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What Is MDF Wood : What It’s Good For

What is MDF Wood?

Imagine, for a second, that you just woke up feeling refreshed, so you spring up out of bed.  You hop to the kitchen to get your morning routine started, reaching for a coffee mug - when you notice for the hundredth time that your cabinet shelf is sadly sagging from the weight.  But today is a different day, today is the day you finally decide to look into fixing it up.  So you start the search with gusto in the cabinet section at the home improvement store.  And as you survey the options, bam! It hits you.  What in the world is MDF wood...?

Glad you asked, MDF stands for - Medium Density Fiberboard. It is a modern versatile alternative to traditional hardwood building options, which has its unique features to make it strongly worth your consideration.

Composition

MDF consists of a mixture of sawdust, shavings (little pieces of wood that come from the byproduct of industrial milling), resin, wood fibers, and wax.  It’s kind of a re-purposing concoction that results in a strong man-made product.  

Here’s a general overview of the manufacturing process.  The wood is dried and shaved down to an even consistency before mixture, heat pressed into shape, then cooled so the panels keep their shape.   In the last step of the process, giant sanding machines buff the sides of the panels down, so they feel no-splinter-worrying smooth to the touch. Then of course they are cut to sales specifications.

In regards to composition, there are inherent benefits that come from the MDF production process.  Since you must essentially create a wood/resin “soup,” there are things that manufacturers can add into the “soup” that will give it different properties any other type of hardwood would not have.  Two of these include fire-retardant and water-retardant MDF boards.

Common Uses

MDF boards are commonly used in kitchen settings. Most kitchen cabinetry has some proportion of both solid wood and MDF contained. You can usually find the doors of the cabinets, the smooth shelves, and the interior paneling consists of MDF wood.

There are a few reasons for this.  The smoothness of the exterior gives it a great modern feel, to go along with the water, and fire-resistant properties that can help give you peace of mind in suspect areas of your house.

Not only is the kitchen common, but the bathroom is also another place you will see many prefer MDF.  Where there is a strong and fluctuating amount of moisture present, MDF with water-resistance is a preferable choice. 

Any time when you’re looking into MDF in any kind of moisture-laden, or fire-prone environment, be sure to double check that you got the exact resistance type boards you require. Normal MDF boards will not get the job done in those situations.

Fire protection in commercial settings makes MDF board a widely used option here, and potentially preferred for insurance purposes.

Unique Traits

MDF boards will be marked or stamped to denote its particular properties. For example, red or blue markings indicate a board that is fire retardant; green markings indicate a board that is  water resistant. To be certain, double check with each manufacturer and distribution company for their color codes.

Obviously, any areas prone to high water content, or fluctuating moments of wet and dry need a wooden finish that will last through the elements and get the job done.  Places like kitchens, bathrooms, outdoor patios, pool areas, beach settings come to mind.

Same goes for places like indoor and outdoor kitchens, hearthes, firepits with fire-retardant necessities.

If you plan to use MDF in these kinds of areas, be sure to prime and paint the edges to strengthen that barrier.

Being that MDF board is made from a smoothed out mixture, that means it doesn’t have natural graining and fibering. This results in a smoother finish with better paint retention. If you plan to get your cabinets painted with a modern feel, I’d recommend MDF over solid wood.  Think IKEA versus grandmother’s house.  They are just different.

Additionally, the smoothness makes the surfaces easier to clean, and probably safer as far as sliding hands over as well.

MDF board is essentially made of repurposed scraps of wood ground down. So, not needing to chop down an existing tree to create it helps save that tree. Manufacturers take leftover scraps of choice wood from existing wood sources that might otherwise be burned, or end up in a landfill.

Different Sizes

In general, because MDF can be precisely cut and molded, you may see it in many shapes, sizes, colors, and consistencies.

 For most general purposes, you’ll find a more standardized set of sizes when shopping for MDF boards at the home improvement store. 

Tip: Be sure you know your project’s requirements ahead of going to the store so that you can purchase the correct type.

 MDF boards are known to come in a variety of colors.  Some shade of brown is most common, but white and black MDF boards are also readily available.

Sizes are primarily standardized at one-quarter (¼), half (½), or three-quarter (¾) inch thickness.  

The most common dimensions you will usually find are 2 ft. x 4 ft. and 4 ft. x 8 ft.

If your project requires a peculiar shape, or a wooden look without any visible joints, MDF is recommended.  This is because it can be cut without having to worry about graining or structure, as you would with solid hardwood.

Pros and Cons

As compared to other wood and wood-alternative products out there, MDF has its distinct properties that set it apart for many reasons.  Now, let’s analyze the benefits and drawbacks of this option.

Advantages

Due to the structural nature of MDF boards, sawing and cutting is made much simpler.  

With MDF, you don’t have to worry about the woodgrain or knotting since there is none.  Meaning that detail work, like trim and facade, can be made smoother.

Because of its smoothness, the outer surface holds paint very well making it ideal for any color/painting choices.

MDF wood is resistant to warping and cracking. MDF, like any wood, contracts and expands to  changes in humidity and temperature, but the resin built-in regulates its internal composition to a more neutral state.

The ease of customization is a big selling point for MDF boards. This is because MDF can be molded into any shape, and cut without breaking.  You see this currently with popular furniture brands, and the “modernist” furniture style.

It can be specifically value engineered for each purpose if you have the time and resources. This can result in a cost-savings solution compared to its alternatives.

Because there are no knots/graining to worry about, you will get less excess waste as a result.

Disadvantages

MDF is a bit on the heavy side due to its density.  So they can be more difficult to move because of the weight.

And because of the weight, its slightly more fragile nature becomes a concern.

MDF boards are meant to look and be smooth, so naturally, any unwanted rough treatment before installation will become noticeable and make the board potentially unusable.  So be sure to handle it with care.

Understand the differences between the MDF boards with certain resistance properties.  There are water-resistant, flame-retardant, and non-resistant boards to choose between.

Due to the density again, when you cut and saw MDF boards, you will get more dust in the air than standard solid hardwood.  You can expect a bit more of a clean up after due to the increase.  And please, be sure to work in a well-ventilated room or outdoors, with a mask, to help save yourself from the health risks.

Health Note: I believe it is important to mention here that MDF may contain urea-formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen. There is currently no known link between formaldehyde in MDF and cancer, but it is under investigation.  Current research shows that MDF continues to off-gas the formaldehyde for about a year after production, though whether it is at toxic levels is unknown. You may want to consider wearing a respirator.  So be careful when working heavily with this product until more information comes out.  

So not only is breathing too much wood dust into your body already dangerous, but if formaldehyde is also contained in that dust, then you can see why it’s important to monitor.

You can theoretically make your MDF boards safer by sealing the outer surfaces.  Though it is wise to put some kind of sealant on your wood products anyway for preservation’s sake.

Comparison to Similar Products

Plywood rivals the versatility and affordability of MDF.  Plywood is lighter, but MDF is denser, stronger and more durable.

Particle board, made from compressed sawdust, is structurally weaker than MDF.  

While solid hardwood contains knots and graining naturally, the composition of MDF is easily cut by saw, leaving no blemishes, or tear-outs.  Also, natural wood will warp over time, whereas MDF will resist the warping.

Engineered wood tends to take on a more “modernist” look, while natural wood tends to result in a more “traditionalist” look.

Conclusion

Hopefully after reading this article, you will feel like you know a little too much about MDF as a viable option.  Depending on your situation, it could be the perfect choice.  Just keep a balanced mind as far as its benefits and drawbacks. That way, fixing that cabinet shelf no longer becomes an issue, but more of a creative decision!

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