So, you’re on the search for new cabinets. You might know what you want them to look like, but do you know what you want them to be made of? The two most common materials used to construct cabinets are plywood or medium-density fiberboard (MDF).
Believe it or not, the material your cabinets are made of makes a big difference in the final product. As a remodel design and construction firm, Lamont Bros. works with dozens of Portland-area homeowners each year. It’s our goal to guide them through the process of selecting materials for their home remodel.
When considering cabinet construction material, your style, space, and expectations determine whether plywood or MDF is right for you. This article will help you decide by discussing the strengths and weaknesses of these materials. We’ll also address a few myths you might have heard.
By the time you’ve read through this page, you should have a better idea of which material will work best for you.
How to tell the difference between MDF and Plywood
Plywood and MDF are both wood-based materials. The biggest difference between the two is how processed the raw material is before it becomes a cabinet.
A plywood cabinet is made of several sheets of wood pressed together. These sheets, called plies, are oriented in alternating directions, so the grain of the wood in each sheet runs perpendicular to the ones above and below it. As a result of these alternating directions, plywood is incredibly strong.
MDF, short for medium-density fiberboard, is made using fine wood fibers. The wood is first turned into pulp, then combined with resins and exposed to high heat and pressure to form a solid board.
Because it is made of wood fiber rather than sheets, you can identify an MDF board from a plywood board with relative ease. MDF is smoother, flatter, and does not show a woodgrain pattern, whereas plywood still has visible woodgrain on its surface.
Which option is better quality?
One of the common misconceptions about cabinet construction is that plywood is a “higher quality” material than MDF. This isn’t always true; MDF and plywood are both used in high-end cabinet construction. In fact, Nobilia cabinets, one of our most popular European cabinet manufacturers, uses MDF almost exclusively in their products.
That’s not to suggest that plywood isn’t also used in high-quality cabinetry. We see plenty of plywood construction across all quality levels, styles, and finishes.
Benefits of MDF cabinetry
There are several scenarios in which homeowners will choose to go with MDF cabinets rather than plywood. Although it is not the best fit option for everyone, MDF does have a few advantages over plywood.
MDF is more heavily manufactured and processed than plywood. As a result, the surfaces of MDF boards are machined to be much flatter and smoother than their plywood counterparts.
When it comes to laminate cabinets, which are especially popular in modern kitchens, there’s no better core material than MDF. Its smooth surface makes for a clean bond between the laminate veneer and the core. This leaves much less opportunity for warping and deformation than with plywood, which naturally changes shape as it ages.
The precision on MDF boards also makes for incredibly accurate and clean cabinet installation for frameless cabinets. Since the sides of frameless cabinets rest against one another, the flat surfaces of MDF boards line up almost perfectly, even on a long run of wall cabinets.
In contrast, the shape and thickness variations on plywood cabinets can make precise installation much more difficult. In a row of 6 wall cabinets, you have 12 side panels. If each end surface is even 1/32” off. the entire row will be off by 3/8.” That’s a huge difference.
For framed cabinets, this tends not to be an issue, as only the sides of the cabinet face frames sit against one another. You can read more about the difference between framed and frameless cabinets here.
Cabinets made with MDF are generally not as expensive as those made with plywood. On average, the cost difference is anywhere from 10-15%.
The reason MDF is less expensive is because it is easier to make than plywood cabinets. Since plywood manufacturing preserves the wood in a somewhat natural state, more care must be given to quality control and wood grade selection.
As a much more heavily automated process, MDF production strips the wood down to fibrous particles. As a result, quality control on the wood product isn’t necessary since it all ends up as pulp.
One of the best things about MDF is that it can easily be made from recycled materials. While plywood requires cut timber to source the ply, MDF is made from the pulp of any hard or soft wood.
So, recycled building materials, construction waste, and otherwise unusable wood products can be shredded down and made into MDF, reducing the number of trees that need to be cut down in order to produce the finished material.
Excellent painting surface
The flat surface of MDF cabinetry takes on paint very well. There is very little visual or textural variation on MDF boards, so paint goes on smoothly and evenly. Due to its more natural state, plywood has more grain, knots, and grooves, so a clean, even coat of paint can be much more difficult to achieve.
Benefits of plywood cabinetry
At the same time, there are often instances in which plywood can be the better option over MDF cabinets. Not to be outdone, plywood has a specific set of strengths that lend themselves nicely to certain projects.
Due to the alternating grain patterns in each sheet of ply, cabinets constructed from plywood are known to be especially hardy. As a result, plywood cabinets are much less likely to be damaged during shipping and transit than MDF cabinets.
Once installed, the difference in strength and durability between plywood and MDF is nominal. They’re both equipped to handle the amount of wear and tear a kitchen will throw at them. It’s surviving the journey from manufacturer to your home where plywood edges out MDF.
The exception to this rule would be shelving. We often upgrade our clients to plywood shelves so they don’t end up with MDF shelves that bow under the weight of your dishes. Wet dishes out of the dishwasher can also be harmful to MDF shelves, as well.
Ease of installation
Many cabinet installers prefer to install plywood cabinets over MDF because it is easier to handle. Plywood is stronger per pound of material than MDF, meaning manufacturers don’t have to use as much material to achieve the same strength. As a result, plywood cabinets tend to be lighter than those made from MDF.
In addition to weight, most plywood cabinet boxes require fewer anchor screws to hold them to the wall. While MDF may require 4-5 screws, plywood cabinets only need 2-3. This can cut down on installation time and resource use.
Using more screws also runs a higher risk of damaging the cabinetry during installation. This is another area where plywood wins out over MDF, which is much more susceptible to damage throughout the install process.
For any situation where the cabinets will be exposed to significant amounts of water, plywood is the better option. Because it is more porous, MDF soaks up moisture and can bubble or disintegrate if not kept dry. For outdoor use, we recommend synthetic plastic cabinets like the ones offered by Naturekast Weatherproof Cabinetry.
However, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should always use plywood wherever there might be water. Though kitchens see their fair share of water leaks and spills, many MDF cabinets are made with plastic feet rather than the MDF material extending to the floor. So, even if your kitchen floods, the water is unlikely to damage MDF cabinets unless the water exceeds 2-3” deep.
Depending on the paper or foil on the surface of the MDF, shelving material can be damaged by as little as a wet cup from your dishwasher. This alone can be a reason to go with a plywood cabinet.
While plywood is often the safer bet for cabinets immediately in the vicinity of a water feature, you can still safely use MDF. Just make sure you are careful to secure your water lines and clean up any spills before they have a chance to do serious damage to your cabinets.
We often recommend that, if you end up going with MDF cabinets, you use a specially designed water mat in the bottom of the cabinet to collect any leaks.
Want to learn more about your cabinetry options?
If you’re on the hunt for the perfect cabinetry for your own home, deciding between plywood or MDF is an important step towards your goal. Once you’re confident in your understanding of the difference between MDF and plywood cabinets, check out our article on the “Good, Better, Best” cabinet ranking system to learn more about custom cabinet options.
Do you want to talk more in-depth with a design consultant about what kind of cabinetry would work best in your home? Click the button below to schedule a video call.