Are you searching for the best-engineered wood for your kitchen cabinet?
This question confounds many homeowners. The fact that the market is awash with many of these woods complicates matters even further.
However, MDF and plywood have recently become the most popular kitchen cabinets.
Although MDF (medium density fiberboard) is relatively new in the market, it has successfully captured the attention of many wood users. It has also captured a huge market, and its preference continues to skyrocket.
When we compare MDF and plywood, each has its strengths and weaknesses. Each also has distinctive properties that differentiate it from the other.
We have made a detailed comparison to help you make an informed decision between these two. We zeroed in on characteristics such as strength, ease of cutting, weight, edge finish, etc.
It aims to ensure that you choose the best suits your needs. But first, here is an overview of their differences.
|Price||Slightly cheaper||Quite expensive|
|Appearance||Uniform light-brown color that has no pattern at all||Attractive because of the display of grains|
|Strength||Weak, can sag or crack||Has excellent strength|
|Weight||Heavy||Light, except pressure-treated plywood|
|Dust||Produces too much dust that can be harmful||It doesn’t produce much dust|
|Ease of cutting||Easy to cut without cracking||Hard to cut through|
|Edge finish||It has a nice edge finish||The thin layers are visible and require finishing|
|Painting||Easy to paint||Not good for painting|
MDF Cabinets – Explained
Did you know?
According to California law, MDF products should carry a health warning. However, UK’s Health and Safety Executive did an extensive investigation and decided there was no need to ban MDF.
Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) consists of residues of hardwood and softwood. Manufacturers use wax and resin for compacting these two wood fibers.
They then form them into panels under high pressure and temperature, creating a durable, condensed board. Typically, MDF consists of 82% wood, 1% paraffin wax, 9% resin glue, and 8% water.
The production of MDF makes it heavier than most woods. However, it gives it a smooth surface ideal for painted cabinets.
MDF has two varying qualities, which include:
- Moisture Resistant MDF
- High-Density Fiberboard (HDF)
TIP: MDF is easy to cut and thus excellent for creating custom inlays or embellishments.
How popular is MDF among homeowners?
MDF has dramatically risen in popularity among many homeowners. A recent study shows that its market size in 2019 stood at USD 61.3 billion, with this expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 6.6% from 2020 to 2027.
However, some users still have reservations about it.
MDF cabinet proponents pay tribute to its durability, strength, and water resistance properties. However, most of those who oppose it highlight its inability to hold water and that it contains VOCs that could be harmful.
- It’s cheaper
- Has a smooth surface
- It’s easy to cut
- It’s resistant to bugs and pests
- It’s eco-friendly
- Easy to drill
- It soaks up water and swells
- It hardly holds screws
- It’s heavy
- It can’t be stained
- Contains VOCs that can harm the eyes and lungs
- Can split or crack easily if subjected to stress
- Releases harmful dust during the production
Plywood Cabinets – Explained
Are you aware that most Ready To Assemble companies use only plywood for cabinet boxes?
Why is that so?
First, plywood is made of compressed wood sheets that are quite sturdy. The wood sheets have a veneer covering and are bonded under high pressure.
It’s also resistant to wear and tear, making it an excellent material for kitchen cabinets.
The sandwiching of each ply layer with the other at 90 degrees gives plywood extra strength. Moreover, it limits expansion and contraction and ensures it doesn’t split during screwing or nailing.
But there’s more,
It usually has an uneven number of layers to reduce warping and maintain balance. For this reason, we have terms such as 3-ply or 5-ply, indicating the number of layers.
The high number of layers makes the plywood thicker and stronger.
What’s so amazing about plywood cabinets?
It’s a modern design that features a blend of aesthetics and quality. Moreover, plywood is a flexible and beautiful material even in its raw form.
Fact: The word “ply” is from “plier,” a French word meaning to fold. This is in reference to the several layers that make up plywood.
Plywood cabinets are long-lasting; they can last from 30 to 60 years. However, constant exposure to water and moisture can reduce this to about 20 years.
Plywood also comes in grades, which include:
- B & S+ face grade
- BB face grade
- CP face grade
- C face grade
- Very strong and durable
- Doesn’t soak up water
- Holds screws tightly
- Ease of installation
- It’s a lightweight material
- Easy to repair and replace
- Requires finishing
- Hard to get a smooth finish
- Hard to cut detailed designs
- Has a less smooth surface
8 Key Differences Between MDF and Plywood cabinets
Price is always a key factor when purchasing any product, isn’t it?
However, many times there’s a correlation between price and quality. The general assumption is that the higher the price, the better the quality.
Generally, MDF cabinets are cheaper than plywood cabinets. However, you cannot talk about the price of plywood cabinets without mentioning the grade.
The price of plywood cabinets hikes with the rise in grade. Thanks to their aesthetic appearance enhanced by the display of grains, higher grades cost more.
But there’s some good news! I went through customer reviews and found that you can spend less on a plywood cabinet if you buy them as a pellet.
Besides, thickness also influences the price for both plywood and MDF cabinets. The thicker the wood is, the higher the price.
For example, a ¼-inch MDF sheet costs about $22, while a ¼-inch of grade B-BB of plywood sheet costs $10 on Amazon.
Verdict: Plywood is relatively more costly than MDF cabinets. However, the price of plywood cabinet is depended on its grade. Moreover, thickness will affect the cost of both MDF and plywood.
There’s a clear distinction in the appearance of these two kitchen cabinets.
I can say that plywood cabinets appear more like natural wood. Thanks to the wood strips that make it, the surfaces look more like solid wood cabinets than MDF.
Moreover, you see and feel the smoothness of higher-grade plywood. They also look lovely, thanks to the many grains.
MDF is the exact opposite. You won’t see any single wood-grain appearance. Moreover, it features a uniform light-brown color with no pattern.
But that’s not all,
MDF has no smoothness at all. Simply put, it just looks like pressed wood fibers.
Verdict: Plywood triumphs in appearance. Its clear wood grains and smoothness brings out aesthetic beauty, which MDF lacks.
The strength of a cabinet material determines its ability to hold up under pressure.
Unfortunately, MDF falls short in terms of strength. It will either sag or crack in most cases if you use it for shelves. Moreover, it can get damaged if you handle it roughly.
You can avoid this by reinforcing it if you use it for any weight-bearing furniture or shelves.
Important note: MDF is not ideal if you want a cabinet that might need dismantling and reassembling.
Plywood cabinets have excellent strength. Its cross graining reduces shrinkage and expansion, thus enhancing stability. Consequently, it has a consistent panel strength in both directions.
Moreover, plywood occurs mainly in an odd number of sheets. This odd number helps prevent warping.
Plywood cabinets can also flex more than MDF. Consequently, if you want to create curves, it allows you to bend them slightly.
Lastly, water affects the MDF cabinet, causing its fibers to swell, damage that might be difficult to repair. On the contrary, water or extreme cold doesn’t affect a plywood cabinet.
Verdict: Plywood carries the day when it comes to strength. It can withstand pressure and extreme cold or water without bending.
Generally, MDF is weightier than many variants of plywood. However, pressure-treated plywood cabinets tend to be heavier than MDF.
For example, an MDF ½-inch thick sheet of 4″x8″ weighs 26.31 kgs, which is higher than all other plywood variants. However, the same sheet of pressure-treated plywood weighs 35.38 kg
The table below shows a comparison of MDF’s weight versus that of different variants of plywood.
Weight Per Square Meter by thickness (kg)
|Baltic Birch plywood||4.20||5.85||7.80||9.75||11.67||13.65||15.61|
MDF’s heavyweight is because it’s dense, with a density of 37.5 to 50 lb/ft³.
TIP: The denser a material is, the heavier it will be for a specific volume.
Why is MDF so dense?
Firstly, MDF consists of 82% wood fibers, which combine with resins and waxes. The high quantity of fibers gives MDF its high weight, plus other benefits such as a smooth surface.
Secondly, MDF has no voids, thanks to the tiny wood fibers in its internal structure. This lack of density results in high density.
Verdict: Concerning weight, MDF has more weight than the different variants of plywood, except pressure-treated plywood.
Due to the cabinet construction process, cutting MDF produces more dust than plywood. Accordingly, you must practice caution and ensure you work in a well-ventilated or open place.
According to research, the much dust from MDF can cause:
- Eye and skin irritation
- Respiratory illness, for example, nasal inflammation
- Loud breathing
- Lower chest discomfort
Consequently, the Wood Panel Industries Federation director general advises people using MDF to put on protection such as dust masks. He also advocates for cutting it in properly ventilated places.
Also Read: What Is Kitchen Cabinet Refacing?
In the YouTube video below, you can get other useful tips to observe when using MDF.
On the other hand, although plywood also produces dust, it’s not as horrible as that of MDF.
Verdict: MDF produces more sawdust than plywood. Therefore, if dust is an issue of concern, plywood will be a better choice for you.
Ease of Cutting
MDF lacks grains and is soft; consequently, it is easy to cut. Moreover, it doesn’t crack or splinter along the edges when you cut through it.
But there’s even more good news!
You can cut curves, ridges, and sharp angles on MDF without cracking or splintering.
But how do you achieve this?
Ensure that you use a table saw with sharp carbide-tipped blades. In addition, it should have a high number of teeth.
Plywood, on the contrary, has a stacked construction that makes it harder to get a perfect cut. Its edges are also rough, making it impossible to cut fancy curves.
But it’s not just curved cuts; it’s difficult to make perfectly straight cuts. Moreover, cutting detailed designs is impossible with plywood.
Verdict: MDF is easier to cut than plywood. With MDF, you can cut fancy designs and curves without splintering the wood.
The edge finish adds to the aesthetic appearance of the wood.
If you look at plywood, the layers used to create it are easily visible. Accordingly, plywood requires finishing to cover up the exposed parts, which you can do using:
- decorative moldings
- pieces of timber
- edge banding
On the contrary, you will not see any layers on the edges of MDF. It has a nice edge finish that requires no further attention.
Verdict: Whereas plywood requires edge finishing because of its exposed thin layers, MDF has a nice edge finish that requires no more attention.
Do you plan to paint your kitchen cabinet?
If yes, MDF is your go-to material. Thanks to its lack of grain and smooth surface, it takes in paint nicely.
However, it’s essential to prepare its porous edges before painting. Moreover, always begin with a coating of an oil-based primer.
Plywood isn’t the best option if you want to paint. Thanks to its solid-wood-like grain, staining works best.
Verdict: MDF is the best option if you intend to paint your kitchen cabinet.
Wrapping it up
The detailed comparison above will prove helpful if you have been wondering which to go for between MDF and plywood. Consider the characteristics of each of them, such as price, ease of cutting, weight strength, and appearance keenly.
You can also consider the strong and weak points before making your choice. The bottom line is that you go for the one that better suits your needs.