There are many debates about whether to use lumber or plywood or even more general lumber vs. composites. Some people swear by only using solid lumber and others that will use composites whenever possible. In this blog, we dive into the pros and cons of panel composites and solid lumber and what’s best to use for your project.
Most panel composites used in woodworking are plywood, MDF, and particleboard. Panel composites are made in different sizes and thicknesses. The most common size is 4’ x 8’ and in ¾” or ½” thick. Plywood is layers of veneer adhered together, and each veneer is oriented 90° from each other. Most plywood is made from softwood veneer. Decorative plywood has core layers of softwood veneer and hardwood veneers for the outer layers. MDF stands for medium-density fiberboard. MDF is made of individual wood fibers and fiber bundles bonded together with resins. Particleboard is similar to MDF but uses larger wood particles. The wood particles in particleboard are oriented 90° from each other, just like in plywood.
Pros of Lumber
There are a couple of main benefits of lumber over composite products. Lumber tends to be more durable. Corners and edges can very quickly get rounded and broken on composite products. Since composites can be made out of different species and because there are many voids, machining composites can be difficult. This makes machining solid lumber more predictable. Lumber is also more versatile. Edges of composites aren’t necessarily sightly, so woodworkers tend only to use composites when the edges can be hidden or covered by trim. But all edges on solid lumber are relatively pleasing to the eye. Often solid lumber furniture gets the reputation of “higher quality.” In my books, just because something is solid lumber, that doesn’t make it high quality. I believe quality comes in the form of craftsmanship.
Pros of Composites
The most significant benefit of composites is the price. Composites are more affordable compared to lumber. Composites are also more stable than solid lumber. This stability comes from the orientation of the veneers (or particles in particle board.) Because the layers are orientated 90° from each other, the wood movement forces counteract one another. But low-quality plywood can warp and twist, but this is usually due to the core layers’ moisture content. Another benefit of composites is they utilize more wood fiber from the log. Think about it. To make lumber, you have to take a circular log and make it square. The waste pieces (called slabs) are simply waste. But in composites, they take the entire log and turn it into veneer or slice it into wood particles. Composites also distribute defects throughout, making no area of the composite a weak point.
What’s Best to Use
I believe that solid lumber and composites both have a place in woodworking. Composites are most often used in cabinet boxes. This is the perfect use for them too. Since the box needs a face frame, the edges will all be hidden. Plus, the sheet stock avoids gluing any panels to get the width and length that are required. Of course, the face frame and cabinet doors are made out of solid lumber. But not all projects easily allow for composites to be used. Tables and chairs are great examples of projects that are easiest to make out of solid lumber.
I approach projects like this. After I’ve designed the project, I start looking at materials. I look to see if there are components that can be easily substituted for plywood, MDF, or particleboard. I usually choose to use the composites if I can. If composites are used, then I formulate a plan to hide the edges if they aren’t already hidden in the project. Sometimes this means changing some things in the design, but most times, the design is only slightly modified.
The Choice is Up to You
As this blog demonstrates, there are pros and cons to both composites and lumber. For some projects, it’s easy to use composites, while others it’s more difficult. But ultimately, material choice is up to you.