Can You Stain MDF? (Type of Stain To Use & How-To)

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Reviewed by
Eral Kadrija

Tony Adams

MDF (Medium-density fiberboard) is an engineered wood made from wood fibers, wax, and resins, combined under high pressure and heat to create a smooth and dense sheet material. So, can you stain it?

You can stain MDF as it has a porous surface, but you must prep it by applying a washcoat or sanding sealer to prevent over-absorption.

It’s recommended to use oil-based wood stain or gel stain as their thick coating won’t penetrate the surface too deeply. You can change the color of the MDF by using wood stain, paint, or wood dye.

Which Types of Wood Stain Can You Use on MDF?

What Type of Stain Can You Use On MDF?

You can use oil-based wood stain or gel stain on MDF surfaces. Avoid using water-based wood stain as MDF is sensitive to water and can swell. Water-based stain uses water as its solvent, and if MDF absorbs too much of it, it will swell.

Oil-based stain or gel stain have good wood penetration and their thick coating won’t penetrate the surface too deep. This includes varnish, lacquer, gel stain, and other stains dissolved in oils (solvents).

Painting vs. Staining (For MDF)

Painting vs Staining For MDF

The difference between painting and staining MDF is that staining will enhance the wood color and show the grain because it penetrates the surface deeply. Painting covers the wood grain because it stays on the top layer and doesn’t penetrate it.

More differences between painting and staining MDF are listed below.


You can use different types of paints on MDF, but 0il-based is better for this material. Oil-based paints are thicker and provide a glossy layer over the surface, protecting it from moisture, water, and other damage.

Paint doesn’t penetrate a surface deep to stick (compared to wood stain); instead, it produces a layer over the top layer that covers (hides) the surfaces underneath. This means the wood grain will be covered by paint. You can choose different colors and mix two colors (of the same type of paint) to get a unique color.

You don’t need to seal paint for indoor MDF wood, as the paint’s glossy finish will protect it. However, if the wood is placed outdoors, you must seal it with a waterproof sealant.


  1. Protect the surface from scratches and dent marks.
  2. It’s available in different sheens.
  3. Protects the surface from moisture and spills (to a degree).
  4. Dries fast.
  5. For indoor surfaces, you don’t have to seal it.
  6. Hides imperfections.


  1. You must apply a primer before painting.
  2. You must thin it.


Staining will enhance the MDF wood color, but won’t protect it. That’s because the wood stain is made 60% from pigments and wood dye, meaning it doesn’t have protective additives and is formulated to only give color to a surface. That’s why it’s mostly used over decorative surfaces.

Wood stain penetrates the wood deep to stick, meaning it doesn’t stay over the top layer as paints do. However, since MDF surfaces have large pores and are porous, you must seal them to prevent over-absorption. You can seal it by using a washcoat or sanding sealer.


  1. It provides a colorful finish.
  2. It’s easy to apply and doesn’t require thinking.
  3. You can mix different types to create a unique finish.
  4. You don’t need to apply a primer.
  5. It highlights curves and shapes on the surface.


  1. It’s difficult to remove as it penetrates the surface deeply.
  2. You must seal it.
  3. It doesn’t offer wood protection since it’s not waterproof or resistant.

So, should you stain or paint MDF? Well, the answer to that ultimately depends on your taste and needs. If you want a protective finish, use paint, as they are stronger and able to withstand more use.

On the other hand, stains must be used on decorative MDF only. Remember to seal the wood stain so it becomes durable, especially for outdoor surfaces.

How To Stain MDF Cabinets, Doors, and Stairs?

To stain MDF cabinets, doors, and stairs, do the following things.

  1. Strip the Existing Finish.
  2. Sand the MDF.
  3. Apply a Washcoat.
  4. Apply Wood Stain.

Staining MDF surfaces isn’t difficult, but you must prep (seal) them to prevent over-absorption and help the surface absorb stain evenly. You can do it by applying a coat of sanding sealer or shellac-based washcoat.

The tools for this project are listed below.

  • Paintbrushes
  • Lint-free cloths
  • A gallon or more of oil-based wood stain (pick the right color)
  • Oil-based polyurethane
  • Mineral spirits
  • A vacuum
  • Shellac-based washcoat
  • Drop sheets
  • Sandpaper of different grits
  • Paint stripper (if there is an existing finish on the MDF)
  • A power sander (for large MDF surfaces)

1. Strip the Existing Finish

Strip The Existing Finish

If an existing finish is on the MDF board, the wood stain will not stick and will peel off in a few weeks. So, you must strip (remove) it.

To remove an existing finish:

  1. Apply paint stripper over the surface.
  2. Wait 15-30 minutes.
  3. Scrape the finish using a paint scraper.
  4. Clean the surface with water and leave it to dry.

2. Sand the MDF

Sand The MDF

Sanding will remove imperfections, dust, and filth from the surface. Start by sanding with 100-grit sandpaper and finish with 220-grit sandpaper by working your way up. After sanding, remove the dust.

To prevent over-absorption, fill the pores of the MDF board with sanding dust. To do so, sand the surface with 320-grit sandpaper and use the dust produced to fill the pores.

3. Apply a Washcoat

Apply Washcoat

To prevent a patchy or splotchy finish and help the surface absorb stain evenly, apply a shellac-based washcoat. You can use sanding sealer or wood conditioner as an alternative to a washcoat.

4. Apply Wood Stain

Apply Wood Stain

To stain MDF:

  1. Use a chip or bristled paintbrush or a rag.
  2. Apply 2-3 coats of oil-based stain.
  3. Wait until one coat dries before applying the next one.

On average, it takes wood stain 1-2 hours to dry enough for a re-coat. If the wood stain is too thick, thin it with mineral spirits in a ratio of 1:2 (1 part mineral spirits to 2 parts of wood stain).

After it dries, seal the finish with polyurethane or spar varnish to increase its durability and make it water-resistant. Apply 3 coats of sealant over the finish and wait 3 days for it to dry before using.

Can You Change the Color of the MDF furniture?

You can change the color of MDF furniture by using wood stain, paint, or wood dye (paint powder). Wood stain will give the surface more color, while the paint will give it more sheen. 

Wood dye (or paint powder) can be mixed with mineral spirits, linseed oil, paint thinner, or other oil-based solvent. The mixture can be applied over a surface, and the color will set once the solvent dries.

Tony Adams

Tony Adams

Woodworker, Interior and Exterior Painter, Flooring Specialist

Tony is a professional painter and an author of DIY Geeks. Tony has completed over 1,000 painting projects for his clients. It's safe to say he knows what he Is talking about.

Eral Kadrija

Eral Kadrija

Lead Editor, Home Renovator

Eral has a passion for home renovation and repair. Over the years, he has bought, renovated, and sold 7 old homes. Using his experience from different DIY projects he created DIY Geeks.

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