April 24, 2014

Why I Avoid MDF and Furniture Built with MDF (and Think You Should, Too)

Something has been bothering me.  I haven’t really gotten into it on the blog, but the case studies I’m doing on the furniture industry makes me very uncomfortable.  For the past couple of decades, there has been a drastic increase in the percentage of consumer furniture and goods manufactured using a material known as MDF.  The average guy on the street probably isn’t familiar with the term, so it is understandable some of you might be asking, “What is MDF?”.  It is an acronym for Medium Density Fiberboard.  

Technically, MDF contains a mixture of wood solids, wax, and resin bonded together under high temperatures and high pressure to create a uniform wood-like product that is far cheaper than real wood.  In layman terms, MDF is sawdust held together with glue; sort of a higher quality (that’s an oxymoron, in my opinion) material that serves as the base for the piece-of-crap furniture you get from office supply stores or certain shall-not-be-named furniture chains.  I’ve heard some individual furniture makers say they believe casegood furniture constructed out of a core of MDF might have a life span of 1/10th or 1/4th that of something made from solid wood, properly constructed.  To be fair, it also costs roughly 1/4 to 1/10th as much as real world.

If that weren’t bad enough, much MDF is manufactured using formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.  Cutting, sanding, or releasing particles of MDF into the air might be a high risk and should be avoided.  If the furniture isn’t properly sealed, the MDF materials can leak formaldehyde for years, pumping it into your home or office.  Why on Earth would you want something like that in your life?  Your kids sleeping in it?  Your family hanging out by it?  Your air filled with it?  It’s asinine.  Do a quick Google search on the topic to learn more.  It’s scary.

Are Manufacturers Purposely Selling MDF Furniture to Unwitting Customers?

Manufacturers and retailers now sell furniture constructed using MDF as a core material, then cover it with a thin sheet of real wood veneer.  For complex pieces of veneer work, I understand all of the arguments about using MDF as a substrate for veneering and, fine, I get it.  I don’t like it, and I wouldn’t be too keen on buying a piece with it, but okay.  

However, I believe that many consumers see the real wood and have no idea that he or she paid thousands of dollars for, what I consider to be, a giant pile of sawdust that could not hope to compare to a solid wood alternative.  They are going by brand names of furniture companies that were quality in the past, not realizing that those businesses are no longer selling the same product! 

Medium Density Fiberboard MDF

It doesn’t even occur to many consumers that they are buying MDF, a type of engineered wood product, not real wood.

In other words, I am of the opinion that manufacturers of many mid-tier and higher-end furniture brands unknowingly switched their product without adequately disclosing it to the consumer.  It would be like if your favorite hamburger joint slowly replaced the core of the hamburger with wood-like filler product, but failed to tell you.  Instead, they bragged about using the “real” meat, which is true; they just use a tiny layer of it for the visible parts of the sandwich.

The MDF question gets tricky when it comes to certain veneered furniture.  I fell in love with a pair of carved wooden bookcases featuring gold-leaf accented pineapples.  I had intended to buy several sets for my office since my primary responsibility is to read and make decision.  Bookcases are really the most useful piece of furniture I own, besides a desk.  

The bookcases are manufactured by one of the best names in the furniture business, with one of the best reputations for furniture quality.  The price tag was not insignificant (it was in the four-figures per bookcase; we’ll leave it at that).  In order to alleviate that tiny bit of doubt in the back of my mind, I wrote the company and asked if the bookcases contained any MDF.  Their response?  The entire thing was built on an MDF core!  Sure, it is supposedly a high end MDF product but the idea bothers me.  We’re not talking Walmart or IKEA here; we’re talking a furniture company that makes individual pieces more expensive than some cars.  Yet, when you’re dealing with a rare, expensive veneerers, there are woodworkers who emphatically insist it is the only way to go, substrate-wise.  I still can’t bring myself to pull the trigger on the purchase because the presence of MDF bothers me that much.  (They are so beautiful I’ll probably end up buying them, anyway.)

What bothers me more?  I find the fact that the use of MDF as a core material wasn’t disclosed prior to me asking completely inexcusable.  How many people take the time to write?  I think most reasonable people assume that furniture that looks like wood is, in fact, wood.  That may no longer be the case.  That, to me, is an ethical failing.  It may be legal under the current laws, but it isn’t right.  It isn’t how a company should behave.

This Isn’t the First Time an Industry Has Tried to Cut Corners By Using MDF  

Back in the 1990′s, there was a class action lawsuit when one particular company sold MDF as siding on households.  Long story short, it began to rot and get infected with fungus once it got wet from the rain.

From a product liability standpoint, I’m shocked that a lot of businesses are willing to engage in the distribution of items containing a lot of MDF.  Although I’m not convinced we’re in asbestos territory, even with the formaldehyde cancer risk, I do think that MDF is a ticking financial time bomb waiting to happen in terms of class action lawsuits, especially in cases where the consumer had no reasonable cause to believe that the furniture contained, or was primarily constructed out of, MDF.  I think that is true, even if it turns out that MDF poses no safety risks whatsoever.  (Do you remember the lawsuits caused by asbestos?  People who were hardly sick were able to bankrupt entire companies because of things that happened 40 years prior!).  Trying to save a few bucks could end up costing a few thousand.  At least, that’s where I see it going in the end.  I hope I’m wrong.

To be more blunt about it, I would not be comfortable with a large percentage of my net worth in any company that manufactured or distributed a lot of MDF products.  I think there is a contingent liability issue there from dust particles and outgas risk that no one is discussing or acknowledging outside of the woodworking community.  Again, I hope I’m wrong.

There Will Always Be Room for Quality

The big question: When did people think it was okay to start producing and selling trash?  In the piano industry, Steinway and Bosendorfer have both managed to survive just fine.  You don’t see them making the pianos out of MDF.  Why do furniture makers take less pride in their work?  Why do they think so little of themselves, and their legacy, that they think this is an acceptable compromise?

I think the government should require any product containing or constructed with MDF to carry a notice label.  The consumer has a right to know what he or she is buying.  Putting a nice veneer on a cheap substrate is like replacing the interior components of a Lexus with an Edsel and still trying to sell it as a Lexus.  It goes against my sense of fairness and honesty.  For me, it is further proof that buying high quality furniture can save money in the long-run and that you should only do business with companies that are upfront with you.  

To learn more about MDF, head over here and skip directly to the comments section.

  • Gilvus

    Hi Joshua, I’d like to weigh in on this. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen only if your body uptakes a certain quantity of it. Below that point, your body repairs itself far more quickly than it is damaged. Take radiation, for example – bananas are radioactive enough to trigger sensitive Geiger counters (I’m not kidding)! But the dose you get from eating a banana every day is so small it doesn’t even matter. For as long as life has existed (all 3.5ish billion years of it), there has been damaging radiation from uranium in the ground and UV from the sun, but in most cases cellular life regenerates faster than damage can occur.

    You like to cook and bake, right? Then you know about the brown crust on bread, the savory flavor of seared meat, and the brown color in caramelized sugar. These forms of browning are oxidative, which makes the food very tasty, but also creates free radicals (chemically reactive particles). In effect, you’re creating carcinogenic materials when you make tasty food! That’s why the antioxidants you find in tomatoes, blueberries, etc. can decrease the risk of cancer because they “take one for the team” and neutralize the free radicals’ effect. Are you really increasing your risk of cancer by making yummy food? Possibly, but I wouldn’t give up the experience and you probably wouldn’t either :-D

    Going back to the formaldehyde example, you’re probably suffering more from gassing up your car because you’re inhaling a concentrated dose of vaporized gasoline (which is made of BTEX – also carcinogenic). But we know from experience that periodic exposure isn’t bad – just don’t huff the fumes. Any formaldehyde left over in the MDF probably comes out at too-low a concentration to do true harm to your body. If you can’t smell the formaldehyde, you’re probably okay.

    TL;DR: formaldehyde won’t kill you unless you huff it. That said, I agree that the non-disclosure part about MDF is B.S.

  • KansasKate

    “The big question: When did people think it was okay to start producing and selling trash?”   
    I think it began with the Industrial Revolution.  

  • Ian Francis

    I think you are exgaggerating the crappiness of MDF a bit, though I generally agree with you that furniture made from MDF (especially things like desks and bookcases) is junk.  Why is this crap so popular?  Because people are willing to buy it.  The majority of people who are less fortunate do not understand the true cost of things.  They don’t realize that buying a cheap bookcase that only lasts a couple years will cost them more in the long run than the expensive one because you will have to buy 2 or 3 or more of the cheap ones to last as long as the nice bookcase.  This is why places like Rent-a-Center and Aaron’s are in business.  Is it really worth paying what amounts to twice the price for a TV so you can have it now instead of in a year?  Absolutely not, but people do it all the time because they are impatient and can’t wrap their heads around the actual cost of an item.  People tend to not care about their future selves as long as it makes their current selves happy.  This is yet another reason why the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.

    • Joshua Kennon

      That sums it up beautifully: “People tend to not care about their future selves as long as it makes their current selves happy. This is yet another reason why the rich keep getting richer and the poor keep getting poorer.”

      Hey, also – I have a Mail Bag submission question that I’d like you to take a look at sometime soon if you could. I think you might be able to add a unique perspective to some of the trials his family is experiencing right now by virtue of your own life experience. I’ll forward it to you via email. Don’t feel obligated or anything – if you have a few minutes and wanted to include your thoughts, I thought it might help him. If not, that’s fine, too.

  • garbonzobeenz1

    I have to agree with you Joshua and disagree with Gilvus(below) on this matter. Eighteen months ago I did a remodel in my house and had custom shelving built using white laminated MDF. It was less expensive than the real wood (although I wanted real wood I was talked into the MDF by the builder) Within 2 days of having it all installed I became sick. I have continued to be sick and have gotten worse. I have been in and out of the hospital and my quality of life has really suffered. Most Dr’s know little to nothing about formaldehyde and they cannot find a treatment that helps me (my problems are with my heart & lungs as well as headaches. no cancer. . . yet) Even though the built-ins were sealed (after I got sick) and then finally removed because the formaldehyde gas had filled the room so much that you could smell it and feel it when you went in there. The room has been painted several times,scrubbed & cleaned, filtraition systems brought in and it was sealed off from the rest of the house. I have used NASA reccomended plants to “eat” the gas, and tried everything I can to fix it. So I now have an entire room in my house I cannot enter because of MDF! Not everyone is as sensative to the formaldehyde gas as I am, but I do believe that products should have to be marked if they contain formaldehyde/MDF. On a side note this nasty substance is in so many of our daily products now it is almost impossible to avoid it.

  • Michael Scott

    Joshua; As a furniture manufacturer importing custom product from China, I would like to challenge a couple of your beliefs concerning MDF. The main reason manufacturers use MDF or particleboard (chips instead of strands of wood) is for stability. Solid wood has a tendency to warp when shipped into disparate climates. Solid wood can be used as a core material, as can plywood, with a slight increase in cost. Veneers eliminate the necessity of hand-selecting the nicest grain patterns, and give the panel the appearance that the customer finds most pleasing.
    The formaldehyde can be an issue, however, we have used board that does not contain the substance for many years, and most manufacturers now use formaldehyde-free board.
    As far as the use of MDF being deceitful, I find that many people are not aware of it’s use, just as many are not aware of the use of plastic laminate on the surfaces of many items, or the use of melamine or, for that matter, the guage of sheetmetal used for the body, or the fiber count of the material used on the seats. Although the use of materials does have an affect on the durability and longevity, It fits the needs and the pocketbook of the customer. It would be very difficult to argue that product using MDF and veneers is somehow inferior to solid wood furniture except in the case of repairability. With solid wood under the veneered edges, it would hold up every bit as well.
    I am impressed with the availability of all kinds of furniture in the US market, thanks to imports from other countries, and thanks to hand-craftsmen that use only the best materials and shun the use of power tools. Free enterprise is a beautiful thing.

  • Les

    It’s really hard to find good, straight lumber these days. So “solid wood” doesn’t necessarily mean good quality. The nice thing about MDF is that is flat and straight. On the positive side MDF is recycled sawdust. Hardwood forest is dwindling, and the trees grow slowly. So in an ideal work everyone could have hardwood furniture but that is not sustainable or possible.

    • KansasKate

      Trees do grow slowly. However, most of the furniture in my house, as well as the house itself, is from the 19th C. Yes, a walnut tree was sacrificed to make my bedside table (for example), but in the 125 years since then, there has been ample time for another generation (or two) of trees to grow to maturity.

      Will today’s MDF furniture still be in use in the mid-22nd century? I seriously doubt it.

  • Wayne Fields

    To fulfill the greed of the whole planet? Greed is the inordinate desire to possess wealth, goods, or objects of abstract value with the intention to keep it for one’s self, far beyond the dictates of basic survival and comfort. whereby, it seems to me, greed can hardly be attributed to the end user, in this case the consumer, because they desire a bed frame, desk, or home that is made of actual wood (vs. wood byproduct). it seems more likely that greed is found in the side of manufacturers who create an inferior product and sell it for the same price to increase the company’s profit. its not about natural resources as much as it is about cutting cost.

    • spingus

      So maybe you should take a closer look at the comment and allow for the likelihood that English is not his native language. I’m going to say that if you simply sub in ‘need’ for ‘greed’ you’ll get a better idea of what the poor guy is actually trying to communicate.

      btw, this conversation is over a year old and the post you’re responding to is 3 months old.

      • Wayne Fields

        Hmmm…. perhaps that was a typo. I did however read the comment closely, as opposed to brief once-over. The last sentence was a separate thought from everything else. But my point is: The reduction in the use of actual wood and the increase of wood byproduct “quality” furniture is for no other reason than corporate greed. Many of the above posts are riddled with excuses for MDF. And yes, this may be an old post… but somehow, here we are today. ;)

  • WoodChip

    Just looked at my lip balm…Phenol 0.4% and is the #3 active ingredient. I have been using this stuff for 30+ years and still kicking!

  • Sharad

    Wood & Plywood are tested and tried materials for years and no known health hazards. Why should I go for MDF unnecessarily? Just to save a few bucks??

  • SDB

    I agree 100%…that is why I have gone to craigslist to buy all of my nice furniture…I get old Drexel, Henredon, etc and simply wait for what I want and spend 1/10th of new. I bought a very nice looking (staring at it now actually) tv stand….advertised as “solid wood, needs assembly”. It does look great, and overa quality is fine. The problem is that is is actually mdf, and the top piece (which feels like it weighs 100 lbs by itself, very thick piece) immediately bowed under the weight of a 50 in plasma TV. THis was for TV’s up to 55 or 60 in I believe. The bowing is so significant that the 4 doors underneath do not open/close correctly. I put a support piece under the bottom but no use…it is bowed allready. It sucks that I spent $400 and an hour putting it together, and was actually impressed with the look of the finished product. Of course using the little doll rods and putting screws into the fiberboard just sucks soooooo bad…you know you get one shot and no way its coming apart and then back together again. I got to this page after looking AGAIN for a solid wood tv stand (which I see are actually abot $1300 plus for a fairly nice ornate solid wood one) and see they advertise SOLID WOOD and in the fine print it says “Materials: glass, wood, mdf).

  • Alan Sloas

    Have you thought about finding a local woodworker to make custom shelves for you? A local custom woodworker could make exactly what you want out of real wood!