What is MDF particle board?

If you buy ready-made cabinets and furniture today, you will find out that most of them are made of MDF. They are light but durable, and the entire woodworking industry highly recommends that you use them.

But what is MDF and is this really a good material?

In my many years of woodworking, I have used a multitude of different types of wood, and MDF is one of them. A lot of my friends asked me if it is any good, what its pros and cons are, and if they are worth the money.

Today, I want to share with you everything that I know about MDF. By the end of this tutorial, I am hoping you can make an informed decision as to whether this type of wood is the best one for your project.

What is MDF?

MDF stands for medium-density fiber board. It is also called particle board. Professional woodworkers nitpick on it and say that it isn’t real wood, but I have to disagree.

You see, MDF is a kind of engineered wood. No, it is not synthetic. It is made of real wood, but not like how real boards and plywoods are made.

MDF is made from residues of wood production. Wood production requires a lot of sawing. If you have ever worked on any woodworking project before, you know what I am talking about. You can easily fill up a jar with wood shavings and sawdust if you just take the time to collect them.

If you scale this up to mass production, then you have a ton of wood shavings, which is typically discarded—sold to other companies to be used for other stuff.

Wood processing companies realized this waste in the 1980s, so they decided to do something about it. What they did was to collect all these wood shavings and sawdust, pressed them together, and then the final outcome is the MDF or particle board.

MDF is still wood, but they are from wood shavings that are glued together with binders, wax, and resin. Because of this, they are light and useful, but not as durable as a real block of wood.

As you can imagine by now, the MDF particle is not as dense as real wood. What it means is that there are spaces in between them because they are simply pressed together.  

MDF was mass-produced in the 1980s, and there were some controversies that surrounded it. Several health proponents do not like how it was made because it contained formaldehyde. But over the years, manufacturers have found a better way to make MDF with less environmental and health risks.

Advantages of MDF

Why should you even bother using MDF? What benefits do you get from it?

Here are the advantages of using MDF:

  • Cost savings – I cannot tell you exactly how much they cost, but I can guarantee you that MDF particle board is cheaper than plywood. Why is this? Plywood is a big shaving from a big log—the real product of logging. On the other hand, particle board is made of waste materials—recycled sawdust and wood shavings.
  • Really smooth surface – because it is pressed and combined with wax, the surface of particle boards is really smooth. This is an advantage because you no longer have to sand and apply putty to it to get the smoothness you want. Just prime it and paint it. This smoothness is what makes it a great material if the finishing you want is a veneer.
  • Consistency – MDF is manufactured, so there are no splinters and bumps. There are also no knots. What this means is that you can run your router in the edges and you will not go through the typical problems of working with real plywood.
  • Painting is a breeze – unlike wood, it is easier to paint MDF. However, you have to use an oil-based primer. Otherwise, the primer will just soak through the wood. Staining the MDF with varnish is also a lot easier than staining real wood.
  • Insect resistance – MDF is a heavily treated wood with chemicals. This makes it resistant to the attack of many insects that typically damage real wood, like termites.

I say that MDF is great for simple projects like computer tables and dresser drawers. However, they also look cheap—they do not have the same characteristics of real wood. If you are on a tight budget, and if you want to finish a quick project, then I strongly recommend that you use MDF.

Disadvantages of MDF

Now, MDF is not all too rosy. There are some disadvantages, too, which I will explain below:

  • Not durable – MDF is not a durable product. It works great, but it will not hold weight. It is also not an ideal material for projects that are subject to pulling and pushing. In my many years of woodworking, drawers made of particle boards easily give. And if this happens, it rips a portion of the particle board—and there is no other way to fix this but to replace the entire section of the broken part.
  • Prone to molds – both plywood and MDF soak up water, but MDF is like a sponge. Even if you keep the MDF out of the rain, the moisture from the air will easily seep through the MDF. The next thing you know, the back of your board, which probably has no veneer, is full of molds. In my experience, even the areas covered with a veneer can harbor molds form the inside—not really good if you use it to store clothing.
  • Does not hold screws well – this is my biggest gripe with MDF. Since the board is made of compressed wood shavings, the screws have almost nothing to latch onto. The worst thing that can happen is that the screw does not hold. The only good way to put MDF boards together is through the use of dowels and glue.  
  • Staining requires more work – staining is easy in the sense that the particle board will show the real color of your stain. But it also requires a lot of prep work. If you do not use the right primer, the MDF will soak the stain like a sponge.

If you can live with these problems, then, by all means, use MDF for your project. I strongly advise you against using screws—no matter what you do; the particle board will eventually break apart.

MDF versus Plywood

Okay, here is the multi-million-dollar question: is MDF better than plywood?

The general answer is no, MDF is not better than plywood. 

But wait—this does not mean that MDF should be out of your materials list. It has many uses, and you will be surprised at the kinds of projects you can do with it. But how should you choose? 

  • Durability – plywood is a lot durable because they are made of sheets of wood from a log that was glued together. The wood is intact, which means that the cellulose and component of what makes it hard remains strong. 
  • Water Damage – both are susceptible to water damage, but plywood can breathe out the water once it is dry. If you get the MDF wet, it’s a goner. 
  • Screws – MDF does not hold screws because there are so many spaces in between of the wood shavings. You can only use dowels and glue to put them together. 
  • Cost – MDF is far cheaper than plywood. However, there are now many variants of MDF, and some can even be more expensive than plywood. Generally speaking, MDF is much more affordable than plywood. 
  • Ease of working – it is easier to work with MDF. It is easier to cut, and it does not warp as plywood does. Also, all type of MDF board are super smooth—you do not even have to put a finish on them if you do not want to. Also, there are many types of MDF where there is already a veneer finish on top. 

As you can see, you have to decide between MDF and plywood according to your project and budget. Many times, you would opt for MDF, especially so if the only thing you want to do, really, is a study table for a child. 

They also work great for simple furniture, but then and again, the mold and moist are your number one enemy. But if you live in an area where rain does not normally occur, then yes, MDF is really a great choice. 

Is MDF a health hazard?

This is a good question. Many claim that it is hazardous because manufacturers use asbestos on MDF. They also use formaldehyde, the same chemical you use to preserve human bodies for funerals. Today, nobody really uses asbestos anymore. 

What many people do not realize is that new technologies are now used to make both plywood and MDF without the need for these bad chemicals. 

There are also health concerns about the resin used to put MDF particles together. Some claim that as you cut MDF, they release super small particles that irritate the upper respiratory tract. While this also happens in typical plywood, MDF is worse.  

You cannot prevent the sawdust and shaving from happening, and this is why you have to wear protective gear all the time.  

Now, back to the resin. There are claims that the resin binder is a carcinogen. The thing is that there is no study that can conclusively prove that this resin can cause cancer. Many governments only list resin as a potential carcinogen, but the lack of evidence does not give them the power to declare it as a hazardous chemical. 

Overall, these fears are founded on reality. However, there is no strong scientific principle to back it up—it is like processed foods, if you think about it. While process foods increase your risk of cancer and heart diseases, it does not make sense to ban it. 

Cancer, after all, is like a lottery. It is caused by an abnormality of cells. Sometimes, even the healthiest of individuals can get it. 

My general advice is that you use protective gear if you are working with wood—MDF or not. You must use standard safety tools and comply with safety procedures in woodworking. Get a mask and wear eye protection. The less particles you inhale, the better it is for you.  

Summary: What is MDF?

MDF is not as bad as you think. I recommend them for simple projects where you are not after a high-level of artistry. MDF is best used for cabinets and shelves, and you have a lot of options as far as painting and finishing is concerned. You can also use many types of vinyl and veneer sheets, which you can buy by the meter from hardware stores.

For projects that require class, I would say that you have to stick to plywood and real wooden boards, especially so if you are looking for durability.