Solid wood is obviously the winner here, right? This is the most common perception when it comes to comparing between wood and MDF. Wood is seen as this strong and sturdy material while MDF is often viewed as a weak and cheap alternative. The truth is, both have their pros and cons for a kitchen remodel. Despite popular belief, wood is not always the superior choice; in some situations MDF might be the better material.
For homeowners who are building or undertaking home renovations, knowing the difference between the two materials and the features of each is essential. Below, we review both MDF and solid wood, noting the pros and cons of each and the best uses for each material.
Solid wood has been the primary material for furniture for millennia. For definition purposes, solid wood refers to natural lumber while the term ‘engineered wood’ refers to other types of wood-based materials such as MDF. While solid wood consists of wood only, engineered wood is a mixture of real wood, veneers, fibers, resin and adhesives.
Advantages of Solid Wood
- Strength and durability – Solid wood is impressively strong and sturdy. If you are looking to buy something that will last for decades, solid wood furniture is perfect. Solid wood is so strong that it has been used all over the world to put up entire buildings and even bridges. Of course, different types of wood have varying levels of strength. For instance, oak is stronger and will last longer than cedar.
- Aesthetics – In terms of appearance, solid wood is unparalleled in beauty. It has a beautiful grain that results in great looking furniture. If aesthetics and style is a major priority for you, solid wood is, well, a solid choice. But just like strength and durability, different wood types have different aesthetic qualities. For instance, while red oak is stronger than white oak, white oak is more commonly used because it is better looking.
- Customization – when using solid wood, furniture can be customized in numerous ways including shape, finish and color.
- Value – furniture made from solid wood tends to have more value than those made from engineered wood, though in some cases MDF furniture can be quite pricey. For homeowners looking to get a better price for their home, adding elements of solid wood can boost up the price tag.
- Variety – there are numerous types of wood, each differing in strength, cost and look. You can take a look at our project gallery for an idea of what options you may have for your cabinets. Combine this with the many varieties of stains and finishes and you can find something highly unique for your home.
Disadvantages of Solid Wood
- Moisture damage – in its unfinished state, wood is not waterproof. While stronger woods such as red oak can withstand constant moisture exposure, most woods will get damaged. To protect the wood, a waterproof finishing usually has to be applied.
- Warping and cracking – wood tends to expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity. The result is a tendency for solid wood furniture to warp or even crack when exposed to temperature and humidity fluctuations. The cracking can be even more noticeable when the wood is painted. With time, wood makers have developed crafting methods and technologies that minimize warping and cracking.
- Bug infestation – Solid wood is more vulnerable to pest attack than engineered wood. It requires regular maintenance and the right finishing to keep the wood well protected.
Related: The Detailed Wellborn Cabinets Guide.
For people who prefer a cheaper but still strong alternative to solid wood, there is MDF. What is MDF wood?
MDF is an abbreviation for a type of engineered wood. The full name is Medium-Density Fiberboard. MDF consists of thin panels made from wood fiber, resin and wax. When it comes to engineered wood, MDF is often considered a level above plywood. It is denser, stronger and more durable. For these reasons, it has almost as many applications as solid wood.
Many homeowners tend to look down on MDF with the perception that it performs poorly when measured against solid wood. But as we mentioned in the beginning both solid wood and MDF have their good and bad points. There are situations where MDF is the superior choice.
Before we lay out the pros and cons of MDF, it is important to note that there are varying types of this engineered wood. They vary by density, size, glue type, moisture content, wood species and thickness. The thicker and denser the MDF board is, the costlier it is.
Why Choose MDF?
In homes, MDF is mostly used in constructing cabinet doors. In fact, solid wood cabinets will opt for MDF doors. There are several reasons for this.
- MDF does not warp or crack. MDF, like wood, expands and contracts when there are fluctuations in temperature and humidity. But unlike Wood, MDF does not warp. This is because the board, thanks to its structure, moves as a unit. Even with extreme changes in humidity and temperature, you do not have to worry about any damage to the cabinet doors.
- MDF is made from very fine particles meaning that it does not have noticeable grain. This results in a better and smooth finish especially when the board is painted. If you plan to get the cabinet doors painted, we would highly recommend MDF over solid wood.
- Easier to customize. Cabinet doors come in a wide variety of styles. There are shaker-style cabinet doors, flat paneled doors, inset doors, raised doors and many more. The ease of customization of MDF boards is to thank for this variety. Because of its structure, MDF can be cut and drilled in many different ways without any damage.
- Some boards have better water resistance. If you plan to use MDF in high moisture areas like the bathroom, you can get MDF boards that have been specially made to be highly water resistant.
- Available in larger sizes than solid wood. If you have a project that demands a large piece of wood with no joints, MDF is the recommended choice. Take a look at the similarities of MDF to solid wood at Wellborn Cabinets.
- Finally, MDF is often cheaper than solid wood but it is still as strong and can last quite long with proper maintenance.
On the downside, MDF gets easily scratched and cannot be repaired after this. This is unlike wood that can be sanded down to eliminate any damage on the surface. Additionally, MDF does not do very well when exposed to extreme heat as the core materials can get damaged. This is why MDF is not a good material for outdoor furniture.
Where MDF is Used
MDF finds its most common use in kitchen cabinets. Most kitchen cabinets comprise of both solid wood and MDF elements. MDF is usually found on the doors and interior paneling for the reasons stated above (easier to paint, easier to clean, does not warp and so on).
But it is not just the kitchen where MDF finds its use. In the bathroom where there is a lot of moisture, MDF is the preferable choice over solid wood. This is because it does not get damaged with humidity and temperature changes in the bathroom. When getting MDF for use in the bathroom or any other damp environment, check that it is specially made to be moisture resistant. Normal MDF boards will easily get damaged when they come in contact with water.
For fire protection, fire retardant MDF is recommended. While this type of MDF is more common in commercial areas, it can also be used at home to provide fire protection especially in places like the kitchen and bedrooms.
Another consideration when using MDF, is when it is compared to plywood. This is not necessarily a comparison you would do for kitchen cabinets, but in other construction instances choosing a plywood vs MDF may be a choice you need to consider.
MDF can also be used purely for aesthetic purposes. A good example of this is wainscoting. Unlike past years when wood was the sole wainscoting material in use, today there is a variety of materials used including MDF. MDF wainscoting can be customized in many styles and can be used in the kitchen, living room, or even bathroom.
Another area where MDF is used is in shelving. Whether it is the inside of a cabinet, an open wall shelf, or a bookshelf, MDF is preferred because of its smooth surface. But be careful about placing heavy weight on it as it can sag with time. If you plan to place heavy weights on the MDF shelving, consider reinforcing it with solid wood.
Finally, MDF is widely used as a material for both interior and exterior doors. There are specially made MDF boards designed to be stylish, hardy and durable. In fact, MDF doors can provide more customization options than solid wood doors.
MDF vs Solid Wood: The Verdict
Both types of wood are good and we cannot declare any one of them the ultimate winner. This is because they both have their pros and cons. There are situations where one is better than the other. But when it comes to cabinet doors, we highly recommend MDF. It provides far more benefits than solid wood.
If you are in the process of giving your kitchen an upgrade, consider choosing cabinets with MDF doors. As always, we are here to help with anything. Contact us with any questions and queries on using MDF in your home.