Everthing You Should Know about MDF

23 Jun.,2022

Learn the pros and cons of medium-density fiberboard, or MDF, and decide whether it's the right choice for your next carpentry project.

 

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MDF Painting Free-stand Vanity

 

Learn the pros and cons of medium-density fiberboard, or MDF, and decide whether it's the right choice for your next carpentry project.

Medium-density fiberboard—most often known by its initials, MDF—rivals the affordability and versatility of plywood and similar engineered wood products. In certain situations, MDF even trumps all the others, because it's so wonderfully easy to work with. Unlike real wood, MDF has no knots, grain, or warping, and its smooth surface gives way easily to the saw, leaving no splinters, burns, or tear-outs. For light carpentry projects, such as shelving and trim, MDF can be excellent.

 

What Is MDF?

Medium density fiberboard (MDF) is a material manufactured by breaking down softwood and hardwood residuals into wood fibers. These wood fibers are compacted with wax and resin, formed into panels, and applied with high pressure and temperatures in order to create a durable, condensed board.  

Since it is such a condensed product, MDF is heavier than a natural wood of the same thickness.  

MDF is a popular wood-alternative product used for shelving, cabinets, mouldings, trim, doors, and even furniture!

What makes MDF such a popular building material throughout the industry is that it is easy to work with, providing clean and easy saw cuts.  

An experienced and proficient DIYer can certainly make their own cabinetry or shelving unit with MDF.

 

Composition

MDF starts as sawdust and shavings—all the little bits and pieces of wood that are created as a byproduct of industrial milling. Once dehydrated, those wood fibers are then mixed with resin and wax and formed into panels. Under high heat and intense pressure, those panels are compressed and become rigid, with a hard shell. In the final stage of manufacturing, giant machines sand the panels down, giving them a silky smooth finish before cutting them to fixed dimensions.

 

What's Available

MDF boards are typically tan or a darker brown and are sold primarily in either 1/2-inch-thick or 3/4-inch-thick sheets. Depending on where you live, the largest- and thickest-available sheets should cost you no more than $50. Also, important to note is that an MDF board may be marked or stamped to indicate a particular property. For instance, blue or red marking means that a board is fire retardant; a green marking indicates that it's resistant to moisture.

 

Advantages

Working with MDF is the same as working with real wood. You don't need any new skills or special tools. In fact, you are likely to find that, compared with sawing and attempting detail work with solid lumber, MDF is much more pliant. For smaller projects, such as bookcases or cabinetry, it's user- and budget-friendly. Plus, its surface accepts paint well and also provides a welcoming base for a thin veneer layer.

 

Are MDF Cabinets Good?

Even though it weighs more than natural wood, MDF does not have the strength to support as much weight without increasing the thickness of the sheet.

One downside to its smooth surface is that once the chosen finish is applied, dents and scratches in MDF can't be fixed like in natural wood.  

That being said, no one intends to subject their kitchen doors to heavy abuse, so having MDF for cabinet doors instead of wood will not be a detriment.

While MDF cabinet boxes are not common practice, MDF cabinet doors are extremely popular and make for a great selection in any kitchen.

 

Drawbacks  

You're probably thinking there must be some downsides to using MDF. You're right. There are several…

Handle with care: Heavier than plywood, MDF—particularly full-size MDF panels—can be difficult to carry without an extra pair of hands. Take care when transporting MDF, because much more so than plywood or real wood, its corners are easily damaged, and its smooth surfaces are easily scratched.

Water wary: In its untreated state, fiberboard fairs poorly, swelling or even fracturing when exposed to even a negligible amount of water. That shortcoming would severely limit the number of applications MDF could be used for, if it weren't for the advent of moisture-resistant MDF, now readily available.

Dust settles: Working with MDF tends to create a great deal of dust, and not just run-of-the-mill dust, but a powdery, pervasive species that makes a mess and chokes the air. Go out of your way to seal off your work area, cover any immovable items you wish to protect, and be prepared to vacuum afterward.

 

MDF Painting Free-stand Vanity

MDF Painting Free-stand Vanity

 

MDF Cabinet Finishes

 

Paint

MDF's smooth surface is perfect for a clean, painted finish. In fact, if you are interested in painted cabinetry, it is hard to find a better alternative than using MDF for your door fronts.

MDF does not expand and contract to temperature changes as drastically as natural wood does, meaning MDF is not as likely to cause visual cracks and joint separations once painted.

With that being said, keep in mind that MDF is susceptible to water. It is vital that you properly treat and seal MDF, especially all cut edges, before applying any primer and paint.

Otherwise, an MDF door exposed to a pronounced amount of water could become soggy and disintegrate.  

 

Thermofoil

Thermofoil (thermo) is a PVC vinyl material that is applied to MDF doors through heat and vacuum pressure, fusing the two together. The thermofoil process produces a seamless surface, usually in a solid colour, but sometimes also a faux wood grain pattern.

Thermofoil offers a wide variety of different colours in textured, matte, or high-gloss styles.

Thermo is almost always cheaper than paint, and the finish holds up better against water or light hand scratches as well.

The downside to thermofoil is the potential for peeling. If the front is scratched and exposes the surface, it is nearly impossible to repair.

It is also extremely vulnerable to heat damage. High temperatures can cause the thermo to delaminate from the cabinet and essentially “unstick” from the surface.

 

MDF Cabinet Cost

When it comes to the cost of MDF, the thicker the fiberboard the higher the price.  

The cost of MDF can come down to several factors. The quality of the product, thickness, and also the finish. A high-quality painted finish will cost 10-15% more than some stained, natural wood products (more on that below).

If you're an avid DIYer, making your own MDF shelving or cabinetry, and painting it yourself, is a smart, cost-efficient idea.

 

If you are in the process of giving your home an upgrade, consider choosing MDF cabinets. As always, we are here to help with anything. Contact us with any questions and queries on using MDF in your home.