24 Sep 2020
There are a lot of factors when it comes to buying wood furniture; cost, color, and quality to name a few. But the most important question, arguably, is what kind of wood you’re getting.
There are, essentially, three types of "wood" used in furniture: solid wood, MDF, and plywood.Within these categories you'll find high-quality and lower-quality versions, which will ultimtaely affect the long-term durability of the furniture and its price.
So, are there times when MDF is a better option than real wood? Or should you always invest in high-quality hardwood furniture? We’re answering those questions and breaking down the difference between MDF and real wood.
Solid wood is a natural resource and doesn’t go through the manufacturing process that MDF does. It’s broken down between hardwood and softwood; hardwood being, unsurprisingly, the more durable and long-lasting of the two.
Hardwood vs. Softwood
Hardwood trees are slow-growing and produce a denser wood, and are, in general, deeper in tone than softwood trees. Typical hardwoods found in high-quality wood furniture are Oak, Cherry, Maple, Walnut, Birch, and Ash.
Softwoods, on the other hand, are less dense and are not as durable as hardwoods.They are sometimes used as a backing or on the insides of case goods. Typical softwoods are Pine, Poplar, Acacia, and Rubberwood.
Qualities and characteristics of natural wood
Natural wood is a living material. Its characteristics will never be uniform, so “perfection” can’t be expected. We think this is the beauty of hardwood furniture. Every mark, mineral stain, and color pattern tells a story about how the tree adapted to its environment.
Natural wood furniture, in particular hardwood, is incredibly long-lasting if it’s taken care of well. These are pieces that end up being heirlooms – your grandmother’s dining table or the antique nightstand you got from a friend.
The great thing about natural wood furniture is that it can be refinished and sanded down, extending the longevity even more.
Read More: Homeowner’s Guide to Natural Wood in Furniture
So, what about MDF?
Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) is an engineered wood composite made up of leftover hardwood or softwood. It can be quite dense and sturdy, making it near impossible to cut with a table saw.
MDF is sometimes confused with particleboard (also known as chipboard), which is much less sturdy as it's made up of large chips of wood that are bound together with glue and resin. Although particleboard is less expensive, we’d recommend you steer clear. The space between the wood chips in particleboard makes it less durable and more prone to damage.
With that being said, not all engineered wood composites are cheap and low-quality. MDF puts its strength and density to good use in some applications. You may find it in media cabinets, for example, because it won’t warp from the heat that comes off of electronics.
Most bookcase shelves are MDF as it can hold more weight and prevents warping. And finally, most dressers have MDF on the siding to help mitigate cost and weight and to ensure the stability over time.
As dense as it is, MDF is considerably heavier than hardwood furniture - something to keep in mind if you’re purchasing a larger item.
What about plywood?
Engineered wood (plywood) is made up of layers of wood, which are glued together in alternating sections.
Plywood can come in both hard and softwood versions, which affect its durability. Additionally, plywood can come in different numbers of layers, usually averaging between 3 and 9. The more layers, the stronger the plywood, and the higher the cost.
The best quality plywood comes from kiln-dried hardwood layers, which makes it hold its shape and prevent warping. The benefit to plywood is that it can be shaped and curved for specific usages like the base of a Stressless Chair.
What are veneers?
Another term you might hear when searching for wood furniture is "veneer." So, what is a veneer?
While there are different quality levels of a veneer, it is a less expensive alternative to hardwood made by putting a thin piece of premium wood over a type of manufactured wood.
The single-layer provides the look of hardwood grains, but the underlying content keeps the cost down. One of the drawbacks to veneer is that it limits the number of times you can refinish your furniture. We wouldn't recommend veneer on tables for that reason.
Make sure, if you are getting a veneer, it's an actual piece of hardwood. Additionally, a cheap veneer is the easiest way to make particleboard or chipboard look like real wood. If you have a lower quality particleboard underneath your veneer, you're more likely to see wear and tear.
When you’re debating between MDF and a hardwood piece of furniture, it often comes down to cost, except for the applications where MDF stands out.
When you buy a piece of hardwood furniture you’re not just paying for the high-quality material, you’re also paying for the hand-labor, precision, and thoughtfulness that goes into making the piece. And, as we like to say, when you pay for quality, it pays out in the long-term.
The important thing is to do your research, read reviews, and be informed before deciding on wood furniture. The more information that’s available about the piece of furniture, the less likely you are to be blindsided when it arrives at your house.
Our Design Consultants have a wealth of knowledge about wood furniture and will be able to go into detail about the construction and craftsmanship of our collection.Come into a showroomandchat with a designerto get started on your design journey.
Author: Guest Author
How can you tell the difference between MDF and wood? ›
It is dried and pressed to produce dense, stable sheets. Because of this process, MDF does not warp or crack like wood. And since MDF is made from small particles, it doesn't have noticeable grain patterns. This will result in a smoother finish on the cabinets.Is MDF better than real wood? ›
Medium density fiberboard (MDF) performs much better than real wood in at least some areas. It is a composite material of high quality. MDF is made from resin and recycled wood fibers. It is pressed to produce dense sheets that remain stable in all weather conditions.Where should you not use MDF? ›
There are a few areas where MDF should never be used – kitchen or bathroom cabinets and trim in the bathrooms. These are the two areas we see the most failure because of moisture. Window sills are also problematic if the windows have any sort of condensation or leaking problems.How can you tell if a piece of furniture is real wood? ›
- Gauge How Heavy It Is. Solid wood is quite heavy. ...
- Touch the Grain. Real wood has a distinctive and not altogether symmetrical grain pattern. ...
- Find the Carvings. ...
- Look for Flaking, Crazing and Cracking. ...
- Judge the Durability. ...
- Consider the Cost.
The durability of MDF depends on the quality of the product. A cheap MDF board might only last one year before breaking down. On the other hand, high-quality MDF could last up to 10 years.Should you avoid MDF? ›
The main concern regarding the health risks of MDF is the use of urea-formaldehyde adhesives as the bonding agent during the creation of the panels. Formaldehyde has been thought to have cancer risks. However, studies linking cancer to formaldehyde have not been conclusive.Does MDF wood break easily? ›
Not Strong and Durable
Unlike solid wood or plywood furniture, MDF furniture is not very strong and durable but is resistant to termites. It has to be handled with care.
However, if you have a project in a high-humidity area, you must use or create water-resistant MDF, or the material will start to disintegrate if consistently exposed to water and damp conditions.Is MDF cancerous? ›
MDF board is a timber product made from hardwood and softwood fibres that are glued together with wax and a resin adhesive containing urea-formaldehyde. Both wood dust and formaldehyde are Group 1 carcinogens.Is MDF toxic to humans? ›
In conclusion, we would just like to reiterate that while may MDF carry a tiny fraction of harmful substances, it is completely safe. The concentration of Formaldehyde in it is well below the safety line and we ensure ample measures to ensure minimal to no emissions.
What precautions should be taken when using MDF? ›
- Labourers working in MDF industries have to maintain masks, gloves do avoid dust.
- MDF furniture should be kept water free.
- Movement of MDF furniture should be done carefully.
MDF panels hold screws as well as most natural woods, but drill a pilot hole first. You also can join this wood composite with spiral grooved dowels, coated staples, and ring shank nails.What is MDF most commonly used for? ›
MDF is widely used in manufacturing furniture, kitchen cabinets, moldings, millwork, door parts, and laminate flooring.What are the strengths and weaknesses of MDF? ›
It is a dimensionally stable wood product. – MDF holds better to hinges and screws thanks to its high density. – MDF is easy to stain and apply colour, unlike natural wood which takes a long time to stain. – Thanks to its smooth edges, MDF can easily be cut and carved into different designs.What is the life of MDF wood? ›
MDF can remain in proper condition for up to 10 years. Particle-boards can last for up to 25 years.How can you tell if furniture is high quality? ›
Good quality furniture will have joints that are screwed, or doweled. The very best joints are dovetailed, mortise-and tenon. Re-enforcing block attached at an angle should be used on corners. Indications of poor quality would be joints that are nailed, stapled, or will have visible glue.Is there an app to identify wood types in furniture? ›
The WoodSolutions Species App is available for free download in the iTunes (Apple) or Play Store (Android). To download it, simply search for WoodSolutions in each of the stores and click download.How can you tell if furniture is quality? ›
The piece should feel solid - no wobbles or creaks if you sit down. The finish is smooth and even, with no bubbles - rub your hand over it. Even the inside of drawers should be smoothly sanded. The parts of the furniture that don't show should also look solid and finished.Which board is best for furniture? ›
It is often considered the best kind of wood in this country to make home or office furniture. One of the reasons is that it is durable and fire-resistant.
Coatings such as melamine are used as industrial decorative surfaces on composite wood substrates. Veneers and melamine are the most common used finishing in MDF furniture.
Is MDF good for making furniture? ›
For painted cabinets, furniture, wall paneling, and some moldings, MDF is a great choice. Surface faces come from the factory sanded to 150-grit or better, essentially paint-ready.How long does it take for MDF to off gas? ›
The data suggests it takes about two years for formaldehyde in newly built or remodeled homes to off-gas down to levels of the average home. However, higher humidity and temperatures can make VOCs off-gas faster.Is formaldehyde still used in MDF? ›
Standard MDF sheets are made with formaldehyde but MDF can be specified as NAF (no-added-formaldehyde). Since wood naturally contains formaldehyde, it cannot be called formaldehyde-free, technically. No Added Formaldehyde implies that the formaldehyde emission is less than 0.04 ppm.What are the symptoms of MDF poisoning? ›
Diseases Overview. Formaldehyde Poisoning is a disorder brought about by breathing the fumes of formaldehyde. This can occur while working directly with formaldehyde, or using equipment cleaned with formaldehyde. Major symptoms may include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; and/or skin rashes.Does MDF scratch easily? ›
On the downside, MDF Board gets easily scratched and cannot be repaired after this. This is unlike wood that can be sanded down to eliminate any damage on the surface. Additionally, MDF Board does not do very well when exposed to extreme heat as the core materials can get damaged.Does MDF wood attract termites? ›
Is the MDF board termite proof? Chipboard, MDF, laminates, and other wood combined with glue are not consumed by termites.What are the dangers of MDF? ›
Under current legislation softwood dust, hardwood dust and formaldehyde are considered to be hazardous to health. Both softwood and hardwood dusts are known to be respiratory sensitisers and may cause asthma and other respiratory problems. Hardwood dust can also cause a rare form of nasal cancer.What paint to use on MDF? ›
You can use both oil-based paint and water-based paint on MDF. In general, while oil-based paint has traditionally been higher quality than water-based paint, todays technology means that water-based paint is just as good.How do you keep MDF from getting moldy? ›
You can prevent the growth of mold on MDF boards by sealing the wood or particleboard means you can cover both outside and inside of the MDF furniture that will protect the wood from absorbing continuous moisture .Should you wear a mask when cutting MDF? ›
Don't Cut It Without a Mask
Cutting and milling MDF produces a lot of dust and fine particles which contains high levels of urea-formaldehyde due to the adhesive resins contained within the material. Wearing a mask is highly advised as the dust particles produced contain formaldehyde which is a know carcinogen.
Is MDF illegal in USA? ›
The material is often bound together with a urea formaldehyde resin, although formaldehyde-free boards are now also available. Despite rumours to the contrary MDF has not been banned in the USA (or anywhere else), nor is it likely to be. The USA in fact uses more of it than any other county.Is MDF more toxic than plywood? ›
The level of formaldehyde offgassing is higher than in plywood, even if both are CARB 2 certified – 0.11 ppm in MDF compared to 0.05 ppm for plywood. MDF made with formaldehyde should be avoided where possible in a healthy home.Can MDF make you sick? ›
The noncarcinogenic effects of MDF dust and formaldehyde include eye and skin irritation [2, 7, 8], dermatitis,  respiratory illnesses such as nasal inflammation , asthma [7, 11, 12], bronchitis , coughing, loud breathing, and wheezing [11, 12], and lower chest discomfort .How long does formaldehyde last in furniture? ›
The levels reduce over time. Most formaldehyde is released by 2 years [Park and Ikeda 2006].Should I worry about formaldehyde in furniture? ›
Short-term side effects include burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat as well as watery eyes, coughing, wheezing, nausea, and irritation of the skin. Long-term exposure side effects can include cancer. Purchasing older furniture will reduce your risk to formaldehyde exposure.Is MDF dust toxic? ›
Formaldehyde is an integral part of the adhesive used to bond together the wood fibres which form MDF panels. At extreme concentrations, formaldehyde is known to cause some serious health problems but there is no health risk from the amount of formaldehyde gas given off by MDF.Is MDF smell toxic? ›
Health issues with MDF board
One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that high levels of this formaldehyde can irritate the skin, eyes, nose, and throat.
Don't use a hammer
Without a hole, the nail will probably bend in rock-hard MDF. And even if it goes in without bending, the nail will push up a mound of fiber that looks like a mini volcano. A trim nailer, on the other hand, shoots nails through MDF every time.
Yellow glue and screws make solid joints in MDF, Bob, but not just any screws. Bear in mind that this material has less screw-holding power than solid wood or plywood, and tends to split. When joining 3⁄ 4 " MDF, we recommend using #8 deck screws (featuring straight shanks and deep threads) at least 1- 1⁄ 2 " long.Why do people use MDF instead of wood? ›
Because of this process, MDF does not warp or crack like wood. And since MDF is made from small particles, it doesn't have noticeable grain patterns. This will result in a smoother finish on the cabinets. MDF is also less expensive, which is sometimes a big selling point for some people.
What are the 3 different kinds of MDF? ›
The Different Types? Most MDF can be broken down into three categories: lightweight MDF, standard grade MDF & high density MDF. Standard grade MDF is made up of wood fibres with a synthetic resin adhesive to form the board.How do I know if my board is MDF? ›
MDF has a smooth finish as it consists of wood grains that are of the same size. Particle-boards do not have a smooth surface as they consist of wood shavings and chips. MDF has a higher density level than particle-board.How do I know if I have plywood or MDF? ›
Like MDF, plywood is also engineered wood, made by binding veneer wood sheets together into one solid piece. Plywood sheets come in different grades, so you can choose the right one that suits your needs. Unlike MDF, plywood has visible wood grains, but is free of other imperfections.What does MDF look like? ›
Unlike plywood, MDF doesn't have a wood-grain appearance; it has a consistent light-brown color with no discernible texture or pattern. MDF is also much harder, smoother and denser than plywood, and it doesn't have any voids, knots, or splinters.
Unlike solid wood or plywood furniture, MDF furniture is not very strong and durable but is resistant to termites. It has to be handled with care. In case it gets damaged, it is difficult to repair it. Note that the drawers of MDF furniture cannot hold excess weight.Do carpenters use MDF? ›
MDF (medium-density fiberboard) is inexpensive, durable, and a good choice for many woodworking and carpentry projects.Which wood is best for furniture? ›
One of the types of high-quality wood used for making furniture is teak wood as it is durable and highly fire-resistant. Other types of wood include rosewood, deodar, oak and mahogany.How do you test MDF quality? ›
Perforator test method
The total extractable formaldehyde content of MDF is measured using the perforator method. For this test, approximately 500 g of board, cut into small pieces, is boiled in toluene in a special set of laboratory glassware. The toluene absorbs the formaldehyde contained in the board pieces.
It is a dimensionally stable wood product. – MDF holds better to hinges and screws thanks to its high density. – MDF is easy to stain and apply colour, unlike natural wood which takes a long time to stain. – Thanks to its smooth edges, MDF can easily be cut and carved into different designs.What is the life of MDF furniture? ›
The durability of MDF depends on the quality of the product. A cheap MDF board might only last one year before breaking down. On the other hand, high-quality MDF could last up to 10 years.
Can you get sick from MDF? ›
The noncarcinogenic effects of MDF dust and formaldehyde include eye and skin irritation [2, 7, 8], dermatitis,  respiratory illnesses such as nasal inflammation , asthma [7, 11, 12], bronchitis , coughing, loud breathing, and wheezing [11, 12], and lower chest discomfort .What wood is most cheap furniture made of? ›
Softwood, such as pine and cedar, is easily procurable and costs less compared to hardwood. It is often used to manufacture low-end furniture in bulk.