The superiority of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or wood for cabinets has long been a subject for debate. With the advancement of industrial technologies, the quality of fibre-based products has vastly improved. Wood of course, being natural, has not changed. Wood does not need to change, as it is still superior to MDF as a cabinet material. But MDF is at least closing the gap.
Deciding whether price or quality is more important often becomes a chicken or the egg scenario for MDF. The price is always directly related to the quality of engineering for the board. Wood, however, can vary wildly in price not because of the particular quality of the wood, but rather, the species. Cherry cabinets are not necessarily better than mahogany. Your personal taste in the grain and texture of the wood is the deciding factor.
MDF has vastly improved its quality over the past decades, but MDF cut with a diamond core for precision is going to be more expensive than the material you pick up from a big-box home improvement chain.
The average price difference between MDF and wood cabinets can vary from region to region, but wood is invariably the more expensive material.
Wood cabinets rely on the quality of the wood species that is used. Oak is going to be more dent-resistant than pine simply because oak is a harder wood. Also, there is a marked difference between "solid wood" cabinets and "all wood" cabinets. "All wood" cabinets may use high-grade plywood. Be careful not to confuse the two terms.
MDF, on the other hand, is factory engineered to particular specifications. Again, the price will be the largest deciding factor of an MDF cabinet's quality.
In terms of practical installation, MDF tends to be much heavier than wood, and can be more susceptible to water damage. MDF is often constructed with staples or brads instead of screws, as screws have a higher chance of tearing free of MDF than they do in solid wood. Of course, solid wood has the greater chance of splitting.
Wood cabinets are generally lighter than MDF, making them easier to install. Weight aside, there is little difference between the installation of solid wood cabinets or MDF cabinets.
When it comes to refinishing your cabinets, wood is again the superior material. Wood can be sanded and refinished with relative ease. MDF cannot be refinished because its veneer is usually just 1/16th of an inch thick. If you try sanding it, you quickly expose the pressed fibre.
Again, here is the vital difference between "all wood" and "solid wood" as "All wood" is probably a plywood that has a veneer that is little thicker than MDF. "All wood" is harder to refinish than "solid wood," but it's still better than MDF.
Particle board is often confused with MDF because the process for making these materials is similar. MDF utilises wood fibres compressed with glue to make an incredibly dense material. Particle board uses wood particles compressed with glue. It is not nearly as dense as MDF, and so it lacks MDF's strength or finished appearance. Just the same, today's particle boards are not the same material as first became popular in the 1950s. They have engineering specifications of their own, and can be a realistic alternative to MDF or wood if price is a primary concern.