Particle board and plywood are two popular materials that woodworkers use all the time, so they’re often compared. But which one is better?
In this particle board vs plywood comparison, I’ll give you the inside scoop on which is better and when you should use each. Let’s dig in!
Particle board is heavier than plywood, less durable, and less moisture-resistant. But it’s smoother than plywood, more affordable, paintable and stainable, and arguably more eco-friendly. In truth, these two materials are more similar than they are different, but if you want a strong, long-lasting material, opt for plywood.
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What Is Particle Board?
Particle board, otherwise known as chip board or low-density fiberboard, is an engineered wood product, that’s made of wood scraps or wood chips. A synthetic resin or another kind of binder is used to keep all the wood pieces together.
It’s like oriented strand board (OSB) and looks similar, but OSB is stronger. The only material weaker than particle board is insulation board.
The more dense it is, the stronger it is, but even the densest versions are prone to failing under considerable stress.
It’s more uniform than plywood and solid wood, and it’s one of the cheapest wood products on the market, which is a key reason why it’s sought-after these days.
Particle board is more than a century old, and it was originally created in Germany.
One important thing to know about particle board is cutting it releases a ton of dust, and if you’re cutting decades-old particle board you may run the risk of being exposed to a range of harmful particles, but more on that later.
If you’re on a tight budget and you need a low cost wood, particle board could be the perfect option. In many cases, particle board can also act as a plywood alternative.
What Is Plywood?
Plywood is an engineered product as well, but its composition is not like particle board’s. In fact, plywood’s composition is what makes it unique and sought after.
Basically, multiple plies (or veneers) are glued together to create the material known as plywood.
But the main thing that makes plywood unique is its cross-grain configuration. Specifically, the plies are arranged so there’s variation between the grains, and this makes the material less prone to splitting when nails and screws are driven into it.
Cross-grain configuration also ensures the material doesn’t shrink and swell because of the fluctuating temperature.
And plywood’s composition, specifically the middle layer, allows it to bear significant stress without bending.
This centuries-old material was invented by a British naval officer, Samuel Bentham; he’s the first one to document and describe the material we know today as plywood.
There are tons of different grades of plywood depending on your needs, so you’re sure to find one that fits your project.
Particle Board vs Plywood
Particle Board vs Plywood: Weight
Of these two materials, particle board is the heavier one. It’s also denser, which in large part explains why it’s heavier.
The main reason why particle board is heavier is its composition; it’s made up of mostly wood chips, and therefore is similar in density and weight to natural wood.
Plywood, on the other hand, though made up of several plies is lightweight because each one of the plies is lightweight. So the more plies a board or sheet has, the heavier it’ll be.
Because of its heaviness, you should not hang cabinets that are made 100% of particle board, nor should you use a lot of this material to make wheeled furniture. In either case, the weight of the particle board would be too much to handle.
Thin sheets of particle board that are 4 x 8 and 3/4 inches thick typically way about 90 lbs, whereas plywood of the exact size and thickness weighs nearly half of that.
Plywood that’s 1/2 inches thick usually weighs between 40 and 45 lbs.
And when it comes to plywood, the specific type is relevant, as hardwood plywood is heavier than softwood plywood. So two sheets could be identical in thickness and size and have completely different weights because of this.
Particle Board vs Plywood: Strength and Durability
You’d think that because of its weight and density particle board is stronger than plywood, but that’s not the case. Plywood is a stronger and more durable material specifically because it utilizes cross-grain construction.
In other words, each one of the plies that makes up a sheet of plywood has its own grain pattern, and if these are arranged so the grains are going in different directions, the sheet will be stronger overall.
Plus, plywood can be made much stronger with polyurethane and protective stain; the same can be said for particle board, though this isn’t done often. After all, why would you add a thin, protective coat to a material that’s inherently weak?
Particle board is more prone to denting and scratching mainly because of its composition but you can seal particle board to add more durability.
But when it comes to visual appeal, damage to plywood is more noticeable than damage to particle board, which is something to consider when comparing the two materials.
Particle Board vs Plywood: Smoother Surface
Plywood may have particleboard beat in the strength and durability category, but when it comes to smoothness, particleboard wins.
Despite being made of recycled wood—which at first may sound rough and irregular— particle board usually flat and smooth, especially if it’s been coated with a decorative laminate.
Plywood, on the other hand, cannot be laminated because of the cross-grain composition I mentioned earlier.
That said, plywood can be sanded to a point where it’s pretty smooth, but sanding won’t get plywood to match the smoothness of particle board.
Because of its smoothness, and other factors, particle board is more paintable and stainable than plywood.
It should be pointed out, however, that high-end decorative plywood, or plywood that has an appealing outer wood veneer, is comparable to particle board in terms of smoothness.
But this kind of high-end, decorative plywood cannot be painted or stained, which means if you want the smoothest plywood out there you’ll have to be fine with its natural appearance.
Check out this post to learn how to paint particle board so you can get any result you want!
Particle Board vs Plywood: Eco Friendliness
Of the two materials, particle boards are the more eco-friendly option, mainly because they’re made of recycled wood.
Plywood, on the other hand, is a much more engineered material, so the process used to make it is more carbon intensive.
But since particle board is paintable and stainable, and since either finish is rife with VOCs, one could argue that particle board forfeits its green properties the second paint or stain touches it.
And if you’re working with an older version of parcel board, you run the risk of releasing formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, or hydrogen cyanide, especially if you’re cutting this material.
But if you’re using material that was made post 2015, you don’t have to worry about it including from formaldehyde, which the WHO recognizes as a carcinogen.
In truth, it’s fair to say both options are eco-friendly; we’re talking about wood in both cases, after all. Sure, some woodworkers say it’s a draw in this category, but I still give the edge to particle board because of its composition.
Particle Board vs Plywood: Water Resistance
Plywood is more water-resistant than particle board, mainly because of its composition.
Specifically, since each ply is bonded by a moisture-resistant adhesive, this means the overall material is moisture resistant.
But neither interior nor exterior plywood is totally waterproof; even marine plywood which is designed for frequent contact with water, does not boast this quality.
That said plywood, can endure prolonged exposure to water without getting destroyed, while particle board would get waterlogged and weakened as a result.
So if you have particle board mounted to a wall or suspended in some way, ensure it doesn’t get waterlogged, for it does there’s a significant risk it’ll come crashing down.
There are some ways to waterproof plywood, but this comes with an additional cost.
Particle Board vs Plywood: Price
In most cases, particle board is cheaper than plywood. Low-grade plywood, however, can be cheaper.
Also, it’s possible to find high-quality particle board that’s even more expensive than mid-grade plywood.
Generally speaking, the price of average plywood can range from $12 to $55, while thicker, more high-quality plywoods can be upwards of $120.
Particle board, on the other hand, rarely costs more than $30; most sheets are between $10 and $20.
Particle board’s affordability is one of the reasons why it’s a popular building material, and its price is based mainly on its intrinsic value.
The same can’t be said for plywood, as this is a more engineered material, which means the cost of manufacturing has to be reflected in price, thus making this material more expensive.
So before you purchase some particle board with the intention of saving a buck, remember that this is priced lower than plywood for several reasons, the main one being that this is not as strong and therefore not as long lasting.
When to Use Particle Board
Particle board is used in both solid core and flush doors, as it’s easy to fix a door skin to this material. Also, hinges work better with particle board than they do with medium density fiberboard (MDF).
Additionally, particle board is used as petitioning and wall paneling, and it can be insulated and soundproofed.
It’s commonly used as flooring underlayment, and it can be used as flooring too.
Need to install a false ceiling? Particle board is a great material for this purpose as well.
And of course this material is used to make a wide range of furniture. But one must be careful when arranging particle board furniture, as it’ll be heavier.
When to Use Plywood
Most people associated plywood with new home construction, and that’s because it’s used to make exterior walls, flooring, interior walls, and roofing.
Plywood can also be used to make siding for sheds, garages, and other smaller outdoor structures.
It’s used to make a wide range of furniture as well, like cabinets and shelves, and the marine version can be used on docks and boats.
In short, plywood is an incredibly versatile material, one that can be used to make crates, small fences, pet cages, skateboarding ramps, and toolboxes. Its versatility comes in large part from its strength and ability to resist adverse weather and conditions.
What are the disadvantages of plywood?
The main disadvantage associated with plywood is it can’t be painted or stained easily, because of the cross-grain texture. It’s also more expensive than most other wood-based materials, even natural wood in some cases. And even decent-quality plywood can be rough, requiring both sanding and edging.
Can I use particle board instead of plywood?
There are plenty of instances where particle board can be used instead of plywood. For example, you can use this when a partition is needed, and it also makes a great subfloor. Just remember you shouldn’t use particle board in areas where it’s going to be exposed to water, as it won’t hold up like plywood can.
Both particle board and plywood are useful materials for DIY projects, furniture making, or other home improvement projects.
In the end, the project largely determines which material is needed. That said, if you’re in a situation where either material can be used, what you choose will largely be guided by preference, as these materials are more similar than they are different.