Ceilings, Simplified: Wood is good, but MDF might be better

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By Ron Hazelton, DIY Expert and TV Personality

Who doesn’t love the natural beauty of solid wood? There’s just something about its whorls and knots, the pattern of the grain and the color variations that make it universally appealing.

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I have decades of home remodeling experience and have witnessed good results installing real wood ceilings in the past. But after having the chance to work with an MDF ceiling product, I’ve discovered, to my own surprise, that I’m becoming a fan of medium-density fiberboard (MDF). The beauty of the finished product – coupled with the ease of installation – made me a convert. It also made our first MDF customer very happy.

Cozy option, easy installation
Recently, I worked with a homeowner who had undertaken an ambitious home remodeling project, which included the kitchen. She wanted to incorporate a wood plank ceiling to create a “beachy” vibe. After doing some research, we recommended an affordable Armstrong Ceilings MDF product: WoodHaven Painted White Planks.

Installation was a breeze. The prefinished planks went up easily, snapping into a mounted track system. The planks’ beveled tongue and groove edges help to minimize any appearance of gaps, and their staggered installation keeps waste to a minimum. Unlike MDF planks, some real wood planks do not have the easy to use tongue and groove feature, and if they do, imperfections in the wood might leave gaps that need to be filled with caulk.

But the best part of the project was seeing the homeowner’s reaction when it was finished – she couldn’t believe what a difference it made. To be honest, neither could we.

Those white planks had a transforming effect on the entire kitchen. It felt clean, cozy, inviting and most importantly, “beachy.” Which was perfect for their beach-side home. But I’ve since discovered that a planked ceiling can complement a wide range of home styles and décor.

Versatile choice, multiple options
Maybe that’s why ceiling planks have had such staying power. White-painted planks can make a room feel warm and authentic or fresh and contemporary – it’s a surprisingly versatile product. In fact, these 5” x 7’ planks work well on walls, too.

They’re available in a variety of textures and finishes besides painted white – including linen-like textures, rustic driftwood, weathered wood, beadboard or natural wood-look finishes like maple, pine, cherry and bamboo.

MDF itself is a versatile material that’s been in commercial use since the ‘80s. Considered an engineered product, MDF is a high-grade composite made from a mixture of recycled wood fibers and resin, which is compressed and heated to form durable, dense panels.

MDF: strong, dense, stable
These composite panels are strong and have a very consistent structure, which allows it to be cut, drilled and finished in many ways. That versatility has made MDF the go-to choice for many residential and commercial uses – from cabinetry, doors, walls and ceilings to laminate flooring, paneling, furniture and decorative accents like wainscoting.

MDF also compares favorably to real wood on several fronts, including its environmental impact. Composite wood panels are composed mostly of wood residuals that would otherwise be discarded – basically recycled wood.

Under certain conditions, MDF may perform better than solid wood, too. Solid wood tends to warp or crack when exposed to changes in humidity or temperature because of its inherent structure. The wood cells are aligned in the same direction, magnifying the effect of expansion or contraction due to changes in temperature or humidity.

But compression and heat treatment work to keep the fibers in MDF evenly distributed. Although MDF can still warp in certain circumstances, it is generally more stable and less likely to expand and contract in heat and humidity than solid wood.

Prefinished planks save steps
One thing my crew and I appreciated with the WoodHaven product was the steps it saved us during installation – a big plus for DIYers as well. Because the planks are completely prefinished – with no need to sand, stain or seal – it is truly an out-of-the box solution.

Compare that to the multiple priming, sanding and varnishing steps for a raw wood ceiling, or to the many priming and painting steps required for a drywall ceiling. Once the MDF planks are up, the project is done.

The MDF planks don’t attach directly to the existing ceiling, but instead “float” on top, covering up any existing materials and leaving space between the two ceilings to accommodate moisture and movement. MDF planks can also be attached directly to ceiling joists using furring strips and mounting clips included in the Woodhaven carton.

Alternately, the Easy Up® track-and-clip system option works well for installing planks over drywall, plaster or popcorn ceilings. In that case, you can attach the provided tracks directly over the old ceiling and then use the clips to attach the planks to the grid. Compared to wood ceilings that necessitate nailing the planks into ceiling joists and filling the nail holes later, this process works smoothly.

For DIYers, MDF planks can be a real boon. It’s an option that requires few tools, goes up quickly – usually a weekend will do it – and doesn’t require finishing. Using MDF to cover up stained or damaged drywall, plaster or popcorn ceilings is a practical alternative to repair or replacement, too.


MDF planks: damage cover-up
Drywall replacement and scraping popcorn ceilings can be very strenuous tasks. Simply covering up these eyesores with MDF planks is a more efficient and beautifying alternative action. The same can be said for dated or stained drop ceiling panels; WoodHaven planks can be installed on the existing grid after popping the old tiles out.

Since installing my first MDF plank ceiling, I’ve heard similar stories of thrilled homeowners – including one woman who was moved to (happy) tears when she saw her beautiful, vastly improved new ceiling.

Most remodelers I know are just happy when they’ve completed a job to the customer’s satisfaction. They don’t expect tears of joy. But you can bet that delighted homeowner will share her story (and the name of her contractor) every time she’s asked. And a happy client is worth a dozen referrals – maybe more, with social media!

Ron Hazelton is a leading authority in the do-it-yourself home improvement field, Ron is the host of his own home improvement series, Ron Hazelton’s HouseCalls, now in its twentieth season. He also provides DIY home improvement videos at www.ronhazelton.com

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