Most stock and RTA cabinets as well as many types of trim and moldings today have some medium density fiberboard or MDF in its composition. MDF has been around for many years because using it in lieu of solid wood makes many of threes items more affordable. That said, any material has its pros and cons, and while MDF does have many desirable attributes, it is not always the best choice for some applications. Here is the lowdown on medium density fiberboard for cabinets.
What is MDF?
Medium density fiberboard or MDF is in general terms is a composite product made primarily from wood materials and residuals. These range from fine hard to soft wood components such as sawdust, chips, and shavings, and these are kept together using some type of adhesive or resin. MDF manufacturers turn them out into dense and durable panels or sheets using pressure and heat. In many instances, it is more durable tan particleboard.
When should you use MDF?
MDF works best with stock and RTA cabinets where the cabinet and drawer fronts will receive a paint finish. You do not want to use solid wood if you have painted fronts for many reasons.
One of the most obvious reasons is that the paint will cover up the grain, which is a shame. However, that is not the most important reason to use MDF in lieu of solid wood. Solid wood is a natural material, which means it emits and absorbs moisture depending on the humidity of the environment. It naturally expands and contracts depending on the ambient conditions.
For example, in the spring when you tend to leave the windows open, the amount of moisture in a room increases. This will lead the wood to expand quite significantly in some cases. When this happens, this will affect any paint that may be on the surface. This may cause the paint to develop tiny fissures, especially at the joint where the frames come to a point. You might also observe lines appearing on the center panel when one part of it expands more than other parts.
On the other hand, when humidity levels fall, the wood will contract and pull away slightly from the groove. You will notice this when you see unpainted portions peeking out. Additionally, constant expanding and contracting of the wood will eventually result in warping, twisting, and bowing.
To be clear, warping, twisting, and bowing will occur with any type of solid wood surface, whether painted or stained. You may find that solid wood cabinets and drawers in older homes are likely to stick or be difficult to open. You will also see cracks at the corners. Many cabinet manufacturers prefer to use MDF to avoid these issues with their products.
What are the benefits of MDF?
MDF is made of organic materials, but the inclusion of resins and the process of compressing and heating it eliminates most problems associated with solid wood.
MDF is a great choice for many types of cabinets because it is very stable. It is easy to paint because of its density and smoothness. Also it is easy to machine because it is very hard. It will not easily dent, so the paint will not peel and flake.
Some people have the idea that MDF in their cabinets is a step down from quality, but the fact is, manufacturers of high quality cabinets and drawers recommend it for its stability over time. In many cases, most brands will use panels for cabinets and drawers made of MDF, and use solid wood for fronts if the customer wants them. Solid maple or walnut, for example, is almost as dense and stable as MDF, so it is a good choice for your cabinet and drawer fronts.
The biggest disadvantage of MDF is that it does not have the distinctive grain of solid wood. However, the availability of veneers and laminates to simulate the look of wood makes that less of a problem.
MDF may be inexpensive, but it is not cheap. It is a practical alternative to wood simply because it is cost-effective and stable. All of the best brands of cabinetry can afford to offer great warranties for their products because they use MDF. Of course, the quality of the cabinets and drawers will also depend on the expertise and skill put into their construction.
If you are considering new cabinets for your home, you should ask your cabinet supplier about the MDF in the products they sell as well as the various features of their construction. Ask about the type of joinery and if the panels are glued or floating. If you are unsure about other features that constitute good quality cabinets, ask for the advice of your cabinet supplier.
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