There's a common misconception that HDF or MDF 1-piece doors are cheap and flimsy compared to solid wood 5-piece doors.
But here's the thing. Both construction methods have different characteristics and advantages depending on the space they're going in.
Is one better than the other, though? And what are the pros and cons of each? Let's dive in.
First off, what are 1-piece doors?
1-piece doors are - drum roll, please - just one piece.
They are usually made out of MDF or HDF and fabricated on a CNC machine.
The process is simple. We load a 3/4" thick sheet of HDF onto the router table and then mill and cut a cabinet door out of the material.
The result? A perfectly cut door that's one solid piece of material.
Our CNC machine routing out a 1-piece HDF door
The advantages of 1-piece doors
1.) No movement
1-piece doors have zero joints. Zero.
HDF 1-piece door on top, Maple 5-piece door on bottom
This makes them the perfect door to choose if you live in an environment with a lot of temperature or humidity fluctuations. There's no risk of center panel movement or movement between joints.
2.) No hairline cracks
Hairline cracks are cracks in the paint that occur typically between the stiles and rails on 5-piece doors.
5-piece door with a hairline crack
This happens because wood naturally expands and contracts with changes in temperature and humidity. And that movement at the seams will look like the paint is 'cracking'.
These cracks are like seams in a shirt - unavoidable and not a defect or sign of poor quality. It's just a result of using wood.
However, some homeowners aren't fans of these cracks and think they can look a bit unsightly. That's where 1-piece doors come in.
Since the door is one entire piece of material, there are no joints to expand and crack. So you get a completely flawless, seamless finish.
3.) Primes and finishes beautifully
What happens when you mix HDF, a material with no grain or knots and 1-piece construction with no joints? An extremely smooth finish.
HDF 1-piece doors receive paint extremely well and don't absorb a lot of primer like some hardwoods do.
4.) Strong material
There's a common perception that solid wood is stronger, sturdier, and longer lasting than both MDF and HDF.
But HDF and MDF are actually stronger than a lot of popular hardwoods used for paint-grade.
To give you an idea of their durability and hardness, MDF's durability is often compared to Red Oak's. Whereas, HDF is more comparable to Hickory (see our blog post on Janka Hardness Scale for more information on wood hardness and why it matters for your cabinet doors).
It's important to note though, the hardness of these materials can vary based on manufacturer so always ask your supplier first.
One of the biggest advantages of HDF 1-piece doors is their price tag. They are extremely affordable and a great choice for projects on a budget.
But don't get it twisted. Just because they are more affordable does not mean they are bad quality.
Fiberboard, in general, is a more affordable material than wood. But that lower price is really coming from the CNC automation. Making 1-piece doors takes less time, is fully automated, and requires less skilled labor. Which helps bring that cost down.
The disadvantages of 1-piece doors
We love 1-piece doors, but they aren't perfect for every project and here's why.
1.) Hard to achieve crisp corners
When you're working with a CNC machine, it can be a challenge to get the router bit really tight into the corners of the door. So if you're looking for crisp, clean corners, then going with a 5-piece door is probably your best bet.
But as you can see in the photo below, it's really hard to notice unless you're incredibly zoomed in. And the average homeowner won't be able to tell the difference.
2.) Limited design options
The design options for 1-piece doors are based on the capability of the CNC, performance, tooling, and engineering.
And even though we are always finding ways to add additional profiles and styles, 5-piece doors are the better choice for completely custom and complicated orders.
3.) Can only be painted
1-piece doors are made out of HDF or MDF. And these materials are only intended for paint.
Staining or leaving them with their natural color wouldn't look good since they don't have any of the beautiful, natural characteristics of wood.
Unfinished HDF 1-piece door
4.) Can have problems with screws
The key to using fiberboard is getting screws to hold. When a screw enters fiberboard, it tears the fiber apart. And as you can imagine, these loose, torn fibers do not have a lot of strength when compared to solid wood and can sometimes result in the fiberboard splitting.
This problem is more of an issue with MDF since it's less dense than HDF. And this, of course, depends on the manufacturer of the fiberboard.
But luckily, there are a few ways to combat this problem.
- Predrill a properly sized pilot hole
- Use straight-shanked screws or coarse-threaded screws. Regular tapered screws create a wedge that's notorious for splitting fiberboard apart.
What are 5-piece doors?
Most cabinet doors you come across are 5-piece doors.
They consist of a four-piece frame with a panel in the center. The two outside parts of the frame are called the Stiles. And the top and bottom parts are called the Rails.
Like we said above, 1-piece doors are the best choice if you're looking for no movement whatsoever.
But our 5-piece door construction is designed to help with expanding and contracting as much as possible.
We insert the panel into grooves that are on the inside edge of the stiles and rails. And then we also insert space balls to allow the panel to float, giving the panel room to expand and help keep the integrity of the door.
The advantages of 5-piece doors
When we're referring to 5-piece doors, we're usually talking about 5-piece doors made out of solid wood. But 5-piece doors have a lot more variety when it comes to material. They can be made out of wood, MDF, HDF, or you can even do a MDF/HDF center panel with a solid wood frame for paint-grade.
5-piece doors with a solid wood frame and a HDF center panel
Picking a HDF or MDF center panel and solid wood frame for a 5-piece door is a more affordable option and prevents a lot of center panel movement since it doesn't warp or crack when the temperature changes. Plus, you get solid wood for screwing your hinges with the added stability of an HDF or MDF panel.
2.) More finishing options
You can paint, stain, or go for a natural finish with 5-piece cabinet doors if they're made out of wood.
Rustic Alder 5-piece door with natural finish
3.) More door style options
1-piece doors are stuck to the limitations of the CNC and what can be programmed. But since our 5-piece doors are made by our craftsmen, there's more room to customize allowing you to get a lot more creative with door style and edge profiles.
It's no secret. 5-piece doors are durable and able to handle a lot of abuse (depending on wood species).
Typically, 5-piece doors use a mortise and tenon joint to connect the stiles and the rails. And the mortise and tenon joint is considered to be one of the strongest joints for wood construction next to the dovetail joint.
It's a construction method that has been used for centuries and has proven to be very long-lasting.
The disadvantages of 5-piece doors
1.) Warping and cracking resulting in hairline cracks
All wood moves. And with 5-piece doors, there will always be some movement in the components, resulting in hairline fractures of the coating. They're not a defect or sign of poor quality, but a lot of homeowners might not realize if they choose painted wood cabinet doors, cracks in the paint can and do happen.
Our biggest suggestion is to inform your customers of this before they decide- they might prefer to go with a 1-piece door to achieve a more seamless look.
2.) More expensive
5-piece door construction takes time, skilled labor, and more precision. Which is why 5-piece doors are more expensive than 1-piece.
Wood naturally has grain and knots that can affect the way the paint applies. And depending on the species you choose, wood doors require more paint and primer to cover up those natural characteristics.
If you go with a 5-piece door made out of MDF or HDF, then this won't be a problem.
4.) Putty the gaps
With 5-piece doors, there are little gaps where the panel meets the rail or stile. In order to prevent cracking, a lot of cabinetmakers use putty after priming the doors to fill in those gaps.
It's just another step in the finishing process. And an annoying one too. It gets everywhere and can be frustrating to work with.
So which one is better for painted cabinet doors?
They're both good options.
But we prefer using HDF 1-piece doors for painted cabinet projects. No joints, no movement, no caulking, and no grain. Can it get better than that?
If you've never worked with HDF 1-piece doors, we have sample boxes we can send you so you can see the material and construction of the door for yourself.
Each box includes 1 primed shaker door and 2 unfinished samples of our popular door styles. Click here to request one.
All in all, you really can't go wrong with either a 1-piece or a 5-piece door. They both hold up over time and look beautiful in any home.
We hope this post gives you a better understanding of both construction methods and helps you decide what the best option is for your cabinet projects.