Building a Future for Distributors and Dealers of Building Products

Volume 44,  Issue 7                                        September  2005


Market Demands Flexibility:  How MDF is Changing the Industry

by Brigid O'Leary

Barry French was very reluctant to jump on the MDF bandwagon. The owner of Acadian Millwork and Supply Co., in Mandeville, La., is faithful to wood. Despite his preference for the natural building material, French readily admits that MDF has some advantages.

“Our customers are wood guys. We’re wood guys. We’ve always been wood guys ... but MDF, in many ways, is practically perfect,” French said.

Medium-density fiberboard, or MDF as it is known, is a composite board made by the heating and pressurizing of wood fibers with wax and adhesives. It has been available to the building industry for 25 years, though its popularity has grown exponentially only since the turn of the 21st century. 

For builders such as Jason Peck, proprietor of Arts & Craftsmen, a historical and residential remodeling company, MDF has become the material of choice.

“I’ve been working with it for probably eight years, but a lot more trusted usage in the last four,” he said. “There was a lot of apprehension to using the product at first, but now I enjoy using MDF.” 

In Demand
Though Acadian distributes MDF, the company manufactures architectural woodwork as well as pre-hung doors and millwork. 

“We’ve been distributing MDF for probably five years,” French said. “We resisted it as long as possible. We tried to hold off as long as possible and what made us change is that we saw it out in the marketplace and our customers were bringing in samples saying, ‘We see they’re using it in Atlanta, in Houston. Can you get it?’”

French may have held out as long as possible before picking up MDF, but he’s far from the only one to make the choice to carry it based on rising consumer demand.

“At the time we started carrying it, it was in response to a small amount of demand we were experiencing. We really weren’t selling as much as we are now,” said Jay Mashburn, outside sales rep. for Covington, Ga.-based distributor Clem Forest Products, which has been carrying MDF for nearly seven years. 

“Our volume increase from year zero to year three—it was basically the same amount of volume generated and it wasn’t a large amount. In the last four years we’ve increased it 750 percent or so, and 500 percent of that increase has been in the last 18 months or so,” he said.

Buddy Waite, branch manager of McEwan Lumber in Mobile, Ala., also saw the tide changing, picking up a line of MDF in 2002.

“We saw the product was growing in popularity. We saw the value of the product in being able to offer larger profiles, which are more and more popular in homes these days for a better cost than traditional wooden moulding,” Waite explained.

For Kip McCleary, operations manager with El & El Wood Products in Chino, Calif., the decision to start carrying MDF was made more to keep the company on the cutting edge than to keep up with demand.

“We went to the National Sash & Door Jobbers Association (NSDJA) in Boston in ‘95 and a company from Canada had come up with some very nice MDF. They figured out a double refined process that made it mill very beautifully. No one had done that before.

They had some very nice architectural patterns and we just wanted to expand the horizon of possibilities for our clients,” he said.

No matter how long they’ve been dealing in MDF, the ensuing popularity growth spurt has happened so quickly that it is almost hard to comprehend.

“It’s growing by leaps and bounds. What we started off with five years ago was a very small percentage of customers using MDF; today the majority of customers are using MDF in place of finger-jointed wood. That figure is probably 95 percent these days,” French said.

McCleary concurs.

Popularity Rules
Why is MDF so popular? In part, because it’s not wood. That said, MDF offers certain advantages as compared to wood. For one thing it’s less expensive than the real thing.

“Where a budget might not allow an 8-inch crown moulding out of wood in a home, our customers can offer an 8-inch crown mould of MDF and still remain within budget. With a large moulding, the cost of it being made out of wood is just prohibitive for some of the medium-range homes,” said Waite.

And you can never underestimate the power of price.

“Cost is always a factor when we build. If we purchase material that is more cost effective and get the same look, [customers] will want to go with the less expensive product, no matter how rich they are. They feel they’re getting more bang for their buck,” said Vince Flores, a builder with Cal-Louis Construction in Orange County, Calif., who works on homes from Newport Beach to Lido Highland, and has been using MDF for almost 12 years.

MDF also works differently than wood when it comes to finishing.

“It paints better than a wooden moulding. It just makes a higher sheen to the product. The finished room looks better with the higher finish that an MDF allows,” said Waite.

It can also come pre-burned and pre-primed.

“A lot of the time you can purchase MDF pre-primed a lot less expensively than you can raw finger joint. As far as I’m concerned, its ‘workability’ is a lot better; it’s a lot easier to trim by hand if you need to do some minor adjustments—sometimes you can do it with your utility knife, it’s that soft,” said Mashburn. 

That finishing aspect is of importance to builders such as Flores.

“It’s practical for the applications I’m using it in. I do a lot of finish work and I use quite a bit of the sheet goods and I use it in moulding products. It’s very cost effective, very stable and has good uniformity—I get a desirable finish that’s usually smooth and defect free,” said Flores.

Peck relies on MDF for a variety of reasons.

“It has a lot of good stability, value and paintability. It’s also a good environmental tool, using engineered material is a good thing to do for the environment,” he said, adding that he uses MDF for most of his work unless the homeowner has a particular aversion to it.

Well, Maybe Not Perfect
Providing a smooth and defect-finish and look lends to the product’s mystique of being “practically perfect.” 

“It’s a good product and it has evolved since it came out in the market. It has eliminated some of the problems we have with wood products,’” said French. “Whether it’s a piece of crown moulding, or whatever, it’s literally perfect. No raised grain, no joints, it makes a very nice clean product and if anything, the knock would be is that it’s too good, too clean.”

A product that is “too clean” and “too good” does not come along every day, but it also doesn’t mean that the product doesn’t have its disadvantages, either.

“There is a disadvantage when it comes to dust,” said Flores. “I have had customers who don’t like the dust. When you’re working in the field, you don’t have the dust collection systems you might have in the shop and you might have a light wind that will carry the dust everywhere and that can be a problem. Sometimes I will spend the money to use a pine product or other products that might create dust but aren’t as messy and will clean up better.” 

While dust can be problematic, so can the limberness of the material. 

“The disadvantage is weight, compared to its stiffness. It is a more limber product, so I know a lot of the older guys who are more used to hanging crowns by themselves have found that a lot of times the wider the crown, the heavier the piece, they may need more help to hang it; it’s not as easy to hang MDF by oneself.”

It may not just be the width of the crown; the limberness of the product can be exacerbated by the length of a piece of MDF.

“The biggest difference is handling ... it’s a little more involved with handling the long lengths. It’s more limber than a wood piece. MDF is so flexible—you pick up a piece in the middle and both ends could be touching the floor. Putting up a crown moulding on the ceiling, it’s not something a carpenter could do by himself. A wood material could be done by one guy if he happens to be putting it up by himself,” said French.

Across the board, the softness of MDF means it is also more susceptible to damage during shipping, handling and even storage.

“I think some of the retail yards have had to reconfigure their storage on it,” said Mashburn. “It doesn’t store the same way finger-joint moulding does. MDF can start leaning over from the top and a lot of people who have gone into MDF have had to reconfigure their storage.”

It was one of Mashburn’s clients who made him first aware of this adaptation. French, however, found out first hand. 

“Storage is a little different for us; that was part of the learning curve and resistance for us.

Finger-jointed pieces we used to store in the upright position, but MDF being more limber, you can’t do that. We have to store it horizontally and we had to reconfigure part of the warehouse to accommodate that. Even handling with forklifts and such is different than with a wood product.”

Home-Grown Awareness
MDF may be the hottest thing in the building industry right now, but it didn’t get to that status overnight. Many distributors found themselves having to battle the building community’s mindset.

“There was some hesitancy at first. We’re all creatures of habit and wood moulding had been the norm for years, but as more and more homebuilders change over and it becomes more commonplace, we see more builders overcoming those fears. They’ve seen it in the marketplace and how it performs,” said Waite.

Seeing is believing for many in the industry, and while in some of the bigger cities, such as Atlanta and Houston, the MDF trend came on quickly and grew steadily, it took a little longer for other areas to follow suit, even within the same state.

“When I personally got involved with it in south Georgia ... they were only familiar with the heavy stuff, which gave problems with nailing, puckering and really turned some people off,” said Mashburn. With lighter versions of MDF available, Mashburn focuses on getting people to give it another try and getting them used to working with it. However, the market has helped in that aspect.

“The rise of the finger-joint moulding market has really gone through the roof and MDF is really more attractive with the price aspect. People who couldn’t get a hold of finger-joint moulding were forced to try MDF,” he said.

For French, who was rather wary of the new product to begin with, the hesitancy of those in his market neither surprised nor worried him.

“Our market—the greater New Orleans area—is one of the last to do anything,” he said.

“We hear about something happening around the country and we’re usually the last to institute anything. It was the same with MDF. It was being used heavily in Houston or Atlanta long before we ever saw it. We had people bring samples to us and ask if we could get it and then we had to get on the phone and make calls to see if we could. We don’t want to be on the forefront to try something new, in case it doesn’t work...but that’s gone now. Everyone knows about MDF and there are still people who won’t use it, who don’t like it and they’ll never change. But there are those who love it.” 

Runaway Train
Now that MDF is part of the builder lexicon and a mainstay within the industry, where does it go from here? Will we ever see total market saturation? Popular opinion seems to be that MDF will dominate the market in many ways.

“I think it’s a product that has come along with the evolution of construction. The construction industry is changing so much, it’s something that’s useful and cost effective and practical. Being that the industry is constantly changing, you have to stay abreast of the different products,” said Flores, who added that he uses plastics as well as wood, choosing which products he uses carefully and according to the project.

That’s not to say that the industry as a whole has embraced MDF. There are still those who won’t use it for various reasons, because they are unfamiliar with it.

“With MDF there’s always concern for its reliability in withstanding moisture. I think that’s where the inherent hesitancy comes with homebuilders and contractors in terms of building material dealers,” Waite observed.

He’s not alone. For Mashburn, the coastal areas of Georgia have been particularly challenging.

“There is still some resistance to it, especially in the coastal markets. The further south you go ... they’re concerned they will have issues with swelling and that sort of thing. But that’s more of a myth, an idea held by people who aren’t familiar with it feel it’s safer to stay where they are,” he said.

Flores is a coastal builder, albeit on the opposite coast. While he uses MDF with few problems, he does advise others to make sure they know the limitations of the product they are going to use before they get into a tight spot with it.

“MDF is not always for exterior use ... You have to be really careful and get the correct disclosure information to make sure you’re using the product in the right application,” he said. 

For Peck, whose business is located in Portland, Ore., he also has to be concerned with moisture, though in many of his jobs, the exposure to water is more man-made than environmental.

“In the wet areas, you have to be diligent about what exposure [the MDF] will have to water and in questionable areas, I make sure we have preprimed material. I haven’t had any callbacks or warranty issues with swelling or anything in the history of the company—at least, nothing that wasn’t caused by homeowner neglect or something such as leaving the water on and flooding the bathroom,” he said.

So will MDF replace wood completely? McCleary doesn’t think so.

“I think there will always be a market for solid pine, finger-joint pine. There will always be a market for those products,” he said. “The market will change, but they will always exist to some degree.”

While not everyone is a complete MDF convert, even wood-loyalists acknowledge the benefits of MDF and what it has done for the industry.

“Personally, I am still a wood guy. If I were putting something up in my own house I’d use wood, but if I were building houses for a living, I’d definitely use MDF,” said French. 

“It comes off as perfect, which most builders won’t complain about. That’s what they’re looking for.” 

Brigid O’Leary is an assistant editor for Shelter magazine.

An Assortment of Alternatives
If you want to learn about conventional products made using MDF, read on:

MDF Doors Available in Two Styles
Heritage Veneered Products of Shawano, Wis., offers WOODPORT® doors, which are available in either solid (routered) medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or traditional stile and rail. Both styles are durable, warp-resistant and can be painted in any color.

WOODPORT’s solid MDF doors are available in 26 standard raised panel designs. 
WOODPORT stile and rail MDF doors are available in 17 raised- and flat-panel designs. Raised-panel doors can be ordered with single- or double-hip panels, and flat-panel doors are available with mission style or ogee/contoured sticking and 1/2-inch thick panels. Additional features include: hardwood-edged stiles for superior screw holding properties; water-based millwork primer by Sherwin-Williams® which offers an ultra smooth surface to accept virtually any paint coating; matching primed engineered hardwood French glass doors; matching bi-folds; and superior lead times.

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Mouldings Are Available in Wide Stock and Patterns
Atlanta-based Masisa says its MDF mouldings are known for trademark smoothness and are primed with the company’s Ultra Prime jesso finish. Ultra Prime provides the easy-to-paint, no-bleed surface, and its line of high-quality MDF moulding is available in a wide assortment of stock and specialty patterns.

The company manufactures the MDF boards it uses to make its mouldings, using byproducts derived from its forests and sawmills, thus conserving natural resources. Masisa’s products are SCS-certified.

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TLC Offers 150 Different MDF Profiles
TLC Mouldings, located in Willacoochee, Ga., has been producing MDF and low-density fiberboard (LDF) Harmony mouldings for four years. The company is a part of Langboard and Langdale Industries, a vertically-integrated forest products company in business for more than 100 years. It says its moulding facility is just one of the latest steps toward full forest resource utilization and also environmental stewardship.

Primed MDF and LDF mouldings are produced on three moulders and processed through two separate priming lines. Production volume has increased each year since the start of the mill in order to continue to serve an ever growing market area, according to company officials. More than 150 different profiles are available, with custom jobs based upon certain minimum requirements.

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Polincay Takes Step Forward with New MDF Applications
Polincay, of Santiago, Chile, says it is the first MDF moulding producer to apply the Jesso-coat priming system on its mouldings and the first company to export this product to the USA in 1999. It is now adding to its list of firsts. It is now the first door producer to develop a MDF-raised panel door with a routed-panel design produced with MDF mouldings, according to company officials.

This door was developed during December of last year, and was presented and patented in the Chilean market during July of 2005. It will be introduced in the U.S. market during the AMD Show in New Orleans in October.

The new Patagonia door is made out of thin MDF board with ultralight MDF mouldings on it, to create the same visual effect as a pre-moulded skin door. The door can be manufactured with a two- or three-panel design.

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Short Lead Times Available with Suntrim™ MDF Mouldings
For more than half a century, Yuba City, Calif.-based Sunset Moulding has been in the business of creating superior moulding products. Manufacturers of Suntrim™ MDF mouldings, the company supplies the distributor market with more than 200 trucks per month of premier primed lite MDF mouldings, according to a company release.

Manufactured from the finest super-refined MDF available in North America today, Sunset Moulding is proud to be an industry leader with its Suntrim™ lite products, according to company officials.

Suntrim’s premier prime process offers distributors an outstanding finish, short lead times, specialized packaging and more than 500 architectural profiles from which to choose.

Other services include mitering, bar-coding, prepackaged sets, shrink wrapping and specified lengths.

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