Whether building a house, cabinet, bookshelf, or countertop, wood composites are popular lower-cost alternatives to solid wood. Understanding their unique characteristics makes choosing the right material a lot easier. When considering particle board vs. medium density fiberboard (MDF), knowing the difference between the two will give you the confidence to make the right choice for your project.
Particle board and MDF are pressed-wood products engineered from wood fibers mixed with synthetic resin adhesives. The main differences are the size and types of wood fibers used during its manufacture. MDF uses fine, granular particles for a more homogenous density with smooth, tight edges for strength and workability. Particle board is formed with less refined wood fragments and offers low-cost stability at the expense of strength and durability.
This article will provide details on what particle board and MDF are, consider their advantages and disadvantages, and compare key characteristics. It will also discuss how they perform in various project applications and their relationship to plywood and melamine.
Particle Board vs MDF: Key Points
Every project is different and comes with special requirements, needs, approaches, and techniques. Being able to prioritize the key characteristics of your project early can make the entire process more enjoyable and successful. When considering the use of particle board or MDF, use this table as a guide.
|Strength||Low to medium. Dependent on thickness across the area where the force is applied.||Medium. Dependent on thickness across the area where the force is applied.|
|Density||25 to 69 lb/ft3.
|31 to 52 lb/ft3.
Highly consistent throughout.
|Appearance||Less smooth with more visibility of wood fibers and texture.||Fine, smooth finish. Easily printed with wood grain and other designs.|
A ¾” 4ft x 8ft sheet can weigh 85 pounds.
A ¾” 4ft x 8ft sheet can weigh 97 pounds.
|Fire Resistance||116-178 Flame-Spread Resistance (FSR), Class 3, Generally more resistant than MDF||167 Flame-Spread Resistance (FSR), Class 3, slightly less resistant than particle board|
|Safety||High toxicity due to off-gassing potential during first 2 years. Exposure to dust while machining can create health issues.||High toxicity due to off-gassing potential during first 2 years. Exposure to dust while machining can create health issues.|
|Sound Insulation||Higher acoustical absorption due to low density.
Cement-bonded boards have superior sound proofing qualities.
|Good sound-absorbing qualities.|
|Lifespan||Use dependent. 50 years or longer.||Use dependent. 50 years or longer.|
|Main Uses||Substrate for countertops, roofs, floors, low-use furniture, shelving, and soundproofing applications.||Cabinetry, shelving, laminate flooring, edge-shaped moldings, door and jamb trims, store fixtures, pre-finished paneling, and core molding for office furniture.|
|Cost (Based on ¾–inch, 4ft x 8ft sheets)||More economical and affordable.
|Pricier but can be equivalent in cost to real wood.
$50 – $130
What Is a Particle Board?
Particle board is a pressed wood product used as a low-cost alternative to solid wood and plywood. It’s made of coarsely ground recycled wood shavings, flakes, wafers, chips, sawdust, strands, and slivers mixed with various types of formaldehyde-based epoxy resins. When the mixture is exposed to high pressure and heat, it can be formed into wood-like panels, pallets, or furniture parts.
While non-toxic waxes are blended with the resin to achieve varying levels of stability, moisture resistance, and to keep machinery from clogging, the manufacturing process also uses a variety of other additives that raise serious health concerns.
Ammonium chloride or ammonium sulfate are added to help speed the resin’s cure time and shorten the time it needs to be pressed. Because the resins in the final product are known to off-gas, “formaldehyde scavengers” like sodium metabisulphate are also used to reduce exposure to the cancer-causing vapors.
Particle board manufacturers make boards with widely varying densities to meet their customer’s needs and budget constraints. It should be noted that particle board density is highly variable throughout a single board. Because the wood particles are of variable size and shape, their uneven distribution during compression leaves room for internal inconsistencies that can vary as much as 38-53 lb/ft3.
Particle Board: Advantages & Disadvantages
Every building material has its own set of strengths and shortcomings. When using particle board, it’s good to understand the finer points that make it a good candidate for your project.
- Inexpensive: it’s one of the cheapest engineered wood options available.
- Environmentally friendly: use of scrap lumber helps reduce forest clear-cutting.
- Relatively smooth: surface is smooth and can be refined further with laminate or veneers.
- Easily molded for furniture parts.
- Higher sound-proofing/acoustic qualities.
- Holds its shape well when exposed to blunt, sharp surface impacts.
- Lightweight: when compared to solid wood of equal dimension.
- Low strength characteristic: Cannot support heavy loads on a horizontal axis.
- Toxicity potential: formaldehyde-based resins are known to emit low levels of cancer-causing vapors.
- Moisture exposure: will easily and quickly warp, discolor, and expand.
- Not suited for screws and nails: material will easily break down or crack.
- Does not hold paint well.
- Low workability: not an ideal material for fine edging and corners; highly prone to tearing-out when routing and cutting, especially at the edges.
Types of Particle Board
Manufacturers can use different methods and techniques to produce different particle board types. Binders, wood chip sizing, layering, and finishes allow for a wide variety of subtly different particle boards.
This is a board formed from wood particles pressed into a single uniform layer and covered with a laminate or veneer finish. It is one of the most common, low-cost boards used for interior projects.
The manufacturer will sandwich a layer of coarse wood chips, known as the core layer, between two distinct face layers of smaller and more dense wood particles. The finer face layers add more strength and stability relative to the single-layered boards. The finer outer particles give a smooth surface suitable for priming and painting.
This board is like the three-layered construction with a coarse wood core. Smaller, finer, and more dense wood particles are gradually added and pressed as the surface is formed. It is one of the strongest types of particle board and is commonly used in lower-end cabinets and furniture.
Melamine hasis a resin coating, or laminate, thermally fused to the surface of a finished board. It forms a hard, smooth finish to increase durability and cleans easily.
This type of particleboard uses a portland or a magnesium-based cement as its bonding agent. With a 60-20-20 ratio of cement-wood-water, it can arguably fall out of the particleboard classification. It is heavily used for building projects where resistance to fire, pests, moisture, and sound absorption are high priorities.
What Is MDF?
Medium-density fiberboard (MDF), is a manufactured wood product made from finely ground wood fibers that are combined with synthetic formaldehyde-based resins, wax, and other additives. Its composition is generally based on 82% wood fiber, 9% resin, 8% water, and 1% paraffin wax.
The manufacturing process for MDF is almost identical to that of particle board. The mixture is molded, pressed, and heated to form hardened panels. Given the small size of the wood fibers, the increased surface area allows for tighter bonding across a large volume of material. The result is a heavier and smoother wood product with a highly uniform density.
Inherent to its name, manufacturers produce medium-density fiberboard with densities in a narrow range of 31-50 lb/ft3. While equivalent or greater in density to most solid wood, MDF is denser than plywood panels. As a result, its workability holds up well to machining, routing, and edge tear-outs. Its finish can be sanded to such a fine smoothness that the need for veneers or laminates can be eliminated if desired.
Manufacturers can produce MDF for various uses and custom needs. As a result, boards can be found in many different colors from the dyes and other additives used during the manufacturing process. It’s not uncommon to see moisture-resistant MDF with a green surface tinge, or core, while a red or blue color can denote a fire-retardant quality.
MDF is commonly produced in sheets ranging from ⅛” to 1-½” thickness. Panels are commonly sold in 4’ x 8’ sections but can also be found in larger 4’x10’ or even 5’x12’ dimensions.
MDF: Advantages & Disadvantages
Prioritizing your project requirements makes it easy to select which materials you use. The following list illustrates the advantages and disadvantages to help you decide if MDF is the right choice for your project.
- Cost: Generally more affordable than solid wood and plywoods of equal dimensions. Can be more expensive than other particle board products.
- Density: The uniformity of the minute wood particles allows the material to be incredibly sturdy and stable.
- Strength: Stronger than particle board but not quite as strong as plywood.
- Paintability: Accepts primer and paint as well as most solid wood products.
- Stainability: The fine smooth finish can accept oil-based stains well but will lack the textured look and feel of natural wood grains.
- Environmentally-friendly: Recycled and reclaimed wood residuals help reduce deforestation.
- Workability: The density of the board holds up well to machining and routing. Clean, crisp edges and complex designs; highly resistant to chipping, cracking, and tear-outs when handled carefully.
- Warpage: Will rResists deformities from temperature and some humidity.
- Surface & Appearance: The factory finish is clean, smooth, free of wood knots, and grain patterns, and can eliminate the need for laminates or veneers.
- Strength: Poor horizontal load-bearing strength.
- Cost: More expensive than particle boards.
- Toxicity potential: As with particle board, the formaldehyde-based resins are known to emit toxic vapors.
- Dust: Sawing and routing will release large amounts of fine particulates into the air and can be inhaled.
- Low moisture resistance: exposure to water will cause irreversible swelling.
- Weight: Due to the high volume of wood particles, MDF is significantly heavier than particle board of equal dimensions.
- Breakable: The lack of any internal directional fiber orientation can cause stress fracturing, breakage, or cracking.
- Fastening/Fasteners: Nails and screws quickly break down the fine wood fibers of MDF. The use of common nails and screws can be of limited in value.
What Is the Difference Between Particleboard and MDF?
Particle board and MDF are considered manufactured wood products made from recycled wood waste. The manufacturing process for both is virtually identical. The recycled material used, known as furnishings, is generally the same for both products as well. Because MDF is made of finer materials, there are key construction and performance issues that can affect which one to use.
Both particle board and MDF have a tendency to crack and break when handled roughly or dropped. Particle board will hold its shape well against extreme blunt impacts and can resist surface dings and dents fairly well. However, the same type of harsh treatment to MDF can result in significant damage.
The internal structure of MDF makes it well suited for cutting or forming routed edges. Particle board edges are weak and will splinter, flake, and tear out when used for special designs or intricate customizations. When handled with care, MDF’s strength and resistance to moisture make it a far superior material when those factors need to be considered.
The density of particle board and MDF is commonly shown to have a similar range. MDF generally falls within 40-50 lb/ft3, whereas particle board has a much wider range between 25-69 lb/ft3. The reason for the broad, overlapping distribution is due to the many different types and classifications of particle boards.
SinceBecause the material used in the construction of particle board varies in coarseness and size, its uneven internal distribution during compression leaves room for inconsistencies in density. It has been found that within a single cross-section of particle board, its density can vary as much as 38-53 lb/ft3. It is for this reason MDF is considered to have a “higher” density.
MDF has limited directional fiber grains in its structure. The brittleness can result in cracks or shattering if bent, weight-stressed, or dropped. Particle board has coarser fiber grains for some directional support, but its density can’t withstand the same forces. When MDF thickness increases, its ability to hold up against downward forces makes it a stronger product.
The manufacturing process of MDF and particle board produces an extremely flat product. MDF has a finish that is extremely fine and smooth. Dyes and inks can be mixed in with the resins during manufacturing to produce custom coloration for the final product.
It can be further sanded, coated, or painted to produce a variety of looks. While both products can be colored, particle board has a rougher, less refined look and texture. Laminates and veneers are commonly used as a finish.
Despite the use of waxes to help resist damage from water, MDF and particle board are susceptible to moisture issues. The increased surface area of the fine wood fibers makes it easy for moisture to be absorbed. As a result, irreversible swelling and cracking will occur.
Particle board is much more susceptible to water damage than MDF. Particle board has a lower density, and water easily intrudes and is quickly absorbed. MDF will not absorb moisture as quickly but is only slightly more moisture resistant.
MDF is much heavier than particle board. The volume of wood particles used in the production of MDF gives it a noteworthy mass compared to particle board. A ¾” thick 4’x8’ sheet of MDF can weigh upwards of 96 pounds. A sheet of particle board of the same dimensions will be much lighter at 85 pounds.
When evaluating fire safety, MDF and particle board have aare level III (or class C) Flame-Spread rating. Particle board is slightly more fire-resistant with a Flame-Spread Rating (FSR) of 116-178. MDF measures in at 167.
Both MDF and particle board are manufactured with formaldehyde-based resins. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and the boards will continue to off-gas after they have been processed. Precautions are needed when sawing or machining. Formaldehyde-laden dust particles are released into the air and can cause breathing issues, and irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. It takes up to two years for formaldehyde in these boards to exhaust all of their toxic vapors.
Environmentally-friendly formulations of binding resins have been developed. They are being tested and used in particle board and MDF. Known as No Added Formaldehyde (NAF) products, they show promising success as ecological and health-friendly alternatives.
Particle board and MDF have been found to have excellent sound-proofing qualities. Cement-bonded particle board was found to have superior soundproof and suppression qualities against almost all airborne noise.
It has been suggested that particle board can last significantly longer than MDF. Determination is subjective and requires consideration for how the end product is used and maintained. In a low-use environment, both particle board and MDF can last upwards of 50 years or longer.
MDF and particle board are popular solid wood alternatives for the home building and furniture-making industries. Both products are used for furniture, cabinetry, shelves, ceilings, and flooring. However, because particle board is marginally less expensive, it is popular as a core or underlayment in the construction industry. It is also a low-cost alternative for office and home furnishings that are covered with laminates and veneers such as countertops, computer tables, bookshelves, television cabinets, and even doors.
MDF, with its smooth finish, relative sturdiness, and ability to be easily shaped, gets used more broadly for applications where strength, finer detailing, or profiling is needed. Painted surfaces such as cabinets, exposed shelving, baseboards, signs, and entertainment centers are popular uses.
To get a sense of the price differences, you can expect to pay significantly less for particle board than MDF. While prices can vary widely, I found my local lumber store selling ¾”, 4’x8’ sheets of MDF at a cost of $61. A sheet of particle board of the same dimensions will only cost $29.
Particle Board vs MDF vs Engineered Wood
The term “engineered wood” is used generically to make a distinction between solid wood lumber and man-made wood products. Both particle board and MDF are engineered wood. They are made from solid wood by-products, mixed with resins, and pressed to form a wood-like board.
There are a variety of other plywoods, plyboards, and oriented-strand boards (OSB) that fall into the category of engineered wood. They are manufactured with real wood, glues, and mechanical processes. There are even composite “boards” that can be engineered with wood-like features using non-wood components such as recycled plastics and cement.
Which is Stronger Particle Board vs MDF vs Plywood
Plywood is engineered wood with qualities that make it much stronger than particle board and MDF. Plywood is created with many layers of solid wood sheets situated perpendicular to each other for strength. The dimensional stability allows it to withstand greater forces across its horizontal plane. When strength is the primary factor and plywood is an option,… always choose it over particle board or MDF.
Particle Board vs MDF vs Melamine
When discussing engineered wood products, “melamine” is a term often used and loosely applied to a specific board type. The reality is, melamine is not a board but a wildly popular formaldehyde resin-based coating.
Melamine is actually a laminate. It can be thermally bonded to the surface of engineered wood products like particle board, MDF, and even plywood. It offers hard, smooth, and water-resistant qualities which significantly increases its durability.
It is extremely scratch and stain-resistant, easily colored, sold in a variety of textured patterns, and budget-friendly. Manufacturers have found it to be an ideal low-cost solution to overcome the limitations associated with particle board and MDF.
Particle Board vs MDF Cabinets
Most cabinetry built today is made from engineered wood that is coated in some form of laminate, texture, or paint. When faced with making a decision between an MDF or particle board cabinets, price, budgets, and use generally dictate which material to select. MDF cabinets offer a level of strength, durability, and design that make them a superior candidate over particle board for heavier use applications when the price is not a factor.
Kitchen cabinets and their shelves made from MDF will withstand the heavy weight of dishes and glassware. When considering particle board, it may be more cost-effective for use in a child’s bedroom to hold clothes and small toys for the short time that it is needed.
MDF cabinetry is also a prime candidate over particle board for use in higher humid rooms such as the bathroom. The poor moisture-resistant qualities of particle board, even when coated with a laminate, can quickly break down making MDF cabinetry the betterideal choice.
What is Better: MDF or Particle Board?
In most cases, items made from MDF are considered to be superior in quality and strength when compared to anything made from particle board. However, particle board is a less expensive option when considering projects that have priorities that don’t place a high value on elegance, durability, and strength. When deciding on which is better, consider your project’s requirements first and select the material that best suits your needs.
I hope this article helped you better understand the differences between MDF and particle board and clears up any confusion you may have had. If so, please take a moment to leave a comment below or share any of your experiences.