What The Heck Is MDF Anyway?

Posted by Vinnie Rouge on 4/10/2015 to Buying Guide - Living Room
What The Heck Is MDF Anyway?
This Buying Guide Will:
  • Tell you in detail exactly what MDF is
  • Address the two biggest concerns about MDF
  • List MDF's advantages and disadvantages
MDF is an extremely common material used in furniture. However, a lot of shoppers who are confronted with the term have one of two reactions, both negative. They may not know what this material actually is at all. Or if they do, they may also write it off as substandard. I'll break down for you what MDF is and the positives and negatives of furniture made from it.

MDF stands for Medium Density Fibreboard. 

Fibreboard, in all its densities, is made from wood fibres. Those would be little tiny pieces of hardwood or softwood. Mix these with some resin and wax, then heat it up and press it together, and you get fibreboard.

That explains fibreboard, you say, now what about medium density? Medium relative to what? 
Low density fibreboard is usually called particle board. Particle board is made out of even smaller pieces than MDF - even sawdust can be used to make particle board. That makes particle board inexpensive, but it also makes it weaker than MDF.
There is also such a thing as high density fibreboard, and it has its own name too - hardboard. To make hardboard, more heat and pressure is required than with the other fibreboards, but adhesives are usually not required. Hardboard is quite strong, but can also be an expensive material.
Want some numbers to compare the usual densities of fibreboards? Here you go:

What is MDF

The Two Most Common Concerns About MDF

"Do manufacturers and stores use MDF with veneer on it and then tell people the piece is solid wood?"

While MDF furniture with veneer on top to simulate solid wood is a popular choice, the reason for that choice has nothing to do with deception. By using veneer over MDF, a manufacturer can create furniture that has the look of woods that would not otherwise be available. Some of these woods are excessively expensive; they may be rare and environmentally protected; or they may simply not make good solid wood furniture.
I do agree that it makes perfect sense to want to know what materials furniture is made of before you purchase it. If in doubt - ask! A competent salesperson will know the answer or be able to help you find it. 

"Are the chemicals in MDF poisonous? Do they cause cancer?"

Generally, people who ask these questions are thinking primarily about formaldehyde. That chemical is used in the construction of MDF, and there have been studies linking formaldehyde with an increased risk of cancer. However, there are two important counterpoints to consider here.
First, there are increasingly strict government restrictions in place covering the amount of chemicals, especially formaldehyde, that may be used in the construction of MDF. 
Second, what off-gassing of formaldehyde does occur happens primarily during the construction of the material. By the time the piece reaches your home, especially if it has been painted, off-gassing has for the most part halted. 
If you would like more information on formaldehyde and its potential health effects, this link will take you to the Air Quality Guideline document produced by Health Canada on the subject.

Here is a breakdown of many advantages and disadvantages of MDF as used in furniture. Since people considering purchasing MDF furniture often want to know how it compares to solid wood, you will see a lot of comparisons to that here.

Advantages of MDF Furniture
  • MDF is an economical choice. It's inexpensive to make so you will pay less for it in the store than for some solid wood pieces.
  • MDF uses recycled wood in its construction, thereby helping to save trees.
  • MDF is easy to paint in many different colours, whereas solid wood has a difficult time taking some colours.
  • A smooth material throughout, MDF does not have knots that can blemish the surface of a piece or make components difficult to attach.
  • The chemicals used in the construction of MDF make it poisonous to pests such as termites.
  • MDF will not expand and contract due to heat and humidity the way solid wood can.
  • Shaping MDF is easier than shaping solid wood, making it easier to do more elaborate designs.
  • Veneer can easily be attached to MDF to give it the look of genuine wood. 
Disadvantages of MDF Furniture
  • As noted above, when MDF is being constructed, it may off-gas small amounts of formaldehyde, though this has largely dissipated by the end of the construction process. MDF which has been painted reduces any health risk still further.
  • MDF tends to be high maintenance - if you chip it or crack it, you cannot repair or cover the damage easily as you typically can with solid wood.
  • The chemicals used in making MDF make the material less child-friendly than other materials.
  • Direct exposure to water can cause MDF to swell.
  • There is no grain on MDF, as it is not a natural wood product. If this is an issue, however, it is easily remedied with veneer.
  • The glue present in MDF can make it hard to sink certain types of fasteners into the material. 
How do you feel about MDF? Love it or hate it, we want to hear from you in the comments!

Comments

Date 9/5/2016
Elsie
I was concerned when I heard the word formaldehyde.However the information was very thorough; which made me comfortable, with the idea of making a purchase.
Date 9/26/2016
maria
I never made any purchase of furniture made with mdf but I'm not confident to buy any thing made with mdf I've been told in store that they get a lot of return s For products made with mdf
Date 9/26/2016
maria
I never made any purchase of furniture made with mdf but I'm not confident to buy any thing made with mdf I've been told in store that they get a lot of return s For products made with mdf
Date 11/5/2016
Susanne
Thank you for this thorough information. It has educated me and I will definitely be thinking about what kind of "wood material" I will be living with.
Date 6/27/2017
Bricke (it's old german)
Ditto, Sam! And I believe the author of this informative web page about MDF certainly DESERVES more respect than exhibited by the nasty trolls who, judging from their comments, seem to have nothing better to do with their time. If so, why should they not be abandoned by friends, family, and society to wither away in a ditch, as useless dregs of humanity? Thank you, Mr. Rouge. I appreciate the information provided in a clear and simple manner so even someone like I who knows little about the manufacture of wood products can benefit from your expertise.
Date 6/28/2017
Pat
I was appalled at the immaturity of the vulgar posts. Some people have no life, and no reason to be productive. The information about the MDF board was helpful, but , again, I am saddened by what our society has become.
Date 7/31/2017
darlene k
ty for information
Date 9/16/2017
Linda M
Thank you for the information, I was wondering how you can tell if it is MDF. I have a built in hutch in my kitchen and the house was built in 1961. The whole neighborhood and a few others had these built in hutches (most people have removed them). Could they have used MDF for my house and the built in 1961? Anyone with any info, I'd appreciate it.
Date 11/13/2017
VLB
To address the comments about MDF being cheap. I purchased two large storage/TV systems from Ligne Roset in Italy, in 2006, to hold stereo equipment and TV's. One cost $12,600 and the second one was $11,000. Ligne Roset, a luxury designer of furniture often uses MDF in their cabinets because it does not warp. The shelves are 1 1/2" thick and the dividing sections of the rest of the unit are 2" thick, so they are very thick. In addition, a solid quality wood that thick would be incredibly heavy. These are heavy and would be too heavy if solid wood and would warp. High quality MDF is very expensive, not cheap as the article states. I see no reason to personally demean those that are not familiar with MDF, that form of criticism reflects more on you than does on them. Stick to the point and don't get personal.
Date 11/13/2017
VLB
To address the comments about MDF being cheap. I purchased two large storage/TV systems from Ligne Roset in Italy, in 2006, to hold stereo equipment and TV's. One cost $12,600 and the second one was $11,000. Ligne Roset, a luxury designer of furniture often uses MDF in their cabinets because it does not warp. The shelves are 1 1/2" thick and the dividing sections of the rest of the unit are 2" thick, so they are very thick. In addition, a solid quality wood that thick would be incredibly heavy. These are heavy and would be too heavy if solid wood and would warp. High quality MDF is very expensive, not cheap as the article states. I see no reason to personally demean those that are not familiar with MDF, that form of criticism reflects more on you than it does on them. Stick to the point and don't get personal.
Date 2/19/2018
Maylee
Very nice work! smily face .......succ
Date 2/19/2018
Maylee
Very nice work! smily face .......succ
Date 3/7/2018
Reach Loverrow
MDF is terrible if the product will be near moisture. It absorbs moisture from the air and swells. Distortion and ballooning are the result. I've had three total failures with MDF constructed bathroom vanities. All three occurred very quickly after installation. All three vanities were beautiful when installed. Within a matter of days, the ballooning was evident and the distortions began. They deformed the vanities and soon the doors would not close, swelling occurred, and they looked like they had the plague. The distributor replaced the first, funded the purchase price on the replacement when that one failed, and did the same on the third. The third was purchased two years after the first two, and despite my complaints, no changes were made to the unit. Because of the dimensions of the vanity, it was impossible to find one made entirely of wood. I resorted to building my own after the third failure. I copied the dimensions and style of the third. It took about a week to complete. The water absorption nature of MDF should preclude any manufacturer from constructing bathroom vanities using this material, but despite my complaints and warnings, no remediation has occurred regarding the use of this very inappropriate material for bathroom vanities. MDF might be adequate for living room furniture, where it is not exposed to moisture, but to use MDF anywhere near moisture is a disappointment just waiting to happen. But, as stated, good luck finding a solid wood bathroom vanity. If you are not handy, you are up the creek.
Date 3/7/2018
Elsae Yared
I recently rented a unit and noticed the window frame in the kitchen was worn at the edges. It was obvious it cannot be repainted. It has to be replaced. MDF is high maintenance if you have to replace every time it is damaged.
Date 4/7/2018
RJD
I came to learn about MDF because I collect Russian lacquer. In the Soviet era, boxes and plaques were painstakingly made by "homemade"/ handpressed paper mache, a process used by Chinese, Germans, and later Russians (and probably others). Through (most of) the Soviet era, the processes of manufacture from making the papermache items to the often masterful applied paintings were strictly controlled by master craftsmen. Today, it seems very little of lacquer products produced is paper mache but is more often MDF. I understand, most of what IS paper mache is machine-produced, making much denser, more uniform items that are harder and smoother. I was surprised to learn that MDF does not expand and contract (except, as suggested by gentlemen using MDF in his bathroom, when exposed to high humidity). So my question is, why does surface lacquer crack so much more easily? Older boxes of paper mache tend to develop very fine craquelature over many decades, whereas with MDF products, one may see large widespread cracking more like shattered glass? It happens often early in the life of these items making them seem older to some sellers than they actually are. Maybe I have answered my own question - that the expansion contraction characteristics of the lacquer painted on and MDF differ? Whereas, the lacquer painted on to home made, hand pressed paper mache, using similar materials as binders and lacquer have more similar expansion contraction characteristics?
Date 4/30/2018
An actual troll
You were offended by some encephelopathe saying "succ"? 1. You're adults, I am barely an adult and I never found non sequiturs offensive, nor enlightening. 2. If it cannot be related to the context, it's simply an out of function ad hominem-In the case of trolling. 3. Please, don't be so childish as to find some child posting some moronic off topic sentence. 4. If you're really offended by everything because you find it unfit, it only shows ego-mania, as you think your opinion dictates common society. 5. Social norms are found by surroundings as psychology will tell you, the child probably spent a lot of time online and thought "hey look an article, I'm gonna have some fun with it"~Then continued to say some emoticons and dribble like "XD" aloud. 6. If you're really offended by such a minor idiotic delinquent, how can you let the obstacles in life not slow you down(?) 7. Insinuating maturity on your part and then complaining is contradictory, I hear idiots saying mis-appended facts, which are flat out wrong every day, and I never correct them. Why?-Life, let the idiots have the fun, at the end of it all, if you're not one of them you'll not have to deal with them in the future.
Date 5/21/2018
rajesh kumar
Although I am Quality head in Asia largest MDF industry, but I never like to use its furniture.

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