If you’re thinking of starting a bathroom remodeling project, sooner or later you’re going to need to decide between MDF or solid hardwood cabinets in the bathroom. MDF has earned a pretty bad reputation for itself by many woodworkers and furniture purists over time. You may be surprised to find out that MDF is actually not a terrible material for bathroom vanities, though solid hardwood and birch veneers are a superior option. I’ll explain below.
So, should you opt for MDF or Wood vanities in your Bathroom? The decision depends on what’s more important to you. Each has advantages and minor disadvantages but they are both fine for use in the bathroom.
What is MDF Wood?
MDF or Medium-Density Fiberboard is an engineered wood made from composite wood pieces and fibers, which are held together with either a wax or resin adhesive. A thin decorative veneer layer is then stretched around the composite plank of wood. MDF is denser than plywood, and is used all over the furnishing industry. It is NOT to be confused with plywood.
MDF is one of the most economical materials in cabinet construction, and that’s its true benefit. In the past, its durability came into question especially when placed in humid bathroom conditions. But when finished properly, MDF can be used in the bathroom with few if any problems. That’s the rub, though: MDF is a comparatively inconsistent material, due to variance in the fiber sizes and qualities of the many different woods used to make the material, and so it’s hard to determine how “well finished” an individual board may be.
MDF is commonly found in cheaper vanity cabinets, and although it is usually fine, it’s not the best choice for your bathroom. It’s best to keep your MDF cabinets in the kitchen and other drier environments.
Solid Wood Bathroom Vanities
“Solid wood” is a blanket term that encompasses two very different styles of wood: there is standard solid wood (all natural real wood), and “solid hardwood.” Solid hardwood is perhaps the most durable and sturdy wood material for bathroom cabinets, and is made from woods like oak, cherry, and maple. Planks of natural solid wood (“real wood” like you’d find in the lumber section of a hardware store) tend to shrink and expand as humidity changes, which can cause cracks in the painted or veneered finish of your cabinets, and in extreme cases, this morphing may lead to warping. So “natural solid wood” is best left in drier environments, as with MDF.
“Solid hardwood” is a totally different material from natural wood. It is a sort of manufactured wood that uses pure fine wood pulp from a single oak or maple source, which allows the wood to bend and expand with humidity fluctuations, but will always revert to its original shape, which means no cracking or warping. This is by far the best material to use for bathroom furniture, and for this reason, most of the vanities we carry are built with it. On any given product page, look for “The Solid Hardwood Advantage” in the product details to ensure you are getting the highest quality materials for your money.
MDF or Wood Bathroom Vanities
Durability in Humid Conditions
Humidity plays a large role in the decision to use MDF or Solid hardwood in your bathroom. According to the NAHB, bathroom cabinets can last a lifetime if properly cared for. Read the full report here.
MDF cabinets don’t expand and contract as much as real wood, but they can be damaged by moisture if water is allowed to penetrate the surface of MDF. This would result in some serious swelling in your vanity. With proper ventilation and perfect sealing of the material, MDF can be used in the bathroom without any problem. As an added precaution, you can seal the backs and edges around MDF cabinets with oil-based sealer and a few coats of poly sealer. This should prevent warping and shrinking, and is a recommended step to take if you buy an MDF vanity.
Real wood is porous in nature so it will absorb water molecules in the air. This is what causes vanities to warp over time. Because of its unique finish, MDF can prove to be a better material in the bathroom so long as it has a quality finish. If you can, try to stay away from cheap and poorly-made MDF vanities as those will bring you headaches in the future.
Solid hardwood (manufactured wood) is designed, like MDF, to handle humidity-based expansion and contraction without cracking and bending. However, while MDF swells when introduced to water, Solid Hardwood is so finely and consistently granulated that swelling won’t occur at all – even if it’s not perfectly sealed. The wood is designed to thrive in humid environments. The downside is that this material doesn’t do so well in extremely dry environments – in other words, it’s the perfect material for bathroom vanities, but not great for kitchens and other, drier rooms.
Tips to Control Humidity in the Bathroom
Humidity and moisture are a big deal in the bathroom. To learn more about proper ventilation, you can check out some of these posts I’ve written:
1. Does a Bathroom Extractor Fan Have to Run to the Outside?
2. Panasonics’ Third Generation Whisper Green Ventilation Fan
3. How to Get Rid of Shower Mold