MDF vs Plywood: Best Wood for Workbench Tops

If you are like me, you’re probably offended by the thought of buying a workbench. You’re a woodworker. If you don’t make your own workbench, you might as well sell all your tools on Craigslist. If you are interested in ideas for building your own workbench, check out the article DIY workbench on this website. In this article, we will take a deep dive into all your options on what wood to use for your workbench top. The best type of wood to use for a workbench top depends on how you intend to use it. MDF, Plywood, and hardboard are all good options.

Mastering Workbench Craft: The Ultimate MDF vs Plywood Guide

MDF is smoother, which is good for moving heavy objects around easier. It also doesn’t splinter like plywood. Plywood is great if you get a bit messy with glue and solvents. It’s cheap and easy to replace, and you can use the old piece for templates or jigs. Hardboard (or HDF) usually has a coating that makes it a better work surface. Put a piece on top of plywood for easy change out. Keep in mind that you will end up clamping, drilling, and otherwise abusing the bench top, so something replaceable is a good choice.

What are the Workbench Types?

Decorative workbenches – usually made by a master craftsman to show off how good they are at woodworking. Handyman Workbench – for someone who is constantly fixing everything themselves. Woodworker workbench – for those serious about making objects and furniture with wood.

Fancy Decorative Workbench

This type of workbench is for showing off your awesome woodworking skills. Perfect joints, sanded to a great finish (only 1000 grit will do). Usually hard-pressed to find a spec of sawdust in the vicinity. If you have the skill to make this type of bench, thanks for reading this article… and please let me know what your workbench secrets are in the comments.

Handyman Workbench

Making some planter boxes for your new garden? Maybe fixing the lawnmower on your workbench? This is the type you need. I highly recommend water/sludge-resistant materials like plywood that are cheap and easy to replace. Make it strong and beefy so it can survive whatever you’re going to toss on it. Spend your money on home improvement instead of a workspace because your workspace is wherever you’re fixing stuff.

Woodworker Workbench

This is the most important type. A true work surface that you can use for clamping furniture together, gluing up pieces, and clamping your boards for sanding and shaping. You need a good-sized flat, versatile surface that you can put a chair or table on top of for some routing or finishing. The top will survive about 6 months of moderate use before needing to be replaced. A high-quality plywood can then be used for making templates.

Standard Workbench Top Ideas

  • Plywood only: One or a couple of layers stacked on top with tape or a wood border around the edges. Easy to mount vises and clamps due to how good plywood holds screws. Easy to clean off glue and screw holes by attacking it with a sander.
  • MDF on top of plywood: Smooth surface that won’t damage your project. Easy to slide heavy objects on it. Good work surface when doing intricate work.
  • Thin Layer of Hard Board on top of plywood or MDF: The hardboard is a great surface to work on. Very easy to replace when it gets damaged. Holds screws better than MDF.
  • 2×4’s or 2×8’s stacked on end side by side: Good surface for working with hand tools. Lasts forever as long as you treat it nicely. Solid surface for clamping and Vises.

What is MDF?

MDF is medium density fiberboard. It’s an engineered composite that is similar to particle board but stronger and denser. It’s made by squishing sawdust and a binder (glue) into large sheets the size and shape of plywood.

Pros of MDF Wood

  • Very smooth surface that will not scratch or damage your project.
  • Easy to paint due to its smooth surface. If you intend to paint MDF, use an oil-based primer and paint.
  • Cheaper than Plywood.
  • Straight and flat surface with no splinters or other defects that can cause problems with your work.

MDF doesn’t last too long.

Cons of MDF Wood

  • Doesn’t do well with water. Easily soaks up water and swells up, making the surfaces unusable.
  • Really Heavy due to its density.
  • Toxic if you are cutting or sanding the MDF due to the glue and binders it’s constructed from.
  • Doesn’t do well if you’re like me and are always screwing things to the workbench. The fine particles crumble easily.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Plywood

Plywood is engineered wood that is manufactured by gluing thin sheets of wood together to make a sheet of wood. There are many different options and grades of plywood with some having a solid particle board core for strength. The lower grades are usually used for construction (floor bases as an example). The higher grades are used for cabinets and furniture and are available in different species.

Advantages of Plywood

  • Very strong due to the way it is made and easy to work with.
  • Some varieties of plywood are made without the toxic binders.
  • Good for screws due to the wood grain.
  • Isn’t easily damaged by water like MDF is. It will eventually get damaged by water. You can apply a sealant to it for protection.
  • Any rough spots like dried glue or screw holes can be sanded to a smooth finish in seconds.

MDF vs Plywood: Best Wood for Workbench Tops

Complement the information with the following instructional video: