We work with dozens of families and house flippers every year, and the MDF vs. plywood cabinets debate arises frequently. At Designer Cabinets Online, we appreciate the importance of choosing the suitable material for your cabinets. That choice will impact your space’s overall look and functionality. 

The deciding factors when selecting between MDF vs. plywood for kitchen cabinets involve cost, durability, and aesthetics. This comprehensive breakdown will help you understand the differences between these two popular cabinet materials and make an informed decision for your next project.

What Is MDF, and How Is It Made?

MDF is the abbreviation for Medium-Density Fiberboard, and it’s an artificial wood product. MDF is an intricate blend of shredded wood fibers, resin, and wax; manufacturers use a dry process to form the fibers into boards. 

The first step in creating MDF is shredding wood into tiny pieces, typically no longer than 1/8 inch. Then, you need to design and form the panels through which the shredded wood fibers will go. There are two primary methods: 

  1. A banker for creating a flat sheet
  2. A rotary design that makes panels with curved shapes

Assemble the panels so they will hold the wood fibers. Also, make enough allowance for machines to apply pressure to compress the fibers and heat the wax and resin to form a sturdy board.

When the panels are ready, mix the tiny wood fibers with resin and wax before compressing them into a board. Manufacturers also heat the mixture during the compression process so that the resin can melt and form natural glue. 

Cooling the hot board hardens the glue, creating a strong and durable MDF board. Manufacturers may use different additives during this process to achieve specific characteristics in the end product, such as moisture or fire resistance.

Advantages of Using MDF for Cabinets

  1. Smooth finish: Because it’s made from tiny wood fibers, MDF has a smoother surface than plywood. So, it’s ideal for painting and achieving a flawless finish.
  2. Cost-effective: MDF is typically cheaper than plywood, making it an excellent option for those on a budget.
  3. Versatile: MDF is easy to cut, shape, and mold into different designs and sizes. So, it’s a popular choice for building cabinets of all types.
  4. Consistent quality: Unlike natural wood, MDF has a consistent density, making it more predictable and reliable.
  5. Eco-friendly: MDF is made from recycled materials, making it an environmentally friendly option for cabinet construction.

Limitations and Considerations

  1. Not moisture resistant: MDF doesn’t do well in moist areas, as it can swell and warp over time. Sure, you can coat it, but any breach in that coating will result in the artificial wood absorbing moisture gradually.
  2. Can release toxic chemicals: Some MDF products may have formaldehyde, which can off-gas and be an issue if inhaled. Check the product’s label and choose low or no-added formaldehyde options.
  3. It’s heavier compared to plywood: MDF is denser, heavier, and more challenging to handle than plywood, making it less desirable for larger cabinets.

What Is Plywood, and How Is It Made?

Plywood is a stack of thin wood veneers that manufactures bonds together with an adhesive. Manufacturers create wood veneers by peeling logs, slicing them into thin layers, and drying them. They then coat the veneers with glue and stack them on top of each other, alternating the direction of the grain with each layer. 

The stack undergoes high pressure and heat to bond the layers, forming a strong, sturdy plywood sheet. This layering and heating process gives plywood strength and durability, making it less prone to warping and cracking.

Find out what is the best plywood for kitchen cabinets.

Advantages of Using Plywood for Cabinets

  1. Strong and durable: The layering process of plywood makes it more robust than natural wood, making it an ideal material for cabinets that must withstand the weight of kitchen appliances and dishes.
  2. Stable and resistant to warping: Plywood is less prone to warping thanks to its alternating grain direction. For busy kitchens or bathrooms with high moisture exposure, plywood is better than MDF.
  3. Versatile: Plywood comes in different thicknesses and grades, making it suitable for various projects and designs. It also takes well to stain or paint, giving you more options for customization.
  4. Cost-effective: Although plywood may be slightly more expensive than MDF, its durability and versatility make it a cost-effective choice in the long run. It will also add value to your home for potential resale.
  5. Sustainable: Plywood is made from sustainable resources, reducing its environmental impact and making it a more eco-friendly choice compared to other manufactured materials.

Limitations and Considerations

  1. Cost: As mentioned earlier, plywood may be more expensive than MDF, so it is essential to consider your budget when choosing between the two materials.
  2. Limited design options: While you can stain or paint plywood, it may not have the same smooth finish as MDF. 
  3. Susceptible to water damage: While plywood is more resistant to warping than natural wood, it will still suffer damage if exposed to water for extended periods. Proper sealing and maintenance are necessary to prevent water damage. 

We also put together something to help you decide on the veneer vs. solid wood debate.

Is MDF Stronger than Plywood?

Here’s a quick comparison of the strength and durability of MDF and plywood:

Resistance to Warping and Cracking

  • MDF may warp or crack when exposed to moisture.
  • Plywood, especially high-quality grades, resists warping and cracking better.

Load-Bearing Capacity

  • Plywood generally has a higher load-bearing capacity than MDF.
  • MDF is suitable for lighter applications.

Durability Considerations

1. Moisture Resistance

  • Plywood, especially exterior grade, tends to have better moisture resistance.
  • MDF requires proper sealing to protect against moisture.
  • Some of the water-resistant resins used with MDF can have more toxic potential than those without.

2. Long-Term Wear and Tear

  • Plywood is often more durable in the long run, especially in high-traffic areas.
  • MDF may show wear and tear sooner, especially in areas prone to impact.

Aesthetics and Finishing

1. Surface Finish Options for MDF

  • MDF accepts paint and veneers well, providing a smooth finish.
  • MDF edges may need additional finishing to achieve an aesthetically pleasing look.

2. Surface Finish Options for Plywood

  • Plywood’s exposed edges can be finished with veneer or edge banding.
  • Natural wood grain is visible on the surface, which some may prefer.

3. Comparison of Appearance and Visual Appeal

  • MDF offers a smooth, consistent appearance.
  • Plywood has a natural wood grain that some find visually appealing.

Final Thoughts on MDF vs. Plywood for Cabinets

At Designer Cabinets Online, we believe in utilizing the best materials for every project. We also realize that each material has unique strengths and ideal scenarios for usage. When it comes to cabinet construction, both MDF and plywood have their advantages and disadvantages. 

Overall, plywood is more durable and moisture-resistant, making it suitable for high-traffic areas or spaces prone to moisture exposure. However, MDF can provide a smoother surface finish and is more affordable, making it an excellent choice for budget-friendly projects.

Consider your unique needs and budget when choosing between MDF and plywood for cabinet construction. You may also want to learn a little about the melamine-cabinets-vs-wood debate. 

It’s always best to consult with a professional and experienced cabinet maker, and Designer Cabinets is here to help.

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