Plywood’s versatility has made it indispensable in the woodworking ad construction industries. It is strong, lightweight, and readily available. Most importantly, plywood is cost-effective.
So, what happens when you can’t readily find plywood for your next project? Which substitutes should you consider?
Below, we round up eleven of the best plywood substitutes, complete with their pros and cons, to help you make the right call.
What are Cheap Plywood Alternatives?
The most affordable plywood substitute is particle board, made by condensing wood particles. Particle boards are strong, smooth, and slick, making them a great flooring material. They also fit many woodworking and construction projects. Besides particle board, you can substitute plywood with MDF boards, a reinforced polyurethane board, OSB, or HDF.
To understand the best cheap alternatives to plywood, you first must understand what goes into making plywood sheets and how they can be made smooth and shiny.
Plywood is an engineered wood product. Engineered wood products differ from natural timber because they are manufactured in factories using wood particles and loose wood fibers. Contrastingly, natural lumber is sawn directly from tree logs.
Specifically, plywood sheets are made by gluing several wood veneers (plies) to form rigid panels. Standard plywood boards comprise at least three plies glued with the grains at 90 degrees to each other.
Advantages of Plywood
The high demand for plywood is down to its outstanding physical properties. These include;
- High strength and dimensional stability: Laying the plies at 90-degree angles gives plywood uniform strength and increased stability. As a result, plywood rarely splits or changes shape due to temperature variations.
- High impact resistance: Cross-laminating the plywood layers gives the boards higher structural integrity, tensile strength, and weight distribution capacity. Therefore, plywood can carry up to twice the load rating.
- High water and chemical resistance: Each plywood layer is treated for water and chemical resistance during board production, resulting in sheets highly resistant to moisture/water and chemicals.
- Flexibility & bendability: Plywood is significantly more flexible and bendable than solid wood. Therefore, it’s better than real wood for paneling, curved formwork, and decorative items.
Disadvantages of Plywood
The main downside of plywood is that it’s not real wood. Therefore, anyone who desires the authenticity of real wood will overlook plywood. Additionally;
- Plywood is not very durable: Yes, it is a durable material. Indeed, the highest quality plywood sheets can last 25+ years. Unfortunately, that’s not always good enough as some wood products can last 50+ years. Heck, some solid hardwood furniture lasts a lifetime. Moreover, the weather has a massive impact on plywood’s longevity.
- It’s one of the most expensive engineered wood products: If you’re shopping for a cheap engineered wood product, perhaps as an alternative to solid wood, plywood comes at the bottom of the list. There are a dozen cheaper products.
Synthetic Plywood: 11 Cheap Plywood Alternatives (With Pros and Cons)
We believe solid wood, sawn directly from logs, is often the best plywood alternative. First, solid wood offers customers endless choices. Whereas there are about ten types of plywood, you can choose from thousands of solid wood types.
Another key advantage is hardness and strength. For projects where strength is critical, strong hardwoods, such as ipe, are a better choice than plywood. The strongest hardwoods are also infinitely more durable than the strongest plywood types.
However, perhaps you’re not interested in solid wood. In that case, the following are eleven other products to consider;
1. EKO ply recycled plastic sheets
EKO ply is one of the best choices when shopping for an environmentally friendly alternative to plywood. It is made from 100% recycled materials, mainly post-industrial and post-consumer plastics.
Besides their environmental friendliness, EKO ply boards are 100% resistant to natural corrosion and rot. They are also chemical resistant, making them perfect for exterior and commercial applications, including gyms.
- It’s a 100% recycled materials board
- Strong, durable, and moisture resistant
- Simple installation
- Sensitive to heat
- Poor aesthetics
2. Reinforced polyurethane boards
Reinforced Polyurethane Foam (RPF) boards are strong, durable, and lightweight plastic boards that you can cut and drill with standard tools. They are also moisture resistant and do not rot or warp.
Some RPF boards are reinforced with fiberglass for increased strength. Though slightly more expensive than plywood, these sheets are far stronger and more durable.
- Strong but lightweight
- Highly water resistant
- Ideal for exterior applications
- Easy to install
- Prone to chipping and scratching
- Susceptible to fire damage
3. Particle board
Particle boards are made by gluing thin wood layers using formaldehyde resin. This makes them very durable. Moreover, particle boards have smooth surfaces with no marks, making them ideal for non-painted applications.
For this reason, many experts consider them the best alternative to light plywood. They are also cheaper than plywood and a cheaper alternative to OSB boards.
- Strong but lightweight
- Smooth surfaces/no marks
- It takes adhesives well
- Excellent for flooring
- Poor structural integrity
- Low aesthetic value
4. Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)
MDF boards are arguably the most popular engineered wood products alongside plywood sheets. They are made by breaking down waste wood into fine particles and gluing the wood fibers to form stable boards.
However, MDF is more dimensionally stable than plywood and most solid woods. It doesn’t expand or contract due to weather. Additionally, it’s moisture resistant, easy to customize, and eco-friendly.
- Exceptional dimensional stability
- It doesn’t need additional finishing
- It’s easy to work with
- It’s very affordable
- It’s weaker than plywood
- Less durable than plywood
5. High-Density Fiberboard (HDF)
An even stronger version of MDF is High-Density Fiberboard (HDF). HDF is made the same way as MDF, and the two share physical properties. However, HDF is denser (800-900 kg/cubic meter vs. 600 to 800 kg/cubic meter), making it stronger and more durable.
Unfortunately, high-density fiberboard is thinner than plywood. It’s also generally weaker than plywood.
- It’s strong and durable
- It’s the perfect MDF alternative
- HDF is affordable
- It’s thinner than plywood
- It’s heavier than plywood
6. Oriented Strand Board (OSB)
Oriented Strand Board (OSB) is one of the cheapest manufactured wood products. It’s made by pressing/binding differently sized wood crap products with resin/wax, then orienting the boards into rigid panels.
As a result, OSB boards are strong, stand up well to temperature changes, maintain their shape, and are more water resistant than plywood.
- OSB doesn’t require finishing
- It’s strong and durable
- It’s free from formaldehyde
- More affordable than plywood
- It’s not as strong as plywood
- Few style choices
7. Fiber Cement Board
Fiber cement boards, also popular as fiber cement siding or just fiber cement, are composite materials made with cement, sand, cellulose fiber, and water.
It’s a strong, durable, and long-lasting product commonly used on residential home sidings. Fiber cement is also low-maintenance, resists moisture and rot, and is more climate resistant than most composite products.
- FCB is fire resistant
- It’s water and moisture resistant
- It’s a low-maintenance product
- It is affordable
- Prone to mold growth
- It’s heavy
8. Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP)
Glass Reinforced Plastic (GRP) is a composite material made from glass fibers and a polymer or plastic. The (fine) glass fibers are woven to form a flexible fabric.
One of the biggest advantages of GRP is strength. It incorporates an aluminum oxide aggregate surface, which is diamond hard and highly wear-resistant. Indeed, 1/8-inch GRP is as hard as 3/4-inch plywood.
- High strength-to-weight ratio
- Unmatched durability
- It’s non-corroding
- It’s versatile
- It’s expensive
- It’s a little difficult to find
9. Baltic birch plywood
The main difference between Baltic birch plywood and standard plywood is that Baltic birch plywood has an all-plywood core, whereas many plywood types have an MDF core or solid wood core.
Additionally, Baltic birch plywood is 100% hardwood. As a result, Baltic birch plywood is stronger and more durable than standard plywood.
- Stronger than standard plywood
- It’s durable
- Highly water resistant
- High impact resistance
- It’s expensive
- Difficult to source
10. King Starboard HDPE
High-Density Poly Ethylene (HDPE) is currently one of the most popular plywood alternatives in humid climates and marine applications. It’s a strong, durable composite material that resists water and withstands moisture.
We recommend the King Starboard HDPE due to the company’s outstanding record. In addition, their products are impact-resistant and weather resistant.
- Weather resistant
- Strong and durable
- UV resistant
- Scratch resistant
- It’s expensive
Masonite also makes a wonderful plywood substitute. It’s a type of hardboard made by steam-cooking and pressure-molding wood fibers.
Masonite is commonly used in theaters as the stage floor. However, you can also use it in many other home applications, including paneling, insulation, and partitioning. Masonite sheets are available in a range of sizes.
- Strong and durable
- It’s cheaper than real wood
- It offers the classic look of wood
- Prone to moisture damage
- Prone to mold, mildew, and rot
What’s the cheapest form of plywood?
Plywood sheets are categorized into grades, from A-grade to D-grade. D-Grade plywood sheets are the least expensive plywood type. However, the plywood boards have large, easily visible defects, including multiple knots larger than 2.5 inches. On the other hand, A-grade plywood is the most expensive, with no visible defects.
What is lighter and stronger than plywood?
3M reinforced polyurethane foams are generally lighter, stronger, and more rot-resistant than plywood. Their high strength is due to fiberglass reinforcement. As a result, 3M reinforced polyurethane foams are highly resistant to warping and breaking. The foams are commonly used in structural and semi-structural applications.
Is MDF as strong as plywood?
No, plywood is significantly stronger than MDF. MDF boards are made by first breaking waste wood products into wood fibers. Therefore, they get their strength primarily from the glue and adhesives holding the wood fibers. On the other hand, plywood sheets are multiple thin wood veneers glued together at an angle, thus primarily drawing their strength from the original natural wood.
What’s a waterproof plywood alternative?
The best waterproof plywood alternative is birch plywood, as long as the application doesn’t involve submerging the plywood in water for extended periods. Alternatively, consider fiberboard. Though not truly waterproof, waterproof HDF is exceptionally water resistant.
What are plywood alternatives for roofing?
Plywood is used in roofing applications because it’s strong, lightweight, and fairly water resistant. Therefore, plywood alternatives for roofing applications must possess the same qualities. Cellulose fiberboard, fiberglass reinforced plastic, and composite structural panels are a few good choices. Alternatively, consider aluminum sheets.
What is thin wood called?
Generally, thin layers of wood are called veneers. Veneers are “peeled” or “sliced” directly from tree logs and are typically thinner than 3mm (1/8 inches). They are often glued to core panels (solid wood, MDF, and particle board) to produce flat, smooth surfaces for flooring, cabinetry, etc.
What’s the best alternative to plywood for outdoor use?
The best plywood alternatives for outdoor use are Oriented Strand Board (OSB aka chipboard), Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), High-Density Fiberboard (HDF), and Particle Board. However, you may want to try marine-grade plywood before considering the above alternatives.
What can I use instead of plywood?
There are many plywood substitutes depending on the application. For instance, particle boards are an excellent choice if you’re interested in a lightweight, more affordable substitute. Meanwhile, Oriented Strand Board (OSB) is a stronger alternative, and fiber cement boards are more durable.
Particle board, MDF, HDF, and OSB are some of the best plywood substitutes if you’re not interested in real wood. Alternatively, consider baltic birch plywood, reinforced polyurethane boards, masonite, or GRP. Again, it comes down to the type of application and budget range.