When given a choice between medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and solid wood furniture, most people will almost always pick solid wood. This is in part due to lingering ideas that any type of ‘particle board’ is cheaply made and falls apart quickly.
But recent technological breakthroughs have improved the quality of engineered wood, as well as making it cheaper than ever. Engineered wood is now sturdier and nicer looking, enabling it to give solid wood a run for its money.
So, has engineered wood replaced solid wood for good?
Well, it depends. Now, people do have more of a choice and as long as you know the strengths and weaknesses of each type of wood, you can feel comfortable making the decision that is right for you. Bedroom, living room, and kitchen furniture and fixtures can all be made from engineered wood. But it can be a little more complicated than just picking one kind of wood over another. For example, manufacturers can advertise engineered wood as ‘real wood’ as long as they use a wood veneer or laminate. Anyone who has tried knows that painting laminate kitchen cabinets is a thankless task. However, most kitchen cabinets are made from medium-density fiberboard (MDF). MDF is very durable and can support even the weight of a granite countertop. While furniture grade solid wood is harder, both it and MDF will last for decades, if installed correctly.
In this article we will outline the pros and cons of both hardwood and MDF engineered wood.
What We Mean When We Talk About “Solid Wood”
When we talk about solid wood, we mean the natural, minimally processed lumber, which comes from harvested trees. There is a huge variety of wood to match the hundreds of species of commercially harvested trees. So when you hear ‘solid wood,’ do not just assume it is ‘hard wood.’ Solid wood can be anything from soft yellow pine to the hardest teak.
Solid Wood – The Good News
It Will Stand the Test of Time
Nature is one of the best engineers. Trees ‘designed’ to withstand the rigor of high winds while growing as tall and wide as possible makes for one of the most durable materials known to man… wood. Pound for pound, solid wood is still one of the best building materials that humans have ever worked with. From your grandmother’s oak dining table to unearthed Viking longships, solid wood has a proven track record of lasting durability. In some areas of the world you can find wooden bridges and houses built over a thousand years ago still standing.
It Is Aesthetically Pleasing
For a material, you just cannot replace the natural beauty and warmth of solid wood. Even ‘boring,’ cheaper woods like pine or red oak can still be used to add a rich aesthetic look to a room.
Solid Wood Furniture Boosts the Value of Your Home
Besides looking great, solid wood furniture and trimmings can boost the value of a home significantly. Solid wood is instantly recognizable.
It Is Highly Customizable
Humans have been shaping solid wood for tens of thousands of years. Even with very primitive tools, ancient carpenters found solid wood to be an extremely versatile and forgiving medium for creative expression and practical use. Modern tools have advanced far beyond that today, adding to the ways in which contemporary carpenters can get the most out of a piece of solid wood. These tools and the spread of information have allowed DIYers the chance to experiment with solid wood in ways that were only available to skilled professional craftsmen only centuries before.
Solid Wood – The Bad News
It Is Not Waterproof
While natural solid wood is literally designed to interact with water, once that wood becomes furniture, lumber, or a hardwood floor, it is vulnerable to water damage and mold. Even the hardest woods like maple or red oak are susceptible to prolonged water exposure. That is why it is highly recommended to always use a quality water resistant finish to any hard wood surfaces in or around your home.
It Is Temperature-Sensitive
As with water, solid wood grows out-doors, exposed to all sorts of weather. But once that wood is harvested, it loses its ability to naturally adapt to those changes. Frequent changes in temperature or moisture will cause wood to expand and contract, sometimes changing the shape of the wood or cracking it.
It Is Prone To Infestations
Without special treatment, solid wood can attract wood eating insects such as termites and certain types of beetles.
It Can Get Expensive
While some woods are relatively inexpensive, such as pine and fir, harder woods like oak, mahogany, and teak are very expensive.
What is “MDF”?
MDF is the shortened term for medium-density fiberboard. It is a man-made, or engineered wood, consisting of recycled wood fibers, resins, waxes, and other binders. It is more dense than plywood and almost as strong as natural wood.
Because it is manufactured, MDF can be made to meet any number of needs. Thickness, grain type, binder material, and surface veneer can all be modified to meet the specifications required.
MDF – The Good News
Is MDF strong? It does not warp or crack
Because of its internal structure, MDF is almost immune to cracking and warping. It is able to withstand both high humidity and temperature swings because the material is uniform and expands and contracts together. This is unlike solid wood which has differences in growth structure. Most MDF can withstand up to 90kg of weight, which is more than the average comparable thickness of solid wood.
It Is Much More Accessible
With some exceptions, MDF is much cheaper than its solid wood counterparts. Generally, MDF is available in stores in sizes between 1.5 and 3.6 meters. Custom sizes can also be ordered.
It Can Be Easily Painted or Stained
MDF surfaces do not have a visible grain. If you want a natural look then this is a downside to MDF. But it does make painting MDF much easier, as you don’t have to worry about any knots or grains ‘bleeding through’ your paint coats.
It Is A Go-To Choice For Cabinet Doors
Because MDF can be molded to almost any pattern, MDF has become an industry favorite for cabinet doors. Specially treated MDF can withstand the high humidity and moisture of bathrooms and kitchens even better than standard MDF, which we already mentioned is already good at withstanding high temperatures and humidity changes.
MDF – The Bad News
MDF Is Easily Scratched
Just like any surface, MDF can be scratched and dented. This wouldn’t be that big of a deal if you could sand MDF. But sanding MDF only exposes the fiber material below the veneer surface. So for furniture or fixtures in areas that may get scratched or nicked easily, solid wood is a better choice as you can sand most damage out.
It Weighs A Lot More
MDF is much heavier than its hardwood equivalent even though you’d think that the opposite would be true. MDF is so much heavier that it takes special reinforced fixtures to mount MDF-made cabinets, adding cost and difficulty to any job.
MDF Does Not React Well To Heat
Above we told you that MDF does well in extreme temperatures. What we mean here is direct contact, like laying a clothes iron down on MDF. Exposing MDF to direct extreme heat will damage the bonding in its core materials, completely destroying the entire piece. Therefore you should avoid putting MDF near fireplaces, kitchen stoves, or other sources of direct heat.
It Is Not Weight-Friendly
MDF wood will sag with excess weight over time, much quicker than solid wood. You can help avoid this by reinforcing MDF furniture with solid wood supports.
Conclusion: Which type of wood wins the fight?
Neither solid wood or MDF is the clear heads up winner. The right choice all depends on your budget, aesthetic preference, and intended functionality.
However, MDF edges out solid wood for cabinet doors and for renovations which aren’t required to stand up to close visual scrutiny.
But if you have the budget and know that you want that classic look, solid wood is going to be the choice for you.