I prefer to use MDF for shelving and furniture, but don't want the formaldehyde. Recommendations other than Medite II?

Asked by Jeremy
Arlington, MA

MDF just works better for many projects, such as shelving, or furniture that wants a perfectly flat surface, which plywood simply can't offer. The closest Medite II distributor is about 100 miles from me -- hard to justify the carbon output, since I'd need to use a large vehicle that can hold 4x8' sheets.


Cynthia Phakos

Answered by Cynthia Phakos

Los Angeles, CA

Koffka Phakos Design

April 8, 2011

A few years ago Medite II was the only option, though now most major composite panel manufacturers offer a no added urea-formaldehyde medium density fiberboard (MDF) panel.

MDF is a great material for building furniture and millwork. It is made with the same process as particleboard, but it is refined differently, using a high-energy refiner, which acts like a steam-pressurized “digester,” softening the raw material and, therefore, making it very workable and flat with a much smoother finish.

The term no added urea-formaldehyde (NAUF) refers to products that meet  LEED’s EQ (Environmental Quality) 4.4 criteria for emissions.

  • Urea-formaldehyde releases formaldehyde into the atmosphere, which has been found to be an eye irritant and can also cause respiratory problems.
  • “Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring substance in the environment made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. . . . Formaldehyde is an intermediate in the oxidation (or combustion) of methane as well as other carbon compounds, e.g. forest fires, in automobile exhaust, and in tobacco smoke.” (source: Wikipedia)
  • "Urea-formaldehyde is a thermosetting resin or plastic, made from urea and formaldehyde, . . . used in adhesives, finishes, MDF, and molded objects. Urea-formaldehyde resin's attributes include high tensile strength, flexural modulus and heat distortion temperature, low water absorption, mould shrinkage, high surface hardness, elongation at break, and volume resistance." (source: Wikipedia).

In the past, urea-formaldehyde was the only binder for most pressed-wood products, but as people have become aware of the potential health risks, manufacturers are now replacing it with safer substitutes, such as phenol formaldehydes (PF) and polyvinyl acetate (PVA). 

By searching the web, I was able to find a distributor, Atlantic Plywood Corp. in Woburn, MA, that carries VESTA, a NAUF MDF manufactured by Flakeboard.

Flakeboard offers two brands of MDF:

  • Superior MDF, manufactured in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, and
  • Premier MDF, manufactured in Bennettsville, South Carolina; Eugene, Oregon; and Malvern, Arkansas.

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