Q: My husband and I just bought a new house. We were too late in the construction process to upgrade the interior of our cabinets to melamine and are now stuck with MDF interiors.

Can you recommend a finish and application to achieve a waterproof, durable finish for the MDF? I’ve seen stained MDF and like the look but am not sure how durable it is.

A: MDF, or medium density fiberboard, is a manufactured wood product consisting of sawdust bonded together at high heat and pressure by resins.

Because it can be tooled and milled easily and cleanly, and because it does not expand and contract with moisture changes, it is the material of choice for medium-grade cabinetry. Another advantage of MDF is that it takes paint and other finishes uniformly.

We’ve never seen MDF stained and sealed. But if you like the look, go for it. Staining and sealing your cabinet interiors is a three-step process.

Lightly sand the surfaces to be stained. Make sure you remove all the sanding dust with a vacuum cleaner and a tack cloth. Next, apply the stain. After the stain dries, sand lightly with No. 220 grit sandpaper and remove the dust. Next, apply a coat of wood sealer. Let dry and sand again. Finally, apply two coats of polyurethane, sanding between coats.

Rather than staining MDF, we prefer paint. Apply one coat of primer and two finish coats of a high-quality enamel. Again, make sure to sand and vacuum between coats.

Whether you choose stain and sealer or paint, you’re in for a lot of work. The good news is that both finishes are durable and washable up to a point.

No matter which route you take, the most durable finish we have found for shelves and drawer bottoms is vinyl flooring. This is a trick we learned from our mother, Lois, when we were kids.

Forty years ago, shelves and drawers were made of wood and lined with self-adhesive contact paper. After a little while, the contact paper got dirty or torn and had to be replaced. What a mess. Because of the adhesive backing, it never came out easily. Papering over it created more of a mess.

When Mom and Dad built our house in Northern California, about half the flooring was linoleum–it was easier to keep clean with three boys in the house.

After the installation, there were plenty of pieces left over. Lois got the idea that these scraps would make perfect shelf liners. She cut them to fit the shelves and drawer bottoms, then just laid them in, no glue. They went in quickly and easily, cleaned up with a damp cloth and wore like iron.

So for the interior of your new cabinets, paint or stain for the aesthetics, but for durability, we suggest that you follow Lois’ method.

Bill and Kevin Burnett will attempt to answer your questions although the volume of e-mail sometimes makes this impossible. Contact them at sweat-equity@comcast.net.


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