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MDF Doors
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

Timber industry issues, like the (1) lumber disputes that may threaten due to the recent expiration of the trade agreement between US and Canada and (2) the recent resignation of Forest Service chief, Michael P. Dombeck, who urges President Bush to resist pressure to relax old forest conservation?may trickle down into home building costs, all of which makes a case for looking at alternatives like MDF, medium density fiberboard.

?You could put the product in your hand,? said Bob Starford at Wilson Plywood & Door. ?It?s a wood product.? And it?s made out of small trees?not the large, old tract material. The trees are cut up, chipped, and highly processed into a very fine product that is compressed under pressure then dried to form large sheets.

?Consequently, what you have is a lumber substitute,? Starford said. ?Original use of MDF was in the cabinet business for cabinet sides and backing.? Today, it?s also put in shelving, baseboards, decorative molding, columns, mantels, and interior doors?anywhere there?s a smooth high gloss finish.

?It paints better than wood?a really hard smooth finish,? Starford said. ?And it?s easy to work with-with trim carpenters using their routers or saws or whatever.? So, it?s ideal in decoration

Wilson & Plywood Door began supplying MDF doors to builders about three years ago as a result of the products coming out of TruStile manufacturing, which gets super-refined MDF2 produced by Plum Creek lumber mill. MDF can come in a variety of grades, according to Starford. But this MDF2 is top notch?the key is in the process of making MDF very highly refined for smoother finishes, greater stability, and workability.

?I think it?s better (than a wood door) if you?re painting it,? Starford said. ?If you want a wood door with wood stain, you wouldn?t do this. But if you did it (door) in a TruStile with three or four panels, that door would probably cost $300. If you did it (door) in a paint-grade wood (popular or maple), it would probably cost $600. If you did it in oak or ash, it would probably cost $700 to $800.?

?What people do, which makes economic sense, because the TruStile door has a lifetime warranty?if you?re going to paint it (door), you get the style that you want, the look that you want, the design you want for 2 ? times less than the price of wood. So, the doors you are going to paint, you buy TruStile doors. And for the wood doors that go in a library and go into a study, your den or whatever, you have them made out of wood, instead of having them all made out of wood, which would be awfully expensive.?

?Wood is really not scarce,? Starford said. ?It?s the fine woods (that are dear). The framing lumber and the wood you make moldings out of are two different things. And there is more wood being grown every day in this country than is being harvested. When I talk about old growth, old growth lumber grew for 200 or 300 years. The growth rings were very tight. The trees were very, very big. You got a lot of high quality lumber out of those trees. It?s changing. But these trees weren?t cut down 30 years ago or 40 years ago. The majority of this stuff was cut down 100 years ago at the turn of the century. Today?s sawmills should not get all the blame.?

After World War II, people started traveling, the population grew, and a lot of new homes were being built. Plywood, block wood, and wood panels added to heavy use from World War II construction?boats, barracks, and weapons?all of which led to a gradual decline in the availability of timber. So began the development of glue-based wood substitutes?particleboard in the 1950?s from mill wastes namely saw dust and wood shaving. MDF first appeared in the US in 1966. Today, MDF allows 95% of harvested trees to be converted into product, which is over and above the 65% to 70% solid lumber production.

?It performs,? Starford said. ?If it didn?t, we wouldn?t be selling it.? MDF, however, is in a different configuration from wood. ?So, MDF is not as strong as wood. But, in a lot of areas it doesn?t need to be. Framing lumber is going to be wood. Steel studs, the use of steel in building homes, is starting to make a little bit of an impact, not much, but a little bit. You can?t use MDF studs to replace wood studs. You can?t use MDF products to substitute for floor joists or ceiling rafters.?

?But where it can be used and used properly, it?s a great product?in decorative applications, where strength is not required,? Starford said. And part of that design element comes from the jigsaw construction of the TruStile door?the coming together of two vertical stiles, a bottom and top rail, and various interior rails and vertical panels of different shapes to configure the door. In other words, each segment of cut out MDF is glued into place as stile or rail; panels actually float. This type construction creates a stronger door than a solid MDF door with design routed into the surface. And each individual piece can be machine cut along very precise lines.

Designs range from the one and two panel doors to multi-panel doors or custom design doors to French doors, southwest groove and plank doors, arched or bi-fold doors, and a highly grooved, contemporary tambour door series. Manufacturer sends the primed doors, which are then finished on-site.

?Sometimes, doors are not finished properly,? Starford said. ?By finished, we?re talking about painting: all six edges need to be painted. Too often, people don?t paint the top of doors or the bottom. And that allows moisture to come in and go out. When that moisture comes in, doors swell, panels swell. When it dries out, you have a real dry period, for instance, moisture passes out of that door. That?s when the panels start shrinking and you see that paint line.?

?One of the properties of MDF is that it doesn?t hold a screw as good as wood does,? Starford said. So, manufacturers cut the edge of the door and insert popular?it?s called a wedge to represent a wood edge. ?So when you put your hinges in to hold your door, the hinges are going into wood. It does a better job holding the door in place.?

?Flexibility of design at an economical price,? Starford said. ?And it?s got a good feel. People want that good solid feel in the door. This door gives you that. This is really a nice door.?

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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