Plywood vs Melamine: What’s the Difference?

While lumber is the preferred material for the construction of cabinets, shelves, and so forth, plywood and melamine panels are often much less expensive and offer an attractive finish.

In fact, their unique composition and properties make them preferable to lumber in some applications.

In this post, we will examine the differences between plywood and melamine panels in terms of production, physical and mechanical properties, and applications.

1. Production Processes

Plywood Panel Production

Plywood is a composite wood resin product made by stripping the bark from a conifer or broadleaf trees and then cutting the logs into thin veneers.

Plywood in store

These are then stacked and laminated in an odd number of layers. The grain of each lamina is arranged perpendicular to the grain of the previous layer, which prevents the shifting of the veneers during the pressing and curing process.

By using an odd number of laminas typically three or five layers but as many as thirteen the grain on the facing sides of a plywood panel run parallel, resulting in the appearance of a solid panel.

More importantly, such cross-lamination ensures structural balance around the core veneer.

Production standards require that the grain of odd-numbered plies run the length of the panel and the even-numbered plies are arranged perpendicular to the long side.

This results in a panel that is very strong, particularly when the constitutive veneers are cut from high-quality timber.

The laminas in plywood are impregnated and bonded with either urea-formaldehyde or phenol-formaldehyde resins, though the latter has become the industry standard.

The bonding in exterior-grade plywood is combined with a swell-resistant natural filler such as chalk, oat hulls, or coconut husks.

For both interior and exterior panels, the impregnated laminas are first cold-pressed and then heat-cured. Once panels are cured, they are sanded. Some products are finished with a film coating or other laminate.

Melamine Panel Production

Strictly speaking, melamine is a chemical compound derived from cyanamide (NH2HCN).

It is used in conjunction with formaldehyde to create two closely related types of resin: melamine-urea-formaldehyde (MUF) and melamine-formaldehyde (MF).

These resins are similar to the urea-formaldehyde compounds used to bond plywood, though the addition of melamine results in a much more water-resistant product.

Through polymerization, both MUF and MF resins are made into low-pressure plastic surface laminates that are applied to a base panel.

While these laminates are often applied to medium-density fiberboard (MDF), they can also be applied to particle board, chipboard, or plywood.

It is important to underscore the fact that melamine is the surface laminate and thus only a constitutive part of what is referred to as a “melamine panel.”

Of course, within the construction and woodworking industries, any such complete laminated panel is often simply referred to as “melamine.”

However, the specific quality and integrity of a melamine panel will largely depend on the underlying structural material.

2. Comparison of Physical Properties

The precise mechanical properties of a melamine-laminated panel are a function of the substrate material that is used.

Particle board melamine panels are much more lightweight than their MDF or plywood counterparts, but they also have a lower weight-bearing capacity.

Most composite wood panels, including plywood panels, are susceptible to moisture impregnation, especially at the edges.

By comparison to the urea-formaldehyde resins used to bond plywood, both of the resins that are used in the manufacture of melamine laminate namely, melamine-urea-formaldehyde (MUF) or melamine-formaldehyde (MF) are much more resistant to moisture.

The polymerized laminate sheets produced from these resins are effectively immune to water.

However, as noted above, melamine is simply a surface laminate, so the moisture resistance of a panel coated with it will be contingent on the underlying material. In many cases, this is a low-grade particle board.

Consequently, although the surface of a melamine panel will be impermeable to water, the edges are extraordinarily susceptible to swelling unless they are sealed or otherwise covered.

When applied to plywood, a melamine panel will obviously have the same strength as its non-laminated counterpart, but the surface will have the additional quality of being water-resistant.

Both melamine and plywood panels have fire-retardant chemicals. Plywood has the added benefit of being termite-proof.

Moreover, unlike the typical melamine panel, a standard plywood panel will take screws easily and it can be stained, painted, or polished.

Because melamine laminate is impermeable, it is not as susceptible to discoloration as plywood; one can easily wipe off any liquids or dust without it marring the surface.

Despite the risks of water impregnation at the edges, this makes it a useful material for countertops. By contrast, raw plywood will become discolored and swell if the surface is exposed to water or other liquids.

3. Applications

Plywood Products

Because the wood fibers of the veneers that constitute plywood transverse each other, the resulting product is extraordinarily strong.

Compared to solid wood boards, plywood has a much higher strength-to-weight ratio, which makes it ideal for flooring, roof sheathing, decorative architectural elements, and a wide variety of structural applications.

plywood use in construction
Use of plywood for building frame

The thermoplasticity of the glue used in the production of plywood panels allows them to become malleable when they are heated to between 90° and 130° Celsius, especially if they contain relatively few plies.

Unique architectural elements, such as curved buttresses, can be produced by heating, forming, and layering such plywood.

A similar process is used by vehicle manufacturers to create the floor, wall, and ceiling panels for large transportation units such as buses and trains.

Since the surface of a plywood panel is a single, complete veneer, the resulting product has the appearance of a solid board that can be stained.

This gives it an aesthetic quality that is not found in other forms of composite wood products. It is thus often used in conjunction with solid wood boards in the construction of cabinetry.

When coupled with its thermoplasticity, the aesthetic qualities of plywood make it suitable for use in constructing furniture, boats and canoes, and other consumer goods.

Some models of high-end luxury vehicles feature thermoformed high-gloss plywood dashboards.

Melamine Products

Melamine laminate can be produced to mimic the appearance of wood grain or other surface textures.

Wood Melamine Swatches
Wood Melamine Swatches

Moreover, it can be applied to an inexpensive substrate, such as particle board. This makes it an ideal material for low-cost furniture items such as bookshelves and cabinets.

Melamine-laminated MDF is particularly well-suited for the production of desks and workbenches. However, since both particle board and MDF can become impregnated by water and swell, the edges must be carefully sealed.

4. Manipulation and Use

The dust from both plywood and melamine panels contains harmful chemicals, so before you cut or otherwise manipulate them, you should wear appropriate protective gear, including a filtration mask.

Melamine chips are extraordinarily sharp, making safety glasses and gloves necessary.

Cutting Plywood

Compared to lumber, plywood is more difficult to cut. If it is not sawed properly, the edges will splinter, and strips of the veneer may subsequently become delaminated.

To avoid these problems, plywood should be cut with a table saw.

While you should typically set a table saw blade as low as possible, ensuring that it just clears the stock you are cutting, in the case of plywood, it is beneficial to raise the blade so it is one to two inches above the top surface of the panel.

This ensures that the teeth of the saw blade will strike the surface veneer straight on, rather than at an angle.

Also, you should avoid using all-purpose blades; plywood blades have smaller teeth, which reduces the likelihood of chipping along the cut.

Cutting Melamine Chipboard

As with plywood, melamine particle board and other melamine-laminated panels are susceptible to chipping when they are cut.

For a proper and clean-cut, you will need to use a double-sided blade, which is intended specifically for cutting melamine laminate.

You should also score the panel about one-fourth of an inch prior to making the actual cut. Feed it face-down on a table saw to ensure that the usable surface doesn’t splinter.

Tips for Joining Panels

Plywood takes screws easily and usually doesn’t require that you predrill a pilot hole.

By contrast, melamine laminate is very smooth, so when you are joining panels you should first use a brad nail gun to secure the panels and then use a countersink bit to predrill holes for your screws.

Since melamine particleboard or chipboard will sag under pressure, if you are building shelves or cabinets, you should select matching solid wood lumber to serve as nosing for the edge.

Join the nose to the shelf using biscuits that are secured with wood glue. This will provide much-needed structural integrity to the shelving unit.

5. Pros and Cons: Selecting the Appropriate Panel

If you are setting out to complete a renovation, construction, or woodworking project, both plywood, and melamine-laminate panels have important uses.

When selecting which, if either, to purchase, consider the manner in which they will be used and their suitability for the task.

Here is a summary list of the key qualities that differentiate the two types of panels, which should bear on your selection.

Pros of Plywood Panels

  • Extraordinary structural integrity
  • More durable than melamine in cabinet applications
  • Bears greater weight than melamine
  • Thermoformable
  • Termite-proof
  • Easily joined
  • Takes screws well and mounts more securely
  • Easily replaced or repaired
  • Fire-resistant
  • Easily stained or painted

Pros of Melamine Particle Board

  • Cheaper than plywood
  • Water-resistant surface
  • Pre-finished with a variety of surface textures
  • Resistant to surface scarring
  • Fire-resistant
  • Easy to clean

Cons of Plywood Panels

  • More expensive than melamine panels
  • The surface is easily marred or scarred
  • Less water- and moisture-resistant

Cons of Melamine Particle Board

  • Less durable than plywood
  • Bears less weight than plywood
  • Not easily resurfaced
  • Slightly more difficult to join
  • Can be difficult to repair or replace pieces with matching surface color/texture
  • Easily chipped, especially at the edges

6. Summary

Chemically, plywood and melamine panels are distinguished by the type of resin used to join their constituent fibers.

While some plywood manufacturers continue to use urea-formaldehyde resins, phenol-formaldehyde alternatives are now much more standard.

Melamine panels derive their name from the melamine resin that is used to produce and bond the laminate: either melamine-urea-formaldehyde (MUF) or melamine-formaldehyde (MF).

In a strict sense, plywood panels cannot be properly contrasted with melamine panels, since plywood can serve as the underlying material of a melamine panel.

That having been said, most melamine panels particularly those that are readily available at big-box supply stores are composed of a particle board or chipboard substrate, which is weaker and more susceptible to warping and swelling than plywood.

The edges of both plywood and melamine panels are vulnerable to moisture, swelling, and chipping. Care must be taken when cutting or manipulating panels of either variety.

Owing to its strength, plywood makes an excellent structural material within the construction industry and it has a wide variety of both interior and (with proper sealing) exterior applications.

With the exception of small-scale furniture, shelving, or cabinet projects, melamine panels are ill-suited for structural use and are typically used for interior applications.

However, high-grade melamine panels with properly sealed edges can be used in external applications, such as patio cabinetry.

Plywood characteristically takes paint, stain, or lamination well. By contrast, melamine is, itself, a laminate, so panels bearing that name already have a usable surface. This often takes the form of faux wood or some other texture.

As such, these panels are not easily resurfaced. Of course, the upshot of this is that the chief characteristic of melamine is its off-the-shelf use and surface durability.

Finally, while melamine panels made from chipboard or particle board are much more affordable than their plywood counterparts, both plywood and melamine are cost-effective alternatives to traditional lumber.