How to Paint MDF Easily - Your Complete Guide!

August 8, 2019

Are you looking to learn how to paint MDF furniture?  The process is relatively straightforward, however, there are several crucial steps that you need to remember. Read our guide to find out which primers and paints you should use, the best techniques for painting MDF, and how to get great results every time.

What Equipment Will I Need?

You don't need to purchase any fancy equipment or tools for this project. You will be able to find everything you need to paint MDF at your local D.I.Y. shop.

  • Overalls
  • Dust mask
  • Disposable gloves
  • A primer that is suitable for use on MDF
  • High-quality paint brushes (use a separate brush for the primer and the paint)
  • Your choice of paint
  • Sealant to finish

What is MDF Used For?

Before you learn how to paint MDF, you need to understand the properties of MDF and how it can be used. So, what is MDF used for? MDF stands for Medium Density Fiberboard. It is an engineered wood product, which means that it combines wood fibres and wax, which gets pressed together in using high pressure and heat.

Some items are better suited to MDF than others. For example, the key disadvantage of using MDF is that it doesn't react well to moisture or liquids. If it gets wet MDF will expand considerably. So, it is advisable to avoid using MDF in bathrooms and kitchens.

What are the Benefits of Using MDF?

The small wood fibres found in MDF make it an incredibly smooth surface. Subsequently, it is a very easy material to paint. You can feasibly make almost any kind of furniture using MDF.

There is no visible grain in MDF, so it is a great material if you are looking to build furniture and you don't want to deal with pattern matching. MDF tends to be cheaper and denser than other options such as plywood.

Are There Any Disadvantages?

If you are altering or painting MDF, there are some safety concerns that you need to bear in mind. Most importantly, MDF can be hazardous if it is not treated correctly or if you cut into it. So, always wear the appropriate safety gear when you are handling MDF, especially if you are sawing into it. A good fitting dust mask is essential for this project.

MDF and water do not mix well. So, using water-based paint would be a disaster. If MDF is exposed to a decent amount of water, it can change shape permanently. You can mitigate the risk of water damage by properly preparing the surface using an MDF primer and appropriate paint.

Sanding MDF and Preparing the Surface

MDF does not require excessive preparation before you paint it. However, if you want to create good looking and long-lasting MDF furniture, there are a few steps you can take in advance. Before you apply a primer, you may want to consider lightly sanding your MDF using medium grit sandpaper (around 120 grit should work well). Make sure that you particularly focus on sanding the edges of the MDF, as rough edges will fail to soak up the paint.

Sanding MDF will allow the primer and paint to bond well with the surface. Work up to light grit sandpaper that will polish off your MDF. When you sand MDF, you need to make sure that you are in a fully ventilated room. You should also make sure that you wear eye protection and a face mask.

Make sure that after you have sanded the surface you clear all of the dust away. If any loose dust particles are left behind, it can affect the application of the paint, so keep the area clean.

mdf texture

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What Primer Should I Use on MDF?

MDF is an incredibly porous material that soaks up paint and moisture very quickly. So, you have to prepare the material carefully before you begin painting. If you use the wrong primer, the paint that you apply on top will fail to penetrate the MDF properly. This could lead to the paint forming a skin that peels off easily and looks terrible.

Using the right type of primer is vital if you want to achieve great results. You should always avoid using a latex primer on MDF, as it will cause the wood to expand, and it affects the texture of the material. The same issues arise if you use water-based primers, so always double-check before you purchase primer.

So, what primer should you use instead? The best choice is to find a solvent-based primer. However, you need to be careful with multi-purpose primers. The MDF manufacturing process uses various chemicals and adhesives, which can react badly with the wrong primer. You need to use a primer that is suitable for MDF, as this will prevent the MDF from breaking down. Most D.I.Y. shops sell MDF specific primers that will be suitable for your project.

How to Apply the Primer

The cut edges of MDF are especially porous, so you need to pay particular attention to sealing these areas. You should always apply two to three coats of primer before you attempt to paint MDF. For the best results, you can lightly sand the MDF between coats of primer. Allow at least an hour before you start painting, otherwise, the primer may not be totally dry.

It's a good idea to prime both sides of a piece of MDF. The porousness of MDF means that paint can easily seep through to the other side of the material. So, you can prevent this from happening by applying a couple of coats of primer to the other side of the MDF even though you won't be painting that side.

In between coats of primer, it is a good idea to lightly sand the surface. Once you have removed any dust, you lightly wipe the surface down with white spirit. This step allows you to apply future coats of primer and layers of paint more smoothly. You might have to spend a little bit more time doing these steps, however, the best results come from properly prepared MDF.


Priming and Treating the Edges of MDF

Learning how to paint MDF is relatively simple, however, before you start painting you there is one very important step that you can't miss out. As mentioned before, the edges of an MDF board are especially absorbent. MDF primer works well on the surface, however, you need to pay specific attention to the edges.

There are several products that you can use to seal the edges before you paint MDF. Whatever filler you choose, the technique for sealing the edges is the same; apply the product, lightly sand the edges, then add another layer.

Sealing MDF Edges with PVA Glue

This is often a popular way for people to seal the edges, however, some issues can arise if you are not careful. Between coats of glue, you need to lightly sand down the edges. If the PVA is too thick, you won't be able to sand it down properly.

So, if you are going to use PVA to seal the edges, make sure that you apply a very thin layer each time. You need to be sure that the PVA is level and even across the surface. You can do this by using a paint roller.

Sealing MDF Edges with Shellac

Shellac is also a good choice for sealing the edges of MDF. When it dries, it creates a very hard layer, so it will protect the edges of your MDF.

You can also seal the edges using a normal oil-based primer.

Sealing MDF Edges with Drywall Compound

You can also seal the edges of MDF using drywall compound. Again, it's vital that you smooth the drywall across the edge of the surface evenly and smoothly. Allow it to dry, then sand along the edge of the board.

What is the Best Paint for MDF?

There are several ways to paint MDF and lots of paint options available. Using the right paint is essential for achieving the best results. So, what exactly is the best paint for MDF?

As you already know, water and MDF don't mix well. Theoretically, when you paint MDF that has been properly primed, water-based paint shouldn't do damage to your wood. However, you run the risk of causing damage to the MDF by using water-based paint. Water causes the fibres of the board to rise, and this cannot be undone easily. Sometimes this can be sanded away but usually, there were always be some lingering damage.

A standard emulsion is likely to produce patchy results, and the paint may peel off quickly. Instead, choosing an oil-based paint will produce better results. However, you should be aware that oil-based paints can have a stronger odour than water-based paints. You can solve this issue by keeping your windows and doors open for at least 6 hours after you finish painting.

Acrylic and latex paints are also suitable for MDF projects. If you are new to D.I.Y., you might find that these paints are easier to use than oil-based paints. You can thin acrylic and latex paints just using water, whereas, with oil-based paint, you will need to add paint thinner. You can find out more about thinning paint using water by reading our mist coat article. In short, a ratio of around 70:30 paint to water should work well.

The final thing you need to consider is what kind of finish you want your paint to have. Different paints offer different levels of shine. Depending on the project, you might need to use eggshell (matte), satinwood (medium sheen), or gloss (high shine) paint.

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How to Paint MDF

Once you have prepped and primed your MDF boards, it’s time to start painting the topcoats. The best way to start is to use a thin coat of paint first. This will allow you to see how absorbent your MDF boards are.

If you have properly primed and sanded your MDF, you should find that the paint doesn’t dry immediately. However, if you do find that your paint is drying too quickly, it’s a good idea to stop painting and to sand down the surface again. This will save you time in the long run.

Typically, you will need two to three coats of paint for a standard MDF board that has been primed properly. Above all, remember that you need to sand between each coat of paint. Start off with high grit sandpaper, and work your way down to lighter grit sandpaper.

Finishing and Sealing MDF

After all of your hard work, you want to make sure that your paint lasts a long time. The best way to do this is to apply a coat of sealant. Sealant has multiple benefits, as it will protect your MDF from scratching and staining. It also enhances the appearance of your MDF, and it can prevent discolouration.

As always, make sure that you begin by applying a thin layer of sealant. You can apply it using a paint roller or a paintbrush. Just make sure that you apply it evenly all the way across the surface of your MDF. Don’t forget to apply the sealant to the edges of your MDF too.

Not sure you'll have time to paint MDF as a DIY project? Easily compare costs for painters or submit a free request and get bids from local painters. Before you know it you're MDF will look tip-top, even if you're short on time!

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