Is there a place for MDF in good design?

In quite a few of my projects, the best solution for a client has been to design something bespoke, in terms of furniture, to satisfy precisely their needs in terms of both use and aesthetic. I love designing bespoke furniture, it means I can get really creative coming up with neat little details which I know will not only make the client’s life easier but when friends come around to visit will have the “Oooo, I like that!” factor. Examples of this have been the sliding ladder for bespoke floor to ceiling bookshelves for a bookworm client (see below) and a statement “cocktail making area” with spot lighting and plug socket for various gadgetry within alcove units for a dapper city client who loves to entertain.

The man I have turned to for such flights of fancy has been Ben Fletcher of Spaced In. A local craftsman of impressive ability coupled with fair pricing, a rare combination.

At this juncture I feel I must make clear my love for real, solid wood. It looks beautiful, it smells good and feels wonderful to touch. There’s something delicious about something made out of au naturel solid wood plus it will last and last and last. That being said, Ben makes an interesting case for the use of MDF, especially when creating bespoke furniture. Price and time savings aside, the obvious benefits of course, the key point Ben makes is that when treated correctly by a person who understands how and when to use it, with the correct machinery and understanding of wood in all of it’s forms it can produce surprisingly beautiful results which actually do stand the test of time.

With the trend for painted furniture well and truly in vogue at present it is arguable whether painting over a beautiful piece of solid wood, especially considering how much it probably cost and the inherent beauty you are covering, is, well, perhaps a bit silly… what do you think?

Even MDF has a grain.
By Ben Fletcher

Speed is not inherently a bad thing but MDF has plenty to teach us about how to use it wisely. Badly made MDF furniture that you often see is as a result of this speed without craftsmanship to guide it. When I was an apprentice two of the old boys were Pat and Old Jim. Pat would never apparently move other than to roll incredibly neat roll ups. Jim would be dripping sweat rushing about the bench. At the end of the day Pat’s bench would have a stack of pristine door frames leant against it. Jims would be half as deep and scrappy. Speed is a modern factor but coping with it is a traditional skill.

Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF); to a wood purist it is regarded with contempt. Not wishing to think of my work as contemptible has led to a process of self-justification.

Having worked with a variety of woods for over 20 years, and whilst flattering myself that I can appreciate beautiful figure as well as the next person, I have come to the conclusion that wood hates you. An unromantic theory I grant you but one that seems to be unarguable when you consider all the ways that wood can and will stitch you up given half a chance.

The process of hand making bespoke furniture for individuals forces you, given a desire to earn enough in 40 hours a week and to live reasonably comfortably in London, to use medium density fibreboard (MDF) which as a wood purist you would regard with contempt. Not wishing to think of my work as contemptible has led to a process of self-justification.

The stubborn determination of wood not to play our silly games has come up against our ingenuity and willingness to use limitless violence. So what we’ve done is to take your basic tree, ideally intensively grown and then clear cut to minimise any annoying wildlife, and grind it up in a massive machine into tiny bits. We then mix up the bits with the same amount of urea formaldehyde (toxic but cheap and effective) adhesive in a giant blender before squirting it into a box and crushing it flat with immense force. The resulting sheet gets trimmed to size and added to the pile ready to be used up. However I am trying to claim MDF can be well used rather than just used up. Used by someone who through his tools wants to however tenuously be able to feel a bond with countless brothers firmly based in ancient traditions rather than as if floating in an individual bubble making merely money.

It’s with the trimmed size that I will start trying to reconnect this industrially processed material with the long tradition of craftsmanship in wood. I would like to link this apparently bland and featureless material with the wood from which it came by explaining how it still has a grain to be worked in specific ways. It has to be understood and engaged with on its own terms, if it is to be used well. The fact is that it is possible to use MDF in a knowledgeable way or not – a craftsman like way or not. MDF has its own rules and its own personality. If you are going to use it well you need to have learnt these rules, practiced the techniques and bought the equipment that enable you to bring the best out of it.You also need to have the desire to do so. Whereas timber has a grain like the intertwining of straws, MDF’s grain is like layers of paper (arguably paper begat cardboard which begat hardboard which evolved into MDF so if you don’t like the stuff blame the Egyptians) which makes the face and the edge of MDF very different beasts. When not treated correctly by someone who both knows and cares then the finished product looks amateurish and won’t last.

One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of MDF is that it has no memory. Kind of sad but what it means in practice is that 18mm MDF is no use for adjustable book shelves of any span of more than about a foot. This will be apparent to the unwitting consumer about a month after installation as their shelves take on the shape of a banana. In contrast pine shelves, whilst also deflecting under load are always trying due to the existence of long fibres (straws) running along the length, to get back to the shape they remember being. This fibrous memory is why wood often bends in irritating ways when it is sawn. However it is the faint echo of this tendency for wood to start doing its own thing once it is re-sawn that I can hear sometimes when I’m cutting MDF that’s been in the rack for a while. Yet it cheers me up as it shows that even after all that’s been done to it some of woods obstinacy remains at the heart of MDF, however faint, this echo of memory is another thread connecting it to its roots.

The reason there is a market today for handmade furniture can be credited to the Arts and Crafts movement which arose around 1850 in defiance of the machines increasing dominance. Part of the justification for this Luddite approach to modernity was the romantic socialist desire of some in the arts and crafts movement that skilfully hand made things should be available to people on ordinary incomes in the belief that the existence of such things would uplift the souls of those who made and owned them. Could it be that the existence of a cheap board material along with the affordable power tools required to work it enables this? Whilst I don’t suppose William Morris would have been too keen on MDF as a substance I like to think he would have applauded bringing handmade work and the capital equipment necessary to work it within reach of most people even if what had brought it was the free market.

Owing to its papery nature MDF has a low resistance to moisture. The edges will suck up water like a sponge and swell up whilst delaminating, the face going from smooth to rough as each individual fleck of pine expands. If you don’t take the time to design and finish it properly and combine that with ill-defined mouldings routed out to form clumsily proportioned fake panelled doors then you are in a truly shoddy kitchen. Alternatively if you are looking at the same uneven finish but with pinned on mouldings used to form the ill proportioned fake panels on clumsy boxes beside the fire place then you are in an ugly front room. The box looks clumsy because whilst using MDF makes it quicker to make a box it can’t think through in advance how the doors, framing and top are all going to work together. This lack of initial thought means you end up with skirting that sticks out in odd ways and overhangs that are too small or too big. The fact that the Ogee or Astragal mouldings used to fake up the panels have a lineage traced back to the Ancient Greeks adds insult to the injury. When you add in the pointlessly curved framing at the top unrelated to anything else in the room then you have furniture that will steal a little piece of your soul every time you see it.

But I would like to claim that MDF can be used honestly, if with a not unpleasant whiff of postmodern irony, even with Greek mouldings! If I make the panel at the correct depth and the framing the right width to suit an Ogee moulding deep enough to have some character and surround the doors with subtly detailed flush framing. If this framing is scribed neatly to the walls and the finish encourages you to run your hands over it. If the clients possessions look at home displayed on the well-proportioned shelves that will never bend then they pay me the ultimate compliment ; “It looks like it has always been there”. My individual self has vanished into work that even if stylistically very different stands with that which came before. Every piece of the work has been sufficiently considered and well-practiced to seem inevitable and therefore give no clue to my personality. The marks of tools have all disappeared through their own sharpness or through the orderly process of construction. I can walk away knowing I am an unknown MDF craftsman.