I build a lot of cabinets, built-ins, bookshelves and such. I often get asked how I select materials for different kinds of projects. MDF, plywood, solid wood. What’s best for what applications?
I generally buy my lumber from a big box store because it’s convenient and available at the moment I decide I have to run out and buy some wood to build something. Also, I have simple wood needs. I don’t need a huge selection exotic wood (though I know you CAN order them from Home Depot) so the general, run of the mill stuff they keep in stock is usually good enough for my needs. (’cause I know you’re going to ask…Home Depot is my go-to for lumber. They have a wider selection of sheet lumber than the other big box stores in my area.)
What are the run of the mill choices I generally choose from?
For cabinets and built ins, I generally use MDF, Melamine (or a combination of the two), or Plywood for the boxes and solid wood for faceframes.
MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) is very smooth and a great option for painted cabinets, built-ins, bookshelves…
It is made by pressing wood fibers and glue together to form a sheet of “Dense Fiberboard”. It doesn’t expand and contract like solid wood. It generally doesn’t warp or twist or bow. *It needs to be stored flat and kept dry. MDF is generally available in 3/4″ and 1/2″ thicknesses. I choose 3/4″ for cabinet boxes.
The downside to MDF is, it’s SUPER DUPER heavy.
Melamine is like MDF but with a plastic veneer on one or both sides. It is most generally “in stock” in white. Because of the plastic veneer, the white surface is much harder and more scratch resistant than a painted surface so I often use Melamine for shelves or the entire inside of the “Box” if a cabinet will have a faceframe with doors and hidden sides or I plan on adding panels or beadboard to the outside. You can buy edge banding that you iron on the edges of Melamine so you can use it without a faceframe. I did that in Madison’s Playroom Wall Storage and it was fine in there. I don’t do that too often because it doesn’t look as custom and professionally built; more like something you buy pre-made and put together.
Plywood is what I use when I’m going to stain a piece or when I’m building something HUGE and MDF will be too heavy. Plywood is generally more expensive than MDF so I don’t waste the money if it’s going to be painted in the end unless the benefit of having lighter material is worth it.
Plywood is strong, sturdy, resists warping and bowing and is less expensive than solid wood. Cabinet Grade plywood has a solid wood veneer on the front and back and is sanded smooth on both sides. It is generally stocked in Birch and Red Oak though you can special order other species if you want to. It is available in different thicknesses. I generally choose 3/4″ for cabinets and 1/2″ for Drawers.
Solid Wood is generally stocked in 3 species: Pine, Red Oak and Poplar. Sometimes you can find other species at big box stores, but generally, it’s those three.
Pine is the least expensive of the three. It is smooth and paints well. It is SOFT wood. I can press my fingernail into it. It is not a great choice for face frames if you are installing hinges into it. The soft wood just won’t hold the screws well after a lot of wear and tear. (in my house, doors always tend to get leaned on). I do use it occasionally if I want to save money and I’m not planning on installing doors ON the faceframe and I don’t care if it gets dinged and dented.
Poplar is a hardwood that is also smooth and great for painting. It’s more expensive than Pine but less than Oak. It holds screws well. Poplar can also be stained (as any wood can). *Poplar is my go-to for painted faceframes.
Red Oak is a hardwood with a unique graining which is porous. I is NOT a good choice for painting. (Unless you want to fill the grain first or you LIKE that grainy painted look.) If you like the look of red oak and use red oak plywood to build a cabinet box, naturally you’d want to match it with a red oak face frame.
I use MDF for pretty much anything that I am going to paint. In my Master Closet, I started out using MDF but then switched to Plywood because of the weight of the huge cabinets. It was hurting my back, lifting the cabinets up after building them. When I build a GIANT entertainment center, I tend to use plywood, or I’d never be able to lift and carry pieces for installation.
Kristi @ Creative Kristi says
Great post Sandra! I’ve always used MDF because of the cost difference but I hated the fact that it used chemicals to glue it all together. I had never heard of plywood that was cabinet grade before Haven conference and I learned about Pure Bond which is formaldehyde free so I’m going to try that when I make my pantry cabinet for my kitchen 🙂
I have yet to use the Pure Bond but I like that it is an all USA made product: not wood that is shipped to China to be fabricated into plywood then shipped back here to be distributed.
While the environment and my family’s health is always on my mind, formaldehyde is not a consideration in my materials choice. The amount that is used in composite wood adhesives is regulated by the government and the industry and there is very little used in composite wood adhesive in a form that can be released into the air. (http://www.formaldehydefacts.org/environment)
As always, it’s a matter of personal preference. XO
Great post! Here’s a question, I was going to do a vanity built-in between two giant floor to ceiling Ikea wardrobes I bought. It’s going to be a pretty simple construction with a cleat attaching the back end of it to the wall, and then two legs on the front for support. It’ll be about 2′ deep and 4′ wide, with a drawer. I plan to paint it white to match the wardrobes – so would MDF be suggested for the construction of this? I plan on putting a glass top on top of the vanity top as well for style and protection.
I’d use either MDF or Melamine. Are you going to have a face frame? One thing to note, 48″ is a very large span. Things start to sag… The longest I generally go without supports is 32″. Can you make 2 small drawers on the sides flanking a larger drawer in the middle? Just a thought.
Thanks for the 411 on your go-to’s. I stain moreso than paint (I’m a purist, I do like to see wood-colored wood, LOL) so I’m assuming the same goes as what you’ve written for the paint?
I really appreciated this info. My father has been a general contractor almost all of his life, and I’ve worked with him a ton, but it’s all outdoors things. And while I inherited his love for woodworking, mine tends to be indoor love. I LOVE your site and appreciate everything you post. Hope those content-stealers get the hint from your new signage. Keep posting!
If you want to see the wood then you’d have to go either plywood or solid wood. For stained (or natural wood) pieces I use plywood for the boxes because it’s stronger, less prone to warping and not as expensive than solid wood. And then solid wood for the faceframe that is the same (or similar grained) species as the top veneer on your plywood.
Thanks for sticking with me. 🙂
This is such a great post! I will definitely be printing this out to go in my project notebook. Tons of great information!
Glad it was useful Nicole. 🙂
Do you only use cabinet grade plywood? How about the ACX, BCX, CCX, and CDX types? I am doing two 3′ bookshelves with a 5 1/2′ window seat between them. The top of the shelves will share one long shelf that runs over the windows. I have gotten ready to do this project several times, but when it is time to actually buy the materials I get overwhelmed.
OK you’re getting technical here. LOL Good questions though Kimberly.
The X indicates that it is for exterior use: they used an exterior grade glue (that will hold up up to the elements so to speak). I definitely wouldn’t use that for built ins.
The first letter indicates the quality for the front veneer on the panel and the second letter indicates quality of the back veneer.
A is the finest finish with few to no blemishes. B might have small knots or cracks that have been filled and sanded…on down to D.
What quality plywood you need depends on how you are planning on using it. Are you going to see both sides of the plywood after your pieces are built? Are you painting or staining? If you are painting and will see both sides, B-B is probably a good choice.
Most Home Improvement stores don’t have that many choices. There is cabinet grade Birch and Red Oak plywood. Sanded ply and then the stuff that I would definitely not use for building cabinets and built ins.
If you are going to a lumber store where they have oodles of choices, someone there should be able to help you with your selection (and I’m sure they would be happy to do it). Just ask for help.
Good luck with your project. Send me some pics when you’re done!
My mind has been blown by your awesome knowledge of plywood! We live in a cape cod cottage. It’s tiny. My living room is only 11 1/2×16. My husband works in IT so I would like to do 2 desk/bookcases to give our kids and me a separate work space. I am going to put a window seat with wooden boxes for storage between them. We are dedicated to living in a small home so I need to be making this space work better for us!
Tamara Asher says
Your website is so great. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge. You have inspired my husband & I over the years! Many thanks!
Yet another question..I have MDF baseboards, and they chip easily.. A LOT.. how are your MDF project holding up? I would assume that anything that has a corner like bookshelves would chip, no?
I generally have a solid wood faceframe on all my MDF pieces so if something were to get bashed, it would be the wood not the MDF. However, MDF is pretty strong and it would take a dropping something very heavy or smacking it really hard to chip a 3/4″ shelf. Baseboards, on the other hand, are only 1/2″ thick at the thickest and the profile can be very thin. It doesn’t take much to break a thin piece of it.
This post is soo informative! Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom Sandra. Can’t wait to see more projects from you!