Can You Stain MDF? (Staining Methods & Step-by-Step Guide)

If you buy something through our posts, we may get a small commission. Read more here.

Have you tried staining MDF before and ended up with a blotchy, uneven finish? Staining MDF can be tricky and dangerous to your health, especially when you’re unsure about the proper methods.

I’ve been there, so I’ll share and guide you how to stain MDF the right way to get the finish you’re aiming for!

What is Medium-Density Fiberboard or MDF?

Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) is a beautifully reprocessed wood product. It is a type of wood comprised of microscopic wood fibers, often generated from recycled materials such as sanding dust, sawdust, and adhesives.

Under high pressure, the contents are compressed between two massive metal plates to form flat boards of varying thicknesses.

MDF board

MDF boards are typically sanded to produce a smooth surface. There are several benefits to using MDF. It is more cost-effective than plywood, exceptionally dense, and resistant to weathering. Moreover, it doesn’t contract or expand like natural wood.

Also Read: MDF vs Melamine 

Is Staining MDF Board Recommended?

Staining MDF is achievable, but there might be preferable alternatives, given that MDF is a composite material consisting of wood fibers and resin. It isn’t as porous as solid wood, so it might not take stains as effectively.

But if you insist on staining this material, you’ll need to follow the correct methods and techniques to get the best result. Because it’s different than natural wood, there are a few added steps you’ll need to complete.

While it’s challenging to get your MDF to resemble natural wood because of the lack of wood grain, you can still give it a better appearance by staining. 

Is it Okay to Stain MDF Doors?

It is possible to stain an MDF door, similar to the process of staining regular MDF boards. However, MDF is more porous than solid wood and may absorb stains differently.

That’s why it’s crucial to follow the right method to ensure the stain adheres to the surface and yields a good result.

MDF door

How About Staining MDF Cabinets?

As with other MDF surfaces, cabinets can be stained to improve their appearance. If you stain MDF cabinets, you’ll need the same supplies as other MDF surfaces, although it is harder to produce a glossy finish when stained.

For the best finish, apply the stain evenly and allow the stain MDF cabinets to dry between applications. Due to the lack of wood grain in MDF, dye absorption is poor. You will need to add or apply a thin layer of polyurethane to the stain as a sealant for protection.

Should You Stain MDF-Made Furniture?

Absolutely. MDF-made furniture can be stained similarly to other wood surfaces. Follow the proper method when applying stains on MDF to ensure an equal finish. Some areas of MDF boards tend to absorb stains more quickly than others.

In addition, it is crucial to seal MDF furniture before staining to prevent the material from warping and swelling. MDF can be sealed with an MDF-specific primer or sealer.

staining over paint

Moreover, staining furniture made from MDF can help it blend with your room’s decor and provide an added layer of protection.

Staining MDF: 5 Methods

Here, I’ll show you 5 different ways you can stain MDF.

Method #1: Stenciling

Use stencils to add designs and shapes onto your board before staining it with paint or varnish. This method is ideal for small, intricate objects, such as picture frames, with a large surface area in a single portion. This method can also create an ombre effect on the board.

Method #2: Spray Painting

Spray painting is a great way to apply color to larger boards quickly. This method works best on completed projects stained with paint or varnish instead of dyes, as they do not penetrate the board as deeply. 

In addition, make sure you apply a clear coat of lacquer or varnish after using this method to seal the paint.

staining MDF door

Method #3: Pressure Washing

Clean the MDF board with a pressure washer before applying paint or stain. This is a wonderful method for smoothing down uneven surfaces and designing distinctive patterns on boards.

Using this method, you can also use stencils if you intend to hand-paint over them. Simply position the stencil on the surface of your board and spray paint onto it using an air compressor.

Method #4: Brush Painting

This method is ideal for tiny projects with limited surface area, such as the front of picture frames or other craft items. This is done using a paintbrush to manually paint a design onto your board.

paint brush and Minwax Helmsman Indoor-Outdoor Spar Urethane

It is also possible to utilize this method on larger objects, although it will require more time and effort than other methods.

Method #5: Ombre Effect

This is where one color flows gently into another. Additionally, you can construct a unique pattern on your board using stencils and other craft items before staining it with paint or varnish for added distinctiveness.

How to Stain Your MDF Doors, Cabinets, and Furniture

It’s important to be aware that some types of MDF, depending on their intended use, are made with harmful compounds like formaldehyde.

dresser made with MDF wood

These substances are hazardous. Therefore, it’s crucial to prevent inhalation by ensuring adequate ventilation in your workspace.

But overall, the process for staining MDF furniture, such as doors, is simple. However, you must ensure that the board has been prepared adequately so that it does not absorb too much paint and become damaged.

With all this in mind, you can stain MDF properly with safety measures and staining techniques in place. Here’s the step-by-step process for a smoothly stained surface:

Basic Tools You’ll Need

Here are some of the most important tools and materials you’ll need. You can buy them at any store nearby:

tools and materials for removing paint on wood

Step #1: Setup Your Work Area

Use a drop cloth to protect your flooring. Ensure adequate airflow by opening windows and doors. Also wear protective gear and use safety glasses and a face mask to avoid breathing in dangerous dust from sanded MDF.

MDF board

Prepare your stain MDF board by applying wood stripper to get rid of any old paint or stain, according to the product description. Before sanding, the stripped surface must be fully clear of the chemical.

Step #2: Collect the Supplies You’ll Need

To achieve the desired finish for your MDF project, purchase the appropriate stain and varnish products to stain MDF wood. When purchasing a stain, I recommend opting for a solvent-based variety to ensure even distribution of color on the MDF wood surface. 

As for varnish MDF, you can choose between a gloss or semi-gloss finish. Then, get the necessary paint brush and sandpaper, including small and medium-sized brushes. These are all important to enhance the overall results.

Step #3: Remove Old Stain Off the MDF

If you have never used a stripper before, I advise you wear protective gear to avoid inhaling hazardous fumes. This step is much more dangerous if your MDF board was previously stained.

You must remove any old stain finish from the MDF board’s surface. Usually, the piece will have a tough or clear finish that must be removed using a chemical stripper. Then, apply a uniform coating of the stripper on your workpiece’s surface. 

Recommended Read: How to Use CitriStrip Stripping Gels

paint stripping

Allow it to sit until it bubbles or for the time specified on the product’s label. Then, remove the old finish and chemical stripper residue using a scraper. You can also use sandpaper with a fine grit to avoid scratching the board, then remove all remaining dust with a damp cloth.

Step #4: Apply Wood Fillers and Primers If Necessary

If your MDF surface has cracks, holes, or other perforations, you can patch them with wood filler or wood putty to achieve a smooth finish.

Step #5: Sand and Clean the MDF’s Surface

Allow the stripped surface to dry before beginning to sand. I personally suggest using an orbital sander combined with a vacuum. It really helps in reducing the MDF particles in the air, which can be harmful if inhaled.

sanding surface of MDF board

You can begin by lightly sanding with 120-grit sandpaper, then use 150- medium grit sandpaper for a better finish, and 180-grit sandpaper for a perfect textured finish. Use a brush to get rid of all the dust on MDF. Wipe any dust that is still there with a rag.

Step #6: Start Applying Your Preferred Stain Product

You can apply your stain with a rag, sponge brush, or chip brush. For gel stains, a chip brush or sponge brush tends to work better than a cloth. On the other hand, for regular stains on MDF tables and furniture, a cloth does the trick quite well.

A wood stain that is solvent-based must color your MDF surface more thoroughly. The pigment will be equally distributed on the MDF surface.

water-soluble dye stain

Ensure that you apply multiple thin layers of wood stain to the workpiece, allowing each layer to be completely dry before adding the next. The goal of this is to achieve color uniformity all over the surface. 

Step #7: Let the Stain Dry and Apply a Sealant (Varnish or Polyurethane)

You can use a polyurethane coat or varnish to seal MDF surfaces. These several thin coats will protect the MDF surface and impart a beautiful gloss or sheen.

Ensure the stained MDF surface is completely dry before applying a varnish or polyurethane finish. You can consider applying the finish with a clean brush. Alternatively, you can use a spray for more uniform coverage, based on the desired sheen level.

drying stain

Furthermore, medium-density fiberboard should only require one or two sealant applications. Then once done, wash your used paintbrushes and allow MDF to dry.

Step #8: Tidy Up

Finally, you’ll want to clean up your work area and supplies like your used brushes.

It’s essential to clean polyurethane off your brush immediately after using it to get the maximum life out of your brush. You should also remove any polyurethane from your body or hands if it spilled during application.

Tips for Applying Stain on MDF

Now that I’ve shown you how to stain MDF correctly, let me share some expert tips to achieve an even more polished finish. I can’t stress enough the importance of working in a well-ventilated area and wearing protective gear when handling MDF before applying these methods:

spray painting MDF board

Consider the Edges

As the edges of medium-density fiberboard are more porous than the surface, staining them will not provide the same protection or covering as paint. Therefore, if the edges of your project are exposed, you may need to apply a thin coat of priming and paint.

Utilize the Right Applicator

The application method utilized when applying stain on MDF furniture, cabinets, or other surfaces can significantly affect the final outcome. 

Some individuals prefer a bristle brush, while others prefer a foam brush or a lint-free rag. Considering the application tool best suited for the project at hand is crucial, as it can greatly impact the final result.

paint brush

In the end, I always advise going with the application method you’re most comfortable with. Each method comes with its own set of advantages and challenges, so it’s essential to weigh those out.

For instance, using a foam brush can be much more efficient than using a rag, but it may result in uneven coverage due to the thickness of the application. Conversely, a lint-free rag can provide optimal coverage but may require a longer application time and multiple coats. 

It is important to weigh these factors and determine the best application method for the specific project.

Test on Scrap Wood First

It’s not uncommon for me to see folks disappointed with the color of paint or stain once it dries. That’s why I always stress the importance of testing the stain on a small patch of the MDF board before covering the whole thing.

staining MDF board

As a best practice, I always advise bringing a small sample piece of wood when selecting stains to test it on the piece before making a purchase. This will provide an accurate representation of the final result and prevent any potential dissatisfaction.

How to Clean the Brush After Staining

It is important to invest in high-quality paintbrushes to achieve a desirable outcome. However, the longevity and effectiveness of these brushes can be affected if they are not properly cleaned. 

To make sure you get the most out of your tools, I’d recommend adhering to these effective practices when cleaning paintbrushes:

cleaning paint brush
  1. Clean paintbrushes right after use to prevent the paint from hardening and make cleaning more difficult.
  2. Avoid soaking paintbrushes in solvent or water, as this can compromise the bristles.
  3. Establish a separate set of paintbrushes for water-based and oil-based products, and avoid switching between the two based products.
  4. After cleaning, store the brushes in cardboard jackets to maintain their shape. By following these guidelines, the longevity and effectiveness of paintbrushes can be preserved.

Necessary Tools/Supplies

Here are the things you will need for cleaning your paint brushes:

materials for cleaning paint brush

Steps to Clean Varnishes, Shellacs, Lacquers, and Oil-Based Paints

Step #1

Pour the appropriate solvent into a basin or container, then carefully dip the bristles while holding its handle. The manufacturer’s label will indicate which solvent should be used. This step will help remove any paint and debris from the brush effectively.

Step #2

It is important to ensure that the solvent gets into all bristles. This can be done by dipping the brush upwards and downwards in the container and stirring it around several times. 

person cleaning a paint brush

Additionally, it is helpful to wipe and then squeeze the brush bristles on the sides of the basin or container to remove excess paint. You can run a comb on the paintbrush to remove paint further without damaging the bristles.

Step #3

To get rid of the extra solvent, circulate the paintbrush into a trash can and clean it again with a new solvent.

Step #4

To completely clean the paintbrush, use a roller spinner tool. To use this, insert the brush handle into the roller spinner’s bottom and submerge the head of the brush in a bucket. 

Then, pump the tool to spin the brush quickly, removing all remaining liquid inside the brush.

Steps to Clean Water-Based Paints and Latex

Step #1

Mix soap and warm water in a clean container to create a soapy solution. Dip the paintbrush bristles into the solvent solution while holding the handle, and work the soap through the brush bristles using your fingers.

cleaning brush with soap and water

Step #2

Use your fingers to apply the soap through the bristles of the brush. Additionally, a brush comb can be used to remove any excess paint without causing damage to the bristles.

Step #3

Rinse the bristles with clean water. To effectively rinse the brush bristles, it is best to put them under running water and let the water hit the paintbrush bristles. 

For tough paints, washing the brush in mineral spirits or lacquer thinner may be necessary before using warm water with soap to clean it.

Step #4

Dry the paintbrush. You could shake the paintbrush in the container or bucket to get rid of the water, but that usually doesn’t work. You could use a roller spinner that uses centrifugal force [1] to dry the paintbrush quickly.

paint brush

Put the paintbrush handle in the bottom of the tool, and then squeeze the other end numerous times to make the brush spin. Keep the paintbrush pointing into the container or bucket to get the droplets.

Read Next: How to Clean a Polyurethane Brush 

How to Maintain the Finish of Your MDF Board

How to Get Rid of Stains From an MDF Board

To avoid permanent damage, clean the surface promptly if your board gets stained. Here is a step-by-step process to clean a stained MDF board:

painting MDF board

Step #1: Use a dry cloth to wipe any extra dirt or oils from the surface.

Step #2: If a simple water cleaning is insufficient, utilize a solvent such as isopropyl alcohol to clean the MDF board. Allow the solvent to sit on the surface for approximately 30 minutes before wiping it off. This method should effectively remove any remaining residue.

Step #3: Use fine-grit sandpaper to smooth out any remaining residue, then wipe the surface with a damp cloth or sponge before allowing it to air dry completely. Use furniture polish if you cannot remove stains easily by hand.

Two Top-Rated Stains for MDF to Achieve a Natural Wood-Like Color

Here are two stains that can lend your MDF board a look akin to natural wood, much like a topcoat.

staining a piece of wood

1. Krylon K03601000

The Krylon K03601000 wood stain is perfect for exterior MDF surfaces that have been worn and damaged due to prolonged exposure to adverse weather conditions.

The semi-transparent exterior wood stain is advisable before applying a protective varnish. This stain has been specifically formulated to provide a barrier against water and UV rays and withstand harsh conditions.

What I Like

What I Don't Like

2. Minwax 22760 Weathered Oak Wood Finish

This Minwax wood stain imparts a weathered oak wood finish to MDF tables. This stain features a rich color and dries quickly. 

It is formulated with a penetrating power that allows it to reach the wood fibers of medium-density fiberboard to some extent. Furthermore, concerns regarding uneven texture can be alleviated as this wood stain produces an even finish.

What I Like

What I Don't Like


Is it advisable to paint your MDF board?

MDF can be painted with good results, but it’s important to prepare the surface properly, it needs to be sealed, sanded, and primed to prevent any swelling or warping caused by the moisture. 

So it is advisable to paint your MDF board with proper preparation and the right paint. Check the proper ways to paint MDF furniture, cabinets, shelves, and boards next!

What paint and finish can you use on MDF?

It is acceptable to use both oil-based and water-based paint on MDF, and various finishes can be achieved by staining the MDF boards. 

If an oil-based stain such as polyurethane or linseed is desired, then the ideal finish would be varnish. Additionally, water-soluble dyes can also be used to stain the MDF.

Should I paint or stain MDF?

Both painting and staining are viable options for MDF, and while they may not produce the same textured finish, the decision between the two ultimately depends on personal preference. 

To make an informed choice, it is advisable to consider the environment in which the MDF will be placed and select a paint and stain design that is most appropriate for that specific environment. 

But regardless of your option, make sure you prepare the surface and seal MDF before painting or staining. 

Should you stain MDF using food color?

It is possible to utilize food coloring as a means of staining wood, though this method is more suitable for small wooden structures such as children’s toys. 

This is because the wood must be immersed in the food coloring, and the longer it remains submerged, the greater the absorption of food coloring. 

Can you stain MDF without applying primer?

It is okay to paint MDF without the use of a primer. However, it should be noted that the resulting finish may not be smooth. The primary purpose of primer and paint techniques is to provide an excellent surface for the paint to be applied without breakages and blotches. 

Therefore, if you want a highly smooth finish, it is advisable to reappraise the decision to paint the MDF without primer.


Staining MDF is a process that requires a specific approach to achieve a beautiful and long-lasting finish. It can be a challenging and dangerous task if proper steps and techniques are not followed. 

But now that you can stain MDF, simply follow this guide, use the suitable materials, and you’re well-equipped to achieve that expert finish on MDF.

robert headshot

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Articles
Join our community on facebook and get 3 woodworking plans for free!
    Your Cart
    Your cart is empty