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The Ultimate Guide to Painting MDF Like A Professional

Would you love to paint MDF like a pro? This article has all the tips, tricks and information you need to paint this tricky surface with ease, and get fantastic results too.

MDF or ‘Medium Density Fibreboard’ is a cheap and easily available material used in homes and business premises for all kinds of different applications. It can be used for kitchen cabinets, doors, skirting boards, certain types of flooring and display units – to name just a few uses for this versatile material.

As with all different material types, MDF has its own set of rules when it comes to being painted. By understanding these rules, and the best ways to prepare and apply paint to this type of material you get the very best chance of professional results.

Would you love to paint MDF like a pro?

If the answer is yes, read on for our essential guide to painting MDF like a true professional!

What Is MDF?

Medium Density Fibreboard Or MDF is a wood product that is made from a compacted mixture of various materials including; wood fibres, recycled leftovers, particles, wax and resin which is all pressed together to create a board. It can be cut to any size and if made without formaldehyde and virgin materials it can be a very environmentally friendly product.

Can You Paint MDF?

Yes, you can paint MDF but you usually need to seal it if it is raw MDF. If the MDF is already painted it is still, generally, a good idea to sand and prime before painting again.

Benefits Of MDF

There are lots of benefits to MDF as a surface to paint on including:

  • Easy to prime and prep for painting
  • No lumps, bumps or knots like natural wood
  • No grain direction so you don’t have to match the piece of wood to other pieces in your project
  • Easy to paint however you want because of the various paint colours and types on offer
The possibilities are endless when it comes to painting MDF. Check out this ‘steel’ beam we painted with metallic paint.

Can You Varnish MDF?

MDF does not have a grain-like solid wood, so if you varnish it, it won’t look the same as other wood products. In fact, it won’t look very good at all. MDF is made to be affordable and effective, not naturally aesthetically pleasing.

The good news is that you can buy all kinds of stains for MDF that are made to replicate the look of a wide range of timber styles. You apply the stain and then the varnish on top.

This is the sort of result you can expect if you apply the varnish correctly:

An MDF wardrobe that has been varnished.

To varnish MDF you will need to:

  1. Prepare by sanding the MDF with a fine sanding paper then vacuuming away the dust.
  2. Apply the MDF stain with a brush.
  3. You may want to apply the stain a few times for an effective finish.
  4. Allow the stain to dry fully.
  5. Apply your chosen varnish and allow it to dry.
  6. Lightly sand the surface and then paint the varnish on again leaving it to fully dry.

What Paint Should You Use On MDF?

The best paint to use on MDF is an oil-based paint. Water-based paints absorb into the MDF, which is really porous, even after it has been sealed with a primer.

Using an oil-based paint ensures easier application and lower absorbency rates.

Of course, oil-based paints do come with downsides such as the high VOC content, and also the strong paint smell, which can be tricky to get rid of.

If you’re a little put off using paints like this, you could instead opt for latex paints, or paints that are acrylic but without a water base. You can get these kinds of paint alternatives in a wide range of colours and finishes so you don’t have to compromise on the look of the MDF finish in order to paint with a non oil-based paint product.

Alternatively, using a high quality water based paint such as Zinsser Allcoat will reduce the chances of any problems. Here’s an example of Zinsser Allcoat that we sprayed onto MDF recently:

MDF painted with Zinsser Allcoat.

How To Seal MDF Before Painting

There are numerous ways to seal MDF before you paint it. Our two favourite methods are shellac and PVA. Here’s how to seal with both products:

Sealing MDF With Shellac

Shellac is excellent for sealing MDF because it is not absorbed, it makes the surface impervious to water, it is scratch-proof and it dries extremely quickly even if it is applied in large amounts.

Even better, shellac will not cause MDF to swell, removing any problems with the piece fitting correctly, even when a lot of shellac has been applied.

To apply shellac to MDF:

  1. Bunch up a ball of old clean rag and wrap more rag around it and then band it to secure the applicator.
  2. Apply the shellac to the applicator, fully drenching it.
  3. Starting in the middle of the MDF brush the shellac from left to right.
  4. The first coat will suck right up. You’ll want it to dry for about ten minutes.
  5. Add another coat of shellac with the same application technique, topping your pad up as you go.
  6. Let the MDF dry for ten minutes.
  7. Use a light sandpaper and go over the surface wiping away any excess with a cloth.
  8. Apply a third coat using the same process as before with the ball applicator.
  9. Allow to dry for about 10-15 minutes, sand again, wipe off and then put another coat on.
  10. Repeat this process as many as 6 or 7 times if you want to.

Sealing MDF With PVA

Sealing MDF with PVA is really easy and a preferred method for many decorators. To seal MDF with PVA glue: Spread a thin layer of PVA glue using an airbrush, spray applicator or glue spreader, ensuring you thin out areas of buildup. Once this is dry you can sand down any uneven areas but be really careful to avoid sanding the PVA down so much so that it stops protecting the MDF underneath.

How To Paint MDF

After priming and sealing your MDF it is time to paint the MDF like a pro:

Step 1: Because MDF is so flat it is easy to paint it using a roller. Apply your chosen paint all along the flat edges and sides of the MDF.

Step 2: Paint any smaller edges and curved sides with a brush.

Step 3: Allow this coat to dry leaving your roller, brush and paint tray in a plastic bag to stop them drying out.

Step 4: Lightly sand the surface and remove the dust.

Step 5: Add another coat of paint to the MDF using your roller and brush.

Step 5: Allow the MDF to dry and apply a third coat if necessary.

Ultimately, you want your MDF to go from unsightly to this:

Sanding MDF Safely

To sand MDF safely you should wear protective eye goggles and a mask. You should also open the windows to ventilate the area. Doing this is really important when it comes to working with MDF because it contains something called urea formaldehyde which is carcinogenic. Formaldehyde is released into the air when you sand or cut MDF so it is important to protect yourself from those gases and particles with the appropriate safety gear.

Wearing protective gloves will help to protect your hands from getting sore and injured on the sandpaper.

If you are sanding with a sander, take care to secure the MDF whilst using the sander, and operate the machine as instructed, remaining aware of the wire at all times.

Can You Paint MDF Cabinets?

You can paint MDF cabinets using all the processes we have mentioned above. The best thing to do is to remove the doors of the cabinets and the hinges to make the process as easy as possible. As the cabinets will have some product already on them you’ll want to sand the product down and then add a new coat of primer. This will ensure any areas where the MDF has been exposed over time, will not absorb moisture and expand or warp the wood.

It is also important to consider which topcoat to use carefully. If your cabinets are in the kitchen you should use a durable topcoat such as a kitchen cabinet paint that is designed to withstand the wear and tear of this kind of furniture in this location of the home.

Can You Paint MDF Furniture?

As with MDF cabinets you absolutely can paint MDF furniture. You’ll just want to make sure you sand, wipe and prime the product before painting it and be sure to touch up potentially damaged areas to waterproof them before painting.

Can You Paint MDF Without A Primer?

It’s really sensible to paint MDF with a primer first before adding a topcoat. MDF can easily warp and expand with any moisture put on it because it is so porous. By priming it with shellac or PVA as mentioned above you seal it and prepare it for the paint.

For the easy step of priming MDF you potentially save yourself the cost of replacing the entire panel and the materials used to paint it during your first try. When MDF warps it can’t really be saved and needs to be replaced so it really is worth taking the time to prime it before you paint it.

Now You Can Paint MDF Like A Pro!

Using our tips, tricks and information above you’re ready to get to work on your next MDF renovation project. With a little preparation and the right products, you can transform your MDF furniture, cabinet or panel into something beautiful that’s truly made to last.