How to work with mdf

Written by patrick gleeson, ph. d., registered investment adv
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How to work with mdf
Medium-density fiberboard sheet (A background of sheet of paper image by Mykola Velychko from

MDF (medium density fiberboard) is an increasingly popular choice among cabinet makers, but it has many other applications. It is a low-cost, easily worked material that will give good results as long as you take its limitations into account.

Skill level:
Moderately Easy

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Things you need

  • Table saw or circular saw
  • Woodworking clamps
  • 4-by-8-foot work surface
  • Straight edge

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  1. 1

    You can cut MDF easily with a carbide blade on either a table saw or with a circular saw. Do not use a plywood blade, which can bind. MDF is made from fragmented wood fibre bonded under pressure with resin. It has a very predictable and even density, which makes it an excellent choice for cabinetry, including speaker cabinets. Its manufacturing process ensures that there are no internal tensions, as with wood and plywood, that will cause it to warp over time. If you lay it on a flat surface, it will stay flat.

  2. 2

    If you cut MDF with a circular saw, you can achieve a very consistent straight cut so long as you use a guide. Almost anything straight will serve as a guide; note that a two-by-four doesn't necessarily qualify. Better: use a long steel rule or an 8-foot piece of 1-by- 1/8-inch metal stock, available at home improvement centres. Use a couple of small clamps to clamp the straightedge to the MDF.

  3. 3

    You can easily cut MDF with a table saw. So long as you use a carbide blade there's little risk of kickback; unlike wood or plywood, the cut will not close back up and bind.

  4. 4

    When you cut MDF, always be sure to fully support it. While it is a very strong material in compression, it is markedly weaker than plywood when subjected to forces, including gravity, along its length. Never cut MDF using sawhorses alone; instead put a piece of 4 foot x 8 foot x 3/4 inch shop-ply on the sawhorses, then cut on that. Don't allow the cut piece to overhang; both the cut piece and the source piece should be fully supported. Failure to do this will almost certainly result in a torn cut and possible injury if the torn fragment flies back toward you.

  5. 5

    Assess your use of MDF for shelving. In some cases it will work; in others it will eventually sag. MDF is stronger when placed vertically (which produces internal compression) than when placed horizontally (which allows it to bend). It is not the ideal substance for shelving, although many manufacturers of low-cost cabinets use it that way. Over time it will sag unless the shelf is short and the load is light. Except for its use for shelving, the ability of MDF to hold its original shape without warping makes it an ideal choice for general cabinet construction. If you wish to preserve the unitary appearance of the cabinet, you can substitute HDF (High Density Fiberboard) for MDF for your shelving. It looks like MDF, costs about twice as much (and may have to be special-ordered from your home-improvement center's contractor desk). It is substantially stronger.

Tips and warnings

  • One interesting MDF use in recent years is as flooring. Be sure to use at least 3/4 inch and keep it well-supported (don't, for example, put it directly over floor-joists; a subfloor must be used). When stained and urethaned an MDF floor is very attractive.
  • Avoid using MDF in a location that will be exposed to water, i. e., for cabinet use under a sink where wet objects may be stored. You can improve its resistance to water with a thorough application of urethane, but over time and as the urethane wears the MDF will deteriorate. First it will swell, then it will begin to release wood fragments from the binder, and at that point you will need to replace it.
  • Be careful when screwing into MDF; if you work the screw too much (or use too large a drill when drilling the screw-hole) the connection will weaken. Avoid screwing into MDF along its edges; the connection will eventually fail.

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