Particleboard Versus MDF

Cabinetmakers discuss materials choices. September 3, 2011

What are the relative benefits/disadvantages of particleboard vs. MDF? Here is what I think I know. Particleboard is a little cheaper, lighter, and swells less if wet. MDF is flatter, cuts easier on the saw, holds edgebanding better, holds dowels tighter. They seem to have nearly the same strength and span tolerance.

My greatest concerns are moisture resistance and cut quality. When I use MDF or particleboard, it is almost always melamine fused. Sometimes I use HPL and will glue it to either particleboard or MDF with one side melamine. I also always use moisture resistant melamine for the doors and kitchen/bath cases.

I use particleboard because when it gets wet it does not swell as bad as MDF. But I have not really used the moisture resistant varieties of MDF, so I do not know if their performance is better than moisture resistant particleboard. I see a lot of other shops using MDF core melamine for doors and cases, but I wonder why? Am I missing some other advantages of MDF?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor R:
I'm not an MDF hater... but in my opinion, the only time MDF should be used instead of particleboard is when it is to be finished. If it is going to have melamine, laminate, veneer, anything, particleboard always wins in my shop. It is stronger, lighter, 500% more resistant to water (standard MDF - I have livestock buildings sided and roofed with particleboard core melamine with nothing else covering them that have been exposed 3 years and have outlasted similar CDX buildings), easier to work with, etc. The only time I ever use MDF is for paint grade work when it's to be finished. MDF splits too easily for me, so I try to limit it in case work when I can (use banded particleboard or ply for paint grade on big cases). But I must say I've made hundreds and hundreds of 5 piece MDF doors this last year and I wouldn't make them out of anything else.

From contributor C:
Particleboard core all the way. MDF is just too damn heavy. We only use it for Med-ex water resistant, and/or paint grade. Kind of same as contributor R, except once we made a smoker's hut out of particleboard melamine and it did last 2 years - rain and snow resistant.

From contributor P:

MDF mills better and is better for mitered pieces, where you need it to be flatter. Particleboard holds screws better (going in edges, MDF splits with confirmats or screws), and is lighter and cheaper. Unless necessary, particleboard wins for me.

From the original questioner:
You guys are confirming what I thought. I don't use MDF except for paint grade. But I see other shops (I am surrounded by not so experienced shops) using MDF sometimes and my supplier seems to expect that I would order MDF. I suspect it is because most shops here are using crappy saws and crappy tooling and the MDF cuts a lot easier.

How would you describe good quality particleboard? Is the core loose with tiny voids? Does it have small filler particles mixed with the larger chips to fill in the voids of the core? Are there any tests or rules of thumb? I usually split a sample piece in half with a chisel to expose the core, but I do not know what I am looking for.

I am processing about 80 sheets a week and I still know little about the stuff. There is only one supplier in my market and they are importing the particleboard core panels from Malaysia. I am looking to import panels from one of the big companies (Panolam, or Flakeboard?). I assume they will have better panels.

From contributor P:
I like the fir core better, as I find it to be stronger. The pine is smoother and a little flatter but not as strong. I think Roseburg uses the fir core.

From contributor K:
Laminate tops... particleboard
Casework... particleboard (but only if specified)
Doors... MDF

From contributor L:
Particleboard for all but paint and water exposed. Medex for water, MDF for paint. We've been using some of the lightweight fiber board from Chile to reduce the weight on some big paint grade fixtures, but it is easily damaged and really not good for edge fastening.

Banding seems to work fine on either MDF or particleboard. But the lightweight stuff doesn't hold the banding as well. MDF seems inclined to split on the edges no matter what fastener is used. Doweling seems to work okay on MDF, but better on particleboard.

From contributor M:
MDF is much stronger against deflection (bowing and/or breaking) than particleboard. Rip a couple of pieces of each about 4" wide and 3' or so long and now see which will break easiest against your knee.

It's true that MDF has much poorer edge burst strength, but that isn't a big factor in many uses. I would much prefer to make shelves out of MDF since they will make a much longer span without bowing from weight, or will simply stay straighter than particleboard in shorter lengths.

If they ever make melamine board with MDF Ultralight board, that will be a fantastic product. It would be nearly the weight and strength of plywood with a great finished surface.

From contributor D:
While MDF is theoretically 25% stiffer than particleboard (melamine), plywood is 3x stiffer than MDF. Those numbers are based on The Sagulator and may vary by load and size.

In any event, there's very little real world difference. Both particleboard and MDF are lousy for supporting any kind of load over an extended period of time. My experience is that MDF is actually more prone to sagging over time.

I've been very happy with Panolam. At least with a single blade, a good pine core wins hands down - significantly less chipping. The middle is Panolam, the others veneered.

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor M:
I think your strength information is way off. Try the test of breaking rippings of the same width of particleboard and MDF over your knee, and for good measure try a ripping of plywood as well. You'll see what I mean.

From contributor L:

We've been using a fair amount of lightweight fiber board for big panels where strength is not an issue. It is very weak, damages easily on the edges, and has terrible fastener holding in the edges. Its face is soft and would not be any good for melamine.

From contributor D:
I think we're talking flexural strength (fracture) versus flexural modulus (deflection). While MDF appears to have twice the flexural strength - pounds of concentrated force required to break it, e.g your knee break test, its flexural modulus is pretty darn close to particleboard under much smaller distributed loads.

From the original questioner:
Contributor D, thanks for the nice picture. The panels I am using from local suppliers have a lot more void in the middle. They come from Malaysia - not sure who makes them. What brands are the veneered panels? Is the greenish one MR? Panolam is probably going to be my choice for importing next time.

From contributor D:
I don't know who made the veneered panels. Green cores are usually green (formaldehyde free), but a call about that one didn't net me a yes/no answer (it wasn't sold as "green").

The only moisture resistant stock around here that I know of is plain MDF. I usually band whatever edges I can. In moisture situations I Roo Glue the joints and use Titebond II to seal miscellaneous raw edges.