What you should know about SupaWood or MDF

It's affordable and easy to work with, but there are safety precautions that need to be in place when working with SupaWood or MDF.


MDF, also known locally as SupaWood, is an inexpensive alternative to wood or veneered boards for making furniture and decor accessories. I use it for plenty of projects on Home-Dzine because it is easy to work with and it can be painted or veneered with minimum effort and fuss. Here in South Africa, few people know that there are safety precautions that need to be taken when working with SupaWood or MDF, and even plywood.

MDF or SupaWood is manufactured by compressing fine sawdust particles and a combination of glues, waxes and resins under high pressure. The end result is an extremely strong and durable board product that can be used for a variety of home DIY projects.

What many don't know is that MDF or SupaWood (and plywood) contain urea formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, and it is for this reason that many countries have banned the use of MDF that uses urea formaldehyde in the manufacturing process. South Africa is not one of those countries and the MDF or SupaWood imported or manufactured still contains urea formaldehyde. But before you write off the use of MDF for future projects, consider that there are many other widely used products that contain formaldehyde - nail polish being the most popular.

What is important is that those using MDF or SupaWood follow a few safety precautions to reduce the risk factors:

Gassing off
Once manufactured, and as with many other household items, MDF or SupaWood does what is called 'off-gassing. This means that the product immediately starts to release VOC's (volatile organic compounds) into the air. If you think about the smell of a new carpet (which also contains formaldehyde) this is an indication of 'off-gassing'. The same applies to the smell of a brand new car and that doesn't stop you from buying a new car! In fact, formaldehyde is one on the most common indoor pollutants But over time harmful VOC's are released until that new smell is no longer detectable.

The same applies to MDF or SupaWood. It is manufactured, transported and delivered to suppliers before you get your hands on it, and by that time a lot of 'off-gassing' has taken place. However, once you change the state of the board by cutting or sanding, you are creating a situation where more 'off-gassing will occur.


Wear a dust mask
For this reason it is essential that a dust mask be worn when cutting or sanding MDF or SupaWood. It also helps to do any cutting or sanding in a well-ventilated space - or outdoors - to reduce contamination.

Finishing MDF or SupaWood (or plywood)
It is also important that MDF or SupaWood be painted or sealed to prevent any further 'off-gassing'. In most instances, projects made with MDF or SupaWood will be painted, while those made with plywood will be sealed or varnished. This finishing effectively coats the material and stops the 'off-gassing' process.

With our natural resources dwindling and timber products being expensive and hard to obtain, the average DIY enthusiast needs to look at alternatives.

Particle board (chipboard) is fine for projects that will be covered or upholstered, pine plywood is not very attractive and poor quality, marine plywood is more expensive and of better quality but also contains urea formaldehyde, which leaves MDF or SupaWood. If you know the danger and take the proper safety precautions, there's no reason why you shouldn't use this board product for your DIY project -and at least you can make an informed choice.


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