If you are in the process of remodeling your cabinets, one of the primary concerns that you have to deal with is choosing the best material available in the market. Traditional or contemporary, to paint or to use laminates, brushed or polished hardware — all these are equally important when it comes to aesthetics, but the material that you use for construction is a critical choice since it will determine the lifespan of your cabinets as well as its performance and maintenance.
For homeowners who are building, renovating or simply giving their cabinets a fresh makeover, knowing the difference between the popular materials available in the market is essential.
Below we give you an overview of two of the most used materials for cabinet doors, solid wood and MDF.
MDF vs Wood Cabinets
There are two types of wood available for use in construction, one is (1) solid wood which simply pertains to natural wood, while the other is (2) engineered wood or manmade wood. Engineered wood, also known as composite wood or manufactured wood, is derived from natural wood. It includes a whole range of products which are manufactured by binding fibers, strands, veneers and particles of natural wood with adhesives and resins.
Solid wood is the primary construction material used in furniture, interior exterior applications. By definition, solid wood is a piece of natural lumber derived from different species of trees. Solid wood may either softwood or hardwood, and both types can be used in structural and decorative purposes. Softwood is not necessarily softer than hardwood, in the same way that the former is less dense than the latter. Hardwood is derived from deciduous trees or trees which shed its leaves annually, while softwood comes from conifers or those which remain evergreen all year round
Solid wood does not have hollow spaces, that is why it is called solid. It is made up of wood only. Engineered wood products, on the other hand are a form of “wood based product”. It is a composite material which is manufactured by binding together fibers, strands and veneers of real wood with adhesives and resins.
Solid Wood Kitchen Cabinets Pros
Here is a breakdown of the advantages of using solid wood cabinet doors :
Natural beauty – The most prized quality of solid wood kitchen cabinets is its distinct beauty. No other material can match the beautiful natural look of solid wood. Most people are drawn to its natural graining pattern, which can be highlighted further when stained.
In addition, the unparalleled aesthetics of solid wood can instantly make a home feel more inviting, warm and cozy.
There is just something about solid wood which can make a space feel “homey” and most homeowners find this lacking in other synthetic materials like stainless steel or laminated wood which usually gives out a more “clinical” feeling.
Of course, each species of wood has different aesthetic qualities – white oak looks better than red oak, cherry wood cabinets have a warmer color when compared to maple which is lighter. But overall, solid wood is the best choice for homeowners who value aesthetics and style above all else.
Extreme durability and reliable strength – Solid wood is one of the strongest and sturdiest construction materials in the market. For years, its impressive durability has been proven and tested effective not only for interior use but also for exterior and structural use. It is naturally tough and can withstand years of use.
Each species of wood has different levels of strength. This is extra useful because you can choose the right type which will fit the application you intend it for. Oak, for example, is much more stronger than cedar, therefore it will last longer and is more resilient to daily wear and tear, making it an excellent material for cabinets.
Long lifespan – Solid wood is an outstanding choice if you are looking for a material which will last for decades. In fact, solid wood kitchen cabinets have an average lifespan of 50 years, provided that they are constructed well. Since each species of wood has varying levels of strength, the longevity of its lifespan is also different from each other.
Flexibility, versatility and customization – Solid wood can be easily customized in numerous ways. It can be modified into different shapes, treated with different finishes and colored using different materials like paint, wood stains, varnish, lacquer, etc.
Solid wood is also very versatile when it comes to design. Because of customization, solid wood kitchen cabinets can be designed to suit any interior design style whether it may be traditional, country, transitional, contemporary or modern.
Wide variety – There are thousands of species of wood and each one has their own distinct look, strength and durability. You can choose from a myriad of wood types which will fit your taste, design and budget. Whether you want light or dark wood cabinets, because of the variety and versatility, you can produce a solid wood cabinet design which is uniquely your own.
High value – Items made from solid wood generally have more value compared to those which are made up of engineered wood. Solid wood kitchen cabinets can also increase the value of your home not only because of the added visual interest but also because of its long lifespan and durability.
Cost effective – Although MDF is cheaper than solid wood, the latter proves to be a reasonable investment because of the numerous benefits it offers.
Solid Wood Kitchen Cabinets Cons
Here is a breakdown of the disadvantages of using solid wood cabinet doors :
Sensitive to moisture – Wood, in its original state, is not waterproof and not all species can withstand excessive exposure to moisture and changing humidity and temperature. Moisture can cause the wood to soften and make it susceptible to fungus and wet rot. These problems can become expensive to treat.
While some species like the Red Oak can withstand constant exposure to moisture, most woods can get damaged from it. However, this weakness can be rectified by treating the wood with a waterproof finish. Consequently, special treatments translates to additional cost in terms of construction and production of solid wood kitchen cabinets.
Prone to warping, expanding and cracking – Changes in humidity, varying temperature and aging can cause the wood to expand or contract. Warping, twisting, swelling, shrinking and cracking are also potential damages which arise from the constant exposure to changing elements. Unless your home has a controlled climate, solid wood kitchen cabinets may warp or crack over time. When a kitchen cabinet door contracts or expands, functionality is reduced as it may not fully close. This damages are also noticeable and can be an eyesore.
Prone to the growth of molds, mildew and bacteria – Constant exposure to changing elements and temperature can increase the likelihood of mold and mildew. Solid wood is more prone to this than MDF varieties. Leaking faucets and sinks can create an environment where mold and mildew are more prevalent and should be monitored to avoid problems.
Prone to pests – One of the greatest drawbacks of solid wood kitchen cabinets is that a lot of insects and pests are attracted to it. Carpenter bees, ants, powderpost beetles, wood devouring fungi and termites are common wood destroying pests which you have to deal with ,and more often, they are hard to treat, expensive to eradicate and can do great damage which are often not visible to the naked eye and costs a lot of money to repair. Unlike engineered wood, solid wood needs regular maintenance and has to be treated to keep it protected from bug infestation.
Termite infestation is one of the most dreaded threats to solid wood kitchen cabinets and dealing with this problem can be a huge stress to homeowners. As we all know, once a part of a home gets pestered with termites, you have to get the whole house treated, or else the damage can spread and unsalvageable.
Combustable – Wood is a combustible material and can burn. Even though it can be treated, wood will still burn, making it less than ideal to use in applications where fire safety is a priority.
What is MDF? If you are looking for a cheap yet strong alternative to solid wood, one of the most common materials you’ll find in the market is MDF. MDF stands for Medium Density Fiberboard , a type of engineered wood that is consisted of thin panels made from a combination of wood fibers, resin and wax. The wood fibers can either be derived from softwood or hardwood, ground up into tiny little pieces, mixed with resin and wax, then heated up and pressed together to create a fiberboard.
How does it differ from other boards? Ever wondered why MDF is classified as medium? And what is this gauge relative to? To give a quick overview, fiberboard is classified into different densities, namely low density fiberboard, medium density fiberboard and high density fiberboard. Low density fiberboard or LDF, which is also known as particle board, is made from finer pieces of wood fibers and sawdust and has a density of 160 to 450 kilograms per cubic meter.
Although generally inexpensive, in terms of durability, LDF is weaker than MDF and HDF. High density fiberboard or HDF, is the hardest of the three and has a density of 800 to 1040 kilograms per cubic meter, that is why it is also referred to as “hardboard”. High density fiberboard requires more heat and pressure to make it more durable. Compared to its softer counterparts, HDF is very strong but is also the most expensive one.
Now, MDF or medium density fiberboard, as its name suggests is somewhat in between the two and has a density of 600 to 800 kilograms per cubic meter. It has just the right amount of hardness and thickness to make it suitable for cabinet use and its price is also reasonable.
Compared to other types of engineered wood, MDF is often considered a level above plywood in terms of density, strength and durability. Because of these, it can be used in the same applications as solid wood.
MDF Cabinet Doors Pros
Here is a breakdown of the advantages of using MDF cabinet doors :
Resistant to pests – Some chemicals used in the production of MDF is poisonous to pests
like termites and not prone to cracking, warping and bending – Unlike solid wood, MDF does not warp, expand or contract when exposed to extreme changes in humidity and temperature. Because of its structure which is mainly composed of thin panels pressed together, the whole board moves as a unit. MDF cabinet doors do not get easily damaged.
Some MDF has better water resistance compared to solid wood – Not all MDF are water resistant, but it can be treated to make them invulnerable to high moisture. If you want your MDF cabinet doors to last longer in wet areas, you can have them treated.
Smoother finish – As mentioned, solid wood is best loved for its natural graining pattern and distinct beauty. But sometimes, the absence of this trait can also be an advantage especially if you are aiming for a very sleek, flawless look for your kitchen. Since MDF is made from very fine particles, there are no noticeable grains which makes it easier to paint and finish. When painted, the result is a better and a more smooth finish.
Structure is consistent all throughout – MDF cabinet doors are perfect for contemporary and modern kitchen settings because they can be used in making seamless and clean designs.
Flexibility, Versatility and Customization – Ease of customization is one of the best qualities of MDF. Because of its composition, MDF can be cut easily, drilled effortlessly and modified into different shapes and sizes without the tendency of getting damaged in the process. It can be made into a variety of styles, whether it may be shaker style cabinet doors, panelled doors, raised doors, inset doors or European style cabinet doors.
Since it also has a consistent structure, there are no splinters and voids when the edges if MDF are cut. The smooth edges also make it possible to be cut with a router, scroll saw, jigsaw and band saw.
Available in larger sizes compared to solid wood – For projects which require large pieces of boards, MDF make a good choice since it can be produced in broad sizes without the use of any joints. This also makes it suitable for applications which require a flawless and seamless design.
MDF cabinet doors are cheaper than solid wood – MDF costs less than solid wood and is a very economical choice when it comes to cabinet doors. Although less expensive, MDF cabinet doors have reliable strength and can last long if maintained properly.
MDF Cabinet Doors Cons
Here is a breakdown of the disadvantages of using MDF cabinet doors:
Hard to repair – MDF requires higher maintenance compared to wood. It can get easily scratched and once it gets damaged, chipped and cracked, it can be quite hard to repair. Unlike solid wood which can be sanded down easily, there is no way to rectify and hide any damage in its surface.
Cannot be exposed to extreme heat – MDF does not do very well when exposed to extreme heat. When it becomes too hot, the core materials can get damaged and the whole board may crack.
Will soak up water – It was mentioned earlier that some MDF can be treated to become resistant to moisture, however, in its natural state MDF will soak up water and other liquids if directly exposed to it. Just like particle board, it has the tendency to swell. To avoid water damage, it has to be sealed well on all edges and sides.
Difficult to screw – MDF can be easily drilled but it cannot hold screws very well because it consists of very fine particles. Also, the glue present in MDF makes it hard for fasteners to sink into its body.
Can become too heavy – Handling MDF may sometimes require an extra hand. This is due to its density. MDF can be heavy and in some cases, comes in large sizes, which can make it more difficult to work with.
Limited finishes – Unlike solid wood, MDF can’t be stained. It does not absorb the finish and since it has no wood grains, it does not look good when stained. However, this issue can be rectified by using veneers which resemble the natural beauty of solid wood.
Contains VOCs which are harmful when inhaled – Out all the types of engineered wood, MDF has the highest concentration of urea formaldehyde, a form of Volatile Organic Compound, used in its adhesive. To avoid inhalation of the particles, you have to wear the right protective gear when cutting and sanding the boards. Because of the chemicals used in making MDF, it is considered as a less child friendly material too.
Where MDF is Used
Since MDF is a wood based product, it can be utilized in applications as a substitute for solid wood. Typically, MDF is used for manufacturing furniture, finishing materials like flooring and for decorative purposes in interior design. However, its most popular use is in the production of kitchen cabinets.
Most kitchen cabinets make use of both solid wood and MDF elements. MDF is commonly utilized for the doors and interior paneling. You can buy it custom made by a trusted manufacturer and supplier, and they will modify it according to your required measurements and desired kitchen design.
Aside from being used in kitchens, MDF is also used for cabinets in other areas of the home, specifically where moisture is a concern. Cabinets for bathrooms typically make use of MDF because it will not get damaged as humidity and temperature changes. But as mentioned earlier, you have to make sure that it is specially made to be moisture resistant or else it will get damaged when they are directly exposed to water.
MDF is also used in ready made furniture. In addition, you can also find knock down furniture which require assembly that are made from MDF. From tables, to storage units, closets, chairs and bed frames. Of course, this type of furniture is much cheaper than its solid wood counterparts. Aside from these, you can also find decorative furnishings such as frames and mirrors with MDF elements.
MDF is also a preferred material in constructing shelving, whether it may be an open ledge, a wall shelf, bookshelf or a part of a cabinet, because it has a smooth surface. However, there is a limit to what you can put in MDF shelves compared to solid wood shelves. MDF shelves usually carry and tolerate less weight because they have the tendency to sag overtime. To rectify this issue, solid wood is sometimes used as a reinforcement to improve the structural integrity of the shelf.
MDF is also widely used in both interior and exterior doors. MDF doors provide more customization options compared to solid wood doors as they can be manufactured to any style and design. You can find stylish ready made MDF doors in standard sizes and colors. In addition to their aesthetic value, MDF doors are also sturdy and very durable.
Aside from furniture and construction, MDF can also be used for aesthetic purposes. Decorative details in the house like trims, moldings, baseboards and cornices are also substituted with MDF. Wainscotting is another perfect example of a decorative application for MDF. Similar to other products, decorative MDF trims may be customized into many styles and sizes.
MDF vs Solid Wood
MDF vs solid wood? Which one is the real best option? Popular opinion states that solid wood is the obvious winner among the two. Solid wood is always seen as a superior material than MDF because it is strong and sturdy despite having vulnerabilities. However, this is not always the case.
Although cheaper, MDF should not be automatically classified as a weaker substitute. Common perception is that MDF performs poorly. Both natural wood and engineered wood are good choices. As mentioned earlier, each material has their own advantages and disadvantages which makes them a suitable material for interior design. The answer will really depend on the application and purpose you intend for it. Each situation will require a different material and you can give both materials a chance.
What about for cabinet doors? Which one is the ultimate winner? For constructing cabinet doors, we highly recommend using MDF. Aside from being an economical choice, there are more benefits to using MDF cabinet doors. MDF eliminates the common problems that we have to deal with when using wood — warping, rot, pests, termites and molds.
Both materials are highly customizable and versatile and have a lot to offer in terms of design.
In terms of beauty, it is safe to say that solid wood is superior, however, MDF has its own distinct aesthetic. If you want to capture the same look that natural wood has, you can always finish your MDF cabinet doors with veneers that have wood grains.