Is MDF a Cost Savings Solution for Higher Wood Prices? Or, Is It A Problem Waiting To Happen?
MDF, or Medium-Density-Fiberboard, is a manufactured product consisting of wood fiber and resin. MDF manufacturing began in the 1980’s and became popular with local builders here in the 1990’s and is still currently being used in new home construction.
MDF is also very popular with the large home improvement stores as they sell it in droves to DIYers. Just take a look down the trim and molding isle. There you will find everything from door casing, baseboards, crown moulding, window sills, wall panels and much more. There is three times as much MDF product as there is wood.
Why? Because MDF it is much cheaper than real wood. Or is it?
Before I get in to the Cons of MDF, let’s take a look at the Pros.
Because MDF is a manufactured product it is very straight and without the imperfections of real wood like knots and splits. When done properly, it paints very well and in turn has an excellent finish for cabinets and decorative trim work such as wainscoting, fireplace mantles, and column wraps. It can save a builder or a homeowner a lot of money when used for these applications.
Unfortunately, these are not the only areas where MDF is being used in new home construction. To cut additional costs, MDF is also being used in high moisture areas of the home such as window sills, baseboards in carpeted bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens.
When MDF gets wet it acts like a sponge and absorbs water and swells. And unlike wood that expands and contracts when exposed to moisture, MDF only expands when wet and as it dries out it holds that shape and does not go back to it’s original form.
Windows condensate and when that moisture drips down it is absorbed by the MDF window sill and causes swelling. Leaks from the exterior of windows will cause swelling of MDF sills as well.
Another area where MDF should not be used is for baseboards in carpeted rooms such as bedrooms. This is not as obvious as in high moisture areas such as window sills or in bathrooms. Think of carpet being steam cleaned, however. The moisture in carpet during the cleaning process will wick up the bottom of the MDF baseboard over time and will cause it to swell as depicted below.
So, even though the use of MDF in new home construction, as well as remodeling or DIY projects, may save you money up front, it will cost you more in the long run in terms of replacement and repair costs. And I am speaking of just surface repair costs. Left unchecked, wet and swollen MDF trim can cause further, more unpleasant and costly damage such as mold.
Replace MDF with real wood at the first signs of a problem.
What to look for:
- Broken or crack caulk lines
- Furry or bubbled look on surface
- Small dirt or debris on sills
- Swollen corners on sills
- Swelling at bottom of baseboards
If you have any questions or concerns about the material used in your home, or if you are seeing any of these warning signs, contact us to set up a free in-home inspection and evaluation.