Having carpenters in my family makes me partial to the beauty of wooden construction. Whether it’s painted, stained, or naked, wood is a great product for building, carving, and finishing projects. One area wood often is used in is casings, crown molding, and baseboards. A newer product has emerged on the market called MDF for baseboards. But what is MDF, and does it work well for baseboards?
What if you could use an inexpensive product that is made from the remnants of used wood pieces? It seems economical and environmentally great, right? This product is called MDF, or medium-density fiberboard, and is often used in construction (despite some of its shortcomings). MDF is made up of woody pulp and other wood materials with resin to create a dense wood-like product.
Many beginners hear several terms that are blanketed across different construction products, and you must know the difference. I know I’ve been guilty of claiming that a piece of cheap furniture is made of plywood, fiberboard, or particleboard. But these aren’t all the same thing, and below, we’ll look at how MDF compares to these other boards.
MDF vs Wood
Since most of us are questioning whether it’s better to use wood or MDF for baseboards, we’ll start here. As mentioned before, MDF is not technically wood. Wood comes from a tree that is felled. MDF is a product made from wood and other fillers. Branches, wood chips, fibers, and sawdust are ground to a fine flour-like powder before cleansing it and then mixing it with resin. The mixture is then pressed into large sheets at a high temperature before being cut.
Okay, we know the difference between the two. So, which is the better product for baseboards? This really depends on your project and preferences. Some people hate MDF, others find it as an inexpensive problem-solving tool for beautiful builds. Let’s compare the two now.
|Cost||MDF is much less expensive than wood. You’ll find up to 25% in savings when using MDF for your baseboards rather than wood.|
|Staining & Painting||Though wood can be both painted and stained, the composite nature of MDF does not allow it to hold a stain. You can still paint over MDF once it has been installed as a baseboard.|
|Hazards||When cut, MDF releases very fine dust, which can be hazardous to health. Both pressure-treated wood and MDF contain chemicals that are harmful to inhale, so you should wear a respiration mask when working with them. However, most pressure-treated wood will not be used as baseboards because it should not be used indoors.|
|Mold||MDF and wood are both as likely to grow mold if exposed to a lot of moisture. This should be considered when using baseboards in bathrooms and basements.|
|Look||Since MDF is made from ground-up wood and mixed, it provides a very consistent piece of wood with no knots or splinters. Wood baseboards may have knots and the wood grain showing. However, those knots and wood grains create character and provide the beautiful look of wood. MDF simply looks like a cream or brown chunk of wood that needs to be painted, this will depend on what you want your finished baseboard to look like.|
|Installation||MDF is easier to install than pine or poplar baseboards. It takes nails well, does not easily split, and can be cut and shaped easily (with proper safety gear). However, nail holes are not easily filled in MDF, while nail holes are easily filled in wood to provide a smoother finish when painted.|
|Strength||Wood, even the softer woods, is stronger than MDF. When used as casings and baseboards, you may find that they are more likely to dent or chip. However, painting the MDF will provide a shell for added protection. If you drop a piece of MDF, you’ll find it crumples on the corners under its weight.|
|Weight||Because MDF is made of so many components (possibly multiple types of wood), it weighs more than a solid piece of wood.|
|Longevity||As a composite, MDF will eventually break down. This means it does not have the same longevity that solid wood has (even if unfinished). You can not sand MDF either, because you will eventually reach the core area that holds the piece together.|
MDF vs Plywood
As the first of the pseudo-woods that I want to cover, I’ll admit that I often mistake plywood for MDF and vice versa. However, these two are completely different because of the ways they are structured. While MDF is the pulp and resin mix, plywood is made up of several sheets of wood veneer that are pressed together. Wait, isn’t veneer a cheap printed laminate on top of wooden objects to give the appearance of wood?
True wood veneer is actually wood. To make veneer, lumber yards slice the wood into paper-thin sheets. To make plywood, these sheets are then stacked and glued, with each layer rotating grain for additional strength. You will often hear plywood used in subflooring, but it does not make a good product for baseboards.
|Cost||MDF costs less than plywood.|
|Staining & Painting||MDF can be painted, but will not hold a stain. Plywood, however, can be both painted and stained.|
|Hazards||Plywood leaves cuts similar to solid pieces of wood. MDF will leave behind a dust storm of epic proportions. Be sure to wear a mask and cover any surfaces with plastic sheets for easier cleanup.|
|Mold||When exposed to moist conditions, plywood can mold as easily as MDF.|
|Look||While MDF is plain and looks similar to cardboard, plywood is made up of actual wood sheets. This means you’ll find the grain and knots of regular wood in plywood.|
|Installation||MDF is much easier to shape and cut than plywood. Because it lacks the grain of the wood, there is less resistance for trimming and splintering. However, you’ll find that plywood takes to screws better than MDF. In fact, if improperly drilled before using screws, MDF may crack or split. Because it is difficult to cut and shape, plywood is not good for baseboards and trim.|
|Strength||Plywood is stronger than MDF. MDF tends to buckle under a lot of pressure, but the alternating wood veneers provide a very strong base in the plywood. MDF will often require structural support for any project that will include a lot of weight. This isn’t usually a concern when putting it against a wall as a baseboard.|
|Weight||MDF is heavier than plywood because of the makeup.|
|Longevity||MDF will last about 14-20 years, while plywood can last up to 40 years.|
MDF vs Particleboard
MDF and particleboard are basically the same things. By that, I mean that both are composites made of wood and resin. The difference is in the size of the materials being used. While MDF uses a ground pulp of wood leftovers, particleboard uses small woodchips, which does not allow the final product to be as dense as MDF. We often find very inexpensive furniture made with particleboard, which is usually what I was referring to when I talked down about cheap furniture.
|Cost||Particleboard is the less expensive choice against MDF.|
|Staining & Painting||Neither MDF nor particleboard can be stained, but both can be painted. The only exception is that particleboard can be stained if there is no finish or veneer on it, though it will not look smooth.|
|Hazards||As mentioned before, keep a mask and vacuum close when working with MDF. Both products are made using resin and, in some cases, formaldehyde.|
|Mold||Because particleboard is so porous, it is more susceptible to mold than MDF.|
|Look||MDF is cream or light brown, depending on the wood fibers used. From the edge, particleboard is a rough mess. The top of the particleboard usually is finished with a laminate or sheet of veneer to look like natural wood.|
|Installation||Particleboard is much more difficult to cut and shape because of its odd composition. It will likely chip and break off in chunks if you attempt to cut it. This makes it a poor choice for baseboards. While neither are great with screws, particleboard does not take nails well either because it can be brittle.|
|Strength||When comparing the amount of weight that the two products can hold, MDF is the winner. Particleboard will be likely to bend and eventually snap under less weight than MDF.|
|Weight||Particleboard weighs much less than MDF because it is not as dense.|
|Longevity||Particleboard furniture will likely need replacing in under five years, especially depending on the usage. MDF can last up to 20 years in the right situation.|
Here’s another site that also clearly explains the differences among MDF, plywood, and particle board.