Which Man-made Boards to Use?

I’ve been enjoying making the second blanket chest and the challenges of the glue up. because of the struggles I came up with a more foolproof way for gluing up and aligning everything so that the glue up could be done as a two step process. This took off the pressure of a large, single endeavour.

The long axis glue-up did have some issues making my strategy all the more worth the extra steps I took to avoid comications.

The wood has been stunning and the challenges of different wood types switching from softer hardwoods within the Acer (Maple) species meant little was as predictable as I’d like, but now the main superstructure is all grooved, panelled and jointed I’m enjoying bringing the whole to a close. But it’s this that brought me to the point of this post. Moving into my garage space has made me think about the materials I will use. Storage, shelves, shelves and panels to my new workbench and such are within my radar right now. What’s been considered in the past I am not considering the same today. Even so, pressed fibreboard (chipboard) pegboard, hardboard (masonite USA) and MDF are non-negotiables, they’re out. Real wood and plywood on the other hand are my two primary choices because of their proven technology but then more than that they suit my personal preference for working wood with hand tool methods even though I will and do use machines for some of my work.

As it is with many things, predictability often escapes us when we work with real wood and perhaps especially with using hand tools. Planing the surface of curly maple or birds eye maple needs special care, sharp edges and a swift shift in direction in a split second. Wood expands and contracts and in its natural condition rebels when you least want it to. Glue it down hard and it shrinks and splits. Then it cups and bows when left unconstrained when left free.

That’s why commerce and so called professionals like to use MDF. MDF may lead to the kind of characterless products hiding under the guise of some sort of ‘Scandinavian’ styling free (or freed) from classicism, but in manufacture, simple lines, squared off edges and square blockiness means that many designs are risk free for the makers. Used appropriately, MDF has it’s place, I know that. It doesn’t shrink, is remarkably stable, is fully machinable and it’s relatively cheap to produce.With the right hardware it can hold up. It’s just not the kind of material I like having around. All in all, for those of us enjoying real woodworker it’s not quite so easy a material to work with either. You can’t work it too well at all with hand tools. MDF demands high speed machines and cutters to work it and all of that means heightened danger with machines, waste and dust. Even with sharp hand tools such as planes chisels and saws, MDF seems always to ‘mushroom’ under the pressure of just about all hand tool cuts and thus making a negative product. Drive screws into it and somehow it develops its own type of fibrous powders and screws seem always to strip out even under low torque. Screwing into the edge at any point results in the fibres parting too. I rarely use moulding on my work that I can’t make with a #4 or a simple moulding plane. I own a hand held power router and skilsaw, a jigsaw too, but somehow the MDF and pressed fibreboard produce a dust and powder I just cannot accept as invasive substances in my life. Both of these materials were engineered as sheet products designated for industrial mass-manufacture. As I never mass make anything, it seems I am destined to continue my life not using MDF or pressed fibreboard. I feel fine about it.

So my plywood is in and so too much of my wood. It’s a question of organising myself now. My first garage project is going to be wood storage.


39 thoughts on “Which Man-made Boards to Use?”

  1. Ian Sutherland

    `My first garage project is going to be wood storage.` — Thats great news! I look forward to that.
    Congratulations on the new workspace, and I wish you and the team all the best in the exciting times ahead.

  2. I regard MDF with grudging admiration, but the dust and smell (especially) it gives off when using an electric router and dust extraction put me right off, just before I decided to go fully hand woodworking (well, apart from my bandsaw for resawing!)

    1. It was my primary (and pretty much only) material when I used to build loudspeakers (apart from some real wood veneer). I still have a fair bit left but find myself trying to avoid using it; even when it would probably be a suitable material for a job, for the same smell and dust reasons.

      1. Loudspeakers are a special case, because MDF has almost unique non-resonant properties. You choose MDF solely because of its acoustic performance, and not for its workability as wood. My Harbeth speakers are made of plywood, but the research that went into making that design usable has taken decades, and some still question it. My very best monitor speakers are made of MDF.

      2. Loudspeakers are a special case, because MDF has almost unique non-resonant properties. You choose MDF solely because of its acoustic performance, and not for its workability as wood. My Harbeth speakers are made of plywood, but the research that went into making that design usable has taken decades, and some still question it. My very best monitor speakers are made of MDF. Marine ply is used for boatbuilding and is a pretty competent material.

      3. I knew a man who once built high end speakers. He said that he used HIGH density fiberboard (HDF). He went on to say that it was extremely heavy and very tough on the table saw blades.

        1. MDF for mid-grade and HDF for the really good cabinets was how learned about the stuff. And it really does make a remarkably good sound cabinet. Outside of the that I still avoid it and generally replace MDF made furnishing around me.

  3. MDF has its place though. For some reason I can’t source decent quality plywood at a reasonable price so MDF is used for making jigs. It’s great for that as it can be painted or varnished and if you use threaded inserts, the assembly of a jig is dead easy.

    As a shelf? Not a chance.

    Of all the man made boards, chipboard is my least favourite by far.

    1. Agreed for jigs; that’s pretty much all I’ll use it for now.

      Given the number of US-based YouTube builders using decent looking birch ply, I assume it must be much cheaper over there; as it’s a crazy price here in the UK.

      Chipboard: the hotdog of the wood world 😉

  4. I think wood storage has been plaguing woodworkers of all types since the beginning. Looking forward to how you will approach this.

  5. In an earlier post you mentioned that the plywood you were using had equal thickness veneers throughout. The only plywood I’ve seen in the sheds has a finishing veneer so thin as to disappear with anything more than a light sanding.
    Is there a trade description/name for the equal thickness veneer ply you use so that I can at least ask for it?

    1. There is a podcast called Against the Grain. They have one episode (40 to 60 min long) completely dedicated to the different types of plywoods out there. I need to go back and relisten to take notes.

    2. Yes, yes, I hate that plywood with the extremely thin veneer.
      Sometimes I buy or make my own veneer and glue it up.


    3. Veneer core is what you’re looking for. It’s the term for plywood that uses the same type of veneer throughout. As such, the faces aren’t any thinner than the inner layers because there would be no benefit.

  6. How do y’all feel about OSB? I had a bunch to use up lying around and I have used it with some success for utility boxes. It seems to me about 1/2 way between particle boards (MDF, chipboard, hardboard) and plywood. I still much prefer any plywood and I seem to accumulate utility grade ply from various salvage sources constantly also.

    1. Ian,
      I built storage units for my tools with OSB – I will never use the stuff again. It splinters badly, flakes detach from the surface and have to be glued back. I edged it all round with mahogany to prevent it crumbling in use but when finished the surface was full of holes that probably should be filled. I gave it a couple of coats of PU varnish and bolted my mitre saw to it. For the second assembly, I used MDF as the finished surface and that worked well for an assembly table. The drawers were all OSB, glued and screwed with mahogany trim on the exposed edges to prevent splinters every time I went for a tool. In the end, I have serviceable units but I would not recommend OSB to anyone.

  7. I don’t use MDF because it’s made from urea-formaldehyde which when cut especially with powered saws forms a dust (no shavings) that is known to be carcinogenic. Add to that all the problems that Paul mentioned. This material also outgasses, the warmer the temperature the faster this occurs. Then you should consider what happens to the scraps of material when you throw them out, I would think it would really be hazardous to the environment. I really don’t want to mix real wood shavings with this dust that I throw in the compost pile.
    I know wood dust can be hazardous as well but using hand tools keeps it greatly reduced. Anytime I use machines I use my vacuum system to collect the dust.

    1. I have a friend who is a professional craftsman that I’ve know for a very long time and was like a surrogate dad to me when I lived in a different part of the country. We’ve stayed close and I love to hear his work stories and see what he is building.

      He actually charges more if he has to use MDF. He really hates the stuff.

      I completely agree regarding the hazzards of dust in general and then what you mention is spot on. You really don’t want to be breathing this stuff.

    2. Yes tom “carcinogenic”. CAN CAUSE CANCER…….I’m told it’s band in America??
      I’ve used sheets of the stuff …….hopefully I will be ok????
      Now I won’t have it near me …….John

      1. MDF is just as commonly used and as popular with so called professional US woodworkers and US businesses in the USA as the UK. They import many times more from Asia and keep their own backyard as clean as possible as is the case with the UK. Nimbyism is thrivingly rife everywhere in Europe and North America. No different.

        1. On many building sites in Victoria (Australia) MDF is banned from being cut or machined on site due to the health hazard risks it presents when turned to dust.
          In Australia plywood is frightfully expensive compared with USA unless we are talking about really low-grade material. Shame.
          I love plywood and I suspect this is due to my father explaining to me when I was 4 or 5 years old (he was making a box for my fledgling Meccano set) how clever it was to have a material that was strong in all directions and light too.

  8. What I do, mainly because i’m a cheapskate, is use both Mdf and plywood. As you know, both materials have there pros and cons, so mixing them comes natural. I don’t like the price of the good plywood for storage uses so I buy the cheaper quality 1/2 inch plywood and use it as a veneer over the flat, stable and cheaper Mdf. You can do all sorts of end grain treatments to hide the layers. I can build an extremely strong and stable shelf using a plywood top and a mdf middle along with a hardwood edge for extra strength or for milling an edge.

  9. I have a workbench that has an MDF top. It was the first one I made. Soon I’ll be dissembling it because I use another one made from 2×4’s (Paul Sellers design). I have some chipboard that I’m using for dresser tops. The dressers are for my shop. Eventually I’m going to paint them. I used it because I didn’t want to throw it out. I’m not into plywood that much. I’ve used it but don’t look to buy it. I’d rather glue up boards, plane them, and dimension them. Maybe I’d use it for something like the back of Paul’s bedside cabinet.

  10. Thanks Paul. I am looking forward to the partial glue up. As a beginner, the glue up race against the clock is stressful. Being able to do partial glue ups, even if not time efficient, and seeing how will be helpful.

    I also have liked this build in particular with some of the challenges of the wood grain. There were a couple of seemingly little things you said while dealing with a challenge that were huge aha moments for me.

  11. Looking forward to the wood/lumber storage as well, always looking for a better way. I am a wood hoarder and have many small pieces tucked away. I really do use them. .)))
    I see you put leather or cork pads on your bar clamps, very necessary for curved surfaces. It prevents slipping off of and marring the work.

    I agree glue up is very stressful.
    I made a very large mortise and tenon house door and almost lost it in glue up. Very physical and at 76 years, oh well, you know.


  12. One of my least favorite properties of MDF and particle board (aside from the cancer) are their absolute intolerance of liquids. Ever sat a drink on an MDF surface? once it absorbs the moisture it expands and never really goes back. I’ve used them very few times but only ever had mixed results when sealing/painting.
    The really unfortunate part of that is that they’re often used in and around sink cabinets where sooner or later the unsealed/non-laminated edges WILL GET WET.
    OSB is at least mildly better at water resistance, but I still don’t understand their widespread use as roof decking material aside from being the lowest cost sheeting option available.

    In general I avoid any material where the adhesive is the load bearing material. 🙂


    1. Actually, MDF is fairly resistant and you can buy dedicated moisture resistant versions that I have soaked in buckets for days and not had any swelling or disintegration. It’s more that it is pretty much a dedicated machine product and not good at all for hand tool working. That’s aside from the harmful effects of the machining process, air pollution, health issues and the lack of protection afforded the home user of machines.

      1. I’ll defer to your expertise. My few experiences working with MDF thicker than 1/8″ left me not wanting to explore it’s properties any further. Thank you again, sir.

  13. I’ve read here before that you consider plywood to be a decent viable material. Encouraged by your reasoning, I made a diamond plate holder from it using your design. Functionally it’s fine. It never needed to be pretty, but I found it a pity given the care I took, that some of the ultra-thin facing layer so easily chipped away making it look messier than it ought to have. But I think I’ve also read about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ plywood (was that here or somewhere else?] so I’d be interested to know what to look for and where to find it. Perhaps some other readers might too?

    1. Colin, I share your disappointment with the quality of plywood when I also made a sharpenening plate holder to Paul’s design and instructions. I admit, it was my first time using a hand router but I was extremely careful and took my time. Whilst the router handling grew on me and I could see how useful this tool could be I’m afraid the quality of plywood left a lot to be desired. I purposely sourced my ply from a dedicated sheet material supplier in Galway City Ireland as my local builders provider here in Clifden Connemara wouldn’t know real marine ply (BS 1088) if it hit them at the back of the head! I’m afraid the Galway City supplier was no better. Like you the top layer or surface veneer chipped all too readily. I think the low quality adhesive used in its manufacture coupled with the extra thinness of the facing veneer is the reason for the disappointing result. Despite the description of Marine Ply I reckon they are passing off a far inferior product!
      Some years ago I purchased (when I lived in the UK) some 1/2 inch marine ply from Robins timber (Bristol) for a boat repair project. Boy was it far superior to what I have recently experienced. It was lovely stuff to work with (but I was using an electric jig-saw at the time, sorry!) I think you have to make sure that the supplier of the ply needs to know what is good quality and what is general construction ply. The first thing I look at is the edge of the board. If it has voids or has white filler in places then it’s certainly not quality ply! I also like to see all the laminations of equal thickness.

    2. Hello Colin, Unfortunately not all plywoods are created equal. I use birch plywood mostly and not the Asian imports so Finish birch. 13 ply is excellent.

    3. To second what Paul said, in the US the big box stores do have a reasonable selection of birch and other “premium” plywoods. It’s usually in a separate aisle from the construction grade stuff. The higher quality stuff is often sold in varying thickness from 1/8″ to 5/8″ and comes in panel size options much easier to fit into a car.

  14. The industry term for plywood with a very thin face veneer is scant faced.

    The most beautiful plywood I have ever seen was used to construct the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes’ experimental plane that flew but was never used. Now it is a museum exhibit. Eleven ply panels are only 3/8 inch thick and the exposed edges are exquisite. I assume from the name of the plane all the plies are spruce.

    A local supplier has been selling Russian made birch plywood for at least fifteen years. I’ve used a few dozen sheets in that time and haven’t found a void yet. In 5 foot square sheets it is only slightly more expensive than the local birch plywood with voids, fewer layers, and core veneers of fir, poplar, or pine.

    I recently used a pine panel manufactured in China. I had never seen veneers overlapped within a single layer before. This was visible from the edges. Evidently the strategy prevents voids but it creates a lumpy surface, even though the face veneer was sanded. I wonder if this is progress, experimental or just plain weird.

  15. Hi Colin, Paul et al,
    Firstly thank you Paul for your reply to Colin, it’s helped me. After trying to source decent quality plywood here in Ireland by using the search term “Marine” plywood and only getting a couple suppliers who declare BS1088 (all Dublin based) and trying more local boat yards here in the west who jealously guard even their off-cuts so wouldn’t consider selling them on, I used the search term “Finnish Birch” plywood and lo and behold at least 5 Irish suppliers popped up. Seemingly the best available quality is what is advertised as B/BB. It’s priced quite a bit cheaper than proper marine ply.
    Sorry to go slightly off topic but after previous comments about the Spruce Goose, I have to say I do miss the aircraft factory I worked in during the 80’s. Despite making metal aircraft it had quite a number of wood shops (for making mock-ups display stands and jigs) and if one wanted an off-cut of plywood (or any other species of wood that might be available for that matter) all one had to do was speak nicely to the shop foreman and usually your request was accommodated. It was of the very finest quality. The same description of quality could be used for some of the “old boys” some of whom started their careers working on wood airframes and wooden laminated propellers! (1940’s) They were true craftsmen and their expertise became more sought after by aircraft preservation groups in the latter years. Not many of the old boys left now.
    I was involved in a youth group (aviation oriented) who were doing a project that needed a three bladed propeller for a home made wind turbine. One of the senior woodworkers who had started out on wood laminated propellers years ago advised laminating the blades out of mahogany and Sitka spruce. The mahogany was sourced quite easily but the Sitka spruce was another story. It just wasn’t available. I was advised to visit one of the the wood shops in the factory and speak with a particular foreman. Armed with rough dimensions and quantities that we required I spoke to the said foreman. I was led over to an extensive stock pile of timber in one corner of the shop and after moving off-cuts of various species and sizes I was shown a roughly railway sleeper sized piece of wood that I was told was Canadian Sitka Spruce. “Would you be able to get what you want out of that?” I was asked. I think the size of the piece could have provided enough for at least 30 blades! I was told it’s well seasoned – and when I looked at the end grain at one end it had “A.M. 1943” stamped on it! (A.M. = Air Ministry).
    Now that I am getting into wood work as a hobby via Paul’s on-line tutorials I have to contend with generally low grade construction quality timber sourced locally or pay through the nose buying it in from afar (across the country) if I want/need better quality.
    I do miss that aircraft factory!

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