Both particleboard and MDF or medium-density fiberboard are pressed wood products that are formed by using a hot press machine that literally squeezes the component materials into flat boards of varying thickness. Particleboard and MDF share advantages over solid wood and plywood in terms of density, uniformity, and price. While solid wood is far more attractive as a finish material, in many cases the under layers of cabinets, paneling, and furniture are made from either particleboard or MDF.
Comparing the price, density, strength, and durability of particleboard and MDF, you will find that they are quite similar. However, he two wood-based composite materials are indeed different.
Made from a hot-pressed composite of wood-based waste materials bound together with formaldehyde resin, particleboard is a dense building material used commonly since the 1960s. Good for numerous applications including countertops, cabinetry, doors, floors, wall paneling, and furniture, particleboard is denser than wood and therefore stronger. When coated with veneer or painted, its outward appearance improves. Compared to other fiberboards or composite, wood-based building materials, it is weaker.
Nowadays it is less expensive than solid wood or plywood. Furniture and other wood products made from solid wood are considered a luxury whereas particleboard is the material of choice for low-priced goods.
Particleboard is at a disadvantage in that it can expand when exposed to moisture. Outdoor use is almost never a good idea, even when it is covered with a sealing agent. In bathrooms and kitchens, it may be used as the foundational material so long as it is covered with moisture-proof vinyl.
Medium-density fiberboard or, as it is commonly known, MDF, is much denser than particle board. It too is a composite wood-based building material pressed together from a combination of residual wood fibers, wax, and formaldehyde resin. Like particleboard, MDF is used as a replacement for plywood. Compared to solid wood, MDF is much less expensive and is suitable for veneer coating. Due to its density, MDF is extremely consistent throughout, and it tends not to split.
While formaldehyde is still used as the bonding resin to hold the fibers together, the environmental and health risks of that chemical are cause for some alarm. Some manufacturers of MDF are moving away from formaldehyde, opting instead for polyurethane resins. Despite this, MDF requires wood particles which in turn come from wood waste, so it is not an entirely sustainable material.
Like particleboard, MDF can expand when moist, which can lead to cracking and breaking. Where there is not enough humidity in the air, MDF will shrink after time. In this sense, it reacts similarly to wood. Because formaldehyde is still used to bond its component fibers, sanding, and cutting it can cause health problems. It is not a suitable finish product. Even if it is used as the foundation material for cabinets, floors, doors, or furniture, it should always be trimmed out with solid wood.
When choosing between MDF or particleboard, you are essentially getting the same thing, although MDF is much denser and therefore stronger than particleboard. Both involve toxic chemicals in their production, can expand and crack with too much exposure to moisture and are not suitable for finishing wood products. Nevertheless, the price of both wood-based composites is less than solid wood and some plywood, and the strength of both makes it superior in many ways to its natural wood counterparts.