High-end custom kitchen cabinets, Wood or MDF?
Updated: May 2, 2020
High-end custom kitchen cabinets, Wood or MDF?
What is better for a high-end custom kitchen? Wood or MDF?
Many of High-end kitchen companies often used MDF in certain applications. It doesn't warp because it's more dimensionally stable, MDF has come a long way.
There are varying levels of quality, so MDF no longer equates with cheap, assemble-it-yourself cabinets. Another advantage to consider is that it's environmentally friendly (as long as it doesn't have formaldehyde in it). As for resale value, there cities where people are environmentally conscious may find the MDF more favorable than wood, but residents of smaller towns in more remote areas may prefer wood.
Different types of MDF doors
MDF can be used as a solid wood substitute for conventional 5-piece panel cabinet construction - i.e. the doors are made from two vertical stiles, two horizontal rails, and a center panel. A door or frame or end panel made this way is in my opinion equal in quality in every way to soft maple or poplar (the two most commonly painted hardwoods). The advantages of MDF are the dimensional stability and because it is a composite material, when it is glued together, the parts become contiguous. So in a few years the doors won't rattle when they are closed hard. MDF also attenuates at low frequency which gives the cabinets a very solid feel. The surface is equal in hardness to oak and has similar density so they are durable as well.
MDF takes paint better, and doesn't have the same seams as wood, will not crack and split the paint where would might. The main benefit to real wood that I see is that it increases the value as a potential selling point on a home, and. If it gets damaged and needs to be repaired, you really can't sand it or repaint. For high-gloss doors check here.
Another advantage of MDF is that it is available in significantly larger sizes.
We will paint wood doors if that is what the customer wants. If a client insists on wood, we usually try to steer them towards a shaker v-groove door (with the v-groove on the frame at the vertical joint) or to a mitered door. The mitered doors are constructed differently so they do not expand and contact as easily and therefore you do not get the paint cracking to the same degree. However, you will be spending quite a bit more money for a wood mitered door than you would for MDF.
If you want wood, why not go with a stain finish? Consider a very light stained wood.
As for resale, there is no way a buyer could determine whether a door is made from MDF or hardwood, if they are constructed using 5-piece panels. The compromise is a wood frame with an MDF center panel which gives more stability, with a wood look due to the wood painted frame. Check our installed custom kitchens here.
The cons of MDF are that if you ever decide you want real wood, you can't strip it. The shelves will eventually bend. If because of cost, you decide to go with MDF anyway, make sure you periodically turn the shelves upside down to offset this sagging. If you do decide on an MDF face frame, make sure you get plywood shelves, laminated to match the interior or if the interior is natural lacquer then stay with that for the shelves. The MDF we use is harder than wood but absorbs water faster. As was stated, the finish sits on top of the material and doesn't sink into the wood. While it's true that water damage can seep into wood as well as MDF, I have heard of too many more ruined cabinets that were MDF than wood. It is, in my opinion, more quickly damaged. Part of the reason for that is that the finish sits on top and doesn't become part of the wood.
Different types of wood
The top of the line of our custom kitchens are thick high grade plywood cabinet boxes with solid wood doors, and solid wood dovetailed drawers throughout. This is a more expensive option, but excellent quality and very durable over the long haul. If you go with a mitered door, make sure there is a tenon at the joint and it is pinned to give it extra support.
If water gets through the lacquered finish, the MDF fibers might expand a little. Yes, wood can also be damaged by water, but my understanding is that it doesn't permanently expand in the same way.
The pros of wood are of course, the feel and look of wood. Also, if this is a kitchen you want to keep for a very long time, I would go with wood. Trends in custom cabinetry are constantly changing. With wood you can strip it later if you decide you want a different finish down the road. If you have a solidly built set of cabinets, you can change the look and they will still be valuable later. With wood, the finish itself is impregnated in the wood helping it to resist stains and water.
We do kitchen cabinet doors that are solid maple for the shaker style frame part and the inside of the panel is maple plywood. The plywood is still a floating panel inside the door part.
The cabinet boxes are also maple plywood, the insides of our cabinets and doors are left a natural color with just a clear shellac coat on the inside. Here is an article about custom cabinets.
Can you imagine an MDF cabinet becoming an antique piece with any value example? Bottom line - I have old wood and new wood all over my house, from antiques to new kitchen and bathroom. I have my Grandmas old baby high chair and many other old wooden pieces in my home. They have withstood the test of time. You just can't say that about MDF.
Keep in mind too, that if you order custom cabinets with a face frame, the backs of the frames are not usually finished. This leaves MDF exposed on the back and unfinished. Wood beats MDF as far as holding up to moisture. If you do decide to go with MDF I would suggest a European cabinet with no face frame. The cons of wood is that center panel on a door may shrink leaving an exposed finish line. We always gave our customers a touch up kit in case that happened. Not one ever came back to me with a problem.
Ask to see samples of different SPECIES and GRADES of wood doors is you prefer stained kitchens.
In the end you have to live with it. Do you like the look of a solid color kitchen over a stained one?