MDF versus Solid Wood

Which material should I choose for painted cabinet doors?

This video is the quick answer.

What follows is the long answer.

Painted cabinet doors are very popular. Current kitchen design trends often include a mix of colour and textures. People frequently ask us what is the best material to use if they are going to paint the door. It's not a simple question to answer because it depends on many factors.

To help you choose the best solution we need to consider:

What kind of paint?
What colour of paint?
Will you be glazing or antiqueing the door?
Will the door be painted by a professional or amateur?
Do you want to see wood grain beneath the paint?
How big is the largest cabinet door?
Is the cabinet door going into a home with heat and air conditioning or a cottage?
Are you the type of person who likes classic design and antiques?
Would you consider a visible joint a defect or a feature?
How are you hinging the door?
Will the door see heavy or light use?
Do you want the highest quality or least cost?

Depending on your answers to those questions we can make a recommendation and then explain why. Ultimately the choice is yours.

We are unique because we don’t make cabinet doors for painting only one way. We offer six out of seven different construction solutions. The six solutions are available on nearly every door design, although there are a few exceptions.

Consider when you shop that a supplier is typically motivated to explain only the advantages of the type of door that they make.

Here are the pros and cons of each method to help you better understand your options.

Method #1 - Solid wood frame with a solid wood panel.

This method is the most traditional way to make a cabinet door. It dates back many centuries. The door is made from five pieces of wood. There are two stiles (the outside pieces that go up and down), two rails (the pieces that connect the stiles at the top and bottom), and a center panel. The four frame pieces are held together by strong joints. The center panel floats in a groove so that it can shrink and swell without breaking the frame joints.

Your choice of wood affects whether you will see some wood grain behind the paint.

Choose Maple to see little or no grain.
Choose Birch or Cherry for medium grain.
Choose Oak or Ash to see heavy woodgrain.

A thin paint or "wash" will show grain.
A "high solids" or thick paint will hide wood grain.

This method of construction carries some risk of mild paint cracks at the joints over changes in seasons. There is also a chance of exposing a thin unpainted edge around the perimeter of the center panel since it can shrink back from the groove when the door is exposed to dry conditions (Winter).

Method #2 - Solid wood frame with a pressed veneer panel.

This method is similar to method #1 because the frame is made the same way. However there is an important difference with the center panel. A pressed veneer center panel is made by gluing thin wood veneer to both sides of a particleboard or MDF sheet. Both particle board and MDF are very dimensionally stable as compare to solid wood that is edge glued together. Using a pressed veneer center panel nearly eliminates the risk of the center panel shrinking back from the grooves that hold it in place. Since the veneer is thin it does not create much force as it absorbs or looses moisture which means it stays in place. There still is mild risk of small cracks in the veneer if it is exposed to high heat or very dry conditions. This is a good method to choose for flat panel doors if you are using thin paints or washes and you want to see some wood grain. The veneered panel is only a choice on flat panel doors as nearly all of our raised panel designs have sharp angles and details which are difficult or impossible to press a veneer over.

Method #3 - Solid wood frame with a MDF panel.

This method uses the same solid wood frame materials as #1 and #2 but the choice of using a MDF center panel eliminates the risk of panel shrinkage or veneer cracks (called checks). You have the durability, repairability and screw holding power of the wood frame and the stability of the MDF which is dimensionally stable. However this solution does not allow grain to show through so it requires a high solids paint for a smooth and even finish. This method is our best selling and most popular paint grade solution followed closely by the MDF one piece routed method.

Method #4 - HDF frame with a MDF panel.

This method still uses five piece construction but the frame pieces are made from HDF (High Density Fiberboard) and the center panel is MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard). The fiberboard is strong but not as strong as hardwood. Fiberboard is much more difficult to repair if it is damaged. Fiberboard should not be used if screws are going to be used repeatedly since once the screw holes is "stripped" it looses nearly all of its strength. The fiberboard is not as stiff as hardwood and tall doors can be prone to bow or wobble. The advantage of this method is that since the entire assembly is dimensionally stable it nearly eliminates all risk of joint cracks. Also because the pieces are made the same way as wood, one piece at a time, there are more design options and the door can be made with sharp corners and fine details.

Method #5 - MDF one piece routed with raw back.

To make doors with this method we start with a full sheet (usually 4 feet x 8 feet or larger) and secure it to a router table with vaccuum. A computer controlled router is programmed to remove material from the face of the sheet using several tools following programmed paths of varied depths. This method is highly repeatable and accurate. However there are design limitations when you need to route tight corners, undercuts or small details. Those challenges can be difficult to program and very time consuming to do machine. It takes many passes of the router bits to make a door. The tooling material (high speed steel, carbide or diamond) and the sharpness is very important to minimize "tool paths" that can take extra time to smooth out with sanding. Typically the back of the door is flat but it is possible to flip the door over on the machine bed and route the back to simulate the appearance of a five piece door. This method is only good for solid paint colours as there is no wood grain to telegraph through the paint. It is a good choice for glossy or high sheen finishes. It can sometimes be less expensive than a five piece door but that is not always the case. The more complex the design the less the cost advantage. Certain designs can be less expensive with five piece construction. (example - Banfield is less expensive made with HDF/MDF than routed).

Method #6 - MDF one piece routed with melamine back.

This method is very similar to method #5 with the exception that the back of the door comes with a white melamine coating that can eliminate the need to paint the back of the door. This can save fifty percent of the cost of painting as well as save painting time. This method is suggested when low cost is important. It can be argued that you don't see the back of a door when it is hung on a cabinet. The melamine back does not matter to the appearance. However most educated real estate agents and designers understand that the melamine back is the lowest cost option and therefore it can reduce perceived value. In a kitchen it is a signal that costs have been cut to a minimum. The melamine back can be scuffed and painted to conceal this fact. However the flat back of the door remains as evidence that costs were cut. The cost of CNC (computer numerically controlled) routers used to make this type of door continues to fall making the equipment more affordable and common. The popularity of the one piece routed doors is rising due to the up trend of painted finishes. Many shops that purchase CNC routers to make cabinet components can also make their own doors. The shop owners will promote these doors not necessarily because they are better, but because they can make them in house. The quality of a one piece routed door can vary significantly based on the quality of the MDF, the tooling, the programmer's skill and the handling and sanding.

Method #7 - MDF two piece with MDF panel

This method is a viable method where a door frame is routed out of an MDF sheet and a door center is also routed out separately. The two pieces are then fit together and glued. This method is more time consuming and expensive that routing the door out of one piece of MDF. We currently do not offer this solution as we have had so much success with our other six options that we have not been able to justify the tooling, programming, clamps, jigs and training to produce a door this way. This method does carry many of the advantages of the one piece MDF door with the added advantage of having an inset back ... a sign of quality. The center panel is typically inserted from the back of the frame. The quality of the glue is important as an improperly glued panel can come loose. It is not held mechanically by a groove like the panel is secured in a five piece door. This method of construction is perfectly suitable if the door is made from the proper material and the fit and gluing of the center panel is done right.

Allstyle uses Plum Creek MDF for our one-piece routed doors. We use FlakeBoard MDF panels in our five-piece doors.

So there you have it. That is more information than you probably will ever need. Hopefully you now better understand your options when deciding whether to choose solid wood or MDF (or a combination) for a painted cabinet door.

Or you can just ask us.
We will tell you straight and give you the best advice we can based on our many years of experience.

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