Engineered wood is a broad term for any derived wood product formed by binding waste wood together with adhesives.
Medium-density fiberboard (MDF), plywood, laminated strand lumber (LSL), laminated veneer lumber (LVL), etc., are all examples of engineered wood.
The difference between MDF and other engineered woods like plywood, particleboard, HDF, CLT, etc., lies in their composition, strength, and durability. They are composite materials manufactured from wood fibers. Hence they do not have any visible grain flow and are free of knots, making them easy to work with.
This article compares engineered wood and MDF and explains the pros and cons of using each.
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Engineered Wood vs MDF: Compared
|Composition||Multiple layers of timber processed under heat and pressure||Leftovers of hardwood and softwood|
|Strength||Medium to high||Low to medium|
|Durability||Highly durable||Bends and sags under pressure|
|Water Resistance||Resistant to water||Not resistant to water|
|Fire Resistance||Only some||Yes|
|Weight||Lightweight||Heavier and denser|
|Dust||Creates less dust||Creates a lot of dust|
|Screw Anchoring||Can hold screws||Can't hold screws|
|Aesthetics||Low visual appeal||Good visual appeal|
|Health Risks||Release toxic formaldehyde||Vulnerable to extreme heat|
|Workability||Easy to work||Easy to work|
Difference in Composition: Engineered Wood vs MDF
Engineered wood boards are powdered or grained natural lumber combined using adhesives.
They usually are made using sawmill scrap wood treated with chemicals and heat to fit size standards naturally difficult to obtain.
Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), an engineered wood composite, is created from leftover wood. They are crushed to a fine powder, dried, and then combined with wax and resin in a refiner.
Engineered wood's high density and grain layers running in various directions can make it stronger than dimensional timber.
MDF is more prone to drooping or cracking under stress than engineered woods like plywood, as it is softer.
Engineered wood is available in different forms, and its strength depends upon the grade and type of engineering wood.
Generally, plywood boards provide the best strength due to their layered structure, making them suitable for load-bearing applications like cabinetry, construction, etc.
On the other hand, MDF consists of a fibrous structure which makes it comparatively lighter, causing it to bend and sag under pressure, making it less durable than engineered wood.
Hence MDF is best suited for indoor applications like wall panels, tables, etc.
Water Resistance Comparison
Engineered wood is water resistant to a certain degree. Liquid spilled on engineered wood floors should be wiped dry immediately.
Otherwise, the water will seep into the wood through gaps and fractures, weakening its structure.
MDF also damages when exposed to water, but many manufacturers make moisture-resistant MDF that can better resist water.
Fire Resistance Comparison
In general, MDF has better fire-resistant qualities than most other engineered wood.
However, certain manufacturers produce fire-resistant plywood variants with good heat and fire resistance.
A sheet of MDF will weigh more than other engineered wood of the same thickness as it is much denser.
Engineered wood, like plywood, is used for making lightweight furniture as they weigh less.
Engineered wood and MDF panels are generally cut to fit the required size standards.
You should wear masks and goggles while working with MDF, as it produces more sawdust than engineered wood.
Screw Anchoring Ease
Screw anchoring is the ability of a material to hold screws in place.
MDF has an inferior screw anchoring ability as it has a soft fibrous structure.
Engineered wood is better if your project requires several screws and fasteners to hold it together.
Products made of composite wood have an apparent wood-strip look. It lessens their aesthetic appeal, except for glulam, prized for its attractiveness and strength.
MDF has a flat surface that you can paint, polish, and gloss, allowing you to customize it per your requirements.
Health Risks Comparison
Engineered wood, including MDF, leaks formaldehyde, particularly those inexpensively bound with urea-formaldehyde.
Formaldehyde has been classified as a possible carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Once you have the right tools and experience, working with MDF and engineered wood is straightforward.
Engineered wood panels are flexible and may be sawed, bent, knotted, fastened, and installed without losing quality.
MDF lacks a distinct grain or character and is free of knots. This enhances its ability to receive paint, adhesive, and seal.
Cost Comparison: Engineered Wood vs MDF
Although the cost varies depending on the material's thickness and quality, MDF is often less expensive than engineered woods like plywood, Oriented Strand Board (OSB), etc.
MDF vs Plywood vs Particleboard
|Composition||Fibrous blend of wood||Thin layers of wood veneer||Blend of chips and shavings of wood|
|Water Resistance||Only higher grades||Yes, most of them||No|
|Weight||Heaviest||Lightweight||Heavier than plywood|
|Durability||Durable than particleboard||Highly durable||Low durability|
|Screw Anchoring||Not good||Good anchoring||Not good|
|Dust||Creates a lot of dust||Creates less dust||Creates a lot of dust|
|Cost||Affordable||Expensive||Affordable than plywood|
MDF is made by crushing and mixing wood scraps with adhesives under extreme heat and pressure. It doesn't have a distinct grain or texture and is easy to work.
In contrast, plywood is made by sticking together thin wood sheets. Their thickness depends on the number of such layers.
Plywood's alternate grain orientation provides it with a cross-grain quality.
Particleboards are made by crushing, drying, and bonding leftover wood using wax and resin. They are weaker than MDF and have a dull surface finish.
MDF panels are thicker and denser than plywood but are less resilient to moisture. Also, they bow under load.
For interior projects like cabinets, display shelves, portable props, and sets, MDF is the best option.
Plywood is a good option for more durable constructions like roofing, crates, sports equipment, musical instruments, etc.
MDF is more resistant to warping and breaking than particle board because of its dense and rigid nature. Hence it's also more durable.
However, particleboard is inexpensive, but it has a low quality and doesn't last long.
Pros and Cons of Engineered Wood
Engineered wood panels are created to meet requirements that are otherwise hard to achieve.
It is a good choice for many projects because of its availability in various thicknesses, grades, sizes, and durability.
Engineered wood is made more robust and more stable, minimizing damage from variations in humidity and temperature.
Their grain orientation also improves their strength. It doesn't mean that they're resistant to warping or termite damage.
However, some forms of engineered wood can withstand deformation and crack better than natural wood.
Engineered wood is typically more affordable than traditional lumber since it is created from recycled wood and debris.
If you often replace your furnishings, you can reduce the cost using engineered wood.
However, some special-purpose engineered wood, like laminated strand timber, costs nearly three times as much as conventional wood.
Using engineered wood is an excellent alternative to conventional timber as it reduces the felling of trees and improves the better utilization of existing damaged or thrown-out wood through recycling.
Also, engineered wood can be made using small, easily cultivable trees which are otherwise excluded.
Consumption of Energy
Despite being more eco-friendly than using genuine timber, the manufacturing process of wood composites requires more energy.
Not the Same
As engineered wood is made using different raw materials and manufacturing techniques, its quality significantly differs from natural wood.
Engineered wood still can't replace natural wood in many applications that demand wood's original texture and quality.
Whether MDF or any other engineered wood, the material you need will depend on the project you are working on.
MDF panels suit projects like display shelves, wall panels, ornamental objects, etc., as you can completely alter their appearance and layout.
However, if you need to build something strong and durable, like cabinets, you should consider alternative forms of engineered wood, like plywood.
For flooring jobs, laminated wood is the best choice. Laminated timber is ideally suited for more robust constructions.
If you want to change your furniture frequently, particleboard and lightweight MDF are good options as they are comparatively inexpensive.
Regular MDF laminations can endure for a decade or more with correct lamination and upkeep.
Remember that all engineered wood falls short of natural wood's quality and texture. So if that's something you want in your projects, you'll have to work with conventional wood.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which is more durable, wood or MDF?
Generally, solid wood is more durable than MDF, but with the developments in engineered wood manufacturing, high-end MDF boards are now just as durable as genuine wood.
Why does MDF replace conventional wood in many applications?
The conventional wood is replaced with MDF in many applications as MDF provides better resistance to temperature and humidity fluctuations at a lower cost. Conventional wood tends to expand and contract with varying temperatures and humidity.
How long does engineered wood last?
Most engineered wood will last 5-10 years. High-grade variants of engineered wood are more robust and can last for 20-30 years.