Birch Plywood vs MDF (Pros & Cons)

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It is difficult or even impossible to replace the beauty of natural wood. But using solid wood is an expensive option. Fortunately, two popular alternatives, birch plywood and medium-density fiberboard (MDF), help considerably bring down the cost of woodworking projects.

Birch plywood and MDF are both made of natural wood but come under the category of what we call “engineered wood.” Birch plywood contains layers of thinly-sliced birch, glued and compressed together to form boards. MDF is a composite mix of hardwood and softwood fibers similarly assembled but with no wood grain pattern.

Birch: Background

Close up texture view river birch tree

Birch trees have a light-colored bark with horizontal, papery streams. Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) is the most common species that grows northeast of the United States. The trees grow as high as 100 feet with tree trunks of up to 3 feet in diameter.

Birch wood is solid with a Janka hardness rating of 1,260 lbf. The wood is easy to work with, but there tends to tearout at places where the wood grain is knotted or twisted.

Birch lumber makes a variety of furniture, cabinets, and carved items. But the specialty of birch is that it peels easily from logs, making it suitable for making plywood. Birch plywood is one of the most popular types of plywood in the United States.

What is Birch Plywood?

Birch plywood background

Birch plywood is engineered wood. We get it by slicing off thin sheets of wood from birch logs, rather like the way we peel a potato. We then pile up the layers of veneer and use resins and adhesives to bond them together into a sheet.

Manufacturers arrange the birch veneer layers so that the wood grain of successive layers are at right angles to each other. We call this arrangement “cross graining,” and it makes the resultant plywood boards incredibly strong.

Another thing that birch plywood manufacturers do is add the sheets in odd numbers. It somehow controls the shrinkage and expansion of the material. Click HERE to read more about plywood, MDF, and other wood composites.

What is MDF?

MDF-Melaninharz 2009
Image Credit: Elke Wetzig (elya) via Creative Commons

Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF) is a versatile form of engineered wood that you will find in any home improvement store or timber depot. It makes various types of furniture in homes, commercial establishments, and offices.

MDF is a popular material used in woodworking and construction, and it is a more sustainable alternative to birch plywood because it uses scrap wood. We make MDF from different types of wood, which need not necessarily include endangered species.

For manufacturing MDF, fine wood fibers are added to a defibrator. The manufacturers mix wax and resin with the wood fibers. They then mold the mixture, which sets as boards of varying thickness and sizes.

Birch Plywood vs MDF

Birch plywood or MDF, you can get satisfactory results from both these materials. They are cheaper yet may even give you better performance than solid wood in many cases.

We use these materials for decorative purposes like in wainscoting and shelves, cabinets, and a variety of furniture. The challenge remains to know which material to use when comparing birch plywood vs. MDF.

These two composites appear similar, but they are by no means interchangeable. Let’s take a look at the differences between birch plywood vs MDF to understand how to get the best out of them:


The price is one of the major factors that swing the scales in favor of birch plywood and MDF. Generally, the price of these wood composites is considerably less than most natural woods. MDF is cheaper than even the most affordable grade of birch plywood, so, it’s a suitable budget option.

Natural Look

Birch-plywood kitchen by Barber Osgerby Associates, London 1999
Image Credit: StuartofAlbion via Creative Commons

Birch plywood takes on the appearance of birch wood grain because we peel it directly from the log. The higher the grade of plywood, the better it looks, and you will see fewer defects like knots and curls that can damage the surface.

MDF on the other hand has no grain pattern at all. It has a homogenous composition but if you view it closely, you will see the pressed wood fibers.


 Medium Density fiberboard
Image Credit: Daniel Christensen via Creative Commons

MDF is denser than birch plywood, causing it to be heavier. So, although it may be a cheaper option, it might be a challenge to handle the material. You will find MDF difficult to handle for projects where you need an overhead reach like if you are installing elevated shelves. You would find lighter birch plywood more convenient.


Although denser than birch plywood, MDF is not as strong. It is softer than plywood and will split or sag if you apply force to it. If you want to use MDF for a load-bearing structure you will have to reinforce with a stronger material.

Birch plywood is more flexible than MDF and you can bend it gently. It is also very dimensionally stable, meaning it won’t distort while exposed to extreme temperatures. Some grades of birch plywood are more stable than natural wood.

Pollutants and Irritants

When MDF is cut especially with high-speed blades, it generates much more sawdust than birch plywood. But in its defense, if you cut any wood, even natural wood, sawdust will fly.

However, you need to be extra cautious while cutting MDF and birch plywood because unlike natural wood, these two materials contain added resins and glues. These resins and glues contain formaldehyde and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are harmful to the lungs and nervous system.

While working on either MDF or birch plywood, you should wear respirators and goggles. It is also wise to work in a well-ventilated room with an exhaust fan.

Ease of Cutting

Cutting MDF into intricate shapes is an easy task. The absence of wood grain and softness of the material makes it easy to make furniture with elaborately scrolled trim. MDF will not splinter or crack while cutting it, even along the edges or while cutting fine ridges, or sharp angles and curves.

You cannot cut birch plywood in the same way. The stacked construction of the layers makes it impossible to even cut in straight lines without getting ragged edges. Similarly, you need to use edge banding or molding to cover the edges for birch plywood which you do not have to do with MDF.

Staining and Painting

A question that gets frequently asked about birch plywood vs MDF, which is more suitable – painting or staining?

The logical answer is that MDF takes paint extremely well due to its smooth surface and absence of wood grain. For best results, you could apply a single coat of oil-based wood primer first.

You can paint birch plywood in the same way as you would paint MDF. However, an added advantage, particularly with the higher-grade birch plywood, is that you can stain it to resemble natural wood.

Nails and Screws

MDF doesn’t hold nails or screws very well due to its softness. So between birch plywood and MDF, you would be better off using plywood, especially if you are handling thin sheets.

But even with birch plywood, you need to steer clear of the edges. Birch plywood will splinter at the edges much more readily than with MDF.

Indoors or outdoors?

a piece of particle board on a white background

MDF absorbs water much more readily than birch plywood. Once water enters it, the MDF swells and warps. Birch plywood offers a particular level of resistance to water. But you need to seal the surface of the plywood well to prevent damage.

If water enters the layers of birch plywood, it will damage it beyond repair. It is safe to conclude neither birch plywood nor MDF is suited for outdoor use.

Birch Plywood vs MDF: Comparison Table


Birch Plywood


Suitable for nails and screws  Yes No
Best finish Paint and stain Only paint
Durability More durable than MDF Less durable than birch plywood
Hardness Harder than MDF Softer than Birch Plywood
Strength Quite strong Low on mechanical strength
Maintenance Easy to maintain Easy to Maintain
Price More expensive than MDF but cheaper than natural wood Cheaper than birch plywood and natural wood
Suitability for outdoors No No
Hazardous substances Yes Yes
Workability Easy to cut but tends to chip at the edges  Easy to cut
Smell  Odorless Unpleasant smell while cutting
Availability  Easily available Easily available


If you are looking for inexpensive but versatile wood for your projects, birch plywood and MDF are two of the best choices you can make. They each have their pros and cons.

We hope that the information that we have provided here helps you to choose wisely between birch plywood and MDF. Use either of them in your next woodworking project and see the difference!

Also See:

Birch vs Cedar