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"What are MDF and Thermofoil Kitchen Cabinets?" Asks One Reader

By April 19, 2009

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The reader goes on to ask if she should buy kitchen cabinetry made of MDF and thermofoil.

MDF is often described as nothing more than sawdust and glue compacted into slabs under high pressure. That's not too far from the truth. Because the surface of MDF does not take paint well, it is often wrapped in thermofoil. Don't let the "foil" part of thermofoil throw you off. Thermofoil has no metallic content.

Kraftmaid describes thermofoil as such:

Flexible, 100 percent solid-colored vinyl. With adhesive on its underside, it is applied to smooth, engineered wood or MDF which has been formed into a door, drawer or
molding design. It has solid, semi-transparent coloration and is easy to clean and maintain. Ideal for durable areas.

Indeed, thermofoil cabinets are perceived as being like the vinyl siding of kitchen (or bathroom) cabinetry: a cheap, short-term solution.  While often maligned, they do have a number of valid good points.

The Good

  • Thermofoil is seamless.
  • Impervious to most staining.
  • MDF/Thermofoil cabinets help manufacturers put out a more cost-effective product, which can result in lower costs to the consumer.
  • Smooth surface, consistent color.

The Bad

  • Thermofoil easily chips.
  • It has the tendency to peel away all on its own--over time, though.
  • Thermofoil-faced MDF cabinets cannot be re-thermofoiled. Difficult to paint, too.
  • Older MDF may contain formaldehyde, though due to voluntary industry actions and legislation like the Formaldehyde Standards for Wood Composites Act this may not be the case with newer MDF.
  • MDF itself can chip away quite easily.

Update 03/29/2013:

After reading a number of comments, I have to agree with some.

Originally, as a good point, I said that "MDF/Thermofoil cabinets tend to be among the cheapest on the market."  Inexpensive cabinets may use MDF/Thermofoil construction, but we see this on expensive cabinets, too.

I've updated information about MDF containing formaldehyde to reflect industry changes and legislation toward reducing emissions.

Commenter Jason says this is a "misleading article." Is it "misleading" because I show both sides of the story, instead of only promoting the good?  I do say that these cabinets are "often maligned" but they "have a number of good points."  Should I only have listed good points?

 

Comments

December 30, 2009 at 10:20 am
(1) walt Freeman says:

I agree with the article for the most part. However the one thing that was left out about the cost of the Thermafoil cabinets and shouldn’t be is that for the most part they are cheaper. For instance if its an import cabinet from china then it would be cheaper. But Kraft maid makes several thermafoil doors that aren’t cheaper than some of their solid wood doors. They come with a longer warranty as well. The reason is that the processes for making thremafoil doors have gotten better and the end result is a product that will hold up better than wood.

March 4, 2010 at 9:30 am
(2) 3D Laminates says:

This is a link to a blog dedicated to the 3D Laminate market, specifically how “3D Laminate Thermofoils are Ideal for High End Kitchens”. Hopefully it’s an eye-opening read.

April 19, 2010 at 7:43 pm
(3) Tom says:

My info is that MDF is used in very high end cabinets and is superior to plywood in several respects. “Furniture board”, a generic term for a commonly used particle board type in cabinet manufacturing on low/mid level products, is not the same quality as MDF.

September 9, 2010 at 2:13 pm
(4) Mark says:

I don’t know if I agree completely with the summary of thermofoil cabinets. Firstly saying that MDF is like sawdust with glue is like saying tires are basically just wild gum tree sap. MDF outperforms natural wood in many ways from mill-ability and warping.

Kraftmaid’s discription of thermofoil isn’t accurate as well. Thermofoil is in fact classified as rigid and not “flexible”. Flexible constitutes material which contains more plasticizers whereas most quality thermofoils are rigid.

As for thermofoil chipping this is more indicative of a thin or inferior thermofoil door. It is extremely hard to chip a quality thermofoil. And also for peeling up, a properly made thermofoil door should not peel up. Of course with extreme heat it wreaks havoc on thermofoil.

Also with MDF containing formaldehyde this is an old issue. The American board manufacturers now produce formaldehyde free board.

Products are hard to pigeon hole. Certainly man made products such as fiberglass doesn’t make the Corvette inferior to an all steel Ford Pinto. A quality MDF and thermofoil Kitchen can be extremely high quality or it can be low quality; it depends upon the manufacturer and materials used.

November 11, 2011 at 10:19 pm
(5) RSIPCS says:

A vinyl coating that is heat-fused to an MDF substrate which may have been milled, shaped, or routed so that it can assume a fairly complex profile. During the heat process the thermafoil conforms to the sub straight material creating a very uniform finish and stylish door. It is very cost effective. Check our cabinets … and we sell to homebuilders and distributors.

October 18, 2012 at 5:05 pm
(6) TWI says:

I found this looking around for more information on MDF cabinets (disclosure: I’m in the bath furniture industry, and have been seeking out alternative woods to try and find that sweet-spot of high quality and affordability – it’s an ongoing process). It seems like, for the most part, MDF is completely ubiquitous in the bathroom furniture niche. “Real wood” cabinets don’t appear often in bathroom niches, and it’s my understanding that this is because the wood warps much more readily than MDF. MDF is said to be the most resilient wood material we have right now when it comes to warping issues.

I suppose I can see why ‘real wood’ may be more desirable in kitchens and pantries, but MDF isn’t just a “cheap alternative” to real wood – it has its own purpose, and is actually the more desirable wood material in many situations – including moist, humid environments.

I would point you to this URL as a reference as well:
http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-mdf-medium-density-fiberboard.htm

It seems the only major downside of MDF is the fact that it is typically covered in thermofoil or laminate, which is really susceptible to heat damage. So: is there a better way to seal an MDF cabinet, so it isn’t so easily harmed by heat? What other sealing materials are an option?

Thanks in advance for your suggestions and thank you for reading this.

November 11, 2012 at 1:36 pm
(7) Woodrow McDowell says:

So sad to know that Thermofoil easily chips. But I understand that there are always advantages and disadvantages of everything. Thanks for putting them all here.

March 28, 2013 at 4:48 pm
(8) Jason says:

MDF and thermofoil are used in very high end cabinet construction. Such as Bulthaup, Snaidero, Pogenpohl, Poliform, to name a few. Google or price out a kitchen from any of these manufacturers and you will see that at their prices I don’t think you would be getting an inferior product. Their reputation depends on their quality. Not to mention they are absolutely stunning…what a misleading article…

April 20, 2013 at 12:53 pm
(9) claudia says:

We have thermofoil cabinets in our kitchen and bathrooms. They were installed in new construction in 2003. This past year the cabinets in the kitchen have turned from white to cream. The same has not occurred in the bathrooms. They are not spotty: it is a uniform color which would be ok except our appliances are white, the spacer boards are white. Does anyone have any suggestions how to whiten them?

May 23, 2013 at 11:13 pm
(10) eric says:

we have thermofoil kitchen cabinets which are eight years old.
the vinyl is now bulging out in certain area’s
is there any way of refixing the vinyl to the board.
the vinyl is in very good condition and holding it’s shape

July 29, 2013 at 12:04 pm
(11) Gale wright says:

I had white thermofoil in a very large high end kitchen. They are 12 years old. We had children, pets, and lots of cooking parties etc. I would get them again. The only problem was by the oven. We did not have a heat guard. There was peeling. I had my kitchen done at the same time as a friend. She had painted cabinets. If you have kids and are not careful they look bad in short order. I would not get painted cabinets. That said, another friend had thermofoil from Home Depot. Theirs yellowed and not all at the same rate. They were horrible. My experience says go for the best thermofoil. You will love it.

July 29, 2013 at 12:08 pm
(12) Gale wright says:

I have one last comment on the thermofoil. Someone mentioned it chips. Mine did not chip, in fact the salesman hit the cabinet with a quarter hard then scraped back and forth. It did not leave a mark. That sold me. Again, 12 years later I am still loving my kitchen.

October 7, 2013 at 11:55 pm
(13) Larry says:

We are trying to sell our 15 year old house. It has thermofoil throughout the kitchen. We will need to replace all the doors and drawers because the thermofoil has peeled away from the doors and drawers. It is not relative to heat, but use – the more frequently used doors and drawers have the worst peeling. It looks great, until it starts peeling. Ours started peeling about 11 years in. The peeling look doesn’t really go with our granite countertops and stainless appliances very well.

February 26, 2014 at 12:04 pm
(14) Ken Stika says:

The thermofoil cabinets in my house are so chipped, it was frustrating, as my son decided that they bothered him also and decided to peel one of the doors. I couldn’t find a replacement and so I was stuck.

Finally decided to take a butane torch to the edges of all of them, peeling off the cheap thermofoil. Cleaned up the glue and lightly sanded, put two coats of oil based KILLZ and then two coats of Valspar Oil Based Paint and they look and clean better and look more natural. Lots of work, but saved myself thousands. Too bad they also put that thermofoil crap on the shelves which over times yellows/dulls.

Another cheap way to make a product and rip the consumer off while saying “We’re saving you money.”

February 26, 2014 at 12:11 pm
(15) homerenovations says:

If you have pictures of your “After” (or even “Before AND After”), I’d love to see them and publish them. E-mail here: http://homerenovations.about.com/contact/Lee-Wallender-20780.htm

April 3, 2014 at 10:04 am
(16) Mary says:

Had the Kraftmade thermofoil installed three and a half years ago – live in NY and cook rarely (maybe once a month – boil water for tea once or twice a week). The entire surface of the cabinets has warped up and lifted away from the MDF on seven of the nine doors. It is terrible. Have been waiting for three weeks for a Kraftmade rep to get back to me.

April 17, 2014 at 1:26 pm
(17) Angie says:

I love my kitchen but HATE how the thermofoil has warped (and it’s not due to heat). Does anyone know if these doors are warrantied and if so, what number do I call? Your help is appreciated. Thanks!

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