Melamine and Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) are two of the most popular types of manufactured boards. They are strong, fairly moisture resistant, and highly workable. Moreover, both are affordable and readily available.

But, which one is better? Which one should you pick for your upcoming woodworking project? Read on to find out.

Melamine vs MDF; Which is Better?

Generally, melamine is better than MDF. Both are engineered wood. However, melamine is more like water-resistant particleboard and stronger than MDF. So, melamine is more comparable to natural wood and, therefore, more popular among woodworkers.

Melamine vs MDF: An Overview

Let’s begin with a brief overview of each option better understand the similarities and differences between the two.

What is Melamine?

Original melamine refers to a hard laminate substrate with a melamine base core and melamine coating on both sides. It’s made purely of melamine resin.

However, when you hear about melamine boards, the term usually refers to manufactured board surfaces laminated with a melamine coating.

For instance, MDF boards laminated with melamine are called melamine boards. The same applies to melamine-laminated plywood.

In this case, only the board’s upper (and bottom) surfaces are made from hard melamine plastic, while the core material is made from wood particles.

How Is It Made?

The melamine laminate used for coating melamine boards is made by molding a melamine resin and formaldehyde into a durable plastic sheet in a process known as copolymerization.

If you’re wondering, melamine resin is a white crystalline compound made by heating cyanamide. Meanwhile, formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring compound (it’s a colorless gas) often used in polymerization.

The combination of the two compounds is subjected to specified amounts of pressure per square inch, forming a hard, durable plastic material.

Indeed, melamine is known as a low-pressure laminate (LPL). It’s made at pressures between 300-500 pounds per square inch. High-pressure laminate is known as Formica, made at pressures of up to 1,400+ pounds per square inch.

LPL can be applied to other surfaces, such as MDF, plywood, and particleboard, to form a melamine board.

Characteristics

Melamine boards are easy to differentiate from other types of manufactured boards. Some of the distinguishing features are;

  • It is highly water and heatproof
  • It’s abrasion and scratch-resistant
  • It’s resistant to many chemicals
  • It doesn’t show stains easily
  • It’s flexible and resilient
  • It comes in many colors and finishes

Melamine Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It’s durable
  • Resistant to wear and tea
  • Heat and moisture resistant
  • Provides a consistent grain pattern

Cons

  • Formaldehyde is a carcinogen
  • They warp and bend under heavy load

Melamine Board Uses

  • Kitchen cabinets
  • Dining room tables
  • Kitchen countertops
  • Working surfaces
  • Flooring
  • Whiteboards
  • Office furniture

Melamine vs Wood Veneers

Hopefully, you don’t confuse melamine with wood veneers. Although both are attached over core wood panels to produce flat, more workable surfaces, they aren’t the same.

As we’ve seen, melamine is an artificial product developed by combining melamine resin with formaldehyde to form a hard plastic substrate.

On the other hand, wood veneers are thin slices of natural wood and sometimes tree bark. Most veneers are thinner than 3mm.

What is Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF)?

Medium Density Fiberboard is a natural wood product. It comprises wood fibers glued together using adhesives and bonded under heat and pressure to produce a hard, durable wooden board.

Manufactures make MDF from sawdust and wood shavings from industrial mills. However, some use agricultural byproducts and common wood residues.

The most commonly used adhesive in MDF manufacture is a synthetic resin, specifically urea-formaldehyde. Urea-formaldehyde is made from urea (obtained from ammonia) and formaldehyde.

Other materials present in MDF boards are paraffin wax and a preservative. Parrafin wax, typically added in melted form or dissolved in a mineral spirit, is responsible for MDF’s water resistance.

Meanwhile, preservatives, typically Trichlorophenol or Sodium Pentachlorate, improve the board’s insect and fungus resistance.

How is it Made?

MDF starts as wood shavings, sawdust, and other small bits of natural wood created from wood milling. The manufacturer gathers these materials and uses a large magnet to remove metallic impurities. Then the materials are assorted by size.

From there, the materials are compressed to remove water. Then the dry matter is fed into a refiner for shredding. After shredding, the resin is added to help the fibers bond.

Then the mixture is put into a large drier that uses oil or gas. Then the material is put into large, computer-controlled compressor drums to ensure proper mixture strength and density.

Later, the mixture is sent to a defibrillator that separates the fibers. Then the pulp goes through a “brown line” where wax is added and finally through a “pendistor” where sheet forming happens.

Characteristics

The following unique properties characterize Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF);

  • MDF is strong, stiff, and heavy
  • It lacks natural grain like real wood
  • It has a high internal bond strength
  • It doesn’t swell readily
  • It’s moderately elastic

MDF Pros and Cons

Pros

  • It has a very smooth finish
  • It has fire resistance attributes
  • It’s an economical alternative to natural wood
  • It’s soundproof
  • It’s moisture resistant
  • It’s highly flexible

Cons

  • Some MDF types contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen
  • It’s weaker and less dense than real wood
  • MDF doesn’t hold nails well

MDF Uses

  • Making furniture
  • Flooring
  • Cabinetry and shelving
  • Wainscoting
  • Speaker box wood
  • Doors and door frames

MDF vs High-Density Fiberboard

Some people sometimes confuse medium-density fiberboard and high-density fiberboard (HDF).

While the two are made the same way, with wood fibers and following the same process, high-density fiberboard, as the name suggests, has a higher density than MDF.

Whereas standard MDF has a density of 600 kg/cubic meter, standard HDF has a density of 800 kg/cubic meter.

As a result, HDF is heavier, stronger, and more water-resistant than MDF. It’s also more durable. However, MDF is more affordable and readily available.

Melamine vs MDF: Head to Head

Now, we have a basic understanding of melamine and MDF. So, let’s find out how the two differ and which one comes out on top. We’ll compare them based on eleven critical parameters;

The manufacturing process 

Both melamine and MDF are manufactured wood products. They are made by converting wood milling byproducts into valuable engineered boards, used in a wide range of applications in many industries.

However, the manufacturing processes are slightly different. Melamine boards are made by laminating other engineered boards with a laminate coat under high pressure.

A melamine laminate is a hard, plastic product manufactured by combining melamine resin with formaldehyde. On the other hand, MDF doesn’t include any plastics.

Instead, it’s made by bonding wood fibers with synthetic resin under high heat and pressure to make strong boards.

Main ingredients 

Melamine and MDF share many of the component ingredients. However, the manufacturer of melamine involves a few additional products not present in MDF.

MDF comprises four main components; wood waste/fibers, synthetic resin, paraffin wax, and preservatives. Wood waste (82%) makes up a chunk of the product.

Meanwhile, the other three products help bond the wood waste and improve the quality of the product. On the other hand, melamine includes all the products in MDF, plus a durable plastic material obtained from melamine resin.

Overall strength and durability

You can already guess that melamine is stronger, more durable, and scratch-resistant than MDF, given that melamine is MDF with an extra coat of hard plastic. But by what margin?

Unfortunately, the data is difficult to come by. However, MDF generally has a bending strength of 38-40 MPa, bending stiffness of 3300 to 3800 MPa, and internal bond strength of 0.75 to 1.10 MPa.

Now, imagine that you need to add a thin plastic laminate on top of the MDF to create a melamine board. You’d get a much stronger board. Moreover, some melamine boards are made from plywood that is even stronger and more durable than MDF.

Waterproofness

Melamine and MDF are like day and night when it comes to waterproofness. Whereas melamine is highly waterproof, MDF readily absorbs water (and moisture), becoming wet and damaged.

You might wonder why MDF is not waterproof, yet it contains paraffin wax for waterproofing. The answer is that the way isn’t enough to keep MDF boards waterproof. It helps protect the boards from everyday moisture.

However, it cannot shield MDF from excess moisture or direct water contact. On the other hand, the melamine laminate on top of melamine boards is plastic, thus highly waterproof. You can seal MDF to try make it waterproof.

Problems only begin if the melamine is installed poorly, with gaps leading to the core material.

Workability 

Both melamine and MDF are soft enough to accept nails, screws, and sawing. Also, you can paint MDF and melamine with ease. However, the degree to which each surface can be worked or finished varies.

Melamine accepts nails and screws readily, as does MDF. However, MDF doesn’t hold onto nails as well as melamine. Screws can also damage the material, resulting in a weak hold.

The differences are also obvious during finishing. Although you can sand melamine (slightly), sanding MDF is a no-no. However, MDF takes paints better than melamine.

Flexibility

The flexibility of wood refers to its bending abilities. Can you bend the wood without breaking it? If so, how far can you bend it?

Here, melamine wins hands down. Although it’s not the most flexible material, you can bend melamine to a small degree without cracking the board. The thinner the melamine board, the further it can bend.

Unfortunately, you can’t say the same about MDF. Any slight attempt to bend MDF usually results in cracking and breaking.

Sustainability

Both melamine and MDF are sustainable. As we’ve seen, both are made from solid wood waste. So, they provide an excellent way to repurpose waste wood.

However, MDF is more environmentally friendly and more sustainable. The main reason is that MDF is 82% wood fibers and 8% water. That makes it 90% safe, natural, and recyclable.

Melamine isn’t too bad either. However, the plastic laminate isn’t as environment-friendly and energy-efficient as solid wood and water.

Uses

Melamine and MDF applications overlap because the two are derived from the same raw materials (wood chips).

Melamine is often used in kitchen cabinetry as it’s durable and waterproof. Melamine cabinets are also easy to clean/wipe. However, it also has applications in shelving, display counters, office furniture, whiteboards, and even flooring.

On the other hand, MDF is most commonly used in solid wood furniture. However, many woodworkers also use it in cabinetry, shelving, flooring, wainscotting, speaker boxes, and decorative projects.

Cost

Finally, melamine boards are more expensive than MDF boards. Both are more economical than solid wood. However, MDF is more affordable.

You can acquire standard-size melamine boards for as little as $3.99 per piece wholesale. Even the most expensive pieces cost around $12/piece, and these are thicker, stronger boards for construction applications.

Meanwhile, melamine sheets cost from $8 per sheet on Amazon, with many brands charging $12+ per piece. Of course, it also depends on the core material. MDF melamine costs up to $18/piece.

Standout Features

In a nutshell, melamine and MDF are only slightly different. They are both engineered wood products made from wood waste. The wood waste products are selected, bonded with resin, and compressed under heat and pressure.

The only difference is that melamine boards have an extra layer of laminate made from melamine resin that gives the board greater strength and makes them more heat, chemical, and water-resistant.

What’s the Difference Between MDF and Particle Board?

The main difference between MDF and particleboard is that MDF has a smoother surface while particle board has a rougher surface.

Why? Because MDF is made from fine wood fibers of the same size, whereas particle board is made from wood shavings and wood chips of varying sizes. Additionally, MDF is denser than particle board.

FAQs

Is melamine good for cabinets?

Yes, melamine is one of the most durable cabinetry materials today. Using melamine sheets for cabinets makes your cabinets stronger, more flexible, and more water-resistant. Additionally, melamine cabinets are easy to clean and maintain.

Melamine vs Plywood cabinets? Which one is better?

Generally, plywood cabinets are better. Although melamine is also an excellent choice for cabinetry, plywood is stronger and takes nails and screws better, resulting in sturdier cabinets. Hardwood plywood also lasts longer.

Verdict

Melamine boards are superior to medium density fiberboards (MDF). They’re stronger, more durable, and more water-resistant. Melamine is also easier to clean. However, MDF is more affordable and more versatile.

  • When to Use Melamine: We mainly recommend melamine boards for kitchen cabinets and bathroom cabinetry. However, it’s also excellent for working surfaces and office furniture.
  • When to Use MDF: We recommend MDF boards for furniture making and general cabinetry. It’s also an excellent material for building doors and door frames, and speaker boxes.

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