What Is MDF, and Is It Right for Your Next Project?

Here’s a thorough look at the good and bad to using this versatile sheet good.

BY JOSEPH TRUINIOCT 7, 2020mdf wood boardsEYALGRANITGETTY IMAGES

Most woodworking projects are built using a combination of solid-wood boards and some type of sheet good, such as plywood, particleboard, or hardboard (a.k.a.: Masonite). Sheet goods come in large 4×8-ft. panels, so they’re ideal for making cabinet doors, wainscoting, tabletops, shelving units, drawer bottoms, cabinets, and other large, wide parts.RELATED STORIES10 Awesome Woodworking Projects for Every SkillHow To Build a Nail Tray From Scrap Wood

And while plywood—in its many variations—is by far the most popular sheet good, there’s a lesser-known panel that every DIY builder should know about: medium-density fiberboard, which is commonly referred to by its initials: MDF. But before taking a closer look at this versatile sheet good, here’s a brief explanation of exactly what is MDF.

MDF Defined

MDF is composted of wood-mill byproducts, primarily sawdust and wood shavings, which are ground into a fine powder, dried to remove moisture, and then mixed with resins and wax before being pressed into flat, hard panels. Unlike plywood, MDF doesn’t have a wood-grain appearance; it has a consistent light-brown color with no discernible texture or pattern. MDF is also much harder, smoother and denser than plywood, and it doesn’t have any voids, knots, or splinters.

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MDF is sold at most home centers and lumberyards in 4×8-ft. sheets in two thicknesses: ½ in. ($26) and 3/4 in. ($28); ¼-in.-thick MDF ($7) is available, too, but typically only in 2×4-ft. panels. And note that moisture-resistant MDF and fire-resistant MDF are also available, although they’re harder to find and must typically be special ordered.

Okay, now let’s take a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks to MDF.

Benefits

  • MDF is very hard and dense, perfectly flat, and extremely resistant to warping. It’s also relatively inexpensive.
  • It has two super-smooth surfaces (front and back) that provide a near-perfect substrate for painting.
  • Because MDF is composed of wood byproducts, you can cut, rout and drill it using standard woodworking tools.
  • It expands and contracts less than solid wood.
  • MDF parts can be fastened together with a wide variety of nails or screws, including pocket screws.
  • MDF is an excellent substrate for wood veneer or plastic laminate.
  • It can be glued together with virtually any type of adhesive, including carpenter’s glueconstruction adhesive and polyurethane glue.
  • MDF can be machined, routed and shaped to create decorative moldings and raised door panels—without annoying tear-out or splintering.
  • MDF is highly compatible with solid wood. For example, you can install an MDF raised panel in a cabinet-door frame cut from hardwood.

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