Ply vs MDF

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pcole6765's picture
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Ply vs MDF
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I will be starting my first project soon. I'm building a bookshelf and would like a weathered painted look to it when it's done. It will be 16" deep so I will need to use either plywood or MDF. I was at HD yesterday and say some really nice maple ply but it was $50 a sheet, can I get away with a cheaper grade of ply? What should I be looking for. Should I make it out of, plywood or MDF?

Thanks
claydowling's picture
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Hardwood Plywood

You probably shouldn't use hardwood plywood for your first DIY project.  And you definitely shouldn't use it if you plan to paint the final product.  You're paying a premium for that hardwood veneer, so you want to show it off if you're going to use it.

I can't recommend buying any plywood at Home Depot or Lowes.  They don't store their product properly and they're buying a substandard grade that makes it warp something fierce.  Go to a local lumber yard and by a plywood that's sanded both sides.  They'll store it in proper flat shelves, so it won't be warped, and it will be cheaper than the same grade from the big box stores, and they'll probably even help you load it in your truck.

My lumberyard even has a dog on staff, which sets a nice tone.

pcole6765's picture
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Thanks for the info. I don't

Thanks for the info. I don't know if we have a lumber yard here. I guess we must as I live in a fairly large city. I'll have to do a google search. 

So what is it that I need to ask for? Just plywood sanded on both sides? Is there a specific type of plywood?
claydowling's picture
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Plywood types

I don't know a lot about plywood grading.  Fine Woodworking had a guide online, but I don't remember where.  I do know that they don't sand it both sides unless it's a better grade.  It's basically intended for furniture or cabinets at that point, and the quality matters.

Also remember that as the customer you have the right to inspect the wood.  You don't have to just accept what they flop down in your truck.  If the wood they're giving you is warped or damaged, you have the right to refuse it and get something that isn't damaged, or get your money back.   Warped plywood is scrap wood, not something you can use.  And the big box stores tend to have racks full of scrap plywood that they're selling as new.

Frank Maraschino's picture
Frank Maraschino
You want birch plywood for

You want birch plywood for your application. Maple, cherry or even oak ply is way overkill for a project you're going to paint. MDF's not a good material for bookcases; it's heavier than hell, more prone to sagging as shelf stock and isn't as straightforward to screw or paint as is plywood. The main wrinkle with ply is banding the edge. You can glue or iron on an edge to your plywood. 

It's true that most lumberyards carry ply that is superior to what the big box Borg stores carry, and is sometimes the same price or cheaper. Veneer plywood's graded on a letter-number system -- the front face ranging from AA (the best) to E, and the back from 1 to 4. 
The lower grades, usually made in China or South America, have thinner veneer that can telegraph flaws and voids from the crappier plys below even in a paint grade project. They have also been known to delaminate and/or chip when you cut them, splinter when they're fastened or bubble when they're painted or stained.  B2 or B3 would be ideal for for your project. Although you can find B-grade ply at the Borg, most Borg ply is C-grade, with knots and surface patching. 
When you call the lumberyard, ask them if they'll rip your sheet to whatever the widest width is for your project and carry it to your car. The Borgs will do one rip cut per sheet for free and will carry it out and load it for you. 
If you're forced to buy from the Borg, go to the Orange Borg (HD) rather than the Blue (Lowes). At HD, you at least have a chance of getting a serviceable sheet. Again, you want Birch ply. Sometimes the Orange Borg has something called Sandeply instead of Birch. In that case, say a novena. I and other guys I've talked to have gotten good Sandeply sheets and ones that make you wish you'd died as a child. 
claydowling's picture
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Shelving material

To be honest, I don't really recommend plywood for shelving units, unless you know how to put a wood face on it.  The edge banding isn't terrible, not shelf fronts see a lot of wear and edge banding just isn't going to hold up that well.  That said, I have two really nice book cases I built years ago made of hardwood veneer plywood, with edges faced with oak.

1x solid wood makes a nicer, more durable shelf system.  Popular Woodworking just published a great beginner's plan that lets you execute a classic style with minimal tools or experience: http://www.popularwoodworking.com/projects/i-can-do-that-stacking-bookcases

I'm in the middle of a build of a more traditional version of this same shelving system, in an effort to improve my skills.

pcole6765's picture
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So if my piece is painted I

So if my piece is painted I would still need that edging to cover the sides of the plywood? I would prefer to use regular lumber but for what I'm building it needs to be 16" deep and I don't believe I can find lumber that wide.

Tsu Dho Nimh's picture
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Look at the edge of a sheet

Look at the edge of a sheet of plywood. It's not smooth, and paint doesn't help it much.

You need to fill it with tons of wood filler and sand a lot, or attach edge banding or some sort of a smooth finish strip.

Pam the Goatherd's picture
Joined: 2011-03-14 14:34
You guys are cracking me up!

My experience with the local lumberyard compared to the Orange and Blue is totally the opposite from what you guys have had. In my small town the local lumberyard charges an arm and a leg for the wood, if they have what you want, and they won't let you go into the yard (for safety reasons they say) to pick out the wood you want.  Instead they will grab whatever is closest and load it into the back of your truck before you can look at it too closely.

The nearest Orange to me is 20 miles, Blue is 35 miles. Even with gas prices being as high as they are it is more cost effective for me to drive the distance to pick out my own wood at those places. I have found that the wood at our Blue is much nicer than the stuff available at our Orange, no idea why.

The moral of my story is that one should always shop around before buying because every situation is going to be different depending on where you live and how well the area lumber suppliers are run.

As far as edging for the shelves, you can always use wood trim to finish the edges of plywood. There are all sorts of widths of flat, tapered, quarter round, and decorative trims that will finish out a piece nicely.

claydowling's picture
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Sorry about the bad yards

The yards that have survived in this area do so because they can
out-compete the big box stores.  Sounds like you don't have those market
forces in play where you live.

I'm moving this friday, and the new place has fantastic local yards.  In addition to getting my heated shop, I'm getting lumber yards that people dream about.

bhoppy's picture
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first timer bookshelf

My first project was the laundry basket dresser... I used cheap plywood and filled the knots and edges with tons of woodfiller and added a piece of decorative molding on the top....  I spent more time filling in the holes and imperfections than I did building the thing!   It’s not the most aesthetically pleasing but it’s very functional.  I painted it with some nice 5$ oops paint and it looks great (in my closet).  I’ve also built a little C table out of MDF and didn’t have to spend half as much time filling in the imperfections but again these were my first builds...   I screwed up cutting the boards on both projects and I’m so glad I decided to start small with cheap wood vs the more expensive kind.  

pcole6765's picture
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I guess bookcase wasn't the

I guess bookcase wasn't the right word. What I'm planning to build is some sort of low shelving unit with doors on the bottom and open shelving above. It has to be deep (at least 18") to accommodate baskets. My tv will be mounted on the wall above this. I'm not sure how to finish the edges of the plywood so you don't see all the layers of wood. If I add enough coats of paint will it cover this? If I add the edging that someone has mentioned can that be painted?

claydowling's picture
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Concealing edges

No amount of paint can conceal the edges of the plywood.  There are a few solutions.

1. Embrace it.  Buy a better grade of plywood that's sanded both sides and put a clear finish on it like shellac and wax.  You'll have to hunt for this plywood though.  The end grain will add an interesting detail.  Baltic Birch plywood is an excellent choice because it doesn't have voids and does have very even plys.  It can look very sharp.

2. Face the end grain with real wood.  Clear pine 1x2 is pretty good for this.  I actually really like this, because you get the ease of plywood case construction, but  a very polished look on the piece.  Also best with a plywood that's sanded on at least the exterior face, and ideally both faces.  If you attach the face frame with pocket holes, and fill the holes with plugs, you'll get a fantastic looking piece that is perfect for stain or a clear finish, and is also paintable.

3. You can use the edge banding.  This is my least favorite option, but I recently did it for a pair of cabinet doors that I just needed finished, and the plywood end-grain wasn't a viable option.  It's paintable, but you are generally paying a bit of a premium for hardwood banding, and it's a shame to put that under a coat of paint.

bhoppy's picture
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Do you have a plan in mind?

There are several plans on here that could be modified to suit your needs. 

http://www.ana-white.com/category/plans/project-type/media-and-entertainment-centers

For a shelf in the back of my closet that no one ever sees painting the plywood is fine but you would want a media stand to look better so I would suggest using 1x2 wood to trim it out.  It all depends on what plan you use though...

bhoppy's picture
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LOL

I basicaly meant the same thing as Clay said in his second suggestion without all the actual woodworking terms... I'm just giving the newbie perspective:-) 

claydowling's picture
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The newbie perspective

I actually think that's helpful. I grew up in a woodshop, so the language is something I've always grown up with.  Sometimes I forget to sort it out for people who didn't grow up that way.

bhoppy's picture
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awhhh

Well you are a true genteleman Clay because I was thinking gee I wish he's dumb it down for us... "Sort it out" is so much nicer LOL

pcole6765's picture
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basically what I had in mind

basically what I had in mind was the apothecary console but with different doors. and I think I want it to be wider. I'll have to go back and look at the plans again.

bhoppy's picture
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hmmm

I just took a look at those plans and I couldn't find the second post for the drawers and doors..  from the pictures it doesn't look like it has a face frame though. 

I am by no means saying it would be impossible, but you might consider a smaller first project... two heads are better than one, so if you have another set of hands to help than it would probably be easier... there are lots of cuts on that console and the more cuts: the easier it is to screw the whole thing up if you don’t cut the boards exact and make sure everything’s square.  And don’t rely on Orange and Blue to make the cuts for you... those are the two biggest mistakes I made and that was on projects tagged as “beginner.”  You can’t learn from your mistakes unless you make them though.  Good luck:-)

 

claydowling's picture
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Making wider solid wood panels

You can glue solid wood up to make larger pieces.  The slickest method is called match planing, and there's a pretty good video here on how to do it: http://blip.tv/file/4269412

You'll need to lay hands on a jack plane and a pair of bar clamps, both of which are sold at HD or Lowes.  You'll also need to learn how to sharpen a plane iron, which isn't hard if you can get somebody to show you.  I can usually teach somebody to sharpen an edge in about five minutes.  And when I get some time, I'll make a video about how to do it.  Google "scary sharp" and you'll get a quick and easy method.  This one looks okay, but the video actually takes longer to watch than sharpening a plane blade: http://blip.tv/file/345427/?utm_source=blip&utm_medium=site_search&utm_c...

You could also just use your kreg jig to join the edges.  It's a common trick in cabinet making.

bhoppy's picture
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you lost me

@ jack plane:-)

claydowling's picture
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Check this

http://www.brasscityrecords.com/toolworks/new%20tools.html#PLANES

I haven't bought from him before, but he has a very solid reputation vouched for by some pretty respected people.  His prices are also excellent.  Any of his jack planes would be a good first plane.  Don't fret the different models too much.  Everything he has there is much better quality than what they sell at the big box stores, and the price is lower.

A plane is a tool for making wood very smooth and straight.  Even a cheap plane is really a precision instrument, and once you learn how to use one it opens up a vast new world of possibilities for your woodworking.

bhoppy's picture
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even plywood?

Oh it’s a handtool?!  You must be a real craftsman woodworker!  I'm picturing it working like one of those cheese slicers but for wood... LOL Remember your audience? 

So if I had a slip with my circular saw and my board was short about a half inch on one side could I use a planer to even it out? 

Thanks for all the good info you post... I may just learn enough to one day say I’m no longer a wannabe.

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Plywood and planes

Sorry, forgetting my audience again.  Yes, it's a hand tool.  I actually mostly use hand tools, mostly because I don't like noise, but also because I have a sedentary job and enjoy the slightly increased physical activity.

A jack plane is roughly 11" long, and is a general use tool. 

A plane can be used on plywood.  I've done it.  It's not a great option, but with some care it works. I wouldn't want to trim down 1/2" with it, but 1/8" would be nothing, and 1/4" would be doable.  Where it really excels though is in making things smooth.  The circular saw is going to leave some subtle marks.  A plane would remove those marks.

It's also how wood is made smooth after it's been cut from the tree.  The saw leaves a pretty rough surface, but a plane takes it down to something smooth.

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Both blue and orange carry

Both blue and orange carry 16", 20", and 24" wide glued-up pine panels in 4' and 6' lengths. It would be easy to make a low entertainment center out of these panels - no edge trim or face framing needed. One store carried both stain grade and paint grade. Paint grade was a few bucks cheaper. The 16" and 20" were 3/4" thick, the 24" was 1" thick. It's all back in the row where they have table legs.

sgilly's picture
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Tape, not the greatest option but

it works! It's easy to apply, just get yourself a cheap iron. I bought one for 6.50 at Walmart. Make sure your edges are clean and not dusty, and apply slowly. Give yourself an slight overlap at the ends because it tends to move away from the top edge as you iron it on, and you want to make sure it goes on evenly across the width of the edge. Have a small piece of hardwood handy to use to press it down while the glue is still warm. They have trimmers to trim the edges, but you can just use a sander, too. I've bought it for about $5 a package. I can't remember how many feet of trim are in a pack, but it there's quite a bit and it shouldn't be that much for you to edgeband your project. For your first project, this might be the easiest, cheapest solution.

Pam the Goatherd's picture
Joined: 2011-03-14 14:34
To pretty up the edges on

To pretty up the edges on plywood go to the moulding section of the lumberyard or big box store and look for the flat strips. They come in 3/4" width that is perfect for trimming out the front edge of a plywood shelf and walls. Just use small finish nails to attach the strips. If you are painting the piece you can fill the little dimples where the nails are with a bit of wood putty, sand smooth, and then paint over it.
Or you can build a face frame using 1"x2"s like Ana did on Grace's Bookshelves.