7 Plywood Alternatives That are Sturdier, More Resistant, & Cheaper
Author: Omar Alonso | Editor: Omar Alonso
Review & Research: Jen Worst & Chris Miller
Though better plywood alternatives exist, plywood remains one of the materials most commonly seen in construction and woodworking. It's readily available, durable, and of course, economical.
It also has great customization potential, making it a versatile choice for both interior and exterior work. In recent years, though, multiple alternatives to plywood have emerged on the market.
This is undoubtedly in response to the demand for a sturdy material that has better resistance to moisture damage, does not harm the environment (or at least, harms it less), and fits smaller budgets.
But whatever your reasons for seeking plywood alternatives, we're positive you'll find something you like here: we've laid out all you need to know about the top 7 plywood alternatives below.
7 Plywood Alternatives for Your Next Project
If you're looking to ditch plywood, you'll be pleased to learn that there are at least 7 other materials to take the place of the various types of plywood out there. Now, although these aren't exact substitutes, you're bound to find something that goes with your project:
Polyurethane is a polymer, meaning it’s made with plastic. It might have a rough or smooth surface. And that’s the very thing that gives polyurethane its biggest advantage over plywood.
Its physical properties ensure that it doesn't absorb moisture, and ergo, is not prone to water damage. Because of this, it’s also easier to apply adhesives to polyurethane boards.
A feature polyurethane board does share with plywood is how lightweight it is. And, if you can fork over a little extra for a fiberglass reinforced polyurethane board, you can expect higher durability. In fact, reinforced polyurethane with the right types of fiberglass is great for structural and semi-structural applications.
The only drawback of polyurethane would be its aesthetics, which doesn't really compare with that of the characteristic wood grain finish of plywood, though these composite boards can have a decorative layer added to them, as seen in these decking alternatives.
Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)
If you have a long history of DIY experience, you will have heard of or even used MDF boards already. Like plywood, MDF is an engineered wood product. Instead of wood veneer, however, loose wood fibers are used.
These small wood fibers are bound together with chemicals, so there are no types of wood grain patterns present. The biggest advantage of using MDF boards is that it doesn’t expand or contract when the weather changes—making it more structurally secure.
If you’re used to working with plywood, you’ll have an easy time with medium density fiber boards. It responds well to adhesives and paint, is moisture resistant (both inwardly and on its outer surface), and can be customized in shape and size according to your needs.
And you get brownie points for helping save the environment — medium density fiberboard is essentially a recycled material!
Plywood, unfortunately, beats the MDF board in terms of durability. However, you can keep some of your concerns about durability at bay if you can afford MDF in which high quality wax/resin has been used.
Oriented Strand Board (OSB)
If plywood and MDF both sound great, but you’re unable to choose either one, you should definitely consider OSB.
It’s manufactured by binding different sizes of wood scrap products, which are processed with wax/resin before being oriented in a specific manner (hence the name) to form rigid panels. This gives it a uniform construction.
Oriented Strand Board is available in numerous sizes, thicknesses, and rigidity. It stands up well to warping, retains its strength, and boasts a level of water resistance not found in plywood. Accordingly, it's suitable for a variety of projects.
If you’re concerned about the environment, you’ll do well to opt for OSB board: it’s typically made from wood strips of fast-growing trees—so, it’s more sustainable.
Furthermore, the OSB board takes no formaldehyde-based adhesive or wax/resin in its making. Not to mention, OSB boards are significantly more affordable than plywood.
The most affordable alternatives to plywood are undoubtedly particle boards. Made by condensing wood particles, particle boards are also much more lightweight than plywood and MDF.
Its slick and smooth finish makes it a great flooring material. And given that they're available in a variety of thicknesses and densities, particle boards are also quite versatile. They come in standard sized sheets which can be cut according to your needs.
Like MDF, this material takes well to adhesives. In fact, it's common for builders to fortify tile, linoleum or solid hardwood by gluing them to a particle board. A downside is they'll soak up moisture easily, which can lead to mold problems.
And once again, not only is it made from recycled materials, it also does not contain any formaldehyde (like OSB). As such, this is another good plywood alternative if you're environmentally conscious.
However, particle boards are not without their disadvantages. Firstly, you can’t expect much structural integrity from this material.
Secondly, its aesthetic value is low. And regrettably, you won’t often be able to paint a particle board without cringing at its appearance. You might also have a hard time using conventional woodworking tools on it.
Since we're on the subject of environmentally friendly plywood alternatives, it's time you were introduced to EKO ply (yep, it's even in the name), a recycled materials board. This is a material that is completely made from recycled materials, but that's not why you should consider it.
Designed for durability and strength that is markedly superior to plywood sheets, EKO ply is also fully resistant to water damage, natural rot, and corrosion. Plus, its exterior is chemical-resistant, which greatly enhances its value for places like youth centers.
In terms of aesthetics, EKO ply is similar to recycled board products. It has a grayish coloration pocked through with colorful patches. Now, although this does not sound very visually pleasing, this also makes EKO ply a low to no maintenance material, as it’s easy to clean.
High Density Fiberboard (HDF)
Another engineered wood material that has been steadily gaining popularity is HDF. As you can imagine, it’s quite similar to particle board and MDF.
However, it’s also much stronger and denser in comparison. The reason being that making HDF makes use of exploded wood fibers which are then compressed.
There’s a chance you have seen furniture made from hardboard. That’s probably its most popular usage. It can also be used for construction purposes, and it does well as a temporary floor protector.
What’s more, there is no use of glue or chemicals in the manufacture of hardboards. Instead, the binding process occurs with the help of lignin, which is a naturally occurring organic polymer.
You probably weren’t expecting it, but we’re ending our list of plywood alternatives with— you guessed it— real wood. What we call “solid wood,” as you may already know, is lumber that has been cut and milled directly from trees. As such, it does not undergo any additional processing.
The benefits of using this material are manifold. Firstly, the variety of naturally occurring wood types is large.
You can choose from a number of different wood types to ensure the perfect match for your project — structurally, economically, and of course, aesthetically (think of all the different wood grain patterns and colors you see in solid wood furniture). Small wonder it's so often used in furniture making.
But it goes without saying that for the environmentally conscious citizen, natural wood should be your last resort. Not to mention, if you’re on a budget, you’d be better off not choosing this material (although it is available in a wide price range).
Pros & Cons of Plywood
Before you decide which material should stand in for plywood in your next project, let’s go over the reasons why you might want to keep it — and the reasons why you won’t. You may not want to seek alternatives to plywood after reading these:
Pros of Plywood
These positives may make you rethink seeking a plywood substitute.
Buying Plywood Saves You Money
Its relative affordability is undoubtedly one of the best things about plywood if you want a substitute for using solid wood.
Plywood Is Easily Available
You'll find a plywood sheet (or several!) in just about any hardware store you walk into. No wonder it's one of the most popular options in construction projects.
Plywood Is Versatile
When you go to buy plywood, you will undeniably be met with a wide range of types, thicknesses, rigidity, and sizes. No matter the nature of your project, chances are you'll find the right kind of plywood for it. Not to mention, it's a highly durable material.
Plywood Can Hold Its Own
If you've worked with standard plywood wooden construction panels before, you already know how strong and sturdy it is, despite being easy to mold into a desired shape. It's also highly impact-resistant and chemical-resistant. It tops the list of drywall alternatives for outdoor projects.
Cons of Plywood
The negatives of plywood may further entrench your decision to go elsewhere, though.
Most Plywood Is Susceptible to Water Damage
Although you won't have to worry about shrinkage or expansion when it comes to plywood, you certainly can't expose it to water without a plywood layer or two falling apart—especially if it's made of thin layers.
Yes, you can find variations of plywood that can better resist moisture but don't be surprised if a night of rain ruins your plywood product. That is, unless you're willing to buy higher quality plywood, which is undeniably heavy on the pocket.
Plywood Is Less Strong Than Wood
This pretty much goes without saying. If strength and stability are your primary concerns, you’re better off using hardwood or other sturdier plywood alternatives (such as MDF).
Producing Plywood Generally Harms the Environment
Plywood is made by bonding together wood veneers. And the adhesives used to do this typically contain formaldehyde, which harms the environment.
Plywood Alternatives Can Be a Win For You
So, as you can see, you have a number of perfectly viable alternatives to choose from if you’re done using plywood.
Although the benefits of using plywood are hard to overstate, some of us are looking for a more economical or lightweight plywood alternative, are keen to save the environment, or want something with better water resistance. Good thing there are so many plywood alternatives!