How to Make MDF Look Good

How to Make MDF Look Good

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When you think about nice looking furniture, MDF most likely wouldn’t come to mind as a good example. It is usually associated with cheap, utilitarian furniture such as kitchen cabinets and storage units or that very famous flat-packed furniture store.

But if you want to make something out of MDF for whatever reason, there are a few different ways to get it looking great. Below are the best three.

#1: Paint It

Natural wood looks good in its raw, unfinished state. Wood comes in a wide variety of different types, each with their own unique grain pattern and colors. On the other hand, MDF doesn’t possess these qualities straight from the store, so one way to improve its appearance is to apply a painted finish.

Painting MDF is quite straightforward and good results can be had if you take the right steps prior to painting it. There are quite a few steps to take and lots of sanding, so keep that in mind if you need to do it in a hurry. This method takes time.

As with wood, the first thing to do is prepare the surface for paint by sanding it. With MDF sand the surface and edges with #220 grit sandpaper.

The next step is to apply a conditioning product to seal the MDF prior to painting. A clear, oil based sanding-sealer is best for this, but there are water based sealers if you prefer.

After about an hour, it’s time to sand the surface flat again since the MDF has absorbed the sealer and probably risen slightly. When the surface is sanded, clean it of dust and apply a second coat of sealer the same way you did before. When the second coat of sealer is dry, sand it again but this time with a finer grit paper of #320.

To get the cut edges of the MDF sealed properly, apply a polymer-enhanced filler and let it dry for around 3 hours. Once dry, sand it with #220 grit sandpaper. A second layer of filler should be applied at this stage, but this time it should be left to dry for longer, around 4 hours or so. Once set, you can sand edges again, this time with #320 grit paper and give the surface a final sanding at this stage too.

At this point you are ready to apply your paint of choice to the prepared MDF. Brush it on, apply with a roller, or even use a spray gun to get an even finish. Allow 1 hour or so between coats and aim for 2-3 coats or more as needed.

#2: Stain It

Another method of improving the appearance of MDF is to apply a wood stain. This is done in a similar way to applying paint, but with less steps to take prior to applying the stain. This means that it’s going to take a lot less time to finish your project.

The first thing to do is to sand the surface you intend to apply stain. Again, do this with #220 grit sandpaper and clean away the dust.

Next up is to apply a primer to the surface of the MDF. Water based primers should be avoided if possible because of the likelihood of swelling as the MDF absorbs it. Of course you can use water based primer, but be prepared to have to sand it again after to get the surface flat.

Once the surface is primed, it’s advisable to apply a few coats of PVA to seal the surface prior to staining. This will reduce the risk of the MDF absorbing the stain and swelling up. Leave it to dry for a few hours.

Now you can apply the wood stain to the MDF with a synthetic bristle paint brush. Make long smooth strokes with the brush to get the best finish. Aim to apply 2-3 coats of stain allowing around 1 hour between coats. If you want to, now you can apply a polyurethane varnish to protect the surface and seal it

#3: Add “Faux” Wood Grain

As I mentioned earlier, MDF lacks the wood grain present in natural wood products. But that doesn’t mean you can add some convincing wood grain patterning to your MDF projects.

First of all you need to stain the MDF as described above, but don’t seal it with varnish. After 36-48 hours when the freshly stained MDF is finally dry, you can begin. Next take your wood stain and tint it a few shades darker. Apply the darker stain thinly using long strokes of the paintbrush all in the same direction.

Faux wood grain can be applied using this paintbrush method by itself, or with a special tool called a wood grain rocker tool. The rocker tool allows you to create natural looking grain patterns by dragging and rocking it through the thinly applied darker stain.

You’ll probably need some practice to get it looking good, so consider testing your technique on some scrap or cardboard first. A good tip is to flip the tool over with each pass on the MDF. This will make a more natural looking, alternating grain pattern.

Once the grain pattern is complete, apply a polyurethane varnish to seal and protect the surface.


As you can see, MDF doesn’t have to be ugly or low quality. In fact, quite the opposite is true if you have the tools and time.

Unique wood grain finishes in a limitless combination of differing tones are possible with MDF. Finally, perhaps MDF is worth considering, especially with today’s soaring wood prices. It’s cheap and effective but it can be beautiful too.