MDF and fine furniture -- a contradiction in terms?

Do the two go together, or is MDF inherently lower in quality? March 4, 2002

Does everyone agree that MDF is the ideal substrate for large panel veneer work, even in fine furniture? Everyone except the consumer? Does using MDF as a substrate in today's furniture lower the value of the items? Does "fine furniture" exclude anything made with MDF?

Forum Responses
I know a few fine custom furniture makers who use MDF as a substrate on tabletops (even small tables). They seem to be able to command top prices for these pieces, but my customers expect solid wood in fine furniture. Value is in the eye of the beholder. It is difficult to know what value your customers place on construction techniques. It is very difficult for the average furniture buyer to see the difference between a carefully veneered substrate and a solid wood top.

MDF is without doubt the substrate of choice for exotic wood veneer layup. Pressing veneer on MDF will give the most defect-free, flat and smooth surface that I know of. There is no quality sacrificed because the quality of the finished product is superior. Now, if someone wishes to discuss quality of material, what criteria would be specified for MDF or other substrate material? Does the consumer have knowledge of density, shear, moisture content?

The customer sees MDF and thinks flake board, and believes "This was much easier for the maker, and he still wants top dollar. Why did he make it look like wood? The quality would still be there if it were painted."

Imagine the surprise when someone is trying to repair or modify your piece. A good sanding will not only remove the gouge that is in it - now the veneer is gone?!?!?!

A plastics firm could make a wood-like product that would look better and last longer than the real thing. They don't because there are no medium-priced buyers. Those who buy for price won't pay more for better material. Those who buy for value won't settle.

I know that the engineered products like MDF are better than wood when used right, but I do not expect to see any MDF heirlooms. The quality of a digital watch is far better but the money is paid for a mechanical Rolex.

I know that MDF is a good material (pseudo plastic) to attain a stable tabletop or other flat panel to put a 'pretty' veneer on. However, it takes less skill to make the top because you do not have to consider its dimensional changes. So you should not demand as high a price as you would if you used solid wood, taking the time to select matching stock, to craft a fine flat table. MDF will not make an heirloom. But you may not be considering that as a goal in your work.

I would not even consider it appropriate to use the terms fine furniture and MDF in the same sentence.

If the piece really calls for veneer, nothing else will do. There may be construction constraints that require its use or aesthetic considerations that make using veneer necessary.

So…if we agree that in some cases, veneer is desirable or even required, then there’s no question that you are offering the highest quality to the customer when you use the most appropriate substrate for the veneer. Discussion of whether or not it’s “fine furniture” seems irrelevant to me.

Educate your customer. If they want veneer, explain what needs to go underneath to give it quality workmanship. They may not understand moisture content, wood movement, etc. Then if they want solid wood, give them solid wood.

I'll throw this out: fastener holding considerations. Your one-of-a-kind design masterpiece won't look quite as spectacular a year from now when the doors fall off because the screws no longer hold the hinges on. For the custom woodworking shop this can mean no repeat business or worse yet, a tarnished reputation. Yeah, I know! You can glue on solid wood edging for fasteners, and nothing else is as flat as MDF.

Maybe there should be a further distinction between furniture grades - "fine furniture" where anything goes as far as substrates and "museum quality furniture" for us purist snobs who can't use the terms "quality" with "engineered wood products" in the same sentence. Maybe it's just that some of us want to make money and others of us want to make something that lasts a lifetime. Can both be accomplished?

I do not use MDF. Not because I think it is a poor product, but because of the decision I made to offer my customers something they did not get from large manufacturers.

"Fine" encompasses a lot when describing furniture. Just because you can beat something with a hammer and resand gouges doesn't make it fine. MDF is as cool as it gets if you're veneering a tabletop. Try making a solid wood parsons table. MDF and engineered wood give a whole other set of options when designing furniture. Don't screw hinges into MDF, but don't make a ten foot burl table with solid chunks of burl. A good veneer job and smart construction design of MDF furniture will last as long as solid wood if taken care of and the jointing can even last longer with regard to moisture movement.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

If veneer is required as in marquetry, the substrate should not matter because the quality is in the design of the veneer. If the intent is to give the appearance of solid wood by using a veneer, solid wood should be used in a quality item.

If you've ever torn cabinets out of kitchens and baths built not too long ago, you may have noticed that MDF disintegrates into a stinky dust. The substrate of a veneered tabletop should not be disintegrating on heirloom quality furniture and thus I would opine that MDF has no place in heirloom quailty furniture. At the same time, even the most beautifully made old furniture with veneers usually has a split face somewhere. So if you must use MDF as a substrate, fine, but if you make the carcass out of MDF, it won't make good joints and will be too heavy to move without too much stress, and I think you are guaranteeing your craftsmanship will be in the dumpster in 30 years, max. I like a solid wood substrate with a heavy finish on sides and bottom to counter moisture changes. Counter veneering the bottom seems to help as well. I speak as both a demanding consumer and furniture maker.