MDF vs. Real Wood: Need-to-Know Information

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24 Sep 2020

There are a lot of factors when it comes to buying wood furniture; cost, color, and quality to name a few. But the most important question, arguably, is what kind of wood you’re getting.


There are, essentially, three types of "wood" used in furniture: Solid wood, particleboard or MDF, and plywood.


And within these categories, there are high quality and lower quality versions which will affect the long-term durability of the furniture and the price.


Are there times when MDF is a better option than real wood? Or should you always invest in high-quality hardwood furniture? We’re answering those questions and breaking down the difference between MDF and real wood.


Solid Wood



Solid wood is a natural resource and doesn’t go through the manufacturing process that MDF does. It’s broken down between hardwood and softwood; hardwood being, unsurprisingly, the more durable and long-lasting of the two.


Hardwood vs. Softwood


Hardwood trees are slow-growing and produce a denser wood, and are, in general, deeper in tone than softwood trees. Typical hardwoods found in high-quality wood furniture are Oak, Cherry, Maple, Walnut, Birch, and Ash.


Softwoods, on the other hand, are less dense and are not as durable as hardwoods. They are sometimes used as a backing or on the insides of case goods. Typical softwoods are Pine, Poplar, Acacia, and Rubberwood.


Qualities and characteristics of natural wood


Natural wood is a living material. Its characteristics will never be uniform, so “perfection” can’t be expected. We think this is the beauty of hardwood furniture. Every mark, mineral stain, and color pattern tells a story about how the tree adapted to its environment.


Natural wood furniture, in particular hardwood, is incredibly long-lasting if it’s taken care of well. These are pieces that end up being heirlooms – your grandmother’s dining table or the antique nightstand you got from a friend.



The great thing about natural wood furniture is that it can be refinished and sanded down, extending the longevity even more.


Read More: Homeowner’s Guide to Natural Wood in Furniture


Particleboard and Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)


So, what about MDF?


Particleboard and Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) are engineered wood composites made up of leftover hardwood or softwood. MDF can be quite dense and sturdy, so reliable that it is near impossible to cut with a table saw.


Particleboard, or chipboard, however, is much less sturdy as it is made up of large chips of wood that are bound together with glue and resin.


Particleboard is less expensive, but we’d recommend you steer clear. The space between wood chips in particleboard makes it much less durable and more prone to damage.


That being said, that doesn’t mean all engineered wood composites are cheap and low-quality. MDF puts its strength and density to good use in some applications. You can find it in some media cabinets, for example, because it won’t warp with the heat coming off electronics.


Most bookcase shelves are MDF as it can hold more weight and prevents it from warping over time. And finally, most dressers have MDF on the siding to help mitigate cost and weight and to ensure the stability over time.


MDF, being as dense as it is, is considerably heavier than hardwood furniture. So, you might want to keep that in mind if you’re purchasing a larger item.



What about plywood?


Engineered wood (plywood) is made up of layers of wood, which are glued together in alternating sections.


Plywood can come in both hard and softwood versions, which affect its durability. Additionally, plywood can come in different numbers of layers, usually averaging between 3 and 9. The more layers, the stronger the plywood, and the higher the cost.


The best quality plywood comes from kiln-dried hardwood layers, which makes it hold its shape and prevent warping. The benefit to plywood is that it can be shaped and curved for specific usages like the base of a Stressless Chair.


What are veneers?


Another term you might hear when searching for wood furniture is "veneer." So, what is a veneer?
While there are different quality levels of a veneer, it is a less expensive alternative to hardwood made by putting a thin piece of premium wood over a type of manufactured wood.
The single-layer provides the look of hardwood grains, but the underlying content keeps the cost down. One of the drawbacks to veneer is that it limits the number of times you can refinish your furniture. We wouldn't recommend veneer on tables for that reason.
Make sure, if you are getting a veneer, it's an actual piece of hardwood. Additionally, a cheap veneer is the easiest way to make particle board or chipboard look like real wood. If you have a lower quality particle board underneath your veneer, you're more likely to see wear and tear.

Which is right for you?


When you’re debating between MDF and a hardwood piece of furniture, it often comes down to cost, except for the applications where MDF stands out.


When you buy a piece of hardwood furniture you’re not just paying for the high-quality material, you’re also paying for the hand-labor, precision, and thoughtfulness that goes into making the piece. And, as we like to say, when you pay for quality, it pays out in the long-term.


The important thing is to do your research, read reviews, and be informed before deciding on wood furniture. The more information that’s available about the piece of furniture, the less likely you are to be blindsided when it arrives at your house.


Our Design Consultants have a wealth of knowledge about wood furniture and will be able to go into detail about the construction and craftsmanship of our collection. Come into a showroom and chat with a designer to get started on your design journey. 


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Author: Julia Maiman

Julia is a writer, blogger, and believer in the smell of old books. She has been crafting stories since she could put pen to paper. She is also a lover of dogs, traveling, and Led Zeppelin.