The Durability of MDF Furniture: Advantages and Disadvantages of Using MDF

by | Aug 29, 2020 | Buying Guides | 0 comments

Furniture made from solid wood is typically thought of as beautiful, timeless and high quality. Whether it’s oak, pine or maple, there’s plenty of choices when it comes to using wood for furniture.

In comparison, MDF (Medium Density Fibre-Board) is made with recycled timer and fibre materials, mixed with resin-based glue and compacted very tightly together.

Typically, MDF is seen as a cheaper alternative to solid wood and is often perceived to be lower in quality. However, in recent years there has been a rapid resurgence in flat-pack furniture being manufactured with MDF. This is largely due to the lower material costs, but also because it’s easy to store compactly.

So, with advantages and disadvantages for both solid wood and MDF, which is the better option?

Contents

What are the advantages of MDF ?

  • Cost
    MDF’s core ingredient is sawdust and small chippings of other timbers. These are all collected waste products from the machining process which makes the material cost much lower than plywood and solid wood.
  • Size variety
    MDF sheets are available off-the-shelf in over 100 different thicknesses, starting from 2mm and going right up to 60mm. The wide-ranging number of options available makes it very easy to get the thickness of “wood” that is required for the application at hand.
  • Smooth surface and cuts
    MDF is pressed extremely compact during the manufacturing process with large steel plates, which makes the overall sheet extremely flat and smooth. This makes MDF ideal for painting, laminating or attaching veneers. Once sheets are cut to size, the edges remain smooth, whereas on solid wood or plywood the edges can splinter or have voids due to the natural knots and grain in the wood.
  • Consistent material
    MDF doesn’t have a directional grain like plywood and solid wood which makes it ideal if you’re cutting intricate details or moulding; other materials would splinter or the cut will not be as smooth.
  • Less warping issues
    Unlike solid wood, MDF will remain strong in areas where there is high humidity and moisture. This is because MDF is able to consistently shrink and expand without the different parts of the grain working against each other.

 

What are the disadvantages of MDF ?

  • Ugly raw material
    Solid wood is renowned for its astounding natural beauty. MDF is not the most attractive natural colour and lacks the character and features found in solid wood and plywood. 
  • Restrictions on finish
    If you’re wanting to match an existing furniture finish with a wood stain, it’s best to not use MDF. MDF will soak up all of the liquid and not give the desired colour effect. It’s best to use this material if the plan is to have it painted. 
  • MDF absorbs water
    MDF absorbs water rapidly due to the very fine fibres within the board, which can cause the MDF to swell and gradually lose its structural properties. 
  • Weak material
    MDF lacks the directional grain that gives solid wood and plywood its strength and structural integrity. Even though a lot of shelving and cabinets are remade from MDF, they require a solid timber frame to provide support or must be fixed in a way to ensure it does not sag over time.
  • Cracks and splits
    You have to be extremely careful when screwing into MDF as it’s liable to crack or split across its fibres. Pilot holes are essential before screwing into MDF to make room for the screw and reduce the chances of the material splitting – although it’s important to note that MDF can still split even if you use a regular screw. Since regular wood screws tapered shape will make MDF split, a straight shanked screw is required.
  • Weak fixings
    Due to the extremely fine fibres, it can be very hard to get a strong fixing when screwing into MDF. Over time, screws can start to wobble as the fine fibres around the screw fixings become loose. This is more common with hinges that are fixed into MDF cupboard doors.
  • Contains VOC’s
    The glue that holds all of the fibres together contains formaldehyde. When it’s cut, sanded or machined, it kicks out a lot of dust that can cause irritation to lungs and eyes. Long term effects can include lung, nose and throat cancer. 

 

What are the advantages of Solid Wood ?

  • Natural beauty
    One of the biggest reasons solid wood is such a popular choice for many people is the fact that solid wood looks beautiful. The natural grain in a piece of wood can show character, depth of colour and complete uniqueness that you simply can’t get from engineered wood. 
  • Last a lifetime
    Solid wood is an extremely durable material that can last a long time, due to the natural grain and fibres of wood being so tough. It won’t peel or chip like engineered wood (MDF, plywood and veneers) which in most cases will lead to the table needing to be replaced. Solid wood can still be scratched or damaged but, in the majority of cases, it can be easily refinished. Most solid wood furniture remains in people’s homes for much longer periods of time, making it a long term investment.
  • Timeless
    The colour and look of quality natural solid wood furniture can remain stylish for many years. Solid wood is an extremely versatile material which is why it’s used in both traditional and modern homes. There are so many different types of solid wood,  and finishes that can be applied to them, to fit a certain interior style. If the style or interior changes, in most cases a solid wood table can be refinished to suit. 
  • No harsh chemical components
    Due to solid wood being a natural material it’s free from any VOC’s and chemicals that can be hazardous to health. This can help avoid potential allergies or reactions from any dust or particles.

What are the disadvantages of Solid Wood ?

  • Expensive
    Solid wood is more expensive than man-made materials which is largely due to the lengthy processes involved in getting timber ready to use for furniture. One of the longest parts of the process is air and kiln drying the timber. Air drying the timber can sometimes take years, depending on the thickness of the timber.  After this, most furniture grade timber is kiln-dried for 2-4 weeks, which can use a lot of energy. Hardwood is a slower growing tree which increases the price compared to pine which is fast-growing.
  • Stability
    Wood is a natural material so it reacts to changes within its environment. When the surrounding air is humid, solid wood will absorb water and start to swell, and when the humidity is low and the air is dry, solid wood will lose moisture and shrink. In extreme cases this can cause the wood to warp when humidity is high, or split and crack when it’s too dry, This is why it’s important to control humidity and avoid drastic increases or decreases in humidity when you have solid wood in your home.

Every material has its strengths and weaknesses which makes it hard to state whether one is better than the other. Ultimately it’s important to use a range of materials for different scenarios around your home. We recommend that MDF is best used for the following household furniture:

  • Cabinetry
    MDF is a great material to use for kitchen cabinets or other storage areas around the home. When multiple boards are joined together securely they can have improved structural integrity. Nevertheless, we wouldn’t recommend that they’re used for weight-bearing storage items such as benches, as they are more likely to break.
  • Shelving
    MDF can make good shelves – in fact, it can make fantastic floating shelves within alcoves. It is essential that any shelves made with MDF have a solid wood underframe to prevent them from sagging in the middle.
  • Decorative or detailed mouldings
    MDF is perfect for skirting, architrave and other decorative pieces in your home. They have a smooth, even and consistent finish that look great once painted.

 

Solid wood is a fantastic choice for furniture despite it being more expensive than other materials. We believe solid wood is worth the investment, particularly for items of furniture that are either weight-bearing or on display. The strength and durability is second to none when compared to MDF. In fact, the natural beauty of solid wood alone makes it worthwhile, especially if it’s a piece of furniture that is always on display.

  • Weight-bearing
    Due to its solid, strong and hard-wearing natural state, solid wood is great for furniture pieces that are weight-bearing. So it’s the perfect material for benches, shelving, cabinets and chest of drawers.
  • On display
    Due to the natural beauty of solid wood, it’s best for places that are a central focal point or areas that are always on show in your homes. For example, items like coffee tables, dining tables, desks or other furniture that you’d like to visually look great.

Although MDF manufactured today tends to be a lot stronger than it was many years ago, its strength is still no comparison to solid wood. The natural grain of solid wood is what gives a high level of structural strength which is missing with MDF. We advise not to use MDF for weight-bearing items as they can sag, crack or break over time. Veneered or laminated MDF products are often prone to chipping around the edges over time and often can not be refinished.

Even though wood is often a lot more expensive it will last a lot longer than MDF and can sometimes prove to be a lifelong investment within the family home. Solid wood can, in most cases, be easily refinished or repaired if it gets scratched or damaged, however it is important to ensure consistent humidity levels and avoid direct sunlight as this can permanently damage solid wood furniture.
One of the things we love most about solid wood is the natural beauty of each piece. The grain patterns are always different so you’re guaranteed to have something completely unique, made just for you.