MDF or Solid Wood Furniture: What are the Advantages and Disadvantages?

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Written by Dmitri Kara, guest blogger

MDF or Solid Wood Furniture: What are the Advantages and Disadvantages? If you have to pick between engineered MDF (Medium-density fibreboard) and solid wood, which type of furniture do you think would be better?

Most would choose solid wood, but is that choice based on facts or is it just a common belief?

When MDF was an emerging product, it was less durable compared to good old solid wood. However, the rapid progress of technology and manufacturing has now reached a level, where engineered wood has become more reliable and comes at a lower cost. This is why more manufacturers turn to engineered wood and trends like flat pack furniture have conquered a vast share of the market. The technical evolution of this new material has led to the emergence of new businesses like flat pack assembly & deliveries and whole communities of passionate flat pack hackers.

So, does that mean that MDF is the better option? Not necessarily the case.

Truth is, both solid and engineered wood have their pros and cons and both can do a great job for your interior renovation. That’s why it is important for any homeowner, landlord, tenant or even property developer, to understand the benefits and disadvantages of solid wood and MDF. That's why now our guest blogger Dmitri Kara will share his research on this controversial comparison.

But, what does solid wood really mean? The answer is as straightforward as it can be. The term “solid wood” emerged when MDF first appeared as an alternative. It stands for the type of timber, yielded the good old fashioned way - from forests. Furnishing made of solid wood has no hollow spaces and its specifics vary among species.

“Oak timber is not as gentle as poplar," said Dmtriy, a furniture assembly & deliveries tradesman. “MDF could crack if you don’t handle your screwdriver carefully.”

What are the most popular types of solid wood?

Eucalyptus - It has a number of subspecies and each has its own distinctive set of fine points, such as palette, texture and etc. Some popular representatives are tasmanian oak, blackbutt, spotted gum and Jarrah, with their corresponding colors: creamy, palish brown, caramel brown and red.

Cedar - Known for its specific colors ranging from red to pink, it has a soft but straight grain and is mostly used for outdoor furnishing. Cedar is resistant to mold and comes at a great price.

Oregon - Also known as douglas fir, it has a straight grain. It’s light but  sturdy.

Pine - Although popular in interior design, pine is known as being vulnerable to pests. Unless treated against bugs and molds, infestations will not only shorten the lifespan of furnishing but might cause a chain of reactions that will damage your entire property.

Ash - One of the brightest types of solid wood you could use for furniture. Manufacturers of traditional furnishing often use it as an alternative to white oak.

Beech - Another representative of the brighter types of timber. It’s most common in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, but most of the time it’s being painted, due to the less pleasing grain.

Birch - The most popular colors here are white and yellow. You will encounter this type of timber in the northern hemisphere. It isn’t as solid as oak and that’s why birch is a great material for furnishing and plywood. It’s been widely used by flat pack furniture manufacturers like IKEA.

Mahogany - Popular for it’s beautiful red colors. Carpenters prefer it for it’s medium hardness. Unfortunately due to overusage, supply is scarce nowadays.

Maple - You could come across subspecies both soft and hard. The first is used for pallets, packing containers, shipping boxes and etc, because it is less durable.

Oak - Without the shadow of a doubt, one of the most used types of solid wood for furniture on modern interior design. It comes in two varieties - American red and European white. Along with cedar and white oak it is among the few most resistant to moisture, which is why oak is widely used for pergolas, gazebos and other outdoor inventory.

Teak - Known for its high quality and pricey tag. It grows in countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar. As a material, teak is among the best for building boats, rafts and fishermen pears. It has a bright color, ranging from golden to brown.

Walnut - It is most popular in the USA. Has a beautiful brown color and aesthetic texture. With great quality comes a great price. It is often used for traditional furniture and kitchen cabinetry.

What are the advantages of natural wood?

1. Solid wood is durable and will last you in the long term. Forest-grown timber is extremely sturdy and it has proven to be a property idea to pass the test of time. Throughout time it was used for the construction of houses, bridges and other infrastructure. Now technologies have advanced and yet solid wood is still being used for construction. If a wooden bridge can withhold the burden of time, imagine how long a solid table will last you?

2. Solid wood simply looks beautiful. No matter how good you paint a flat pack, the looks of real timber will always win the prize. The pleasing looks of natural texture are so desirable, that many manufacturers sell MDF that mimics it. The most demanded are white oak, walnut, teak and mahogany, followed by red oak, oregon and ash. A good example would be the trendy shabby chic furniture. Shabby fans don’t like MDF and are usually willing to handle the price for real solid wood.

3. An interior rich of solid wood can increase the value of your property. A beautiful wardrobe, table, traditional sofa or even a solid bookshelf can have a surprising impact on the overall value of your home or the value of a home you want to buy. Unlike ready-to-assemble flatpacks, solid units are considered an investments. Ask an experienced property reseller, property developer or even a landlord. Due to its aesthetic and impressive durability, solid wood furnishing does make a difference when selling or renting.

4. Furniture from natural wood can come in various shapes and styles. Units made of solid timber are not as customizable as flatpacks, but designers can always find a piece to match interior trends. In case you can’t find the exact model you want, you can always hire a carpenter and order a bespoke unit. Most types of solid wood are fairly easy to work with, which allows their usage for custom projects and even DIY.

What can be downsides of solid timber?

1. Moisture can be an issue. Moisture is not necessarily an issue if your unit has a good finish to properly seal it, but it can be risky if you accidentally damage the surface. That can happen if you hit or scratch your table, wardrobe, bookshelf or etc. Mold is extremely adaptable and all they need is a tiny crack for a fungi colony to grow and infest.

2. Solid wood is vulnerable to BOTH heat and cold. Rapid changes in temperature and humidity can have a devastating effect on furniture made out of solid wood. Despite technology advancements and high-end manufacturing, amplitudes cause wood to either contract or expand. This will not only affect its looks but overall integrity as well. This means that you should not leave outdoor wooden inventory exposed to cold winter nights and hot summer days. Tuck everything in a garden shed, your garage or simply place it in the shade.

3. Solid wood can become a victim of termites, woodworms and other pest infestations. The best way to cut the risk of infestation is proper chemical treatment. It won’t matter if you buy already-built units or you’re about to order bespoke furnishing.  Make sure that the unit has an up-to-standard finish or otherwise your investment might be at stake.

Woodworms, anobiidae (deathwatch beetle and the common furniture beetle), bostrichidae (false powderpost beetles; powderpost beetles), longhorn beetles (old house borer, house longhorn beetle; anoplophora longhorn beetles known as fera; wharf borer), bark beetles, moths, carpenter bees, carpenter ants and wood wasps are the most wide-spread.

Bare in mind that even getting rid of a woodworm is a hefty battle alone! Imagine if you have to deal with two, three or more pests at the same time! Inspect the finish! Always!

4. The price tag can be hefty. While not all types of solid wood are expensive, most are. Species like white oak and walnut and cherry will surely cost you a chunk, not to mention that others are scarce in supply, such as teak and mahogany. Generally, pricing depends on durability, aesthetics and availability.

The pros and cons of medium-density fibreboard (MDF)

In theory, it is a material that consists of recycled leftovers from when solid wood was cut - fibres and resin all mixed up with wax. In terms of consistency, MDF is more compact that plywood (but not when it was initially presented as a product). A few years back, MDF was less durable than solid wood, but technology and manufacturing have advanced and high-end MDF boards are as durable as natural wood. Different classes of engineered wood are based on the size of the board, its consistency, the type of glue and of course, the type of fibers used.

What are the advantages of MDF?

1. MDF is hard to both flex or crack. Although MDF is technically made out of wood, its structure is absolutely different. If you try to bend a MDF board it would rather snatch then warp. This is why engineered wood has the advantage of being resilient to moisture unlike its opponent. Of course, if you sink it in water, sooner or later the board will succumb to damage. But if you expose it to airborne moisture, the piece will expand and shrink as a whole while keeping the overall integrity and shape intact.

2. MDF is more affordable and easier to supply. Generally, MDF boards come at a lower price than natural wood. Of course, there are a few exceptions if you compared high-end MDF with some of the less pricey types of timber. Another great benefit of engineered wood is the fact that you can find it easier than i.e. maple or white oak, especially if you’re in need of a particular size.

3. MDF is easier to paint and seal. Contrary to solid timber, engineered wood lacks any specific grain or texture. This means that it’s easier to sand and prime without having to worry about looks or at worst - knots.

4. MDF is BEST for cabinetry. The advantages of engineered wood for cabinet doors are undisputable. The flexibility of manufacturing has offered interior designers to choose between flat-paneled, partially, fully overlay, inset, euro-styled and raised designs. Many types of MDF offer extra resistance to moisture, which is crucial for kitchen and bathroom furnishing.

What are the downsides of MDF?

1. Engineered wood is easy to damage. One of the main differences between solid and engineered wood is the surface. The external surface of MDF is practically the same as it’s core, but it over-compressed so it can serve as a sealant. If you try to sand it you will reach the fibre-waxed core and thus hurt the overall integrity of the board. Repainting flat pack units requires a gentle and delicate approach. Contrary to solid wood, where a bit of sanding can hide dents and scratches, damage on MDF is permanent.

2. MDF is heavier. Many falsely assume that solid wood is heavier but truth is MDF does weight more. This is the main reason why fitting a flat pack kitchen requires more anchors and extra support, especially when wall-mounting cupboards and shelving. It is also the reason why many furniture designers will only leave cabinet doors MDF and design the rest from solid wood.

3. MDF is vulnerable to extreme heat Remember that engineered wood is made out of wax and/or resin-like compounds. This is why you should not leave MDF units in proximity of heaters, radiators, fireplaces, ovens, stoves as well as out in a hot summer.

4. MDF can’t support too much weight. Although engineered wood is widely used for the wide range of units such as wardrobes, bookshelves, kitchen cabinetry and etc. if you put too much weight on MDF boards that are not designed to sustain such, it might simply sag. A clever solution would be to combine the usage of both solid wood and MDF for extra support.

Conclusion: Is solid wood better or MDF?

As you might already figured it out - the isn’t a true winner here. If you're doing a kitchen renovation, MDF may be the better choice for you because it allows for more control of looks and design. But if you want a big and sturdy wardrobe to support a ton of clothes, then shelves should definitely be of solid wood. Natural timber would also be a favorable choice for fans of traditional furniture and designs, who tend to spend more as long as their dream projects is fulfilled. While both engineered and natural wood have their own set of pros and cons, your choice will depend on your specific needs and requirements. Those might vary from visual appeal to your budget, shape, size and placement.

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