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Paint Finishes on Wood or MDF

I recently had someone contact me with questions about painted cabinets. I have copied over my response to them below and I hope it is useful to others. A little background first, though. 

Painted solid color cabinetry is very popular now. To get a solid color you can either use paint or tinted varnish. What's the difference? In simple terms, any solid color finish is a combination of pigment (color) and solids content (which is the "armor" that protects the color and gives it a sheen). Industrial grade paint is composed of pigment and a high solids content and generally 2 coats are sprayed on with no need for a primer (it is "self-priming). Tinted varnish is mostly all pigment with a low solids content. It requires a solid color primer to seal the surface, then the tinted varnish is sprayed over that and finally 2 to 3 coats of clear varnish are sprayed over that. So, it is less labor intensive to use paint and therefore less expensive. However, the tinted varnish process is much more durable and 2-3 times as thick as a painted finish. You can compare it to the "clear-coat" finish that car companies use nowadays. At The Cabinet Guy LLC we use tinted varnishes which we can make in any color that you can get with paint. 

Paint or tinted varnish can be applied over any cabinet surface. Most manufacturers use hard maple but some use poplar or other "paint-grade" woods. Then there are others who use MDF - medium density fiberboard (in most cases that is what we use for our clients for solid color finishes). 

The question that was posed to me was "Is MDF a good product for cabinet doors compared to wood for a solid color finish?" Here is my response:

"To me using MDF instead of wood for a paint surface can be compared to using metal or wood for your car fenders. Wood would be more expensive than metal in that case but it wouldn't be a better product for the application. When people say that MDF is "cheap" it would be like saying that metal is cheap when compared to wood for fenders just because it is less expensive. But less expensive in cost does not necessarily mean cheap in quality. You would be disappointed in how the wood reacts in a car accident compared to the metal and, likewise, people are often disappointed by how painted wood cabinets perform over time. 

MDF is 50 pound density compared to about 20 pounds for hard maple and 15 pounds for poplar. That means the impact resistance of MDF to the rigors of daily use is much better than wood. Also, in my experience, a door made with MDF will last as long as a wood one and perform just as well. MDF does not shrink and swell with changes in humidity so the likelihood of cracks appearing at the joints is much less (which is very, very likely for wood). MDF is admittedly less expensive, about $1 per square foot for the raw material versus about $3 for hard maple. However, because it is a superior product for this specific application I would never call it cheap. 

It is true that once a varnish is applied over paint it would be more difficult to repaint but the varnish adds years to the durability because it acts like a coat of armor (just like it does over a stain) and you shouldn't need to repaint for a long time. However, if you buy unvarnished painted cabinets you will find that the results of painting over them aren't any better and you would need to repaint them much sooner. The aim is to get a product that holds up so you don't have to repaint. That being said, you will find it difficult to get a varnished solid color finish from most manufacturers since it is too expensive a process for most of them. If you want a varnished paint look you will probably need to find a cabinetmaker who knows how to spray tinted varnish (not paint) and overcoats them with varnish like we do in our shop. 

As to your question about the sheen level and how it relates to quality. Low sheen does not mean less paint or that it is a cheaper product. All finishes come in a variety of sheen levels. Sheen is measured as a percent of light reflectivity compared to a mirror. Low sheens have more pores so they capture more light rather than reflecting it. Dull or flat = 10-15% sheen, satin = 40-50%, semi-gloss = 60-70% and high-gloss = 80-90%. All sheen levels perform pretty much equally. It is simply a matter of aesthetics although high gloss paints tend to clean up easier because they are smoother since they have less pores for dirt to catch in. 

I hope all of this proves helpful. In closing, let me say that six months from now when you are enjoying your new kitchen all of the headaches will be a dim memory so keep your eye on the goal, not the task. :)

15 Comments to Paint Finishes on Wood or MDF:

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New york graffiti on Thursday, January 16, 2014 6:03 PM
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white board paint now on Monday, February 17, 2014 2:48 AM
My buddy and I had been just discussing this particular topic, This is always attempting to prove me incorrect! I am going to present her this particular blog post and rub it in a little!
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Geoff on Wednesday, February 26, 2014 6:59 AM
Thanks for your comments and kudos!


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kathy glaser on Friday, March 07, 2014 6:17 AM
My cabinet company, Hallmark, insists that white painted MDF is more expensive than a stained and dry brushed premium walnut. 20%more almost! They say painting a cabinet is a more expensive finish and the paint finish on the MDF makes it overall more expensive than stained and glazed premium walnut. I'm having a really hard time believing this and I think I'm being taken advantage of??? Any info or comments on this?
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Geoff on Friday, March 07, 2014 8:58 AM
Kathy, Thanks for asking. I don't think you are being taken advantage of. Every company has different ways that they figure their pricing although I haven't seen anyone having this big a difference between walnut doors and painted. Perhaps they don't like doing paint finishes and opt to charge more when they do. Or they may not be doing a good job of tracking their costs and assume that paint products cost more to produce than wood. I can say that painted cabinets are a different beast compared to wood and they do require a little more time to finish. However, in our shop using tinted varnish (not paint) we would charge the same for the two products you mentioned (unless you wanted a custom paint color in which case we charge an additional $150 for the whole job). The processes for applying tinted varnish are the same as standard stain and varnish on wood so that is why we don't charge more. If they are using paint instead of tinted varnish then they would require a separate finishing system which may explain the price differential.T Also, for us the cost per square foot for MDF is about 40% less than walnut and the cost savings we have in the material plus lower waste factors and less machining time allows us to offer either wood or solid color MDF for the same price. One other possibility is that they are using HDF (high density fiberboard) instead of MDF (medium density) which is about 25% more for the material. Many companies who use paint have had to switch to HDF to get a smooth finish on the edges. Keep in mind, that MDF is not a cheap or inferior product compared to wood and is much better product for solid color finishes. The primary advantage is it does not swell and shrink with changes in humidity like wood and so any joints seldom show up over the life of the product.
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ray breton on Thursday, May 15, 2014 8:17 PM
You mentioned industrial grade paint. I assume that it is a solvent based paint. Which products work best. ppg products or other vendors, are they paints that home owners can buy or contractors only? This is very interesting to me and i would love to experiment with mdf. Thank you for your blog this was very informative.


Steve Hayes on Friday, June 06, 2014 1:44 AM
I want to thank you for sharing such a nice information about paint finishes. I think Lacquer and industrial paint should be used on cabinets as it increase the life of cabinets. I have visited your site and found it very nice and creative.
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Andrea Easton on Sunday, February 15, 2015 1:47 AM
Hi, I have searched everywhere for replacement doors for my fitted wardrobe doors (six), (they are only 15 1/2 wide) and the vynil has started to lift on them. I have tried to find someone who could restore them but as the temperature changes quickly where they are sited, it seems that this problem would recur. Is it possible for me to remove the vynil and paint them? if so, what should I use to do this to get a decent finish? I hope someone can help me.
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Gina on Tuesday, July 21, 2015 2:31 PM
I have white painted mdf bathroom cabinets that weren't finished/sealed well and they have been swelling from exposure to water. I want to somehow refinish them. Can I strip them, sand them, prime them, paint and glaze them? Do I really need to totally strip them or could I just sand and repaint then glaze?
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