Painted MDF kitchen cabinets: Another great choice for a retro renovation


maribeth-in-her-70s-ranchMaribeth’s kitchen points to another excellent idea for retro styled kitchen cabinets: Have your kitchen cabinets built out of MDF, then paint them.

I’ve actually mentioned this idea before, and it’s listed as a way to go with bathroom vanities, but I’ve never done a full blown post about it for everyone considering kitchen cabinets.

laundry cabinets

All about painted MDF kitchen cabinets:

  • Resists moisture: MDF is the acronym for Medium Density Fiberboard. I think that means wood particles and glue all melded together really solidly. Don’t be put off. The stuff is heavier than wood, and the beauty part in particular, is that it resists moisture. I have MDF cabinets in my bathroom for that reason. UPDATE: See Robert’s comment below with more thoughts on this material. Do your own research to make the choice that is right for you…
  • You can paint MDF slab doors: You can paint MDF slab doors — but you cannot paint all-wood slab doors. Real wood, when it is pieced together, expands and contracts when exposed to moisture or humidity. The paint chips/cracks along the joints. MDF, on the other hand, is manufactured in big pieces, 4’x8′ pieces, if I’m not mistaken, so it can be cut to size — even pantry doors — then painted any color. I’m telling you, you will not know it’s not wood.
  • Versatile: As you can see from Maribeth’s photos, a slab style door is very vintage, yet also very classic — you can dress it up either way.
  • Specs for an authentic retro door: Vintage steel kitchen cabinets all have slab doors with what is called a “radius” edge, and the doors are installed as “full overlay” — that is, you don’t see any of the cabinetry behind the doors or drawers. This set up – full overlay – also gives you the biggest drawers.
  • Virgin adhesion: There’s more: You can paint these guys any color, and since you’re going straight onto a virgin MDF surface, you should get great adhesion.
  • Retro and custom touches: Under the sink cabinet, carve those horizontal ventilation slats… paint your cabinets a glossy color…and install retro or vintage pulls…
    A good cabinetmaker can replicate these ventilation slats in MDF
    A good cabinetmaker can replicate these ventilation slats in MDF

    and people won’t know they aren’t metal. Add a cookbook shelf. Build in a desk. If you get the right cabinetmaker, he or she can craft these things. It’s flat wood – you can do anything. Scour all my vintage galleries and posts for ideas.

  • Affordable: As Maribeth points out, these cabinets can be built very affordably. She had her entire kitchen and laundry room done for $6,000, including painting. And she has A LOT of cabinets. But note, before I found my metal cabinets, I had my kitchen also specked out for MDF cabinets. I bet I had as many cabinets as Maribeth, and the store wanted $14,000, and painting was not included. So, shop around, recognizing of course, that getting a quality, reliable craftsmen is another story altogether…
  • Be conscious of cabinet construction, too: The construction of the cabinets (what you don’t see) also matters. When we were shopping, I bought an online subscription to Consumer Reports to get their tips.  Tips I still remember are: Dovetailed drawers. Slides and glides matter. And so does the thickness of the “box”.  Thicker plywood is better. As Maribeth pointed out, she originally was just going to repaint her old cabinets. But when they took off the countertop, the boxes were in such bad shape, they were not worth saving. That was the state of my 70s cabinets, too. The boxes were, like, one step above cardboard…the doors were basically falling off them within 30 years. Even if you don’t think you are going to be in your house 30 years, I think it is wise to save up and pay for better constructed boxes up front. It’s probably better for the environment and for your house karma, too.

  1. Natschultz says:

    Hi, I was wondering who said MDF is moisture resistant? MDF actually DISSOLVES in water! It is simply sawdust bonded with a resin glue. I have only used it once for the back of a solid wood bookcase, and the scraps I left outside turned into a sawdust pile after it rained! I have heard that there is special “moisture resistant” MDF, but the ordinary stuff you get at Home Depot definitely is not! MDF is super cheap – $14,000 is outrageous for MDF caninets.

    Neither high-quality plywood or solid wood should not be a problem with paint as long as a high quality primer is used. Zinsser 1-2-3 for latex or the Fast Dry oil primer for oil paint or on any unfinished wood (with 1-2-3 after). If you buy cabinets to paint them get maple or poplar for the doors because they have the least raised grain. But poplar is soft so it can get nicks and dings in it.

    To the person with peeling veneer – these are cheap cabinets and painting will not help – the veneer will continue to peel off and painting will only make the problem worse because the moisture will loosen the adhesive even more.

    MDF is very heavy, but easy to machine, but I only use solid wood and furniture grade plywood. Carving decorative vents into plywood will not work very well, so either a solid wood piece would have to be used or MDF. The difference between MDF and partical board it that MDF can be painted, but particle board must have a veneer applied (thermofoil or wood) because it is textured.

    Most manufacturers probably won’t dovetail MDF because it is usually the chapest line and not worth the extra labor. It could also be that the glue used to hold the joints together will not last, but that is just a guess. Dovetail drawer boxes are made of solid wood (not plywood).

    1. pam kueber says:

      Thanks for your input, Natschultz, I advise readers to consult with their cabinet makers about all of these solutions. The MDF doors on my bathroom cabinets are fantastic. As you suggest, the box is plywood. I think that is a pretty standard approach — but again, talk to your cabinet makers and do your own homework to make sure that the solution is right for you. I also advise: Get a solution to Consumer Reports. They also tend to have well-researched, commercially-neutral advice helpful to homeowners researching solutions.

    2. B says:

      Thank you for pointing the moisture issue out. MDF is a versatile material and certainly is a great option in some situations – I myself just purchased an entire kitchens worth of MDF cabinets.

      However, I think we should be careful in describing moisture effects with MDF. MDF could perhaps be seen as moisture resistant in the sense that it absorbs water slower than wood. It also responds to expansion/contraction due to relative humidity much more uniformly than wood might.

      But. as pointed out above, MDF cannot tolerate saturation with water. If the cabinet has any opportunity to get wet consistently, MDF is a very bad choice. The wood particles swell dramatically, the resins do not and the end result is complete delamination. Good friends of mine just spent $25k on a full kitchen remodel in 2013 (not just cabinets – structural, electrical, etc.) and the cabinet directly below their sink is already ruined due to drops of moisture running down around the edge of the farm sink due to normal use. The sink is installed correctly – this is is just due to splashes over the front lip of the sink. In this case the MDF lasted about 10 months whereas solid wood would have lasted indefinitely. Solid wood certainly would have swelled, and perhaps cracked some paint in the process but would remain structurally in tact.

      Moisture and it’s effect on materials – wood products especially – can be very complex and situation dependent. I’m just typing this to make sure that readers don’t make the mistake of thinking that MDF is somehow “better” at handling moisture than solid wood since it’s not that simple and it is often in practice much much worse. I prefer materials that last practically forever, and predictably, at the expense of some minor paint cracking but I’m also not able to buy such materials so…. MDF it is for now.

      1. pam kueber says:

        One more thing I will add: We have large vanities in two bathrooms, both made of MDF, both painted. They are by Cabico. After 10 years+, not one single issue. We are not splashing water on them at all — we are tidy people in that sense.

        A kitchen sink base — that might be the cabinet that takes the most abuse in the entire house, agreed.

  2. mj shenk says:

    I happened onto this site by accident, and I love it! I just wanted to add my .02 about MDF. When we moved into our 1961 FL ranch in ’99, the firs thing that had to go were the badly warped and cracked kitchen cabinet doors. They had been cut from some thin plywood and painted, and they were so warped they had actually become crooked where they were hanging. My contractor FIL suggested using 3/4″ MDF instead of plywood (we had no clue what would be best to use and needed to do it ourselves). The MDF was easy to work with (my husband is a metal worker by trade, but had no problems with cutting the doors), very solid, and took paint nicely. I did prime first, is that really needed with MDF? I lightly sanded the edges where they were cut, so they looked a bit fuzzy on those edges before they were painted, but after painting they looked fine, and those edges are on the bottom anyway. FIL said we could use those edging strips they use on melamine for a slicker edge, but I’ve seen those strips peeling off things, so I didn’t want to use them. The doors have been up for about 10 years now, and they’re just as solid as they were when we first put them up. No warping, cracking, peeling. I used a good Porter cabinet paint, so they’re very washable.

    The only thing I would warn about with MDF is that (at least the 3/4″ we used) is pretty darn heavy. We used heavy duty cabinet hinges, and have had no problems at all.

  3. Dave says:

    I have experience using MDF to replicate art deco details on vintage woodworking machinery. It’s a very versatile material but painting it can be tricky if you want professional looking results. Some tips are highlighted on the fine woodworking web site: http://www.finewoodworking.com/Materials/MaterialsArticle.aspx?id=26508

    Be warned, there can be much confusion regarding MDF. Not all glues bond to MDF properly and screws specifically recommended for MDF are required for longevity. It is highly unlikely you will get anyone to use dovetail joinery (mentioned above) with MDF.

    Some contractors will use the words “medium density fiberboard’ but then use particleboard assuming it is the same thing or, worse, that you won’t know the difference. There are different grades of MDF but particleboard is NOT one of them.

    Have fun!

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