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Medium-density fibreboard (MDF) is an engineered wood product formed by breaking down hardwood or softwood residuals into wood fibres, often in a defibrator, combining it with wax and a resin binder, and forming panels by applying high temperature and pressure. MDF is generally denser than plywood. It is made up of separated fibres, but can be used as a building material similar in application to plywood. It is stronger and much denser than particle board.
Over time, the word "MDF" has become a generic name for any dry process fiber board. MDF density is typically between 500 kg/m3 (31 lbs/ft3) and 1000 kg/m3 (62 lbs/ft3). The range of density and classification as Light or Standard or High density board is a misnomer and confusing. Density of board when evaluated in relation to density of the fiber that goes into making of the panel is important. A thick MDF panel at 700-720 density in case of softwood fiber panels may be considered as high density whereas a panel of same density when made of hard wood fibers is not so. The evolution of various types of different MDF was driven by the differing needs of specific applications.
There are different kinds of MDF, which are sometimes labeled by colour:
- Moisture resistant is typically green
- Fire retardant MDF is typically red or blue
Although similar manufacturing processes are used in making all types of fiberboard, MDF has a typical density of 600-800 kg/m³ or .022-.029 lbs/in3, in contrast to particle board (160-450 kg/m³) and to high-density fiberboard (600-1450 kg/m³).
Another addition to the MDF range is a product named FX-Platform, produced by Norbord. It is a softwood plywood core, laminated on both sides with MDF, giving it working properties containing the advantages of both plywood and MDF. This product has met the acceptance criteria for compliance with the ANSI/HPVA HP-1-2004 Section 3.12 Formaldehyde Emission Requirements for industrial panels.
The trees are debarked after being cut. The bark can be sold for use in landscaping, or burned in on-site furnaces. The debarked logs are sent to the MDF plant where they go through the chipping process. A typical disk chipper contains 4-16 blades. Any resulting chips that are too large may be re-chipped; undersized chips may be used as fuel. The chips are then washed and checked for defects.
The chips are then compacted using a screw feeder, and will be heated for 30-120 seconds to soften the wood; they are then fed into a defibrator which maintains high pressure and temperature. The pulp that exits from the defibrator is fine, fluffy, and light in weight and in colour.
From the defibrator the pulp enters a blowline where it is joined with wax (to improve moisture resistance) and resin (to stop the pulp from forming bundles). The material expands in size and is then heated by heating coils. When it comes out it may be stored in bins for an indefinite length of time.
After this drying period the board goes through a "Pendistor" process which creates 230-610 mm thick boards. Then it is cut and continues to the press. Here it is pressed for a few minutes, to make a stronger and denser board.
After pressing, MDF is cooled in a star dryer, trimmed and sanded. In certain applications, boards are also laminated for extra strength.
The Environmental Impact of MDF has greatly improved over the years. Today many MDF boards are made from a variety of materials. These include other woods, scrap, recycled paper, bamboo, carbon fibers and polymers, steel, glass, forest thinning and sawmill off-cuts.
As manufacturers are being pressured to come up with greener products, they have started testing and using non-toxic binders. New raw materials are being introduced. Straw and bamboo are becoming popular fibers because they are a fast growing renewable resource.
Comparison to natural woods
MDF does not contain knots or rings, making it more uniform than natural woods during cutting and in service. However, MDF is not entirely isotropic, since the fibres are pressed tightly together through the sheet. Like natural wood, MDF may split when woodscrews are installed without pilot holes, and MDF may be glued, doweled or laminated, but smooth-shank nails do not hold well. Typical fasteners are T-nuts and pan-head machine screws. Fine-pitch screws do not hold well in MDF and screw retention in the edge is particularly poor. Special screws are available with a coarse thread pitch but sheet-metal screws also work well. Typical MDF has a hard, flat, smooth surface that makes it ideal for veneering, as there is no underlying grain to telegraph through the thin veneer as with plywood. A so-called "Premium" MDF is available that features more uniform density throughout the thickness of the panel.
Benefits of MDF
- Is an excellent substrate for veneers.
- Some varieties are less expensive than many natural woods
- Isotropic (its properties are the same in all directions as a result of no grain), so no tendency to split
- Consistent in strength and size
- Flexible. Can be used for curved walls or surfaces.
- Shapes well.
Drawbacks of MDF
- Denser than plywood or chipboard (the resins are heavy)
- Swells and breaks when saturated with water
- May warp or expand if not sealed
- Contains urea-formaldehyde which is a probable carcinogen and may cause allergy, eye and lung irritation when cutting and sanding
- Dulls blades more quickly than many woods
- Though it does not have a grain in the plane of the board, it does have one into the board. Screwing into the edge of a board will generally cause it to split in a fashion similar to delaminating.
- Subject to significant shrinkage in low humidity environments.
- Trim (i.e. baseboards) comes pre-primed but this is insufficient for fine finish painting. Painting with latex paints is difficult due to rapid water absorption. Most finishes appear uneven and nail holes tend to pucker somewhat.
MDF is often used in school projects because of its flexibility. It is also often used in loudspeaker enclosures, due to its increased weight and rigidity over normal plywood. Slatwall Panels made from MDF are used in the shop fitting industry.
When MDF is cut a large quantity of dust particles are released into the air. It is important that a respirator be worn and the material be cut in a controlled and ventilated environment. It is a good practice to seal the exposed edges to limit the emissions from the binders contained in this material.
Formaldehyde resins are commonly used to bind the fibers in MDF together, and testing has consistently revealed that MDF products emit free formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds that pose health risks at concentrations considered unsafe, for at least several months after manufacture. Urea-formaldehyde is always being slowly released from the edges and surface of MDF. When painting, it is a good idea to coat all sides of the finished piece in order to seal in the free formaldehyde. Wax and oil finishes may be used as finishes but they are less effective at sealing in the free formaldehyde.
Whether these constant emissions of formaldehyde reach harmful levels in real-world environments is not yet fully determined. The primary concern is for the industries using formaldehyde. As far back as 1987 the U.S. EPA classified it as a "probable human carcinogen" and after more studies the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), in 1995, also classified it as a "probable human carcinogen". Further information and evaluation of all known data led the IARC to reclassify formaldehyde as a "known human carcinogen" associated with nasal sinus cancer and nasopharyngeal cancer, and possibly with leukaemia in June 2004.
Veneered MDF provides many of the advantages of MDF with a decorative wood veneer surface layer. In modern construction, spurred by the high costs of hardwoods, manufacturers have been adopting this approach to achieve a high quality finishing wrap covering over a standard MDF board. One common type of veneered MDF uses oak veneer. Making veneered MDF is a complex procedure which involves taking an extremely thin slice of hardwood (approx 1-2mm thick) and then through high pressure and stretching methods wrapping them around the profiled MDF boards. This is only possible with very simple profiles because otherwise when the thin wood layer has dried out, it will break at the point of bends and angles.
- Spence, 2005, p. 114
- United Nations (2005). European forest sector outlook study: 1960/2000/2020, main report. New York [u.a.]: United Nations. p. 32. ISBN 9211169216.
- ANSI A208.2 MDF for Interior Applications. Gaithersburg, MD: Composite Panel Association. 2002. p. 3.
- Medium Density Fibreboard
- MDF Board FAQ - Tutorial
- Sources of formaldehyde, other aldehydes and terpenes in a new manufactured house - Hodgson - 2002 - Indoor Air - Wiley Online Library
- "IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans Volume 88 (2006) Formaldehyde, 2-Butoxyethanol and 1-tert-Butoxypropan-2-ol". WHO Press. 2006.
- "Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk".
- http://skirtingboard.co.uk/pages/history-of-mdf/#Oak Veneered MDF
- ASTM D5651 - 95a(2008) Standard Test Method for Surface Bond Strength of Wood-Base Fiber and Particle Panel Materials
- Lignocellulosic Composites
- Medium Density Fibreboard by Design Technology Department
- Spence, William P. (2005). The Home Carpenters & Woodworker's Repair Manual. New York: Sterling. ISBN 1-4027-1055-0
|Look up MDF in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Composite Panel Association: MDF
- European Panel Federation: MDF
- Pro Woodworking Tips.com
- A video podcast from podcastschool.net
- Wood Dust - dangers of exposure to wood dust, including MDF dust (from the Worker's Health Centre)
-  Eximcorp India Pvt Ltd
- Formaldehyde An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality: Formaldehyde
- The Medium Density Fiberboard Home Page (although not updated or maintained, still a valuable reference)
- Green Panelmax MDF Board