MDF versus particleboard

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Strength and other qualities in relation to cabinet construction. (From WOODWEB's Cabinetmaking Forum) March 23, 2003

I'll be making cabinets for a garage. Is particleboard stronger and more suited for the cabinet frame, or is MDF just as good?

Forum Responses
From WOODWEB's Cabinetmaking Forum
MDF is better in every category except one, cost. But the spread in cost is not as great as it once was.

I agree - MDF is always my preference even over veneer core, and definitely over particleboard.

If it's as damp in the summer as my garage, both materials are sponges and would swell like crazy. How about dropping a few extra bucks and using MDO?

From the original questioner:
I have actually left a piece or two of MDF outside for several weeks. I live in South Florida, and it was in the middle of summer. So needless to say, it rained a lot! The MDF really didn't look that bad. I would put it far above particleboard when it comes to moisture. I want to know about strength and ability to hold screws or nails. As far as MDO goes, it's just too expensive.

From contributor U:
MDF does not hold screws at all. It weighs a ton, unless you like the lightweight stuff. And underlayment grade PB is not much better. I much prefer a dense industrial grade PB core with melamine two sides, edgebanded on all edges - pretty much waterproof, and you can use screws. MDF is great as a consistent substrate for wood veneers or for paint grade work, but I do not get why one would build cases with it.

Melamine clad industrial grade particleboard is better all around. MDF for doors is okay, not boxes.

Please appreciate that particleboard comes in many styles... low density, medium, and high. It comes with a variety of glues and surfaces. It comes with different particle sizes.

MDF has less variability in market specifications. MDF edges can be exposed and finished without edge banding. MDF can be routed and even embossed. Particleboard will make a flatter shelf with less creep, especially if it has a solid wood face or edge.

Do not discount one product just because the standard fasteners do not work well. Use fasteners (and finishing) intended for that product.

Gene Wengert

I've spent the last 15 years convincing clients (mostly the time wasting know-it-alls) that MDF is an entirely different product than particleboard. It drives me nuts when people see a bundle of 5/8" super-refined MDF on the shop floor and visions of 3/8" particleboard Wal-Mart furniture go through their minds. There's a local shop that uses 1/2" CDx plywood with butt joints for boxes and drawers sides and claims "all wood cabinets" while knocking my deal! Give me a break, that's roof decking! What's next, 7/16" OSB? Amen to using the correct joinery and fasteners, be it with particleboard, MDF, thermofused melamine or veneer core plywood. By the way, if you're getting water, you don't need a different cabinet builder, you need a different plumber!

I use only confirmat on particleboard or MDF. It holds fine - never had a problem.

From contributor B:
They stopped making Pintos and Gremlins for a reason. The same reason they should stop making particleboard. Edge banded or not, it's still particleboard. What harm would it do to use good materials?

I use confirmats and Zip R screws in plywood and MDF. With a good hard kick the plywood joint will give. With a harder kick the MDF will too. But who's gonna kick a wall cabinet in a garage? Either one will work.

Don't take offense of my dislike for particleboard (unless you invented it). We all have our preferences and reasons for using certain products.

From contributor D:
What are you saying? I don't believe you are using plywood to make cabinets. I don't care how you wrap it, face frames or banding. When your done, it's still filler core sheets of "who knows what" held together with glue of some sort, with a tiny skin of pretty wood on (probably) only one side. Doesn't anyone make a solid wood (or solid lumber core veneer) cabinet anymore?

What is particleboard, wood chips and glue? What the heck is MDF, wood mush and glue? What IS this industry coming to..?

The "industry" is coming to safeguarding the meager profits allowed by the budget minded builder/consumer, through the use of cost effective materials. I honestly feel that MDF is a superior product to particleboard or veneer core plywood - machinability, appearance, joint strength, fastener holding, core density. I fought the downsides of plywood for years - core voids, inconsistent thickness. Have you ever noticed when someone comes in to get an estimate the first thing they say is "no particleboard!" but when you go by the project to see who/what bumped you out of the job, all you see is particleboard? The housing developments must consume a billion feet a month of this stuff.

Anyone using particleboard, please explain the benefits other than the $6.00 a sheet difference vs. MDF. Any known pitfalls? If it's working in your operation, more power to you. I'm considering getting on the bandwagon.

From contributor D:
You know I'm just razzin' you, buddy. I use the best products I can find for my operations. Good quality 3/4 VC plys have been getting harder and harder for me to source. It's not so much the cost as it is the inconsistency of product, lot to lot, even at the cost I must pay. Face veneers are getting more costly as the appearance quality continues to decline. With frameless cabinetry, as I am now doing, the thickness variance can wreak havoc with my desired 3mm reveals.

I like everything about MDF core ply except two things. For my assembly method, I find that MDF tends to split more easily when edge fastening and that tendency also concerns me that the fastener holding ability is compromised. The second objection is that (though I do my best to capture machine dust) the dust from MDF is powder fine and my respiratory system lets me know at the end of the day that I have been breathing MDF dust, even in relatively small amounts. PB seems to come off the blade in chips, with much less dust in the shop air. The first objection could be overcome were I to use conformat screws or dowel construction, but since I don't I believe that high grade (don't laugh) PB holds my Zip-R screws better.

There is another issue that keeps me from using MDF core products. I donít have a local source for MDF core melamine and I do prefer white mel as my standard interior. The 6.00 (or 36.00) difference in cost is not of much concern to me Ė Iím not running a factory and I (and my target market) would not have a problem with a couple hundred dollars added to the materials cost of most any of my jobs. One last comment: If you could go back a year or two into the archives of this forum (and a few other woodworking forums), you would find that I was one of the most outspoken advocates of VC ply carcasses and a diehard bigot of anything containing PB or MDF.

From contributor U:
There is a huge difference between industrial grade (very good), commercial grade (okay), and underlayment grade (Wal-Mart) particleboard. One must first know the difference to make an educated decision about this subject.

Regarding MDF, no screw will hold reliably in the stuff, period. MDF is much more likely to split if you do try to use screws. Cabinets built from MDF weigh a ton! On the plus side, MDF is unrivaled as a substrate for wood veneer and for paint grade millwork.

MDF for cases? No thank you very much. I'll take melamine with an industrial grade PB core anytime.

From contributor J:
The melamine cases have me intrigued. To those using melamine, are you using thermofused or cold rolled? As I don't do any finishing, what problems will be encountered with on-site finishing (melamine interior with wood RP doors/fronts)? Do you use wood edgebanding on melamine cases? Do you band all exposed edges or only those visible (front edge)? What about finished ends and wall cabinet bottoms? I think the melamine interior would be great.

Particleboard comes in many different qualities. To say that MDF outperforms or whatever particleboard is like saying a Cadillac outperforms a Ford. You need to specify what job you are considering... a F-350 Ford pickup will outperform a Cadillac when hauling, on back roads, etc., while the Cadillac might win on a smooth road considering ride comfort and quietness.

Too many people think that particleboard is hunks of wood haphazardly glued together. Not true. Particleboard is an engineered product with specific properties that must be met to have it graded in a specific grade and usage grouping. Particleboard today is not like the stuff we used for cabinets and so on in the 1950s. In many uses, especially structural, and in fastening, particleboard will greatly outperform MDF.

Incidentally, what is MDF? It is the same wood used for particleboard, except it is made smaller (fibers or groups of fibers) before it is glued back together. It uses the same adhesive, too! The June 2002 issue of FDM magazine had a nice summary of the composite board definitions. Read it before making statements that are not really true but that need qualifications.

Regarding plywood: Again there are grades of plywood which reflect the intended usage. Some folks, however, do not adhere to the grades and therefore will not sell graded plywood, but just plywood. It might look the same on the outside and sell for less, but it is not equal to the good plywood product whose quality is determined by the HPVA.

Gene Wengert

From contributor J:
I'll stand corrected on my knowledge of particleboard. I agree today's particleboard is not the stuff from the 50's. However, most consumers fail or refuse to recognize that fact, and assume that someone using particleboard is offering and using cheap materials and construction. Not so. The manufacturers of particleboard don't seem to make an effort to educate the end user (homeowner) on the different grades and benefits of their product. As I said earlier, the melamine cladding would be a super finish inside - hard to compare with any sprayed finish.

From contributor B:
True, PBC materials are better than they've ever been. But it's still particleboard. Put that in a cabinet here and you won't last. Like one guy said, folks see it and their thoughts turn to wallyworld KD stuff.

Contributor D, MDF dust is a monster! And you hit it right on with today's veneer cores not being consistent.

A well-built cabinet will last, whether it's plywood, MDF, or PBC melamine. I prefer plywood because of weight and dust. MDF dust kills my nostrils, melamine dust irritates my eyes.

I use a lot of PBC rock maple melamine. My supplier keeps it just for me. Makes a pretty interior. Some folks prefer it. Some even like the white. Those folks believe me when I explain the quality. But most think I'm trying to sell cheap stuff to increase my bottom line. I tell them the only difference in price is in the finishing - melamine is cheaper. Plywood costs about $6 a sheet more, but my aching back is worth that. I've built with a lot of MDF, too. If pre-drilled and done right, it won't break or split as easily as PBC or some veneer ply. Some of the ply I'm getting lately is terrible, though.

My #1 choice is lumber core Agathis plywood because it's lightweight, paints and stains well, and is fairly consistent in color. But now it's up to $31.50 a sheet, a tad more than veneer shop birch. I just like it. But most importantly, my high-end customers do too.

From contributor U:
Contributor J, to answer your questions about melamine -

I edgeband the fronts to match the exterior finish, using PVC banding. To do that, you need to know the exterior finish color in advance. I use "glue back" melamine for my finished ends, and apply wood veneer with waterbase contact cement after assembly. My wall cabinet bottoms are two-sided melamine (mostly white), raised 32mm up, with a 32mm light skirt below. Great for undercabinet lights, and no veneer or finishing required.

I band my adjustable shelves 4 sides. Parts for the sink cabinet and any cabinets exposed to water get banded 4 sides. Otherwise just the exposed edges get banding.

For finishing, I only need to remove the doors and drawers, and mask off the finished ends.

MDF is a better substrate than industrial or commercial grade particleboard substrates.
It is also more expensive and heavier.

If you want to upgrade a bit because of moisture worries there is one type of MDF that is quite moisture resistant. I left some outside for two weeks and it was rained on several times. It was laminated with a phenolic resin paper. The only exposed board was the edges and they did not swell. It was used later for concrete forms.

The board's brand name is MEDEX. It is a Sierra Pine product. It can also be had with TF melamine on it (Hard Rock Maple even). This product is heavier, more costly, and harder on cutters. It may not be easily available as the mill that makes it is in western Oregon.

I would agree with most of everything already said about PB vs MDF. Take a piece of MDF and soak it for 24 hours and do the same with PB. Let it dry for 48 hours. This will make up your mind in a hurry. Medex is an excellent product that we use all the time for sink countertop substrates.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor A:
We have found that MDF suits our needs in the commercial store fixture industry. It has a consistent thickness throughout the sheet, comes in a wide variety of sizes (thickness, width and length), and depending on the type you buy, it machines extremely well. Add to these positives the fact that it paints exceptionally and you have a universal board. Also know that you can buy a MDF product known as Medite or Medex. This has some moisture resistant properties - something you may want to check with your supplier on.

Comment from contributor C:
Each product has its place. Particleboard is very smooth, consistent, and holds screws and other fasteners well. MDF has a smoother finish, takes machining very well, but doesn't hold screws too well. Use dowels or other fasteners. MDF is heavier than particleboard. Lightweight MDF is great, but can't be trusted to hold a screw at all. Veneer-core plywood is fine, but the thickness (or should I say thinness) of veneers means it is very hard to sand without sand-throughs because of the uneven surface. We use all of these products, plus melamine panels, in our custom office furniture, because each has its own good features and bad. Solid wood panels are too hard to make and too expensive to consider.

We do a lot of veneer tables with solid edges, using particleboard and MDF, and we can sand them on a widebelt. Can't do that with veneer core plywood without sandthroughs, even on expensive sanders. HPL always gets a particleboard core.

Comment from contributor E:
I work for a custom/semi-custom fish tank manufacturer. We use MDF on some of our cabinets that will be holding 200+ gallon tanks. We use nothing but wood glue and brad nails on all of our joints. The brads are basically used to hold the joint together while the glue dries. We've never had a failure that I'm aware of even with the thousands of pounds that sometimes rest on our cabinets.

If you can get away with it I would stick with glue joinery on MDF and stay away from mechanical fastening as much as possible.

Comment from contributor M:
For cabinets, I prefer plywood in the box and natural wood for faceplates. I like the ease of MDF for the center of painted doors (will not split and machines well) or machining trim works for painted surfaces. I would not build my boxes out of MDF, nor would I use it for shelving. MDF works well for both square and round post because of its easy painting, machining and I think superior glue hold with brad nails. As far as facing plywood edges, I prefer a 1' facing instead of a veneer. Biscuits work well and it cross grains for support.

Comment from contributor S:
Why restrict you carcass material choices to PB or MDF? As noted already by others, mechanical (screws, etc.) joinery in these products is usually sub-par. Having been a woodworker since my teens and now a general contractor, with a number of years spent working in a small lumber yard that catered to cabinet shops and custom wood workers; my vote for carcass material is lumber core (LC) material.

We sold more LC Luan sheet material for carcasses than any other sheet good we stocked. This was in Hawaii, where humidity isn't of Floridaís proportions, but substantial, still. The LC sheet product is the choice of most local shops for carcasses as it is more stable than veneer core (VC) and doesn't weigh as much as MDF. MDF tilts the scales at 99 lbs a sheet. If memory serves my correctly, the LC was about half the weight of MDF.

Granted, the MDF lends itself to a painted finish better than most other products. Case in point, one day a regular customer brought in a painted raised panel door for us to see. It turned out that it was one a one piece door made from MDF and CNC routed to look like a raised panel. Flat as could be, stable, no panel rattle due to changing conditions, and the weight gave it a feel of quality. A Euro hinge with a cup in the door allows the screws to hold the MDF without worry of fatigue, as opposed to a non-cup style hinge.

Comment from contributor P:
I've never made a cabinet, but I can say I use MDF to make subwoofer and speaker boxes on a regular basis and I've only had a couple of cases where the MDF has cracked and that was mostly because I was in a rush and jamming wood screws into the box with a drill instead of taking my time. On the other hand everything I've owned that was made of particleboard has in some way or another been damaged beyond repair.