MDF, or medium density fiberboard, is a popular choice for many woodworking and construction projects because it is strong, durable, and most importantly – affordable.
It’s made of sawdust and wood fibers, held together with a resin binder and pressed into boards.
It’s extremely commonly used for furniture, cabinets, and many other applications.
You might be wondering “can you sand MDF?”
If you’re looking to give your surface a new look – sanding and painting is a common way to do so.
In this post, I’ll answer the question “can you sand MDF”, the pros and cons of doing so, and much more. Let’s get started!
In This Article:
Can You Sand MDF?
Yes, you can sand MDF. However, it’s not that simple.
While MDF has a lot in common with wood, there are also significant differences between the two. For one thing, wood is an organic product, while MDF is man-made.
So while there are benefits to sanding MDF, there are also some drawbacks. Here are the pros and cons.
Pros of Sanding MDF
- You can get your panel 100% smooth – While MDF is a manufactured product, manufacturers work within tolerances. With a little elbow grease, you can polish the surface much smoother than the factory finish. Many people do this when creating MDF fixtures like cabinets since it creates a glass-smooth finish.
- You can paint the MDF – Much like when you’re painting wood, it helps if you sand the surface first. Yes, it’s technically possible to paint an un-sanded surface. But the paint won’t dry the same in all locations. The result is a blotchy paint job that looks like an amateur did it. If you want to sand your MDF, don’t take any shortcuts. Sand it first.
Cons of Sanding MDF
- You can ruin your board’s protective finish – On the edges of your board, the inner, fibrous material of the MDF is exposed. Manufacturers coat the edges with a layer of glue to seal them. MDF already has a low level of water resistance. Sand down the edges, and you expose a vulnerable area to moisture.
- It creates a lot of dust – Sanding any material will create dust, but MDF might be the worst offender. Furthermore, wood is organic. Unless it’s treated, the dust isn’t dangerous to your health – it’s just messy. MDF, on the other hand, contains toxic compounds. When you sand it, you kick those materials into the air. Inhaling that dust can be hazardous to your health.
How to Sand MDF
Sanding MDF is as simple as sanding wood, although you don’t want to be as aggressive.
You should use an orbital sander or hand sander as a belt sander will tear through the material and ruin your project.
Regardless of your sanding method, it’s important to wear a dust mask.
Begin with 120-grit sandpaper.
Since there’s no wood grain, you don’t have to worry about working in any particular direction. Just make sure to work in a consistent pattern.
Once you’ve gotten as far as you can with your 120-grit paper, follow up with 180-grit. Once again, work in a consistent pattern and try not to linger too long in any one spot. After that, change to 320-grit sandpaper and repeat the process.
When you’re finished, use a shop vac to clean up as much of the sawdust as you can. Then wipe down your board with a tack cloth to remove any residual dust. The dust from the 320-grit paper is very fine, and it will tend to stick to everything.
Need more help? Check out the video below!
How to Sand the Ends of an MDF Board
As I said, sanding the ends of your MDF board will remove the water-resistant finish. But if you plan on painting your board, you’ll need to sand all six sides.
First, use a paintbrush to apply a shellac-based primer to the ends of your board. It should dry in about 45 minutes, but check the manufacturer’s instructions to be certain. Don’t just wait until it’s dry to the touch. Let it dry completely.
Sand the area with 180-grit paper, wipe it down with a tack cloth and apply another coat of primer. Let it dry, then sand it again. Wipe it with a tack cloth again, and you should be left with a nice and smooth surface.
How to Paint MDF
After you’ve sanded your MDF, you may want to paint it.
As with any paint job, make sure your work area is well-ventilated. Wear your mask when you’re sanding, and wear latex gloves when you’re mixing paints or primers.
What You’ll Need
Before you start painting, collect the following supplies:
- Foam brush and paint roller
- Synthetic paint brush
- Putty knife
- Sanding sealer (optional)
- Polymer joint compound (optional)
- Paint tray
- Drop cloth
- Latex gloves
Prep the Area
First, set down your drop cloth to protect your working area.
Set out your supplies and double-check that you have everything you need. Remove any hardware if you’re painting a fixture or a piece of furniture.
If you haven’t already sanded your MDF, now is the time to do it.
Apply Sanding Sealer
Sanding sealer is optional, but it will provide a better seal than primer alone.
Stir your sanding sealer, and pour some into a paint tray. Then use a roller to apply it to your MDF.
Check the manufacturer’s instructions to see how long the sealer takes to dry, and wait.
While drying, the sealant will raise a slight grain on the MDF’s surface. Use 220-grit sandpaper to sand it smooth, but be careful. You only want to give it a light pass, not remove the sanding sealer.
Wipe the board clean with a tack cloth, and apply a second coat of sanding sealer.
Wait for it to dry again, then sand the surface with 320-grit sandpaper. Clean it with a tack cloth, and you’re with this step.
Smooth the Edges
If you haven’t already smoothed the edges, you’ll need to do that now. I’ve already talked about one way to do that, but there’s an alternate method.
Use your finger to spread a layer of polymer joint compound along each edge. Wait for it to dry, and sand it with 220-grit paper.
Incidentally, this is an effective way to fix a gauge on the face of your MDF board. The polymer joint compound will be almost as tough as the MDF, and you can sand it just as smoothly. With a coat of paint over the top, the patch will be invisible.
Apply Your Primer
Use shellac- or solvent-based primer to prime your MDF. Do not use a water-based primer as It can soak into the wood fibers in the material, causing them to swell.
You don’t have to worry about your primer selection if you used a sanding sealer. Because you’ve already sealed the surface, a water-based primer won’t soak into the material.
Apply your primer with a foam brush or roller. If you want an ultra-smooth finish, you can use a paint sprayer.
Paint Your MDF
Once your primer is dry, you’re ready to paint. Once again, you can use a foam brush, roller, or spray gun.
If you’re painting furniture or fixtures, use a high-gloss coat. This will provide the most durable finish, and is also the easiest finish to clean.
That said, there are times when a matte or an eggshell is better. If you’re going to apply a clear coat, it will adhere better to a dull base coat than a glossy one.
Apply a Clear Coat
Like a sanding sealer, a clear coat is optional. That said, it provides additional protection and makes the surface easier to clean. A high-gloss polyurethane, lacquer, or wax also creates a gorgeous finish that outshines any paint.
Depending on the type of clear coat you’re using, you’ll apply it differently. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions, especially for prep work and drying time.
Clean Up the Area
When your clear coat is 100% dry, you’re ready to clean up. If you removed any hardware, you can replace it at this time. Throw away your dirty drop cloth, and make a pass with your shop vac for any remaining dust. Store any remaining paint in a cool, dry location, and enjoy your fresh-painted MDF!
Can I Sand Water-Damaged MDF?
MDF is even more prone to water damage than wood.
If you have an MDF cabinet under your sink, you may have experienced water damage. When this happens, the MDF swells, and an entire fixture can look distorted. It may even interfere with some practical functions. For example, a swollen cabinet door may not close all of the way.
Thankfully, you can fix this by sanding the area down.
This is the rare scenario where you might use a belt sander on MDF. Make sure to wear your dust mask, and don’t worry about any imperfections. You’re bound to leave some scuff marks, which you can fix with a wood filler for large cracks.
Coat the area with a shellac-based primer, and wait for it to dry. Sand it with 220-grit sandpaper and repeat the process. After two coats of primer, the surface will be ready for repainting.
What Equipment do I Need to Sand MDF?
To sand MDF, you will need the following equipment:
- 120, 180, and 320-grit sandpaper
- Hand sander (optional)
- Orbital sander (optional)
- Dust mask
- Shop vac
- Tack cloth
How do I Create a Rounded Edge?
You can create a rounded edge while you apply the joint compound during Step 3 of the painting process. Make your layer ¼-inch thick, then sand it into a round shape when it dries.
If you’re joining two pieces of MDF together, you might caulk the edges. You can sand the caulk to get a smooth finish.
Final Thoughts on Can You Sand MDF
Sanding MDF is possible, but you should take some precautions before you start sanding.
Always wear protective gear like a dust mask when sanding and be sure to clean up all of the dust left behind once you’ve finished.
You can sand MDF by hand or with a machine, but it;s usually better to sand by hand to avoid any mishaps.