When contemplating the purchase of baseboards in the past, typically you only had one choice: natural wood, usually pine or hemlock. With the advent of medium-density fiberboard (MDF) baseboards, consumers suddenly had one more choice that was dramatically cheaper and, in some ways, easier to install.
But many consumers balk at the idea of installing something other than true, natural wood milled straight from the tree. Does this mean that MDF makes for a worse baseboard than one made from wood? Not necessarily.
MDF Baseboards: Pros and Cons
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.
Low cost is the driver behind MDF baseboards' popularity. The most popular size of baseboard material is 3 1/4 inches high. Within this category, wood is the most expensive product, followed far behind by MDF. At many home centers and lumberyards, MDF is 30 percent to 50 percent cheaper than primed pine. Because this is a significant difference when installing hundreds of linear feet of baseboards, MDF tends to be favored by economy-minded owners, contractors, and builders.
MDF baseboards are easier to install than real wood because the 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 MDF as a general building material is that it is not structurally sound on its own. Only when coupled with another material does MDF achieve the strength needed to act as a baseboard.
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 a 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.
Wood Baseboards: Pros and Cons
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.
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 a 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 a 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 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. But finger joints 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.