MDF Door Quality Debate

MDF has its critics and its defenders. Here's a worthwhile discussion of the pros and cons of MDF as a door-building material. December 28, 2014

For years we have been a strictly custom woodwork shop and several years ago we added a big name RTA line of cabinets to our line. This has been going well, clients received these cabinets well. The manufacturer specs these as 1/2" ply boxes with solid wood birch face-frames. The doors are solid birch rails/stiles with 1/4" veneered MDF panels. I understand and agree with using MDF center panels, but what I only just realized a few days ago is that their painted shaker doors are all MDF, including rails/stiles and center panel. I did not read the spec sheet thoroughly, but when I did it says right there that the entire door is MDF.

We have already installed many of these kitchens and have even sold them to install in laundry rooms as I thought the door was mostly wood. I understand their theory behind using MDF to construct the entire door but am not sure how my previous clients and new clients will take knowing their doors are MDF. These doors look solid and are smooth and appear very high quality. Are any of you guys selling entire MDF painted shaker doors as high end? Will this type of door make me appear like a producer of el cheapo cabinets? Should I use this manufacturer for their stained grade only and seek elsewhere for painted doors that only use minimal MDF?

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor E:
I'm not selling entire MDF doors. We do soft maple frame and MDF panels for paint grade doors (primed prior to assemble). In my opinion, you should seek elsewhere for paint grade doors. Entire MDF doors will look like el cheapo cabinets.

From contributor B:
I've always wondered why people don't use MDF for doors and even face frames more often for paint grade. You can't see the difference. And in both cases, if they get abused to the point where you break through the finish coat, it's going to look like crap either way.

From contributor J:
Kind of my thoughts as well. They've looked so good that for the last several years you couldn't tell the difference. Prep and finish would be the key to longevity for MDF or wood. That said my standard paint grade offering is poplar or soft maple frame with MDF panel, in flat or raised.

From Contributor O:
MDF is not for anything like high end doors - cabinet, passage, grain bin, or any other thing meant to be of good quality. The stuff has no edge integrity; once it is mashed, dented, worn or abraded, it fuzzes up and starts a process that ultimately ends up in the landfill. This alone makes it environmentally wrong to use - it is wood in its most disposable and short-lived form.

Real wood will stand up to use and abuse, and is reclaimable and repairable. Well-designed, properly made and cared for wood objects can and should last for centuries. Do you think that the fine woodwork of the centuries would still be here if it had the qualities of MDF? That wondrous scent? That splendid sawdust? That fine texture that invites the hand. Ludicrous, eh?

It is a pure simulacrum - it is not the real thing, just a substitute to delude those that don't know the difference, or who do know the difference, but don't care. Frame and panel exists simply because of the movement of solid wood - it is not a design trend or something cute, it is real nuts and bolts, science based engineering that has made frame and panel woodwork the absolute world standard as an accepted method of working with one of the most marvelous materials on the planet. To actively seek to use the stuff for doors is to hasten one's own demise. If not economically, then environmentally. Respect yourself and the craft you practice and use it where it belongs - jigs and substrates. Show some pride in yourself, your work, and your skills, and use real wood. If you think you have to stoop to using it to compete, to make a buck, it is time to find another line of work.

From contributor Z:
We have been making one piece MDF lacquered doors for years. No joints to expand and crack and they prime and finish beautifully. Our shakers are made with 5/8" MDF with an added 1/4"frame which is coated with glue, nailed and clamped. I have never had a joint open up. I have had clients ask me to replace their painted solid wood five piece doors with mine and they are very happy. I am not a purist and my clients cannot afford Clive Cristensen kitchens, so everyone is happy.

From contributor G:
We have been making one piece MDF flat and raised panel doors on the CNC for a couple years now. I would put them in my own kitchen. We use what our supplier calls "ultra-refined" MDF. It holds an edge better than regular MDF and machines and paints like a dream, and as Contributor Z said, no cracked paint. I was hesitant at first but am sold on them now. We don't try to pull the wool over anyone's eyes. If our customer doesn't want MDF we don't use it. It's like particle board verses plywood for cabinet boxes. Plywood is perceived as being better than MDF but both work just fine.

From the original questioner
Thanks guys. I hear and acknowledge the merit in each of your views. Just to be clear, these doors are not one piece MDF shaker doors, they appear to be five piece. I could be wrong but after doing some surgery on two doors they seem to be assembled just as you would rails/stiles and 1/4" panel.

Now to the purity. Well just as with anything else in life if you want to talk purity then you must define it first then second draw the lines of limitation. Is MDF a plastic apple while solid wood is a real apple? Then does that make plywood a real apple dipped in formaldehyde and fed to people as a nutritious necessary evil? If you want to talk pure then all cabinets would be made out of huge panels of solid wood nailed together to make sides, backs and bottoms and the only finish used would be milk paint. After all, what happens to plywood when water hits it?

So aren't we cheating our clients by using plywood boxes? We are if we donít start defining the limitations of ''purity''. Then by that definition no shaker doors should use even 5mm thick plywood panels because thatís not pure, we should use strictly reverse raised panels made of solid wood, right? We know this is not the world we live in. Every day we are forced to change or evolve. What was good for our grandpaís clients may not be ideal for our clients. If I wasn't thinking within the guidelines of ''purity'' then I wouldnít have started this thread. As I stated in the beginning, the manufacturer of these cabinets uses all wood for all their other doors so I doubt they use MDF for their painted doors to cut costs but rather to give their customers a product that will look better for a longer time (no cracking of joints, etc.). Their boxes are 1/2" ply. Their drawers are 3/4" thick dovetailed solid birch. Their face-frames are 3/4' thick solid birch as well. After hearing from you guys I am almost agreeing with the manufacturer for using MDF. I wonít keep it a secret from my clients and if they donít want it I will warn them of the cracks that they will most likely see if I do however provide them with solid wood doors instead. Please continue to contribute, I am taking it all in.

From contributor U:
In my opinion, the best painted cabinet door is solid wood frame with an MDF panel. All the abuse a cabinet door gets is on the edges and corners of the doors I have never seen a door that showed wear on the panel. I know people that glue up solid wood panels and paint them have good intentions, but I don't think they are producing a better door and just wasting wood. I am pretty confident that if you compared a kitchen with solid painted panels to one with MDF panels (with solid frames), the one with the MDF panels would look better over a period of time. The one with the MDF panels would have no expansion/contraction issues and no visible glue lines, etc. As far as being environmentally responsible I think using MDF where it's suitable is being responsible. If MDF and particle board were never invented and everyone just used solid boards for everything would we even have any tree's left to use? With the massive amounts of wood products being made every day do you really think the tree population could keep up?

From Contributor O:
Now that I have firmly established myself as an outsider regarding the use of MDF, let me continue on to the use of the word shaker to describe what I assume to be simple square edged frame and panel cabinet doors. First of all, please do your homework on the shakers, who they were, why they made what they made, and how they did it. They had a reason to make things the way they did, a considered approach to their work that extended to all facets of their lives.

Certainly not for everyone, but their purity of intent evidenced itself in everything they did: architecture, furniture design, plant breeding, child raising and more. Even if one only examines their contributions to woodworking and furniture design it is readily apparent that their design ethos has influenced almost all furniture made since the time of the shakers proper. Once you realize who they were, the fact that today's shaker style door is no more shaker than you or I becomes apparent. Then you can see that the door is merely the cheapest way to produce a door - until routed MDF came along. The resultant kitchen or vanity or whatever has no relationship to the shakers or their design criteria. I would ask that this type of door be called what it is rather than what it is not - a square edged door, absent of an inner profile. Or maybe utility or simple or unadorned or Minimalist or reduced or - you get the point.

From contributor D:
I have seen five piece MDF doors. I would ask you how much savings in time and/or materials could you realize per door? The MDF panels are accepted as a superior material for paint. The small savings probably won't give you the competitive edge.

From contributor G:
My guess is the use of MDF for stiles and rails is not for cost savings alone but mainly to eliminate paint cracks.

From contributor Z:
I made a custom bedroom set as a surprise for my wife and all the doors and end panels were five piece MDF that were painted and glazed. We then moved from Montreal to Florida and took the set with us. Part of the set was a 12' wall unit that did not fit in our condo so I used it in my shop as a showroom piece that doubled as storage for samples and catalogues. When Hurricane Wilma hit I lost the rubber membrane on my shop roof and my office/showroom was destroyed by water.

The cabinet interiors which were melamine were destroyed, but the doors and end panels were still like new. I have since refinished this bedroom set in a high gloss lacquer and still have these doors in my shop. The labor to make a five piece MDF door is way less than a wood door as there is no planing or joining for the raw wood and very little sanding of the center raised panel. We coat any exposed edges that have been shaped with a water and glue mixture and then sand. The same shaper profiles are used and glue up is same as solid wood. No need to worry about moisture levels or warpage. Several coats of primer and paint go on easy. A 3/4" thick sheet of MDF cost pennies per square foot compared to wood. You can get a lot of doors out of one sheet. Trees are saved as well. I have used EXTIRA water resistant MDF and put a sample door that has been primed and lacquered into a bucket of water overnight and nothing happened to the door. I have had clients that had five piece shaker doors out of solid wood where the doors under the sink were damaged by water dripping into the joint of the bottom stile. The paint comes off and the door swells.

From contributor Y:
Yes MDF can be used in high end cabinets. Polyester finishes on MDF are probably the most durable and beautiful finishes you can get for solid color. They are expensive but look great. Another option would be to have them powder coated. There is a company called BTD that has a finish that looks nearly identical to polyester but at a fraction of the cost.

From the original questioner
We have not ever sprayed polyester finishes, does it go down like CV? I guess that will be a whole new discussion.