood vs MDF

Which Material Do I Use and When?

Plywood vs. MDF

When starting a new project, choosing materials can be one of the most challenging and important tasks. Whether you're building a new kitchen table, making a cabinet, or even creating outdoor furniture, your choice of material determines the project's appearance, durability, and success, not to mention the overall cost!

For many DIY projects, you'll have to choose between two types of boards: MDF or plywood. As we all know, the choice can be a tricky one. 
In this article, we'll explore the pros and cons of both types of composite wood, exploring the different scenarios where each option is preferable. But first, let's take a look at the specifics of both materials. 

The basics

What is plywood?

Plywood is a material made of multiple thin sheets of wood veneer stuck together with formaldehyde glue. The grain direction of the wood is alternated with each veneer layer to increase the strength of the material - a process called cross-graining. There are always an odd number of layers of veneer to reduce the risk of warping. The layers are bonded with heat and pressure, creating the finished plywood sheet. 

At a glance...

Properties of plywood

Can look like solid wood 

Lighter and less dense than real wood

Strong and durable 


More expensive than MDF

Resistant to moisture 

The top veneer can be made of a different wood species to the inner veneers, allowing you to customise its appearance

Unlikely to warp, expand, or shrink

Cheaper than solid wood; more expensive than MDF

A varied choice

Types of plywood

Plywood comes in various sizes and thicknesses that are ideal for different applications. For example, a thickness of 12mm is perfect for building cabinets, drawers, or even walls, whereas an 18-24mm thickness is better suited to building tables or flooring. 

Softwood plywood
Softwood plywood
Made of cedar, pine, spruce, fir, or redwood timber, is often used in packaging and construction.
Hardwood plywood
Hardwood plywood
Made of beech, mahogany, poplar, or oak timber, is more durable and is often used for walls and floors in factories or in heavy-duty containers.
Marine plywood
Marine plywood
A highly durable type of plywood resistant to water and can therefore be used for boats or items that get wet.

A short introduction

What is MDF?

MDF, or Medium Density Fibreboard, is a material created by mixing the wood fibres of broken-down hardwood and softwood timber residuals with wax and formaldehyde resin glue. Then, these are pressed into flat sheets of MDF using high heat and pressure.

An overview

Properties of MDF

Has no grain

Fairly durable

Has a smooth and even surface that can be painted on top of 

Dense and heavy structure

Relatively cheap

Vulnerable to moisture

Creates a lot of sawdust when cut

Warps easily

MDF panels are often used for indoor furniture such as cabinets and tables, door frames, and sometimes flooring. Because of its smooth and even surface, it's great for finishing cabinets and furniture without imperfections.

Now that you have a run-down of the both materials, let's consider some of the uses where you might select either plywood or MDF as your sheet material of choice. 

For chip-free and smooth finishes

Furniture with intricate designs

Let's say you're looking to build a cabinet door or another piece of furniture that requires precise cutting, angles, and lines. In this case, MDF is often the best choice. MDF is more straightforward to cut than plywood because of its lack of grain and softness of the material, meaning that you can make precise cuts without the risk of splintering. 

Can withstand natural elements

Outdoor furniture

If you're looking to build outdoor furniture - especially here in the rainy UK - you'll need to use a material that can withstand the weather. For this purpose, plywood tends to be your best friend. Unlike MDF which can soak up a lot of water, plywood is more water resistant and will therefore be less likely to expand or warp due to moisture. 

That said, there are now moisture-resistant, exterior grade MDF boards which perform well outdoors, such as the Medite Moisture Resistant MDF we stock at Cworkshop. 

So, if you're planning on building a new bench or treehouse for your garden, plywood or moisture resistant MDF can work. 

Adding value to your work

Painted furniture

If you're planning to paint your furniture after building it, the MDF choice couldn't be more straightforward. MDF's grain-free, super smooth surface makes it an ideal material for painting. (We recommend sanding the cut edges first and using an oil-based primer for the best effect). With Plywood, you will need to ensure that the surface is well prepared to take on paint, but you will lose the natural look of the plywood's veneered surface which could be a beautiful feature.

Also known as lacquering or staining

Varnished furniture

If you want to use a stain for an attractive wood-like look, plywood works a charm. A lacquer or varnish will complement plywood's grain and provide a stylish finish.

On the other hand, MDF won't look good varnished or lacquered and should be painted instead. If you plan to create an attractive tabletop or frame that looks like stained natural wood, you should opt for suitable plywood. 

A great way to store things


MDF and plywood are often used to make shelves, but the choice of material depends on what you intend to put on the shelves. MDF's softness means that it is likely to sag when used for shelves that will bear heavy weights, so it's best to only use this wood composite for shelves that will not hold heavy things. Plywood is undeniably the best choice for shelves that will hold many books or other heavy items. 

So, which one is better?

Plywood and MDF both work

Plywood is strong, durable and attractive, making it great for kitchen shelves or beautiful tables. It's also ideal for outdoor projects where the material will be exposed to moisture or cold because it can better handle these conditions. On the other hand, if you're planning to create intricate indoor furniture, build things that will be painted, or want to save a chunk of money, Medium Density Fibreboard is an excellent choice. 

However, there's no need to choose just one or the other for your projects. Here at Cworkshop, we stock a vast range of different MDF and Plywood offerings, allowing you to select the options that are right for you. From birch and marine plywood to Medite moisture resistant or flame retardant MDF, you're sure to find the perfect material for you in our selection. 

To find your ideal boards, check out our collections or get in touch today, and we'll help you find the suitable material for you.