Plywood vs MDF vs Particle Board vs OSB – Pros & Cons


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A woodworker expects to work with wood. That is an indisputable fact. However, how do we define wood? In a broader sense, we call wood in the form of raw material timber or lumber. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines timber as: “wood suitable for building or for carpentry.” The wood described here usually is solid wood which comes from a tree. We cut it into different shapes for further processing into various forms for creating wooden objects and structures.

However, wood also comes in different forms for processing. Hence, when we put timber through a process to create different textures and consistencies, we effectively create different kinds of wood. We usually get this type of wood in the form of sheets. A few of the commonly-used forms are plywood, MDF (medium-density fiberboard), particleboard and OSB (oriented strand board). In this article, we highlight these four different types of wood and discuss the pros and cons of each one.

Plywood vs MDF vs Particle Board vs OSB – Pros & Cons

To begin with, let us try to understand more about each of these four types of wood. Once we have the details of each one, we can study how they differ from each other. We will also take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each one.

Plywood

Plywood Substrate
Plywood Substrate. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We create plywood by stacking three or more thin layers of wood together. We call each layer “veneer,” which also plays a prominent role in woodworking. However, the topic of the veneer is another niche area of woodworking which needs to be dealt with separately. The layers of wood lie with their grains perpendicular to each other to form a strong board.

We get plywood of different thicknesses depending on the number of layers used. The adhesive that glues the sheets of plywood together depends on where we intend to use the finished product. For example, phenol-formaldehyde resin offers excellent mechanical strength and resistance to moisture. So, we use this grade of plywood for building outdoor structures.

Uses

Plywood is one of the most versatile construction materials that you can find. We get four broad categories of plywood – structural plywood, exterior plywood, interior plywood, and marine plywood. Structural plywood offers high mechanical strength, and we use it for beams, crates, and bracing in buildings. Exterior plywood finds use in external walls, whereas interior plywood is for furniture and interiors of homes. We use marine plywood for building boats and use it in a marine environment.

Pros

  • Uniform Strength
  • Easy to cut
  • Available in large sizes
  • Reduces wastage
  • Versatile and durable
  • Cost-effective

Cons

  • Easily damaged by water
  • Tends to warp
  • Not as strong as solid wood
  • Lacks natural good looks
  • Difficult to judge the quality

Medium-Density Fiberboard (MDF)

MDF
MDF. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) can best be called a wood composite. Although similar to particle board, it is much denser and offers considerable mechanical strength. We manufacture MDF by compressing wood fibers into a hard sheet that can be shaped and cut. As it comes from wood fibers, there is no grain in MDF. This results in a smooth and homogenous finish. MDF is also considered relatively ec0-friendly or “green” since it’s manufactured using a combo of recycled and new wood.

Uses

Because it doesn’t stain or take paint very well, MDF needs an extra outer layer like wood veneer an alternative laminate. Hence, this material finds use as a filler as well as to make light furniture. It is also suitable for shelves and cabinets, speaker boxes and flooring. We use MDF to build temporary structures like theatre sets and tradeshow booths.

Pros

  • Cheaper than plywood
  • Smooth with no knots
  • A suitable substrate for veneer
  • Consistently homogenous
  • Easier to cut than plywood
  • Possible to create decorative edges with a router

Cons

  • A tendency to soak up water and swell
  • Does not hold screws very well
  • Challenging to work with singlehanded
  • Cannot stain it like grained wood
  • Can be Slightly hazardous while working on it
  • Gets easily damaged with a hammer

Particle Board

Particle Board Substrate
Particle Board Substrate. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Particle board also called chipboard, is the predecessor to MDF. It is a sort of primitive form of MDF. We create particle board out of the waste matter from sawmills. The addition of insect-proof chemicals, and fireproof and waterproof substances to the product makes it more resilient. Wood sawdust and shavings get compressed into the form of a solid board. Particle board can be then cut and shaped and used for creating different structures

Uses

Regarding use, Particle board finds a wide variety of uses in making readymade furniture. It is also perfect for flooring, especially in combination with parquet flooring. It is an excellent filler material, especially where it doesn’t have to be seen, like in false ceilings. Since particle board has good insulation and sound-proofing properties, it is a popular material for sound studio walls.

Pros

  • Cheaper than MDF and plywood
  • Useful for making ready-to-assemble furniture
  • Lightweight
  • Easy to cut

Cons

  • Less mechanical strength
  • Not very durable
  • Easily damaged by water
  • Not an eco-friendly material

Oriented Strand Board (OSB)

Oriented Strand Board
Oriented Strand Board. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Although oriented stranded board (OSB) has similar uses to plywood, it has a much coarser finish. Like particle board and MDF, OSB comes from wood shavings. However, with OSB, the layers are more cross-oriented. We form the layers by shredding wood and then joining them together with adhesive. Under high temperature and compression, the amalgamate then forms a board shape. We can then cut these boards into manageable sizes and shapes for various woodworking projects.

Uses

You can use OSB board in flooring for a cost-effective flooring solution or used as a sub-floor under a layer of hardwood flooring or vinyl flooring. We also use it for roof sheathing and in furniture. Unlike with plywood, you don’t need to paint it or apply any top layer – you can use OSB directly for making furniture, and it provides an elegant finish to the surfaces.

Pros

  • Versatile material
  • Consistent density
  • It comes in larger sizes than plywood
  • Cost-effective option
  • Pliable material

Cons

  • Difficult to paint
  • Not waterproof
  • Heavy to lift and work on
  • Prone to swollen edges

Comparative Study Of Plywood vs MDF vs Particle Board vs OSB

Now we know more about the different types of “board” woods and how we can use them. So, to make things even more comprehensive here’s a comparative table which features these four types of wood:

COMPARISON TABLE

Parameter Plywood MDF Particle Board OSB
Strength Very strong Medium Strong Less strong Medium-strong
Ease of Working Difficult to cut Easier to cut than plywood Easier to cut than plywood Easy to cut but heavy to carry around
Water Resistance Sometimes Waterproof (Marine) No No No
Cost-effectiveness Most Expensive Cheaper than Plywood More cost-effective than MDF Cheaper than plywood
Eco-Friendly Material Yes Somewhat No Yes
Capacity to take paint Can paint on it well with primer Need an oil-based primer Not suitable to paint on Can paint on it well with primer

Conclusion

Being a good woodworker isn’t only about using whatever material comes to hand and making it into something. You need to know about types of material other than plain wood. Each alternative type of wood has a particular set of uses. You need to be aware of where you can use each type. If you are aware of how to process each type of wood, you can get the best out of the material that becomes available to you. There are several types of wood and their substrates. However, it would be beyond the scope of this article to deal with all of them. Thus, we have discussed various aspects of  Plywood vs MDF vs Particle Board vs OSB, which should go a long way in providing you relevant information for your woodworking projects.

 

Featured Image by Piqsels

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