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

MDF wood is used for utility furniture like shelves and drawers but the absence of wood grain makes DIYers question if they can stain the MDF or not. So, can you?

You can stain MDF wood because MDF is porous and will absorb stain but you’ll need to prep the MDF board to absorb the wood stain evenly. To prep, sand the MDF board with 150-grit sandpaper and fill gaps with wood filler.

When the wood filler is dry, apply a thin layer of shellac-based washcoat on the MDF and scuff it with 400-grit sandpaper before applying the wood stain. The purpose of sanding, filing, and sealing the MDF board is to prevent the over-absorption of the wood stain.

But, that’s not all. This post reveals more about staining MDF furniture including the type of stain to use and the benefits of staining your wood surface. Let’s dive in.

What Type of Stain Can You Use On MDF?

What Type of Stain Can You Use On MDF?

You can use different types of wood stain on MDF but the best stain to use is oil-based wood stain. This is because oil-based wood stains have proper wood penetration and will not cause the MDF board to swell.

Also, oil-based stains spread evenly on MDF and are compatible with solvent-based undercoats like shellac. You should stay away from water-based wood stains when working on MDF because MDF boards are very sensitive to moisture.

When working on any surface made from MDF, the recommended wood stain to use is oil-based stains. This includes varnish, lacquer, gel stain, and other types of wood stains that are dissolved in oils or solvents. The reason oil-based wood stain is the best on MDF boards is that oil-based stains penetrate and spread evenly on the MDF wood.

Also, oil-based stains are thick and as such, you don’t need to apply multiple coats on the MDF wood so this prevents improper stain absorption. You should ensure to thin the oil-based stain with mineral spirits before application so the stain can dry smoothly.

You shouldn’t use any water-based product on an MDF board because MDF boards are very sensitive to moisture. If you use a water-based stain on MDF, the MDF will absorb the water and swell. You should also avoid using a water-based primer or undercoat on MDF as it will cause the same problem.

So, is paint or wood stain better for MDF? Let’s find out.

Painting vs Staining (For MDF)

Painting vs Staining For MDF

When it comes to finishing MDF, you can either go for a paint finish or a wood stain finish. Wood stain finishes give more color to the wood and the stain also penetrates the wood to fill the pores and prevent the absorption of water.

Paints on the other hand don’t penetrate the wood. Instead, the paint stays on the MDF board where it protects against scratches and moisture. To know which of these finishes is the best for MDF, we’ll need to compare both finishes for MDF.

Painting For MDF

Painting MDF is a great way to finish the board. There are different types of paints but oil-based paints are the best option for MDF. Paints don’t penetrate wood as wood stains do. Instead, the paint stays on the top layer of the MDF board where it dries to form a hard and thick protective film on the board. Since paints don’t penetrate the MDF, you need to apply an oil-based primer coat to allow the paint to stick.

Paints are often used on busy MDF surfaces like stairs and tabletops. This is because the protective paint layer will protect the MDF wood from dents, scratches, and moisture. Paint finishes are available in different sheens and you can browse and pick from matte or eggshell paint to high-gloss paint.

Paints are thick and will require a thinning medium before application on MDF. But, you don’t always need a sealant on paint on MDF because the oil-based paint is strong enough to protect the MDF board.


  1. Painting MDF offers very good protection from scratches and dent marks.
  2. Paints are available in different sheens or lusters from eggshell to high-gloss finishes.
  3. Paints protect MDF from moisture and spills.
  4. Paints dry quickly on MDF boards.
  5. You don’t always need a sealant on painted MDF.
  6. Paints help to hide imperfections and mistakes on the MDF wood.


  1. You must apply primer paint on MDF before painting.
  2. Paints need to be thinned with solvents before application.

Staining For MDF

Staining is another great and common way to finish MDF boards. Wood stains also come in varieties but oil-based wood stains work best on MDF.

More than 60% of wood stain formula is made from pigments and wood dye meaning that wood stains offer the best color finish on MDF. When wood stains dry, the color is fully absorbed in the MDF which is why wood stain is great on decorative MDF surfaces like frames and drawers.

Wood stain penetrates wood when applied and doesn’t just stay on the MDF as paints do. Since MDF boards are porous and have no natural wood grain, you’ll need to seal the pores to prevent over-absorption of the wood stain.

Priming isn’t needed before staining MDF but you need a washcoat or sanding sealer coat to control stain absorption. Since stain soaks in the MDF, it doesn’t offer good wood protection. So, you need a sealant over the stain finish if you want it to be durable.

Pros of Staining MDF

  1. Wood stain provides the best color for MDF.
  2. Wood stain is easy to apply and doesn’t require any thinner.
  3. Staining MDF adds beauty to the MDF wood, especially when used on decorative furniture.
  4. Wood stains can highlight detail work, curves, and shapes on MDF board.
  5. Wood stain protects wood from dust and debris.
  6. You can mix different wood stains to create a unique finish.
  7. You don’t always need a primer coat before applying stain on MDF.

Cons of Staining MDF

  1. Wood stain can be very difficult to remove from MDF in the event you want to change the finish.
  2. Wood stains need a sealant to last long.
  3. Wood stains don’t offer good wood protection from scratches and dents.
  4. Wood stain isn’t waterproof.

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 on the MDF, you should use paint as paints are stronger and able to withstand more use.

Stains on the other hand should be used on decorative MDF furniture and when you need color. However, remember to seal the wood stain so it becomes durable especially when working on a busy MDF surface.

Next, let’s find out how to stain MDF cabinets, doors, and stairs.

How to Stain MDF Cabinets, Doors, and Stairs?

Staining MDF items is not difficult but there are a few steps to take before applying the stain. Without taking the proper steps, the finish will not come out smooth.

Not to worry, this guide will teach you these steps and the tools you need when staining MDF cabinets, doors, and stairs.

Here are the tools and supplies needed to stain MDF:

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

Here is a 6-step guide to staining MDF:

  1. Prep your work area
  2. Strip the existing finish
  3. Sand the MDF
  4. Apply washcoat
  5. Apply wood stain
  6. Seal the finish

Let’s check out these steps in detail.

1. Prep The Work Area

Prep The Work Area

The first step is to prep the work area. To do this, start by opening all doors and windows. When staining MDF, you’ll be dealing with solvents and sanding the MDF.

Some of these solvents produce fumes and sanded MDF dust contains synthetic chemicals that are also bad when inhaled. So proper ventilation is key. Also, put on a pair of gloves and breathing protection.

The next part is to lay a large drop sheet on the floor. This is to collect stains and shavings that fall off the MDF surface. You can use painter’s tape to hold the drop sheets together.

2. Strip The Existing Finish

Strip The Existing Finish

The next step is to strip the existing finish off of the MDF board. If there is an existing finish on the MDF board, the wood stain will not stick and will peel off in a few weeks.

To strip the existing finish, apply a paint stripper to the finish and let it sit for 15-30 minutes. After, scrape the paint stripper off of the MDF and the existing finish will come off with it.

If the existing finish was sealed, you’ll need to dissolve it with paint thinner, acetone, or lacquer thinner.

3. Sand The MDF

Sand The MDF

After removing the existing finish, sand the MDF wood with 100-grit sandpaper. Then remove dust and finish off with 150-grit sandpaper. The sandpaper will smoothen the MDF so the wood stain can dry smoothly.

Sanding also removes MDF dust nibs and grain that are on the surface. If you want, you can sand the wood with 320-grit sandpaper.

320-grit is fine sandpaper that will use the MDF dust to fill pores in the wood. This also helps to control stain absorption. After sanding, use a vacuum to remove all of the dust. Then wipe the MDF with a lint-free rag.

4. Apply Washcoat

Apply Washcoat

With the MDF smooth and dry, you can apply the washcoat. The best option is a shellac-based washcoat and you only need a layer of it. The washcoat helps to control stain absorption so the MDF can accept the stain evenly.

It also prevents a patchy or splotchy finish. In the absence of a washcoat, you can use a layer of sanding sealer or wood conditioner but do not use a primer because it will prevent the stain from being absorbed properly,

5. Apply Wood Stain

Apply Wood Stain

You can apply the wood stain over the MDF using a chip or bristled paintbrush. If you want to apply a gel stain, you should use a rag to apply the gel stain over the MDF in a circular motion.

You only need 2-3 coats of oil-based stain on MDF but you should ensure that each coat dries fully before applying the next. On average, it takes 2 hours for each coat of oil-based wood stain to dry.

If you suspect that the wood stain is too thick, you can thin it with mineral spirits in the ratio (1:2) 1-part mineral spirits to 2-parts wood stain.

6. Seal The Finish

Seal The Finish

After staining the MDF, you should seal the finish with oil-based polyurethane, varnish, or lacquer. The purpose of this is so the wood stain finish becomes durable and able to withstand constant use.

Sealing the finish also makes it water-resistant. You need 3 coats of the sealant on the wood stain and a 3-day dry time before using the finish.

Can MDF Be Colored?

MDF can be colored. To change or alter the color of MDF furniture, you can use wood paint or wood stain. However, wood stain gives more color. Paints on the other hand give more luster or sheen.

You can also change MDF color or add color to MDF furniture by using wood dye or wood paint powder. These products can be mixed with mineral spirits, linseed oil, paint thinner, and other oil-based solvents.

The mixture can be applied to a prepped MDF item. When the solvent dries, the color will set in the MDF wood. You should know that staining, painting, or coloring MDF will not give you the same finish as when you color natural hardwood.

Final Words

In summary, it’s possible to stain MDF wood since MDF is porous and will accept wood stains. However, you need to prep and condition the MDF board for stain application. To do this, you have to sand, fill, and seal the MDF board.

You can seal MDF wood with a washcoat, wood conditioner, or sanding sealer. When the sealer is dry, you can apply wood stain.

Leave the wood stain to dry for at least 2 hours before applying another coat. Finally, ensure to seal the stain finish to make it durable. You can do this with two coats of polyurethane varnish.

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