Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)

Shown here on the left is a an image of what MDF actually looks like when its milled into a cabinet door. Notice that the material lacks the typical look of natural wood since it has has no visible grain patterns and is very uniform in its color and texture. What it lacks in character it makes up for in the fact that its very smooth to the touch and because of its dense compressed nature, it takes paint very well – creating a silky smooth and even finish.

When MDF was an emerging product, it was widely considered a less durable and lower quality product compared to good old solid wood. However, the rapid progress of technology and manufacturing has now reached a level, where engineered woods like MDF have become a highly reliable product.This combined with its lower cost,  make MDF a very viable and budget friendly alternative for trim and cabinetry.

So, does this mean that MDF is the better option?

The truth is, both solid wood and MDF have their pros and cons. You first have to understand the highest and best use for each type of material, and do do that we have to explore their different characteristics…

Solid Wood Pros & Cons

Solid wood cabinetry and furniture have been around for hundreds of years if not longer. Before the invention of Particle Board and MDF, everything was made from a naturally sourced wood and much of it is still around and in use today. How old is your mothers china cabinet or buffet – that once belonged to her mother? Well I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you with absolute certainty that its made from real wood. This fact alone should give the home owner some confidence in choosing solid wood over – MDF. Natural wood’s most attractive feature is that it can be sealed in your choice of hundreds of different colors and finishes – to match any style. Most people would agree that applying protective stains and finishes to real wood actually enhances the beauty of what nature created. I’m quite partial to the look of beautifully stained and finished oak, walnut and cherry. There natural color and grain patterns enhance the look of any room in your home with a warmth and richness that simply can’t be reproduced with MDF. Natural wood cabinetry, trim, and furniture are beautiful and often treasured for a lifetime. These are just a few reasons to consider building with real wood. However, there are some cons and its important for you to be aware of them before you buy.

Real wood is generally more expensive than its engineered cousin. Scarcity and the cost of harvesting hard and soft woods is primarily to blame for its high cost. It also must go through a saw mill and cut into boards. Once boards are made they must be properly dried to become usable The drying process alone can take up to several years – meaning the natural wood used to build kitchen cabinets and furniture had to be stored on drying racks on pallets for a long time, thus adding to its cost to produce.

Another down side to natural wood products is that they have to be properly maintained. Good examples are hardwood floors and furniture.They both can take a lot of daily abuse and once dents or scratches occur in solid wood, they become very difficult and expensive to restore to a like-new condition. Just about anything you try to do to fix a crack or dent in oak, maple, cherry, and other solid woods, will usually result in making the problem more visible. Don’t say you haven’t been there because I I know we all have – and tried to cover up the problem with a rug or doily 🙂 You’ve probably tried (at least once) to repair a chip on a chair or coffee table – probably using wood fillers or those useless wax crayons that are supposed to match the original color (but never do). The same can be said for your solid wood cabinet doors, baseboards, and other home furnishings. Once they are scratched or dented, you’ll probably just have to learn to live with it.

MDF Pros & Cons

Unlike real wood, MDF has no natural beauty because it is completely void of visible wood grain, has no warmth or richness and in a word is – characterless! While natural wood lovers look down on MDF for this reason – It’s also why MDF the Ideal material  for cabinetry and wainscoting. If the painted look strikes your fancy, there is no better material to work with than MDF. As I mentioned earlier, MDF’s smooth lack luster surface takes a paint better than any other material I’ve worked with. With advances in paint and finishing technology, MDF can be dressed up easily and inexpensively to suit your style and taste. Even a diehard wood-lover like myself has to admit I’ve made some really great looking MDF cabinet doors. (Shame on me!)

From the simple clean look of white to really jazzed up two-toned paint and glazed finishes – MDF’s limit can only come from one’s own imagination. Unlike earlier forms of pressed wood materials that easily fell apart or absorbed moisture – causing them to swell and warp; today’s advances in technology that turn what is essentially sawdust into what we know as MDF, have made it stronger, moisture resistant, warp resistant, cost effective, reliable and super easy to work with. (If you know what you’re doing of course.

While the advantages are clear, MDF like real wood, is not impervious to being damaged. Because it has no grain structure it is not as hard and durable as solid wood. It can be dented or even destroyed more easily. A solid wood cabinet door will take more abuse than MDF. I don’t recommend MDF for use in homes where rambunctious youngsters rule the space. On the other hand, if you dent or damage MDF – it’s a breeze to repair. Unlike carefully finished solid wood, dings and dents are simply filled and repainted – restoring your cabinet door to like-new condition in very little time and far less expense. I’m not sure if that is a pro or a con… both I guess.

 

So, whats my final verdict?  Well, I’m happy to say that I don’t actually have to choose sides for once. MDF and Solid Wood are both winners in my opinion.

Best and highest use for MDF:

  • for cabinets or doors that won’t be repeatedly slammed
  • where the look of painted cabinets is preferred
  • for wainscoting, trim, and other custom moldings
  • where it makes sense to save money
  • for interior projects only

Best and highest use for Solid Wood:

  • when matching existing solid wood finishes
  • where the look of real wood is preferred
  • for decks, patios, and outdoor projects
  • you simple hate the idea of using MDF

Please let me know if you liked this post in the comment section below. I’d love to here what you think. Also let me know what topics you’d like to read more about.