Painted MDF doors vs Painted Maple

LaurenPSAugust 5, 2011

Hi everyone, I am sure this has been asked before on this forum. I am in the process of deciding on a painted cabinet for my kitchen. The custom cabinet builder that I want to use told me that they use MDF for the cabinet doors and panels that are to be painted. They prefer this as there is no chipping or cracking of the paint. I live in Massachusetts and the weather changes from cold and dry to hot and humid and I realize this can be an issue. He will use maple if I want but I must sign that they are not responsible for paint cracking at the seams. So with that all said has anyone used MDF and are you happy?? And for those of you in the climates with season changes have you noticed cracking at the seams of your painted maple cabinets. And if you used painted maple which brand cabinet did you go with. Also, what are your boxes made out of, did you go all wood or something else. Thanks

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What is your door style? Will the entire door be MDF? I would really caution you on that idea.

One reason I am replacing my kitchen is that my old kitchen had chipped doors. They were a wood veneer over some kind of plywood. It was not from weather, it was from people using the kitchen over the years. Along the bottom of the lower doors, the top edge of the most used drawers, there were chunks missing. On the sink doors, these chunks were 2-3 inches long. If your veneer goes up to the edge of your doors, you are likely to have similar wear issues over time.

If your doors have a center panel that's veneered, especially recessed, that could work. But the outer edges of your door fronts you want real wood. Maple is a really hard wood and would be a great choice.

I went plywood on the boxes and shelves. Solid wood, dovetail on the drawers (not staples). Hinges matter too.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2011 at 11:09AM
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I just had my cabinets installed and we used plywood boxes and painted MDF door fronts for the reasons you mentioned. I live in Nova Scotia so we share the same type of weather. The fronts are all MDF and I am not concerned with durability. I think the MDF they currently use in kitchen will be just fine.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2011 at 11:41AM
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Hi Colorfast, MDF is a solid wood composite veneer at all therefore it does not appear that they could chip. The doors are milled and worked out of one piece. Do you have painted cabinets?? I think we are talking about 2 different things, thanks for your input and I would never put veneer in my kitchen for the reasons that you mentioned.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2011 at 1:00PM
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LaurenPS, my cabinetmaker told me the same thing as yours. I didn't use it in my cabinetry, but he told me it does paint excellently.


    Bookmark   August 5, 2011 at 1:11PM
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Mdf is not really a great option for cabinets. It does take paint rather well, but its soft. Painted maple works fine for most folks. Don't be scared by the finish wavier most manufacturers use them. The paint may go on solid in the beginning but you will see hairline cracks in the paint where the wood has expanded/ contracted. Just check out a sample of a painted door.

    Bookmark   August 6, 2011 at 7:11PM
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I live in Minneapolis, which is subject to extreme changes in weather outside. Inside, of course, the changes aren't as extreme.

I am also having custom kitchen cabinets, and I am going with painted maple. I had consultations with four GCs where the cabinet choice was discussed. Three of the four suggested painted maple; the fourth strongly leaned toward MDF. The fourth did say that painted MDF looked more "plasticy" than painted maple, but it was cheaper and he thought it would be my most economical choice. He didn't say anything negative about painted maple, and suggested that as his second option.

I didn't choose that GC for a number of reasons, so I didn't really explore MDF. I do have painted cherry cabinets now. (Just to be clear, these cabinets were first painted about 40-50 years ago. I only know that the cabinets are cherry because the interior cabinet doors were never painted, and one of the GCs told me they were cherry). But in the years that I have owned the house, cracking of the paint hasn't been an issue.

    Bookmark   August 6, 2011 at 7:48PM
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Thanks everyone for your input. I am still not sure what to do as the pricing on the mdf cabinets came in quite high. I also do not want to see hairline cracks where the joints come together...very fussy about this type of thing. Anyone else out there have any comments or additions to the above.

    Bookmark   August 7, 2011 at 6:40PM
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I'm concerned about this option also. It came up at a custom shop yesterday. This morning while researching it I found the linked info from a cabinetmaker on fiberboard being used for painted doors. He says hardwood should be used for the door frame. He refers to the strength of HDF these days but still recommends a wood frame. I'm not sure what the local shop uses for the frame. I'm guessing it's not wood or she would have mentioned it. She was very thorough and up front about construction details. It would crack at the seams.

I don't know anything about the cabinetmaker in the link. In another thread, someone mentioned Cook & Cook (high end) is doing this. I didn't see it mentioned on their site.

This is all very confusing and tiring!

Here is a link that might be useful: HDF for painted cabinet doors

    Bookmark   August 7, 2011 at 7:44PM
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The custom cabinet maker that I went to said that the MDF product for the doors is strong and a much better product than it was years ago. The door is constructed out of one piece, no wood frame from this cabinet maker. With the MDF you are trying to avoid any seams that may crack the paint. I have put off doing my kitchen for one year because I got so confused about this. I agree it is very tiring!! Anyone out there have painted MDF that they have had good luck with??

    Bookmark   August 8, 2011 at 11:37AM
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I can't give you much experience since my doors are only 2 weeks old. I will say the info I was given is the same as you re cracking in the painted doors and it was recommended we go with the one piece MDF. We did and the cabinets are quite beautiful. I am pleased with them.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2011 at 1:03PM
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Real wood, even the much more stable composites like plywood and MDF, swell with moisture and release that moisture when the air dries out. That will leave minute cracks at any joints. Today's latex enamel paints are much more flexible than the old oils of yesteryear, so the cracking won't be as apparent, but it will still occur.

"Real wood" is a term bandied about by wood snobs--not that there's anything wrong with that. :) But, realistically, cabinets haven't been constructed of all solid wood panels since plywood was invented. Solid wood panels are the most unstable form of wood that exists. Plywood was a great leap forward in furniture construction. As was MDF. Technically, MDF is just as much "real wood" as is plywood if not more so because it's able to be much denser--To have more wood per cubic inch than plywood. They are both made of cross grain wood, it's just the plywood uses layers of cross grain veneers while the MDF uses tiny wood particles where the fibers lock together like wool does to make felt. Both can have issues with moisture if exposed, with the unprotected MDF swelling and the plywood delaminating

If you want a painted cabinet with zero cracks anywhere, get thermofoil instead. You're not really wanting the natural characteristics of wood. You want plastic. Thermofoil will give you the look that you desire. Thermofoil wraps come in many many different colors today, and they are much more durable--and attractive--than yesterday's thermofoil. Just look at Martha Stewart's cabinets. No paint there. All high tech European thermofoil that most would be hard pressed to tell wasn't paint.

Solid MDF that mimics a stile and rail construction will be the next most stable. It will not have any real joints to move as it would be a solid piece. The downside to that is that you aren't able to achieve sharp definition at the corners, so it always looks a bit "off". It won't really save you much in costs over thermofoil though if you have it hand painted instead of sprayed. However, hand painting instead of spraying can help with the perceived "plasticy" look, as can hand applying a slight glaze over a sprayed coat. That will also be an upcharge.

Multipart MDF with an actual free floating inner panel and separate stiles and rails will be the next most stable when it comes to cracks. It's plenty strong enough and durable enough for most situations. Just like the solid MDF, if it's hand painted instead of sprayed, It's a much more realistic look because of the multiple parts and you will not be able to visually tell the difference between it and solid wood if hand painted. If it's sprayed, it tends to look a bit "too smooth" to the experts. The average person will not be able to see nor will they care.

Next in line in stability comes wood rails and stiles and a MDF center panel. This helps a bit with the cracking between the panel and the frames, as that is often the most apparent spot, especially if the doors were painted after assembly which is very common. The spot where the stiles and rails meet have the wood grain going in different directions, so you will still get cracking at that spot, much more than a MDF frame. As I said, with the new latex paints, it's less apparent than with the old oil paints. Hand painting with the minor errors that entails will also help it to achieve the less than perfect natural look.

The most prone to hygroscopic behavior is solid wood--which can be a bit misleading. Most "solid wood" recessed panel doors are not really solid wood. They are plywood panels with wood frames very much behaving like the solid wood with MDF panels I explained above. There is zero advantage of a plywood over MDF for the center panel if you are using wood frames. The MDF is probably cheaper for the same look.

"Solid" raised panel doors (or solid reverse recessed panel doors) are the most prone to potential cracking. The panels are not "solid" in that they are created out of a single piece of wood. That would expand and contract horribly! The panels are constructed of several solid pieces laminated together and then machined with a profile before being placed into the stiles and rails. In addition to all of the usual suspect spots for cracking, these add the potential of cracking occurring between the laminated wood strips. They are the most authentic construction for very old homes, as plywood and MDF did not exist 150 years ago, but they will also give you the most authentic look. That means the potential of hairline cracks pretty much everywhere.

All in all, the less processed product that the cabinets are made of, the more "defects" it will have. The more man made and processed a product is, the more "perfect" it becomes, with little variation in construction or appearance. More "natural looking" is a polite way to say "has natural defects that would not occur in a man made product". Some people want something expensive to look "shiny and new" always and those are the people who have little tolerance for the variations found in nature. Those people are the ones that should look to thermofoil to give them their desired "maintenance free and new" look. Some want their new kitchens to immediately look as though they've been there for years---with the natural patina of time built in. Most of us are in between, and we usually have our budget interjecting it's own constraints on our aesthetics.
Those are your choices, and I hope I've explained each of them well enough as to their advantages and disadvantages. If you have any further questions, I'll be happty to try to answer those.

    Bookmark   August 8, 2011 at 1:06PM
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Live Wire Oak, thanks so much for your very informative post.
It becomes very confusing when you are looking out there at a variety of cabinet companies. Are you a cabinet maker yourself? Have you seen how doors stand the test of time? I am very ignorant about these things and just want a kitchen that still looks good in 10 years. Do you know anything about formaldehyde out-gassing from mdf and plywood. Sorry to picking your brain, but you seem to be very knowledgeable.
Thanks for your help

    Bookmark   August 9, 2011 at 9:20AM
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If I may ask a related question...

I'm less worried about cracking/joints, and more concerned about denting. If, say, my preschooler son bumps his stepstool into an MDF panel, is it more or less likely to dent than a paint-grade soft maple panel? I know that soft maple is around 950 on the Janka hardness scale, but where would MDF fall on a scale like that?

    Bookmark   August 9, 2011 at 11:28AM
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Wow, thanks livewire for the complete, consolidated outline. I was noticing last night that the MDF door on this line doesn't have the nice crisp edges and cuts like the wood door does. It looks molded, similar to the veneered panels. It's also a sprayed finish so the all over effect isn't right for me. You hit the nail on the head with preferences. It's a beautiful door and color but feels off because it's looking a bit too slick and fabricated for my own aesthetic and for how I want my kitchen to feel. I think I've finally reached a conclusion. This seems like the deciding factor between the two, even above a lean towards the paint color on the wood one anyway. This was still good to explore despite the stress and loss of time!

The panels of both the MDF and wood doors are painted separately which is good.

I will say that I'm sure there was some crisply cut painted raised panel cabinetry in the shop. However that display was in the custom line. So maybe more realistic detailing is possible with MDF (which I believe I read it could do somewhere) but at a premium.

As far as basic construction, I think I need to rely on the KCMA to handle that and stay out of it! You'd think it would be fairly black and white but the opinions seem to vary widely and I have no personal experience to draw on for a final conclusion. They both seem to pass the test.

I do love a natural, time worn, handcrafted look and enjoy seeing mitered corners and such so, for me, that's a plus. I'm glad to have it clearly defined and articulated at this point. You don't want to realize those things, what's off, after the fact with such an expensive purchase! Looking at my old oil-based painted wood doors, they have not warped or split to any degree here so I think they will live a long life and won't be deteriorating before my eyes.

Thank you and thank you all!

    Bookmark   August 9, 2011 at 1:25PM
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LaurenPS, no I'm not a cabinet maker. I'm a kitchen designer. The long term experiences that I've had with cabinetry have shown that MDF doors are just fine for decades with normal kitchen use. If the cabinets are to receive abuse from rowdy rollerskating kids and St. Bernard drool, then using maples stiles and rails will give you better wear over time. No material will stand up to the impact of a thrown canned good or being constantly used as an aid to climb onto the counters. Even hard maple will dent or have the hinges pull out under those circumstances. MDF center panels vs. plywood center panels is a complete tossup function wise. Pick whichever is cheaper and use the saved money for some other feature that needs a boost in budget.

Low formaldehyde emitting materials are commonly available from many cabinet companies. Just ask them directly. There are a few companies that use zero emissions materials, but they are pretty spendy. A custom cabinet maker can source zero emitting plywood if you want, but it will be a substantial upcharge for most.

The plywood vs. furniture board debate for the cabinet boxes is equally weighted by the propaganda that you're not getting "real wood" unless you pay 20% more for the privilege. KCMA testing shows that either construction material will outlast it's fashionableness. People will most likely replace 25 year old cabinets because they are "ugly" in their view rather than because they're deteriorating.

Plywood IS superior to furniture board in it's resistance to deflection. It will hold more weight without sagging. That's why you don't see Euro cabinets (which have used furniture board for MANY decades with no problems) larger than 36". If you have plywood shelving, you can span further distances. If you don't have any cabinets larger than 36" or plan on storing your entire cast iron collection on a single shelf I wouldn't worry about it.

The water resistance thing is also a bit of often repeated propaganda. If a flood/leaking faucet/water event occurs, both substances can be affected. Plywood will delaminate and MDF will swell. The degree of affectedness will depend on if the materials are fully sealed on all surfaces. Shelving should have the cut sides sealed, and many cab lines don't offer that. Same with the portions of the cabinet that touch the floor of the underside of the base. This is where using a custom maker can work to your advantage. Or, just do it yourself for the sink base and the cabinet adjacent to the DW after they've been delivered. You could use polyurethane or whatever leftover paint you already have on hand. A couple of coats on the exposed ends and then caulk the interior seam where the cabinet floor meets the cabinet walls. I'd do this on plywood or furniture board.

    Bookmark   August 9, 2011 at 6:47PM
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This has been so helpful! I meet with my kitchen designer next week and feel so much more prepared! Thank you.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2011 at 3:47PM
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From over 25 years in the cabinet business mostly building and installing cabinets I remember when painted cabinets where very popular and people were buying them from the big box retailers. When they were first mass produced by the cabinet companies the doors were all wood. It did not take long for homeowners to start complaining about cracks showing where all the joints were on the doors. We replaced a lot of doors. It took a few years but the cabinet companies started to use MDF for the doors. With MDF there is less expansion and contraction of the material from humidity then if wood was used. You will still get some movement but not as much as with wood.
Face frames are made of wood and you will get some cracking there but not as much and it will not be as noticeable because the door will cover most of this.
I don't know of many compaines that use wood for painted doors and if you have a choice get MDF for painted doors.

Here is a link that might be useful: Painted MDF Cabinets

    Bookmark   August 23, 2013 at 6:02AM
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Follow-up question on MDF:
Is there any way to fix MDF that has swollen around edges where water got in?

    Bookmark   August 23, 2013 at 11:56AM
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