What's the Difference Between MDF and Plywood?

plywood furniture on wooden floors

There are some DIY questions that will leave even the most avid Fixer Upper fan stumped. Like what material should I use for my bookshelf? Should I stain or paint my kitchen cabinets? And how does Joanna Gaines get her hair to look so damn good? Relax, we’ve got you covered. (Except with the hair thing—that woman is a marvel.)

WTF is MDF? Stands for medium-density fiberboard—an engineered material made from sawdust that’s been pressed together with bonding agent. Uniform and smooth, it can be spotted by checking for wood grain. (MDF won’t have it.)

Got it. And plywood? Also an engineered product that’s made from thin sheets of wood that have been glued together to create one solid piece. Plywood (like MDF) comes in different thicknesses, but it also comes in different grades—the higher the grade, the higher the price.

So, what's the difference? MDF is smooth and free of knots, which makes it great for painting and easy cutting. It’s also more affordable (yay!). But its consistency means that it won’t hold screws as well and that it’s susceptible to water damage, making it best for indoor use. Plywood, on the other hand, is stronger than MDF and safe to use indoors and out. It holds screws well and is stainable (painting is trickier), but it’s more expensive and difficult to cut designs into.

So which one should I use? For detailed projects (like moldings, trim and crafts), your best bet is to opt for MDF. (Oh hello, scalloped headboard.) When it comes to shelves, you can save money by using MDF instead of plywood, but keep in mind that it’s not as heavy-duty. For outside or stainable projects (like kitchen cabinets, doors and playground equipment), try plywood. And for those natural wood beams? Call Joanna.

OK, Can Someone Please Explain What Shiplap Is Once and for All?

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Alexia Dellner

Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...
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