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Any wood can be painted, but when painting cabinet doors understanding the properties of woods can make the difference between a successful project and a disappointment.
Over 90% of the problems with wood involve moisture. The reason that statement is true is that “wood always remains hygroscopic”. It responds to changes in relative humidity. That means that wood will shed moisture as relative humidity drops and it will regain moisture when relative humidity increases.
The fact that wood always remains hygroscopic is critical when choosing a wood type to be painted.
Understanding that all woods will shed water when humidity goes down is to also understand that when any wood sheds water the wood shrinks. And, when any wood regains water as the humidity increases, that wood expands.
While that statement is true with all woods, not all woods react with the same amount of expansion or contraction.
Hickory, Maple, and Beech have the highest rates of dimensional change with humidity fluctuations while Cedar, Alder, and Redwood are among the lowest.
The reason why wood expanding or contracting in painted cabinet doors is a problem is that as the wood expands the paint doesn’t. Once the paint dries it becomes brittle and cannot change dimensions with the wood.
So, once the paint becomes brittle, when the humidity changes and the wood reacts by changing dimensions, the paint will crack, usually where the cabinet door’s panel meets the frame.
Even woods that react less to humidity changes will have movement sufficient to crack the paint.
For that reason most cabinet doors designed to be painted have the panel made of Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF).
MDF has a reduced response to humidity changes and is much less likely to cause the problems to painted doors.
Although MDF is a nearly perfect material for the panels in painted doors, it has one drawback that prevents it’s use in the door’s frame. MDF is susceptible to chipping on the edges when struck with a hard object like a frying pan.
When used as panels, the edges of the MDF are protected within the frame, so this chipping problem is not an issue with MDF panels.
However if the MDF were to be used as frame components, the edges would be exposed and, therefore susceptible to chipping.
The solution to designing a reliable Paint-Grade cabinet door has been to place an MDF panel within a wood frame.
Woods like Poplar and Alder won’t chip, take paint well, and have low dimensional reactions to humidity changes.
These woods are the ideal choice for a Paint-Grade cabinet door frame and MDF is perfect for the panel.