Specifying Quality Wood Casework Options: Plywood Core and Substrate Selection

Specifying Quality Wood Casework Options: Plywood Core and Substrate Selection

What goes into specifying quality wood casework for your school, college/university or laboratory project?

There are several elements that come into play and the majority of those are addressed in Architectural Woodwork Institute AWI, Hardwood Plywood Veneer Association HPVA, and Scientific Equipment Furniture Association SEFA.

Items such as plywood and substrate selection, veneer selection, casework finishing and hardware need to be considered. Within this article we will address plywood and substrate selection following with more posts containing content on veneer specification and guidelines, finishing methods and hardware approaches.

There are other options for cabinet, door and paneling construction that will save you time and money. Here is a breakdown of the four different types of plywood options that you will come across when considering the different types of plywood for your needs.



Plywood is a panel manufactured of three or more layers of materials. For example, particle board and the two layers of veneers can be considered a hardwood plywood, by AWI definition.  


  • Veneer Core Plywood
    • Superior screw holding power or performance
    • Has a premium cost associated and is the industry “default” substrate for cabinet construction (frames, end panels, fixed back panels, etc.)
    • Not to be used for vertically hung panels (i.e. door and drawer fronts) as it is susceptible to warping
    • Lighter in weight
  • Particle Core Plywood
    • Recommended by AWI for doors and drawer fronts
    • If the general cabinet is constructed of particle board, it is recommended to use waterproof plywood base to keep particle board core away from moisture wicking from floors
    • Least expensive choice
  • Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) Core
    • Superior performance in regards to it being the flattest and hardest surface in which to adhere the veneer
    • Has the most uniform thickness and consistency
    • Recommended by AWI for doors and drawer fronts
  • Combination Core Plywood
    • Superior performance as it combines the three inner plys of veneer core plywood (screw holding power) with the two outer plys of MDF (flat and hard)
    • Consistent thickness makes it a solid choice for finishing
    • Can be used for the entire cabinet construction…frames, ends and fronts  



Pictured above: (left) veneer core plywood, particle core plywood, MDF core plywood, (right) combination core plywood. 



In summary, while the core or substrate is not the visible portion of a cabinet, its selection is very important to the durability and performance of the casework.  General rules to consider:

A cabinets construction members (framing, base, side and fixed backs) in the order of best performance should be specified with the use of:

  1. Combination core plywood
  2. Veneer core plywood
  3. MDF board
  4. Particle board

A cabinets’ door and drawer fronts should be specified with the use of one of the following:

  1. Combination core plywood
  2. Particle board with hardwood stiles (for hinge attachments and screw holding power)
  3. Particle board
  4. MDF board


See the rest of the specifying quality wood casework options blog series posts as they become available: