Solid Wood vs MDF: What's the story


Isn’t solid wood always the best material? This is a question we’re frequently asked and you may be surprised that the answer is “Not necessarily.”

Solid wood has many benefits; it’s strong, sturdy and beautiful in its grain. However, solid wood contracts when subjected to changes in heat and humidity. Unless these conditions are carefully controlled, cabinets, doors or paneling made from solid wood can shrink, crack or buckle.

Medium density fiberboard (MDF) is a high grade, composite material that performs better than solid wood in many areas. Made from recycled wood fibers and resin, MDF is machine dried and pressed to produce dense, stable sheets.

MDF is more stable than solid wood and stands up better to changes in heat and humidity. Solid wood boards typically expand and contract both horizontally and vertically when temperatures and humidity rise and fall. Because of this, cabinets, doors and paneling made from solid wood require a high level of care and maintenance.

For areas where humidity tends to be high, such as bathrooms, Woodmeister uses Medex® for vanities and cabinets. This is a water resistant, superior grade MDF product.  Medex® is also a formaldehyde-free product and can qualify for 'green' home certifications such as LEED® and National Green Building Standard®.

Cope and stick joinery

In the construction of painted cabinet doors, MDF outperforms solid wood. The conventional frame and panel method for building solid wood doors involves connecting five separate pieces: four frame pieces and a center panel cut slightly smaller than the frame because it needs to float—to allow for expansion and contraction. This is typically known as cope and stick joinery or 5-piece construction. MDF, because it’s made of processed wood fibers as panel stock allows for a different construction method. MDF can be milled by computer-operated machinery (CNC) in one-piece frames with the center cut out for a recessed panel. Because of its density, MDF does not move independently from the frame and the inserted panel does not need to float like the conventional five-piece solid wood door.  Since the MDF panel doesn’t float within the frame, hairline cracks do not form along the edges of the panel or at the style and rail joinery. MDF will expand and contract but with this 2-piece construction method the doors move as a unit and not as individual pieces of wood. Therefore the paint does not crack or peel at the joints. 

2 piece joineryMDF is readily available in much larger sizes—5-foot by 12-foot panels, for example—than solid wood. These large sheets can be milled into bead board panels or wainscot paneling

Unlike solid wood, there is no visible grain on the surface of an MDF panel. Therefore, the common problem of wood grain and knots bleeding through paint or stain is not a factor when MDF is used.

Another consideration is cost; here, too, MDF is often a better value. Solid wood is often more expensive and sometimes is not as readily available. Our Woodmeister’s standards require that we use only top quality material for our products. Therefore we purchase more solid wood for projects because we cull through for the best wood eliminating pieces with imperfections, such as knots and cracks. MDF can be more economical in many applications; for example, in bead board paneling and wainscoting where large sheets can be used.           

When you are ready to start a new project that includes painted millwork, it's best to review all your options.  At Woodmeister, we will gladly discuss your needs, show you samples and provide information to help with your decisions. Using MDF is an excellent choice for interior millwork applications - from cabinetry to casework.

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chandrakumaar g | |
Whether can use mdf boards for modular kitchen .i want to know about the advantages and disadvantages according to price, durability .
Kevin Greene | |
Hello Munir,

We don't recommend using MDF for passage or 'man' doors. MDF can contract and expand in both directions - length and width. As a result, MDF used for passage doors of a large sizes may warp or distort. It would be better to use stave core doors which are much more stable and stand up well to heavy use. The material can also be faux finished to look like wood grain.
Munir | |
I am using MDF for my bedroom doors. But concerned that how MDF door would look like solid doors???. Can we get grain like solid wood on MDG just by paint or polish?
Chris Komenda | |
We recently received a question about repairing kitchen cabinets made with MDF that were subjected to steam damage and had swollen. Once moisture penetrates MDF there is little one can do to repair the damaged material.

MDF is not a good choice for areas where constant moisture is present. However, there are some preventative measures one can do to avoid moisture from penetrating MDF in the future.

•Control the steam and vent it away from your cabinets or the area. Getting rid of the moisture problem is key.

•Replace or use moisture resistant materials, such as Medex or solid wood for your cabinets in the 'wet' area. Wood products are not waterproof but some have better moisture resistant properties.

•Thoroughly seal the material and maintain it. Over time paint can break down and moisture can seep in. Plan on routine maintenance to keep MDF protected from possible steam and moisture damage.
Kevin Greene | |
Reputable cabinet manufacturers or suppliers are most likely using high quality MDF materials. However, in addition to checking that the doors are made of MDF, check to see if the 'box' or cabinet body are also made with the same quality material.

MDF (Medium Density Fiber) board as the name implies, is distinctly different than a lower grade particle or flake board, which is sometimes used in less expense read-to-assemble furniture or cabinets. MDF is denser, heavier and the fibers are finer. It also costs more. Depending on the level of finish and detail, good quality cabinets made with MDF will be priced accordingly.
charlotte | |
I am in process of buying new kitchen cabinets, in shaker style painted white. The supplier informed me they are made of mdf. How will I know whether the mdf is of a high quality?
Kevin Greene | |
Yes, you can stain MDF…but the effects will be limited to the characteristics of the material. You can apply stains and glaze techniques to simulate wood grains, patterns, and faux finishes. Dyes can also be applied to 'color' MDF. Keep in mind that the end grain will soak up the finish more and appear much darker. Sand the MDF material and apply the stain or dye just as you would a veneer surface.
Alan Kostrzeski | |
Can you stain and varnish MDF Wood?
John Park | |
I did not realise that high quality MDF has better advantages over solid wood doors. My contractor insist that the solid wood door is superior because it is one piece. I can not trust him because one price of wood of 36" and 18" door would cost an arm and leg. He insists that it is one piece wood door from Conestoga. It sounds like a pile of BS. I am considering using MDF. How can I trust the cabinet maker use a high density MDF?
Kevin Greene | |
Hi Craig –
MDF is commonly used for shelving and can be a great choice. However, at long runs (such as 5 '), MDF will sag unless reinforced with solid wood edges. Be sure to drill pilot holes into the edges before applying screws to avoid the material from splitting. You might also consider plowing the end panels and joining the shelf units with tenon, spline or lamello joints.
Craig | |
I am thinking of using MDF for a few shelving projects. Will 3/4 MDF be suitable if I plan on using srews? How about warping on runs as long as 5 feet?
Kevin Greene | |
Here's follow up on some recent questions we've received on MDF.

Painted edges:
For painted cabinets and other architectural millwork components, MDF is an excellent choice. Start with using a dense core high quality MDF. To prep the material for finishing, first scuff the surface with a light sanding and apply 2 coats of primer – lightly sanding between coats. The first coat of primer is a light or fluff coat and the second coat is applied a little heavier. We typically use M.L. Campbell wood finishing products and for MDF their solvent borne primer is a VOC compliant, HAPs free, fast drying, and easy sanding pre-catalyzed primer/undercoat. It sands very well to produce an excellent base coat. Their primers are especially developed for filling the open pores on MDF board and other porous materials such as soft woods.

Using nails in MDF:
We found the best way to avoid nail heads from telegraphing is to first use high quality MDF materials. The MDF we use is high grade furniture quality dense core MDF. We also use pin or 18 gauge nails. Make sure your nail gun is operating properly and set the nails properly. Fill the nail divots with a good quality putty and hand block sand the surface smooth.

Formaldehyde –free MDF
The use of formaldehyde-free products has been trending for some time and Woodmeister uses Medex®, which is a formaldehyde-free MDF product. Medex® is also water resistant and can qualify for 'green' home certifications such as LEED® and National Green Building Standard®. If you are hiring a cabinetmaker be sure to specify formaldehyde-free MDF or veneer products. A reputable firm can easily accommodate your needs.
Anne | |
Do you have any concerns about the formaldehyde in the doors? Are there formaldehyde-free MDF door options? Thanks for the detailed article!
Robert | |
I am buying a Spanish style home and would like white washed cabinets. Does MDF handle a white washing well or should they just be painted?
Edward | |
When using MDF, is there not a problem with nail holes bulging? What can be done to mitigate? Do the higher end MDF products not have this problem?
John | |
For a cabinet door are the edges easily painted?
Kevin Greene | |
Well said Ken - thanks for the comment!
Ken Rohleder | |
For interior cabinetry, MDF is superior to solid wood and plywood in almost every way. There is such a broad range of quality from the least expensive MDF products (like RTA furniture sold at Target and IKEA) and the most expensive (modern cabinetry from Bultaup or Snaidero) that folks understandably assume alll MDF is low quality.

The best furniture companies in the world use MDF as their core panel material today not because it's cheap -- but because it is excellent.
Kevin Green | |
It's difficult to give you a proper answer without more information and understanding all the project details. For example – is the bead board going to be applied to an interior or exterior wall? Are the walls insulated? Is relative humidity maintained throughout the year?

If you are installing the 10" wide bead board horizontally you could nail directly to the studs. If the bead board is to be installed vertically, it would be better to install ¼" plywood rather than sheet rock and nail to that. You could also apply a bead of silicon adhesive before nailing to the plywood.

MDF can be a better choice than solid wood for it's stability. But MDF will still have some movement, especially if there are wide swings in relative humidity inside the home.
John | |

I plan to install MDF 1/2" thick 10" wide bead-board planks in my kitchen . Can I nail it directly to the studs? Or should i install 1/4 sheet rock first, and use adhesive and nails . I live on cape cod where we have pretty big changes in temp and humidity....

Kevin Greene | |
Yes, depending on the plans and layout, MDF would be a good choice for a painted platform bed with storage drawers underneath.
Amber | |
I am a very handy person, i just moved into a new apartment and to save money i am going to build my own bed. I have the layout and plans to make the bed but Im looking up options for the material Im going to use. Its going to be a platform bed with storage drawers under it. Would MDF be ok to use?
alex | |
mdf board
Kevin Greene | |
It's sad to hear that the cabinet manufacturer you used did not meet your expectations and unknowingly to you apparently substituted materials, such as poplar instead of maple.

The MDF (medium density fiberboard) we use is a high grade, composite material commonly used in fine cabinetry and furniture. MDF is a great choice for many painted millwork applications – it mills well, it is strong and is more stable than solid wood. MDF is not 'particle' board or a low density fiber board sometimes used in lower grade cabinets.

Be sure to check out samples of finished cabinetry using MDF before committing to an order. Ask for references from recent customers. Reputable cabinet makers should easily accommodate these two requests.

I hope you are able to reconcile with the cabinet maker and will be able to finish your kitchen remodel soon.
Wdcnut | |
This MDF question is a topic for me due to a recent kitchen cabinet purchase my wife and I just made. We ordered a high end set of painted maple cabinets, paid serious money for them, waited the 6 weeks that custom cabinets may require, and finally received and unboxed our dream kitchen. Since I am installing my own cabinets I did what cabinet installers do and removed the doors to ease the install. That's when I noticed all of the doors and drawer fronts were MDF and not maple and the face frames are popler. I feel robbed and am looking for financial restitution. We in no way ever spoke of fiberboard doors.


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