There are lots of woodworking applications that demand sheet goods instead of solid wood, and there are a variety of choices available. This article will help you pick the material that will work best for your project.
Why sheet goods?
Sheet stock offers a variety of advantages over solid wood. Cost is foremost for many woodworkers. In my neck of the woods a square foot of red oak plywood costs 10-20% less than a square foot of solid red oak. Pricing varies a lot, depending on specie and quality of the sheet, but generally it’s less expensive to get sheet goods than solids.
Stability is another big factor. Solid wood expands and contracts seasonally. Sheet goods move a tiny bit, but the amount is so small it’s negligible. This is a really big deal when it comes to large panels like cabinet sides and table tops. No need to allow for seasonal movement when you’re working with sheet goods.
Need big pieces? You can glue them up from a bunch of smaller pieces of solid, or simply cut them out of a 4’ x 8’ piece of sheet stock. There’s an obvious labor savings that comes along with cutting large pieces from sheet stock.
Veneered sheet goods generally have a uniform grain pattern, due to the way the veneer is cut. When it comes to large panels you get a color and grain match from sheet goods that can be hard to achieve when gluing up solid wood pieces.
Sheet goods come in a variety of thickness, with 1/4″, 1/2″ and 3/4″ being very common. No planing required to get those thin pieces.
Why not sheet goods?
Since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, we need to look at the disadvantages of sheet stock. I think every woodworker would agree that thin veneer is the bane of working with most forms of sheet stock. With a thickness of 1/30” or so there isn’t much wiggle room when sanding the veneer on sheet stock. Spend too much time in one spot with 120-grit on a random orbit sander and you’ll go right through the veneer to the substrate.
Thickness of the sheets isn’t very reliable. Although we call the sheets 3/4” thick (or whatever thickness you’re buying) they’re hardly ever true to that number. As long as you know that and adjust accordingly it isn’t a deal breaker.
When it comes to veneer, you may or may not be able to get the specie you’re after in sheet goods. If you get away from home centers and go to hardwood suppliers you’ll be surprised at what you can get; alder, birch, cherry, pine, walnut… but you may not be able to get sheet stock to match every piece of solid you want to work with.
Most sheets are plenty heavy, with mdf and particle board being the worst. You’ll probably need an extra pair of hands to get the stuff in your shop and rough cut to size.
Plywood is made up of layers laminated together. It’s important to note that the layers are secondary material, not the same as the veneer. That’s why sanding through is so bad. It leaves a spot that looks nothing like the surrounding veneer.
In this cutaway you can see that the plywood layers have alternating grain. This helps make plywood strong and stable. You can also see just how different the core material is from the face veneer.
-Lighter than its counterparts in the particle board family.
-Strong. A good choice for shelves in a book case.
-Holds fasteners well
-More expensive than its counterparts in the particle board family
-More prone to cupping and twisting
-Greater tendency to be undersized in thickness
MDF, medium density fiberboard, is in the particle board family. It’s made of finer particulates than particle board. Imagine taking the dust produced by a sander, mixing it with glue, and forming it into a sheet. You’d have mdf when you’re done.
If you’re working on a paint-grade project, consider using mdf. It paints like a dream. I once made a set of paint-grade cabinets; cases, raised panel doors, drawer fronts; entirely from mdf. It looked great.
-Runs very true to stated thickness
-Stays flatter than plywood
-Less prone to chipping than plywood
-Excellent substrate under veneer
-Great for shop jigs
-Not very strong
-Extremely heavy, about 100 pounds per 3/4″ x 4’ x 8’
-Dusty to machine
-Prone to soaking up water. Not a great choice for a vanity.
-If stored in a damp location it can take on moisture and swell.
-Doesn’t hold fasteners well.
-Unattractive unless painted
-High glue content makes it hard on tools, even carbide.
-Many products in the particle board family, like mdf, may have toxins in the glue that binds the fibers together, so you should wear a respirator when working with it.
This material has all the pros and cons of raw mdf, but it’s veneered both faces, like plywood. Its big advantage over plywood is price, sometimes costing as much as 20% less than a similarly veneered piece of plywood. Like plywood, if you find the right supplier you’ll be able to get a large variety of veneer types.
If you ever need 1/4″ thick panels, like you’d use in a door, you’ll love veneered mdf for this application. Because it’s truer to thickness than plywood you can usually cut a 1/4″ groove, put in the panel, and not have it rattling around inside the groove.
Melamine is made by coating both side of a piece of particle board with paper or a plasticized surface. Plastic coated melamine is better than paper coated. You can tell the difference by looking at the edge. Paper coated will look like it has contact paper on it. Plasticized coatings are melted and fused into the surface.
Home centers often carry white, maybe almond. To get other colors or woodgrain patterns you’ll need to go to a more specialized supplier.
-Already sealed, so no need to finish cabinet interiors
-Wipes and cleans easily
-White provides a nice, bright case interior.
-Available in many colors and wood grain patterns.
-Smooth surface is great for shop tables.
-Edges prone to chipping when cutting. Requires the right blade.
-Holds fasteners better than mdf, but not as well as plywood
-Because the coating is added to the particle board, melamine is often over-sized in thickness.
Its real name is multi-ply, but many woodworkers call this stuff Baltic Birch, which is a specific type of multi-ply plywood. Others are Finnish Ply and ApplePly.
Compare the 1/2″ multi-ply, on the left, with the standard 1/2″ ply on the right. Easy to see why it’s called multi-ply. It has 9 layers, compared to 4.
-No voids, anywhere
-Thicker face veneers help prevent sanding through
-Great for drawer boxes
-Great for shop-made jigs
-Edges don’t look bad, unbanded, when sanded and finished.
-Holds fasteners well.
-Generally not available at home centers
-Commonly in metric sizes; for example 19 mm instead of 3/4″.
-Some sheets come 5’ x 5’ instead of 4’ x 8’, and can be hard to haul.
-A little chippy. Be sure to use sharp tools and zero clearance fences.
-Only available with birch face. ApplePly may be purchased with other veneers.
The real world
Let me try to add some clarity to all this info by telling you some of my more common sheet stock applications.
Because I’m a one-man-show and don’t want to hoist mdf, I use plywood for most of my cabinets, book cases, dressers…. But there are exceptions to that.
If I need to be especially cost conscious I might use veneered mdf. Just be sure the sky hook is available for unloading.
For kitchen cabinets I really like the bright, pre-finished interior that comes with melamine. You can apply veneer to the outside faces that show so it’ll match your doors and drawer fronts.
My shop cabinets are commonly melamine because it’s inexpensive, easy to clean, and I don’t have to finish it. Melamine also makes a great work surface. Glue and finish won’t stick to it.
Jigs and fixtures for the shop come out of melamine, mdf, or multi-ply, depending on the application. If I need slippery, it’s melamine. If I want inexpensive, it’s mdf. If I want great durability, for instance a template that a router bearing will ride on, it’s multi-ply.
Paint grade projects might be mdf or birch veneered plywood, depending on how much I can spend.
It’s ok to mix and match. For instance if you want to save some dough you might make a book case out of red oak veneered mdf, but make the book shelves out of red oak veneered plywood for greater rigidity.
If you want to stretch your sheet goods world a little you’ll need to get away from home centers and check out hardwood or building material suppliers. Do some searching online, or call a local cabinet shop and ask where they get their sheet goods. That way you can get your hands on sheets with different species of veneers and different colors of melamine.
Get out there, do some shopping, and give these products a try.