Building on a Budget? What Is Engineered Wood & Why It Might Be Perfect for You

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So, what is engineered wood, exactly? Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying wood that’s been, well, engineered!

Yep, it’s made by taking leftover wood scraps, sawdust, and sometimes even wood chips, and gluing them all together with a special adhesive to make a strong and stable board. Pretty cool, huh?

Today’s topic might sound a little scary and it might not have the same ring to it as mahogany or maple.

You might even be thinkin’ solid wood is the only way to go, but engineered wood has its place in every crafter’s toolbox.  Trust me, this stuff is a workhorse in any woodshop!

Now, before you wander off, hear me out! Engineered wood is actually a lifesaver for beginner woodworkers.

It’s affordable, versatile, and, let’s be honest… sometimes easier to work with than solid wood.  Some hardwoods are SO hard that you need special equipment to work with them.

And if you want to know more about all the types of wood you can work with, you can explore those here!

Now, there are different types of engineered wood, each with its own pros and cons.

Let’s break down the four most common ones you’ll see at the hardware store:


This is a picture of a circle cut out from some baltic birch plywood, showing the layers.
You can see this and more like it at ThreeDeePrinceLLC.

This is probably the most popular type of engineered wood.

It’s made by layering thin sheets of wood (called veneers) together with the grain going in different directions.

This makes plywood super strong and stable, which is why it’s perfect for things like shelves, cabinets, and even furniture.

Plywood: Pros and Cons

Strong and stableMore expensive than particleboard or MDF
Smooth surface on some gradesCan be heavy
Great for structural projectsLimited size compared to solid wood sheets
Easy to paint or stainVisible core layers on some grades (may require additional finishing)
Less prone to warpingCan be susceptible to delamination if exposed to excessive moisture for extended periods
Holds screws wellMay require sanding or edge banding for a finished look

MDF (Medium-Density Fiberboard)

This picture is a closeup of several thicknesses of MDF (medium density fiberboard).
You can see this and more like it at Amazon.

This is a superfine wood panel made from breaking down wood fibers and gluing them back together.

It has a smooth, flat surface that makes it fantastic for painting and getting a clean finish. MDF is great for cabinet doors, trim, and even craft projects.

MDF: Pros and Cons

Smooth surfaceCan be heavy
Paints beautifullyNot ideal for outdoor use
Strong and denseSusceptible to moisture damage if edges are not sealed
Good for intricate cutsWeaker screw-holding capacity compared to plywood
Less prone to warpingCan be more expensive than particleboard
Can be machined to create detailed designsContains VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) during cutting and installation (proper ventilation required)


You can see this and more at Wikipedia.

Think of particleboard as plywood’s little cousin. It’s made of chopped up wood pieces and glue, but the particles are bigger than in MDF.

Particleboard is strong and affordable, but it’s not a big fan of moisture. So, keep it dry and it’ll be a great choice for furniture backs, cabinet panels, and those non-essential craft projects.

Particleboard: Pros and Cons

Low CostNot as strong as MDF or plywood
LightweightNot as smooth
Easy to work withCan be susceptible to moisture damage
Can be painted or laminatedPoor screw-holding capacity
Good for hidden applications (furniture backs)Not ideal for outdoor use

OSB (Oriented Strand Board) 

You can see this and more at Wikipedia.

This one uses bigger wood strands than particleboard, and they’re strategically oriented to make the board strong in all directions.

OSB is perfect for rough construction projects where you need something sturdy, like wall sheathing or subfloors.

But, because of the large wood strands, it’s not the best choice for furniture or anything you want a smooth finish on.

OSB (Oriented Strand Board): Pros and Cons

Strong and affordable                                      Rough surface                                                          
Great for structural projects (subflooring, roof sheathing)Not ideal for furniture                                                
Good for outdoor applications (with proper treatment)      Not paintable without preparation                                      
Good for projects needing a strong and rigid base          Susceptible to moisture damage if edges are not sealed                 
Easy to cut and work with                                  Telegraphing (surface imperfections from wood strands can show through)

Where Do You Get Engineered Woods?

Now that you’re familiar with the wonderful world of engineered wood, you might be wonderin’ where to get your hands on some!

The good news is, engineered wood is pretty widely available.

Most hardware stores and lumberyards will carry a whole selection of plywoods, MDF, particleboard, and OSB in various thicknesses and sheet sizes.

Don’t be afraid to ask the staff for help if you’re not sure what you need for your project… that’s what they’re there for! 

And hey, if you’re lucky, you might even snag a remnant piece at a discount, perfect for smaller projects or practicing your cuts!

Tools For Working With Engineered Wood

What Tools Do I Need?

Alright, y’all picked out your fantastic engineered wood, but what about tools? Don’t you fret none! You won’t need a whole woodshop to get started. Here are some essentials to get you buildin’ with confidence:

  • Safety First! Goggles and a dust mask are must-haves. You want to protect your pretty peepers from sawdust (especially with MDF) and keep your lungs happy.
  • Your Cutting Crew: A good circular saw is your workhorse for ripping down those bigger pieces of engineered wood. If you’re working on smaller projects or want more intricate cuts, a jigsaw can come in handy too.
  • Smoothing Operator: Sanding is key to a beautiful finished product! A random orbital sander is a great choice for beginners, it’s easy to use and gets the job done on flat surfaces. (Of course some sandpaper and an inexpensive sanding block will do the trick too but it’ll take a lot more elbow grease!)
  • The Great Assembler: A drill is your friend when it comes to putting things together. Look for a cordless drill/driver combo.

It’ll give you the most flexibility for different project needs. Don’t worry about fancy drill bits yet, a basic set will do just fine for most engineered wood projects.

Remember, this is just your starter crew! As you get more comfortable, you can add more tools to your collection.

But with these basics, you’re all set to tackle a ton of fun projects with your engineered wood!

Finishing & Caring For Engineered Wood

Now that you’ve built your masterpiece with engineered wood, let’s talk about keeping it lookin’ spiffy!

Engineered wood takes well to a variety of finishes, depending on the look you’re going for and the type of wood you used.

  • For a painted finish: MDF and plywood are your best bets. They provide a smooth surface that takes paint beautifully. Just make sure to prime the wood first to create a good bond for the paint and prevent any bleed-through from the wood.
  • Staining your project? Plywood with a nice wood grain can be a good option here. You’ll want to choose a stain specifically formulated for engineered wood, as some traditional stains can blotch. Always test the stain on a scrap piece first!
  • Keeping it natural: If you love the natural look of the wood, a clear sealant is a great choice for protecting your project, especially for something like OSB that will be used outdoors (with proper treatment beforehand, of course!).

No matter what finish you choose, always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for application and drying times.

Here are some general care tips for your finished engineered wood project:

  • Avoid extreme temperatures and humidity. Remember, engineered wood is made from compressed materials, so drastic changes can cause warping or cracking.
  • Keep spills in check! Wipe up any spills promptly to prevent moisture damage.
  • Clean with a slightly damp cloth for tougher grime, but be sure to wring it out well to avoid excess moisture.
  • And lastly, a little love goes a long way! With proper care, your engineered wood project can bring you joy for years to come.

Alright, that’s our whistle-stop tour of engineered wood!

Hopefully, this little crash course in engineered wood has given you a better idea of what each type is good for.

Remember, there’s no need to be intimidated by all the fancy names. Just think of engineered wood as a handy and versatile option for all your woodworking projects.

P.S. Got any questions about engineered wood or other woodworking basics? Don’t be shy, leave a comment below and let’s chat!