Pros and Cons of MDF

Among cabinet-makers and woodworkers, the debate over using fibreboard (MDF), particle board, plywood and solid wood is fierce!  Since I'm not an expert I can only debate the pros and cons but can't tell you which is best (if there is such a thing).

All these products come in varying grades that impact the quality of the product and what it should or could be used for.

Fibreboard comes in low, medium and high density.  The most common for building is the medium density.

Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF)

I’m using MDF to build my built-in bookcases.  So far it’s working out well.  Even so, I might have used more expensive material if I could have afforded it.

MDF comes in sheets and is made of hard and softwood residuals (like sawdust) and glues pressed together to form a  panel more dense than plywood or particle board.  It can be used similarly to plywood in building cabinets, shelves, and other furniture.
These 4x8 foot sheets of MDF are actually 49 x 97 inches.

In an effort to be more environmentally conscious, MDF manufacturers are beginning to use less toxic glues and renewable materials such as recycled paper, bamboo, and  straw.

Here is a list of the pros and cons of working with MDF.  The decision of what material you use when building is yours and must factor in what you can afford, what you are building and the quality/grade of the materials available.


  • Cheaper(3/4" MDF is ~$32 a sheet, hardwood plywood is ~ $49) 

  • Straighter, with fewer warps and uniform throughout
  • Comes in a wide variety of thicknesses (1/4", 1/2", 5/8", 3/4", 1") 

  • Easier for beginners because it cuts and sands very easily.  It also takes paint  and holds screws well 

  • Edges can be exposed (they do not require edge banding like plywood does) 

  • Easy to apply veneers to  

  • BendyMDF can be formed into curved shapes


  • It’s about 3 times heavier than plywood.
    Solutions:  Have the sheet cut at the hardware store.  Get help moving or working with it.  Buy a panel handler, lift and accessories for you saw. 

  • Shelves sag more than hardwood plywood does.
      Solution: edge the front and back of the shelf with hardwood trim.

  • MDF has a tendency to “blow out” or split.

    • Predrill the entire length of your screw. 
    • Avoid fastening too close the edge (1.5” away is best).  
    • Use Confirmat screws.  These are screws specially designed for use with MDF.  I’m using these to build my bookcases, and they are working very well – I like them.  They require a special stepped drill bit, and a kit with screws and drill bit can be purchased from McFeelys.  
    • Use European style hinges with a cup in the door allowing the screws to hold the MDF without worry of fatigue.
Confirmat screw and stepped drill bit

  • Formaldehyde

    All pressed wood products contain a small amount of formaldehyde used in the adhesive.  Here in California, strict regulations control the amount of formaldehyde allowed in MDF, PB and hardwood plywood.  And by 2012, these limits will be the strictest in the world.  I personally do not worry much about using MDF, but I do welcome the stricter regulations that will lower the amount of formaldehyde that these products contain.
    Some people are more sensitive to formaldehyde off-gassing and should perhaps avoid it. 
    • painting the MDF will reduce the level of off-gassing.  
    • To prevent inhaling the fine MDF dust during cutting or sanding always wear a face mask.  
    • Work outside. 
    • Buy low or no formaldehyde MDF (Medex or MediteII)

  • Edges soak up paint
     Solution: Seal MDF edges prior to painting.  Use a good primer.

  • Swells when wet (though not as bad as particleboard will). 
      Solution: buy MDF laminated with a phenolic resin paper (Medex or MediteII)– it is much more moisture resistant.  If working outdoors, bring the MDF into the shed or garage at night.

In future posts I'll discuss:
Hardwood Plywood
Particle Board

Consumer Product Safety: Formaldehyde
CARB certification for formaldehyde
Fact Sheet on Respiratory Hazards and Pressed-Wood Products
MDF Passivating Primer
Formaldehyde free MDF

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4 Responses
  1. I will always follow your blog as i have seen you share awesome pic and info on your blog.I just really like working with wood made and am always looking for new techniques of doing it.

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