Wood Working & MDF Safety
When it comes to projects around your home, cost and quality are two very important factors. A concept deeply rooted among manufacturing and project management is the cost of quality, the idea that cutting corners on an item or service to make it more cost effective could actually cost you just as much, if not more, than investing a little extra in the beginning. This concept is regularly brought up within industries that require Research & Development, without properly investing in R&D, and saying “it’ll be good enough” could end up costing companies with manufacturing defects, product recalls or potential lawsuits. Cutting corners and pinching pennies can only get you so far, especially if those savings come at the cost of safety.
I’m sure we can all think of a time when we did something trying to save as much money as possible and didn’t do things the “right way” and we ended up spending more time or money trying to fix it after the fact. Sometimes it pays to invest a little extra when you can. There is huge benefit to being handy and skilled enough to take on DIY projects, potentially saving from outsourcing the labour. I’m sure we’ve all heard the expression, “If it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right”. Having the skills and abilities is the first step, but the quality of the materials is just as important. MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) has become an everyday part of our lives, from ready to assemble furniture and cabinets, to laminate flooring and casing. This is an incredibly cost effective material making it easier to improve and upgrade. But is MDF the safest material to be working with?
MDF is a composite wood product, both softwoods and hardwoods are broken down into a fibrous state and mixed with wax and glue. In a process using pressure and heat the mixture is pressed into sheets. The glue most commonly used is a urea formaldehyde (UF) resin mixture, additional formaldehyde may be added to create a stronger bond. The more formaldehyde used in the manufacturing process the more heavily it is trapped in the wood. The main concern about this product comes from the formaldehyde gas that is emitted. This gas can be emitted from the wood for months or years after it is manufactured. Extra precautions need to be taken when working with MDF, the dust particles can be especially irritating to the eyes and respiratory system. Using a respirator with cartridges approved for dust and gas and working in a properly ventilated space are of the utmost importance. Even ready to assemble furniture can have a strong odor when it comes out of the box. Opening the windows or assembling the piece outside if possible are the best options to prevent exposure to these gases.
The greatest health concern associated with the resins used to make MDF is the potential as a carcinogen. Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde has the potential to cause cancer, particularly within the respiratory system. While a definitive link hasn’t been made between these resins and cancer, when exposed to formaldehyde gas some individuals may experience skin irritation, watering eyes, coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing, a burning sensation in the eyes, nose or throat, or nausea. The Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) lists this resin as having the “potential” to be carcinogenic or “suspected” to cause cancer. These cancers can take years or decades to develop depending on the level of exposure.
With so many precautions to be taken for the sake of working with a more cost effective material, it’s worth it to think about other material options. There are easy alternatives for some items like swapping MDF for solid wood casing and trims, which are more durable and less susceptible to damage; a better investment long term. For larger items like furniture and cabinets, it can be difficult to find an alternative that doesn’t completely break the bank. In the grand scheme of things that $40 bookcase might fit the budget and work “well enough” for the moment, but after a few years and couple moves the panels are bowed, chipping, and it’s not repairable. So, you find you have to throw it out and buy another $40 bookcase, and the pattern repeats. Rather than buying multiple cheap items that inevitably end up in the landfill, investing in a durable solid built item will give you a better value.
High quality furniture is a lifelong investment built with the durability to last. In an effort to reduce our impact on the environment, investing in furniture that is more durable and less “disposable” we can minimize the amount of material being sent to the landfills. Solid wood furnishings and materials allow for the ability to be refinished and repaired, increasing their longevity and adding to their total value. In addition to this, many of these items are handmade and highly unique, items that can be passed down for generations to enjoy. For myself, I love having my grandmother’s china cabinet in my home, it brings back memories from my childhood and keeps her with me. I don’t think the same can be said about a $40 bookcase from a big box store with thousands made just like it.
Garage sales and second hand stores are a great resource for finding furnishings that are well built and more cost effective than brand new, with the ability to be repaired and refinished you can make a statement in your home. For something one-of-a-kind hiring a local woodworker and getting a piece custom made is an excellent option, not only are you getting it “just right” but you’re supporting a member of your community. We are understandably a little biased when it comes to all things wood, but solid wood offers a beauty and strength that can’t be matched in MDF.
So, before you start your next project or buy a piece of furniture take a moment to think about the materials being used, do they pose a potential risk to your wellbeing, is it durable enough to last or will you have to replace it in the near future, is it something destined to end up in the landfill? Investing in high quality items isn’t always easy, but the long-term result will be much more gratifying. And if something higher quality just doesn’t fit into the budget be sure to take the necessary precautions with whatever project you are working on.
If you are interested in doing a project that needs solid hardwood please reach out to our friendly staff, we would be happy to help!