Solid Wood Vs. MDF — Is One Better?

Use both solid wood and MDF for painted cabinet doors

Solid Wood Vs. MDF — Is One Better?

Solid wood vs. MDF – it’s the “great debate” for kitchen cabinet doors.

The beauty, strength and character of solid wood attracts homeowners to choose wood for their new kitchen cabinets over other available materials. However, solid wood cabinets are not perfect. They expand and contract when there are environmental changes in heat and humidity. Cabinets, doors, drawers and/or paneling made from solid wood can shrink, crack or buckle.

How can this be avoided? Expert cabinetmakers use MDF.

But isn’t it true that solid wood is better vs. MDF? This is the most common perception when it comes to comparing wood and MDF. Wood is seen as strong and sturdy, while MDF is often viewed as a cheap, inferior alternative.

As this article will explain, both solid wood and MDF have their pros and cons. Despite popular belief, wood is not always the best choice; in some situations, MDF might be the better material.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of both.

Advantages of Solid Wood for Kitchen Cabinets

  • Strength and durability. Solid wood is strong and durable and will last for decades.  
  • Beauty. In terms of appearance, solid wood is unmatched for its allure. It has an attractive grain that results in great looking cabinets. If looks is a major priority for you, solid wood is your correct choice.
  • Customization. Cabinets can be customized in shape, finish and color.
  • Value. When considering ROI when selling your home, solid wood cabinets will increase the value.
  • Variety. There are many types of wood, each differing in strength, cost and look.  

Disadvantages of Solid Wood

Solid wood is not perfect.

  • Moisture damage. Most solid woods are susceptible to water and moisture damage, especially when they are unfinished. Since kitchen cabinets are finished with sealants that keep out moisture, this is not really an issue for kitchen cabinets. But it’s still good to know.
  • Warping and Cracking. Solid woods expand and contract with changes in temperature and humidity. This characteristic makes them a poor choice for cabinet door panels. That’s why MDF is better than wood when used as center panels in cabinet doors.

What is MDF?

Medium density fiberboard (MDF) is often called “engineered wood”. It’s a composite material made from recycled wood particles that are mixed with a resin binder. This mixture gets machine dried, bound with an adhesive, then heat pressed under high pressure to produce dense, stable sheets.

Advantages of MDF

MDF has many of the same characteristics of solid wood, but without its limitations. In kitchens, MDF is mainly used in cabinet doors.

  • Stability. MDF is stable; it won’t crack or warp
  • Resistant to environmental changes. Stands up to humidity better than solid wood
  • Free of wood blemishes. No knots or wood grain patterns
  • “Green”. Because MDF is made from recycled material, it’s considered “green”.
  • Finishes smooth. Because there is no wood grain, MDF finishes smooth when painted
  • Value. Cheaper than solid wood
  • Durable. Will last as long as wood
  • Versatility. Beyond door panels, MDF doors are available in more than basic Shaker-style doors. It’s possible to get doors with applied moldings and elaborate, two-step edge profiles.
  • Large panel sizes. Available in panel sizes larger than those available for solid wood. These large sheets can be milled into bead board panels or wainscot paneling. In the past, wood was the only panel material, but now MDF is a great alternative.

Biggest Advantage of MDF – Painted Cabinets

If you are getting painted cabinets for your new kitchen, you will want MDF center panels in your cabinet doors or one-piece MDF doors because

  1. MDF finishes beautifully. Since there is no “grain” to MDF, you get an extremely smooth finish.
  2. No cracks. You will not get any cracks at the joints of your painted doors.

On painted wood doors, where the rail meets the stile on the frame, the paint will most surely show hairline cracks as the wood expands and contracts with seasonal changes.

  • These cracks will be more noticeable in mitered doors than in mortise and tenon doors.
  • The wider the rail, the more prone it will be to cracking.
  • Not every joint will show hairline cracks, but some will.
  • Light colored paints tend to show cracks more than darker colors.

The same cracks appear in stained cabinetry, but they are not as noticeable because the wood grain camouflages the issue.

Crack at joint in mitered cabinet door with painted finish
Crack at joint in 5-piece cabinet door with painted finish

Disadvantages of MDF

MDF cabinet doors aren’t perfect.

  • Can’t Use Outdoors. Can’t withstand high temperatures without damage
  • Bad reputation. People look down on MDF thinking that it performs poorly when compared with solid wood.
  • Less strong. Compared to wood, MDF is considered less strong.
  • Easily scratched. MDF is susceptible to scratches, dents, dings and other damage
  • Can’t be repaired. Once MDF gets scratched, it can’t be repaired. This is unlike wood that can be sanded down to eliminate any damage on the surface
  • Emit VOCs. MDF products emit urea-formaldehyde and other VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that pose health risks for at least several months after manufacturing. Note: The risk of formaldehyde emissions when the products are sealed and painted is considered negligible.

Do You Have to Choose Between Solid Wood vs. MDF?

When it comes to selecting kitchen cabinets, it can be confusing to consider the solid wood vs. MDF issue. Do you really have to make a choice? Probably not.

If you’re choosing custom cabinets, you have your choice of materials. With semi-custom and stock lines, the manufacturer of the cabinets you choose will make the decision for you. You get what they give you. Even if you are purchasing a stock line, the information in this article is good to have so you know how your cabinets will perform.

But it’s really important that you are aware of the properties of both wood and MDF if you are going with painted cabinets.

Solid Wood vs. MDF: Which is Better for Your Cabinet Doors?

The common perception is that solid wood is stronger, sturdier and longer lasting than MDF. MDF is considered as a cheaper and flimsier alternative to solid wood. However, both solid wood and MDF have their respective pros and cons, as detailed above.

Solid wood is a natural product, while the MDF is commonly called “engineered wood”. Solid wood is primarily used for cabinet box construction, while MDF is used for specific components, such as the door center panels.

When it comes to kitchen cabinets, both solid wood and MDF are equally important. While solid wood makes the cabinets strong, sturdy and long-lasting, MDF offers a smooth finish.

MDF withstands changes in heat and humidity better than solid wood. Solid wood expands and contracts both horizontally and vertically when temperatures and humidity rise and fall. Because of this, painted cabinets and components made from solid wood will most likely show cracks at the joints.

Unlike solid wood, MDF doesn’t warp or crack when the temperature and humidity change.  This is the main reasons why MDF is used as door center panels in painted cabinets.

Conclusion

Have we convinced you that there is no clear winner in the solid wood vs. MDF debate? Neither is the better product. Both have advantages and some disadvantages. It’s when they are combined in cabinet doors for painted cabinets that MDF definitely outperforms solid wood.

Solid wood from Mother Nature with its distinctive grain patterns and characteristic knots and pin holes will always be the preferred material for kitchen cabinetry. But to avoid cracks in the painted finish at the joints of your five-piece cabinet doors, you will need MDF center panels.