Researching on the best wood to use for your next wood project? Then you certainly must have come across the terms engineered and MDF wood. These wood types are popular for their strength and durability. But a question remains, Are MDF and engineered wood the same, or are they entirely different?
Engineered wood is the generic term for any derived wood product made by binding pieces and shreds of wood, sawdust, and waste wood with adhesives. It is a broad class that consists of wood types like medium-density fiberboard (MDF), plywood, laminated strand lumber (LSL), laminated veneer lumber (LVL), oriented strand board (OSB), composite board, and cross-laminated timber (LMT). So, as you can see, Medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is essentially a type of engineered wood composite made from wood fibers.
Both wood types have now become the preferred choice over natural wood in interior and exterior building projects because they are stronger, durable, and eco-friendly. They are also easy to work with, accept paint, glue well, and have smooth finishing.
Now, let’s go deeper and explore what makes MDF and Engineered wood stand out.
Difference Between MDF and Engineered Wood
Engineered wood, also known as artificial wood, wood composite, or manufactured board, refers to a broad class of building materials artificially derived by combining multiple layers of timber processed using adhesives or other chemicals under heat and pressure.
Each material has a unique manufacturing process and the resulting product has increased strength and stability amidst other improved qualities.
Types of Engineered wood
There are different types of wood composite available today. Here are the most popular options you’ll find out there
Plywood is a wooden panel formed by combining and gluing thin layers of wood veneer and adhesives under heat and pressure. It is usually considered the original wood composite material. The grain direction of each layer (ply) is oriented alternatively, giving it a cross-grain property. This maximized strength and stability in all directions prevents warping.
Particleboard, also called chipboard, is an eco-friendly material commonly used in making kitchen cabinets and countertops. It is made by pressing and extruding wood shavings, chips, or sawdust with a synthetic resin. Compared with regular wood or plywood, it is denser, more affordable. Although it is easily damaged by moisture unless painted or sealed.
Glued laminated timber (glulam) consists of several dimensional timber layers bonded with adhesive to form a sizeable strong product with great valuable flexibility for columns and beams.
Cross-laminated timber (CLT), in contrast, consists of multiple layers of solid lumber having a cross-grain property similar to that of plywood. It is helpful for floorings, walls, and roofs.
Oriented Strand Board
This wooden structural panel is made by compressing strands of wood into layers in a lengthwise orientation and then bonding them together with adhesives under heat. Although these layers have a cross-drain property, still, most panels of this type have increased strength in a particular direction, usually indicated by the product’s arrows.
Each OSB panel type has unique strength, dimension, moisture-resistant level, and finishing.
Laminated Strand Lumber
Here, small strips of wood are angularly arranged, glued together, and compressed into a large mat. Due to the angled pattern, the resulting product has more strength, density, and pressure-resisting properties, making it more expensive than dimensional lumber.
Laminated Veneer Lumber
Wood veneers are bonded together with adhesives to form a large mat. Here, the veneers’ grain is oriented in one axis, i.e., parallel to the elongated direction. So, it provides more stability than conventional lumber and can be used for the same purposes.
It is used for roadway signposts, beams, I-joists, trusses, and panels for marine use.
This material is made from residuals of softwood and hardwood. The materials are crushed, combined with adhesives, and compressed into rigid panels under intense heat and pressure. It includes medium-density fiberboard and high-density fiberboard, also called hardboard.
Medium-Density Fiber (MDF) Wood
Popularly known by its initials, MDF, Medium-density fiberboard is an ideal alternative for many residential and commercial building projects. It cuts well and features a smooth surface suitable for painting. It is however quite dense, even more than plywood, dimensional lumber, and particleboard.
Medium-density fiberboard is formed by recycling leftovers of hardwood and softwood. These by-products are crushed to powder, dried, and then mixed with resin and wax in a defibrillator or a refiner under intense heat and pressure to form large wood panels.
Although it wasn’t as compact and durable as plywood or solid wood when it was first developed, the manufacturing methods have been improved over time and with technology, translating to the enhanced qualities noticed in new MDF materials.
Types of MDF
You need to be aware that there are types of MDF, and although these subtypes are quite different from regular MDF they are made to meet specific requirements. Here’s a bunch of them.
This type of MDF allows freedom bending and curving to meet desired shapes. It is explicitly designed for malleability and so that you can choose to use it for projects that require deflection. You’ll also find it ideal for making freestanding curves and slopes utilizing less time and fewer resources.
This panel is extremely lightweight, about 30% less dense than regular MDF. They are made to maintain this low density and reduce cutting tool wear and tear than most average MDF without compromising any structural properties.
Its lightness and excellent finish make it ideal for mobile projects such as events and trade fairs booths, mobile homes, theatre props, to mention a few.
Moisture resistant MDF
Moisture-resistant MDF (MR MDF) is designed for humid environments. This type is made with a special resin binder that makes it resistant to moisture. It has increased internal bond strength and is very versatile.
It is ideal for internal construction projects where moisture may be concern, such as bathrooms and kitchens.
For outdoor use, Extira MDF is your material. This panel type is designed in a patented manufacturing process that utilizes zinc borate, phenolic resins, water repellent, and other materials except for formaldehyde.
It is resistant to moisture, rot, termite attack and is about two times stronger than regular MDF. Hence it is the preferred option for landscape projects, signage, doors, and other exterior applications.
This is the traditional decorative style of wood paneling. The MDF panels are made from wood fibers and resin to form sturdy sheets with long vertical grooves and intervening beads. These sheets come ready to paint and closely resemble the real thing.
This type of MDF is explicitly designed for display purposes. The panels are made from MDF laminated with melamine paper. They are grooved horizontally to allow the arrangement and display of merchandise.
Strengths of MDF
Working with MDF comes with a lot of advantages. This makes it highly recommended by architects and designers for various interior and exterior applications.
MDF has a consistent strength and size. It will not warp or split easily like natural timber. Paraffin wax and other water repellents added during production make them resistant to moisture. This way, any slight exposure to humidity won’t cause sealed panels to swell and contract as a whole without disrupting their original shape and structure.
Of course, if placed in water, the board will get damaged over time.
Except for a few high-end panels, MDF is generally cheap and easy to obtain than some types of solid wood. It is ideal for small woodworking projects such as bookshelves and cabinets.
Easy to Work with
Unlike solid lumber, MDF does not have a specific grain or texture. It also does not have knots. This makes it accept paint, glue, and seal well. It is also pretty flexible and pliant. It is relatively easy to work with MDF panels using basic tools and skills.
Weakness of MDF
As good as this material is, it is not without drawbacks. Below are a few of them.
Fragile and Damage Prone
MDF is denser and heavier than plywood, particleboard, and solid wood. It requires careful handling and transporting and an extra pair of hands when carrying total size panels.
When using MDF for shelves and cupboards, it is advisable to not load more than it can bear or sag. One way to circumvent this would be to make furniture by combining solid wood and MDF.
You’d need more anchors and support when working with MDF, especially for shelves and cupboards. If damaged, the mark will stay forever, unlike solid wood, where a little sanding hides blemishes. Its surface gets scratched easily. The corners also get damaged easily.
Allergic to Water and Intense Heat
Except for moisture-resistant MDF, several MDF panels are susceptible to damage by water and humidity. Low-grade and untreated MDF panels expand and may even break at the slightest contact with water.
Also, take note not to store MDF panels close to anything that generates heat because it is made of plastic-like materials that burn easily.
Since most MDF is made with urea-formaldehyde, you might get exposed to a probable carcinogen. Not to mention that MDF releases a large quantity of dust when working with it. So for MDF projects, it is best to work in a well-ventilated area or, better yet, outdoors. Also, wear respiratory protective equipment while at it.
Strengths of Engineered Wood
Engineered wood is desired over natural wood because of its enhanced qualities, which give it a comparative edge.
Engineered wood could be made to meet precise requirements that may not have been easily obtainable if they didn’t exist. The thickness, grades, size, and durability levels vary, making it ideal for an unlimited range of building project applications.
You’ll also find that Engineered wood is designed to pack more strength and stability while preventing damage caused by temperature and humidity changes. The orientation of the grain in its types also adds to this strength. For example, when comparing pound for pound with steel, glued laminated timber is stronger.
This doesn’t mean it is impervious to warping or termite attack. But, some engineered wood types can resist distortion and crack better than typical wood.
Because they are made from a mixture of by-products, they are usually cheaper than conventional timber. This makes them the ideal option for you if you often plan to change your furniture. However, this doesn’t apply to laminated strand lumber. They cost roughly three times more than conventional lumber.
Rather than cutting down a whole tree to make conventional timber, engineered wood is recommended. You can get the required strength and density from smaller trees and even more. It also makes for more efficient use of wood by reducing waste. You can use defective lumber or even leftovers from regular lumber.
Easy to Handle
With basic skills and tools, these panels are easy to work with. They can be bent, sawn, tied, secured, and installed without compromising required properties.
Weaknesses of Engineered Wood
Engineered wood is a suitable alternative to conventional wood. But there are drawbacks, as with any other artificial product.
Health and other Hazards
Some of these wood products release formaldehyde, especially those bonded with urea-formaldehyde, which is cheap. Formaldehyde exposure has been linked with several forms of cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labeled formaldehyde a probable carcinogen.
Wood composite also contains plastic materials, which poses higher threats than natural wood as far as fire hazards are concerned.
Composite wood products have a visible wood strips appearance. This makes them less appealing aesthetically except for glulam which is known for its beauty and strength.
The manufacturing process of wood composite consumes more energy than real lumber despite being environmentally friendly.
Wood Composite Are Unequal
Engineered wood is not equal. They differ in production, grades, and raw materials used. And so, some are weaker and more liable to warp than others. Some are ideal for outdoor use; some are not. It is better to consider the features of the desired project and invest in a material that is appropriate and would endure time and other elements rather than cheap materials.
Which is Better: MDF vs. Engineered Wood?
The choice of which is better depends on the project at hand. MDF is ideal for interior applications such as kitchen furniture, wall display shelves and cabinets, mobile props, and booths. You should, however, opt for other wood composite products like glulam when working on sturdier outdoor projects.
Differences Between MDF and Other Types of Engineered Wood
This section is aimed to help you spot the differences between MDF and other types of engineered wood. You’ll be able to tell the right wood type to use for a specific project.
MDF vs. Plywood
It’s easy to believe that MDF and plywood are the same because people often use them interchangeably. However, this would be misleading. They are quite different; the weakness of one is the strength of the other.
As you already know, MDF is made by crushing leftovers of hard or softwood and combining them with adhesives under high temperatures and pressure. In contrast, plywood is manufactured by gluing thin layers of veneers together with adhesives.
These layers of the plywood have alternating grain orientation giving this material a cross-grain property. On the other hand, MDF is uniform with no specific grain or texture property and is easier to work with.
We also found that MDF panels are denser and heavier than plywood but not as durable or water-resistant. They are also prone to bending under undue Weight. This makes MDF better suited for interior projects like cabinets, display shelves, mobile props, and setups. On the other hand, Plywood is useful for roofs, boxes, sporting, musical equipment, and more robust projects.
MDF vs. Particleboard
MDF and particleboard have similar manufacturing processes. The residuals are crushed, dried, and bonded with wax and resin under intense heat and pressure. After which, they are pressed into wooden panels. However, there lies a difference. With MDF, the wood fibers are crushed very finely before being compressed.
MDF is stronger and denser than particleboard. It also has a smoother and more refined surface than particleboard. Because MDF is more rigid, it is more resistant to warping and cracking than particleboard. It is more durable.
Particleboard, however, isn’t without its advantages. It is cheaper, easier to work with, and available in several colors. But it doesn’t last as long as MDF and is often considered lower in quality.
MDF vs. HDF (High-Density Fiberboard)
You may be tempted to think that MDF is not as good as HDF because the latter has a higher density. But in the real sense of it, one is not better than the other. The project at hand will determine the more suitable choice.
HDF has a higher density and so is much thinner than MDF. It is, however, not suitable for interior applications.
HDF has better moisture-resistant properties and is much stronger on the plus side. But both types are still prone to damage by humidity, especially if placed directly in water.
MDF is the more affordable option, not to mention that its smooth surface accepts paint, glue, and other finishing well. This makes it ideal for interior and decorative projects. Laminating MDF makes it resemble natural timber. Although it is not as strong as HDF, it is durable and has structural integrity.
Each type is ideal for different purposes, and none is over the other.
How to Choose the Best MDF and Engineered Wood for Your Project
When choosing between MDF and other engineered wood types, you need to consider the specific needs to be met and the construction project in question.
Several wood composite products are available for construction and building projects. So when choosing the material to use, here are a few questions you need to ask yourself
What Purpose will the Wood Serve?
The kind of building project you’re working on determines the type of material to use.
MDF is best suited for cabinets and other kitchen furniture, display storage, wall paneling, and decorative items. This is because you can control its whole outlook and design. However, suppose you want something sturdy and solid like cupboards, you should think of other types of engineered wood, such as high-density fiberboard (HDF) and plywood.
You must, however, do well to remember that both MDF and engineered wood do not meet the standard and natural aesthetic that real wood provides.
For flooring, engineered wood products like laminated timber should be your go-to choice over MDF panels. Finally, think of HDF, not MDF, for furniture in areas with heavy traffic like government offices, cinemas, and hotels.
How long do you want the furniture or Wooden Project to last?
This is also quite crucial when choosing a wood type. If you plan to change your furniture often, you can use particle board or ultralight MDF.
Laminated lumber is touted to last for about 50 years and is best suited for more durable projects. HDF is also durable. Regular MDF laminations can also last for about ten years with lamination and proper maintenance.
How Strong Do you Want the Wooden Project to Be?
The type of material used determines the strength of your project. Laminated timber is the strongest wood composite type. Plywood and high-density fiberboard (HDF) are stronger than MDF, while Particleboard takes the rear.
How Much Will the Project Cost?
Remember the saying about budgeting, “cut your cloth according to your material”? Yes, that one. Your budget is that one factor that largely determines what you’d get eventually.
MDF is the more cost-effective option compared to several other types of engineered wood like HDF, plywood, and other wood composite products. Laminated strand lumber is the most expensive of all these wooden types.
When you consider all these factors, you’d be able to choose appropriately according to your needs and preferences for any building or construction application.
FAQs About Engineered wood and MDF
Q: What are the benefits of engineered wood over solid wood?
A: The main advantage of engineered wood over solid wood is that it can be manufactured to meet specific requirements. And so, it’s possible to use them for a wide range of building and construction projects, not to mention that they are also easy to work with and obtain. Also, on the plus side, engineered wood is the better choice for the environment because it can be made from smaller trees and even wood with defects instead of solid timber, which is gotten from large old trees.
Q: Are engineered wood products waterproof?
A: Engineered wood has better moisture-resistance properties than solid timber. This, however, doesn’t make them waterproof. If water gets to the core of composite wood, the wood and adhesive materials degrade over time, and the whole panel gets damaged.
Q: Can engineered wood be refinished?
A: Flooring made of engineered wood can be refinished several times but not as solid wood. The thickness of the veneer determines how many times you can refinish it. Too much sanding can wear away the smooth surface of the flooring.
Q: Is MDF banned in any country?
A: There are stipulations on the use of MDF in the USA, Australia, Germany, Norway, and Hungary. The U.K. Health and Safety Executive are not aware of MDF being banned anywhere globally. It is safe to use if safety measures are adhered to.
Q: Is MDF waterproof?
A: Most MDF panels naturally soak up water and expand if unsealed or poorly sealed. However, many boards now have moisture-resistant qualities as water repellents are added during production.
Q: Are there safety measures to take when working with MDF?
A: When working with MDF, you are to limit exposure to formaldehyde and wood dust as low as is reasonably possible to control health risks. Use low-risk alternatives if possible to reduce risk at source. Ensure you install and use an adequate dust extraction system like the local exhaust ventilation. Do not use airlines or brushes to clean up MDF dust; opt for vacuum cleaners with high-performance filters. You can also connect hoses to the local exhaust ventilation system. Always wear respiratory protective equipment while working. Work in areas with adequate ventilation. Better yet, work outdoors.
Q: Is MDF safe when painted?
A: Finishes like sealing or painting reduce the risks posed by MDF panels. You should also consider priming before painting with an MDF primer. When done correctly, your MDF panel is as safe as a tomato.
Q: Does MDF warp?
A: Although it is a common belief that MDF doesn’t warp. However, this isn’t true. It is an engineered product with enhanced qualities, one of which is warping resistance. But yes, it can still bend. The two ways this can happen are due to Exposure to moisture and Weight
Q: Which is better, MDF vs. Solid wood?
A: Solid wood’s natural look and feel is incomparable to any wood composite product, not even MDF. Its high quality and aesthetic make it a preferred option for construction and building. However, natural wood tends to bend, split, and get distorted if exposed to moisture and heat. It is not suitable for areas with high humidity, like the bathroom. Working with natural wood requires more maintenance and care. MDF panels have better resistance. Moisture-resistant MDF panels, for example, can be used for bathroom cabinets and vanities. MDF is more affordable and readily available than solid wood. It also accepts paints and glues very well. It doesn’t have specific grain or texture properties and is easier to work with. In these areas, MDF outperforms natural wood. But if money and upkeep are not a concern, you should go for solid wood. But not for your bathroom furniture.
Now, you’ve been intimated on the differences between engineered wood and MDF, do well to get familiar with the different types of Engineered wood and the best situation to use them.