Within the home, medium-density fiberboard (MDF) is increasingly being used—for kitchen and bathroom cabinets, shelves, and furniture. When contemplating the purchase of baseboards in the past, typically you only had just one choice: natural wood, usually pine or hemlock. Now, MDF is often used as a baseboard material. How do MDF baseboards compare to solid wood baseboards and are they worth purchasing?
|MDF vs. Wood Baseboards|
|MDF Baseboards||Wood Baseboards|
|Cost||$2 per linear foot for 3 1/4-inch by 1/2-inch MDF baseboards||$1.50 per linear foot 3 1/4-inch by 1/2-inch poplar baseboards|
|Staining||Cannot be stained||All wood baseboards, except for primed, may be stained|
|Painting||May be painted||May be painted|
|Installation||Lack of wood grain means that MDF will not split when nailed||Strong, light, and easy to handle|
Using MDF Baseboards
Medium-density fiberboard, like other aggregate building materials such as quartz counters, is derived from the same source that it is emulating: trees. Yet the similarity ends at the mill. Soon after entering the mill, MDF's wood source (usually small branches) is pulped into a mash, then re-formed into a hard building product.
Slightly lower cost than wood
MDF does not split
Flexible, good for curves
Damaged by water
Must be painted; cannot be stained
Prone to breaking, chipping
Lower cost is the driver behind MDF baseboards' popularity. The most popular size of baseboard material is 3 1/4 inches high. Within this category, solid, unprimed wood is the most expensive product, followed by primed pine and by MDF.
While there are cost differences, these differences are slight, especially in small applications. At many home centers and lumberyards, MDF is up to 10-percent cheaper than hemlock or poplar and can even be the same price as primed, finger-jointed pine. Such a minor cost difference may not be noticed in a small room or two. But when installing hundreds of linear feet of baseboards, MDF tends to be favored by economy-minded owners, contractors, and builders.
MDF baseboards can be easier to install than real wood baseboards. MDF baseboards' soft material cuts easily and does not split under the force of power-driven brad nails or even manually-hammered finish nails.
One issue with using MDF as a general building material is that it is not structurally sound on its own. But when MDF is coupled with another material, it can be used for baseboards. The wall behind the baseboards provides enough strength for the baseboards.
Laminate flooring provides a perfect analogy to MDF baseboards. On its own, the fiberboard base, similar to MDF, would likely be the worst possible choice for flooring material. Yet when paired with a hardy transparent wear layer and when tightly seamed on a good subfloor, laminate's fiberboard can provide a suitable flooring surface for many years.
MDF, as molding, can be made to work in the same way. Priming and painting provide MDF with a thin protective shell. But it's mainly the wall behind the MDF baseboards that acts as its structural support. MDF baseboards on straight runs are nearly as strong as real wood baseboards. Outside corners, though, are MDF's weak points, since these areas are prone to chipping.
Using Wood Baseboards
Real wood baseboards, such as those found in home centers, tend to be made from softwoods such as long, uninterrupted pine boards and finger-jointed pine or from hardwoods such as oak and hemlock.
Can be left natural (stained)
Slightly more expensive than MDF
Wood can split when nailed
Straightness can be an issue
Softwoods typically are primed and painted, though not always. While hardwoods can be primed and painted, it defeats the purpose of purchasing expensive hardwoods to cover up the beauty of the grain with paint. As a result, hardwood baseboards are usually stained and sealed.
With real wood baseboards, at least you have the option of the natural wood grain. With MDF, you never have that option, as these baseboards must always be primed and painted. In fact, MDF baseboards are usually sold primed not so much for the convenience of the customers but because primed wood ships better and with less risk of damage.
Real wood, even softwood, is stronger than MDF. So, if you anticipate installing baseboards in a high-traffic, high-impact environment, you would want to purchase real wood or even PVC baseboards. Because primed and painted natural wood is only marginally better than MDF at standing up against moisture, PVC is your best bet for highly wet spaces.
Finger-jointed pine offers a low-cost way to purchase real wood baseboards. Finger joints, like scarf joints, create long baseboard runs out of shorter pieces of material. Finger joints, created in the factory, are even better than scarf joints because a comb-like profile is cut into each end, then glued together, creating a bond that is as strong as other parts of the wood.
Real wood baseboards can split when nailed; MDF never has this problem. So care must be taken when installing these baseboards and some amount of excess should be figured into the purchase price.
Also, be sure to check for straight baseboards. Because MDF is an engineered wood, all pieces are, or should be, perfectly straight. Natural wood may be bowed. It is better to reject inferior pieces at the store than on the job site.
How to Decide Between MDF and Wood Baseboards
If you want the look of natural wood, the decision is clear: solid wood baseboards. Hemlock, oak, pine, poplar, and maple are popular solid wood baseboards for staining.
If you are installing baseboards in great numbers and cost is an issue, then choose MDF baseboards for the cost advantage that they offer.
If you are installing in a wet application, then choose primed wood or, even better, PVC baseboards.