For years, large-scale furniture manufacturers have used medium-density fiberboard — MDF for short — to mass-produce veneered goods. But what exactly is MDF and just how durable is it?
MDF is an engineered lumber comprised of wax, resin and mashed up wood fibers — the wax provides moisture resistance, while the resin keeps the mixture uniformly dense. Machines using high-heat and high-pressure harden and cut this pulpy blend into perfectly flat, knot-free sheets. The final product is somewhat similar to particleboard — that chippy IKEA material — but with such greater density, evenness and strength, it's no real comparison.
Cabinetmakers favor MDF for those very attributes — added to which, the man-made boards simply do not move. Since the wood fibers are broken up into such small parts, they no longer expand and contract like solid wood. This dimensional stability makes MDF the perfect substrate, or underlying surface, to veneer on. As I mentioned in my previous post "Wood Veneer Demystified," were you to veneer atop solid wood, disparities in movement could cause the veneer to loosen or split apart.
Ask any furniture maker and they'll tell you: nothing compares to solid wood. But real lumber is really expensive, unstable and difficult to veneer. MDF allows woodworkers to easily produce lightweight, veneered furniture thus saving the buyer a pretty penny. Furthermore, fiberboard is increasingly friendly to the environment — much of it comes from recycled content and sustainable forests. Manufacturers have even begun to eliminate the use of formaldehyde, a toxic binding agent, in the production of MDF. So as much as it pains this solid wood snob to say it, medium-density fiberboard ain't half bad.