Which Are Better: MDF or Pine Baseboards?

Baseboards often have the same look and profile but are constructed of different materials.  MDF (medium density fiberboard) and pine are two common baseboard materials.  Which material is better?  Which is cheaper?

Answer

Pine, whether solid or finger-jointed, is a better baseboard material than MDF.  MDF baseboards are half the cost of solid pine but a little more expensive than finger-jointed pine.

Because

Pine is real wood that is stronger than MDF because of its grain.  MDF is fake wood and is weaker–little better than cardboard.

MDF Baseboards

MDF Baseboards
MDF Baseboards

Medium density fiberboard (MDF) is a mix of sawdust, wood chips, and binders.  Imagine a dried-up bowl of oatmeal.  That’s a good representation of MDF.  Ranking MDF baseboards lower than pine baseboards is pretty easy:  MDF is crumbly, heavy, and a potential victim of moisture.

Pine Baseboards (Solid, Continuous Wood)

Continuous Grain Baseboard
Continuous Grain Baseboard

Continuous grain pine is what you think of when you think of “real wood.”  It is one continuous length of wood, no joints, no glue.

Pine Baseboards (Finger-Jointed)

Finger-Jointed Pine Baseboard
Finger-Jointed Pine Baseboard

Finger-jointed means several smaller lengths of pine that are factory-joined.  In the lower right quarter of this photo, you can see where one grain ends and another grain picks up again.  This is the tell-tale sign of finger-jointed wood.

Price Comparison

A price snapshot of baseboards of the same profile and look, 8′ long by 3.25″ high:

  • Finger-Jointed Pine:  $3.50
  • MDF:  $4.50
  • Solid Pine:  $10
  • PVC:  $10

Qualifiers

There are a few reasons you may want to choose MDF baseboards over pine:

  • You Don’t Want to Prime/Paint:  MDF baseboards always come primed white.  While priming is not the same as painting, in a pinch in can serve as “paint.”
  • Cost:  MDF is cheap, but not always as cheap as it is represented.  As shown above, it is cheaper than PVC and solid pine, but more expensive than finger-jointed pine.
  • Predictablity:  Because MDF is 100% manufactured, there are no surprises that await users of natural wood, such as knots and cracks.  It is completely homogeneous.
  • You Expect to Pull It Out:  For temporary construction, MDF baseboards are easy to remove and discard.  They break up by hand into small sections.

 

Baseboard Design

Any homeowner worth his/her weight in sawdust already knows that baseboards are a great way to spiff up any room.  And baseboards fit right in with my credo of:  fast, easy, and (can be) cheap.

But how are baseboards designed?  What’s their basic makeup?  And what’s all this about single-piece baseboards vs. built-up baseboards?

Refer to the picture below and to this key here:

Single Piece Baseboard – It’s a single piece, as opposed to a built up baseboard.  You can tell by looking at the top edge of the baseboard.  Some baseboards are constructed of multiple pieces, and the top part is always a separate piece.  This is a single-piece baseboard; a cohesive unit.

Baseboard Profile – The profile is probably the most obvious baseboard design factor.  Here you find two horizontal grooves which will catch the light and create attractive shadows.

Quarter-Round – The quarter round is less baseboard design and more baseboard practicality.  The quarter-round is a separate piece and it covers up the gap between the floor and the bottom of the baseboard.

Gap – Finally, it’s worth noting that another element of baseboard design is that it covers up the gap between the flooring and the wall.  This gap is necessary.

Baseboard Design

Remove Baseboards to Install New Flooring

Before installing new flooring, you’ll need to remove the baseboards.  It’s not as simple as it seems.  While poorly removed baseboards will not necessarily ruin your life, they sure as heck can ruin your walls.  If you have plaster-and-lath walls, you might end up with giant pieces of plaster falling down.  Really.

Why Removing Baseboards Isn’t So Bad

Because you’re installing flooring, you’re also raising the height of the floor.  This means that the baseboards simply get raised another half-inch, inch, or whatever up the wall.

Nail alignment stays the same.  You don’t have to guess where the stud are.  Because the baseboards are moving vertically but not horizontally, the nails will still hit the studs.

And this is the best part.  You’ll first need to score the paint along the top of the baseboard.  This leaves a horrid mess:  a deep gouge in your drywall.  But never fear, layering is here!  Remember, the baseboard is moving up.  So, it will effectively cover up the score marks.  All you need to do is make sure there are no bulges in that scored area to mess up your baseboard.

Remove Baseboards

How to Remove Baseboards

Tools and Materials

  • Pry bar
  • Claw hammer
  • Thin scrap of plywood (1/4″ thick and about 4 inches square)
  • Utility knife
  • Stud finder

Procedure

  1. Score along the top of the baseboard with the utility knife.  Score several times lightly rather than one heavy pass.
  2. Start at the stud closest to the end of the baseboard.  Locate with a magnetic stud finder.
  3. Lay the wood square on the wall, just above the baseboards.  Make sure square is positioned at a stud.  This is where the nails will be.
  4. Slowly, carefully tap the end of the pry bar into the top of the baseboard and pry back.
  5. If it’s hard to pry back all the way, get it started with the pry bar and continue with the claw hammer.

Locknail Your Window Trim

Here’s a simple tip that took me forever to realize, but it’s so easy: locknail your window trim to help it hold together better.

Let’s back up a second… When you are installing mitered trim on your windows, you often run into the problem of these d**n 45 degree angle joints not holding together. This is the point where the two pieces of trim meet at 90 degree, or perpendicular, angles. You’ve cut the end of each piece at a 45 degree angle…

The trim may hold well to the window itself—all well and good—but it doesn’t hold very well to itself. Even if you can get these corners to look like they are joined, over time they will begin to separate. Trust me, they will. So, what do you do? Fill in with wood putty? Caulk? No way. Two nails solve the problem.

Simply lock-nail the two pieces of trim together. The way you locknail is by driving a finish nail into the side of one piece so that it enters the adjoining piece. And then by doing the same to the other piece. These two crossing nails gives your trim rock-solid holding capabilities. Be sure to sink them with a nailset.

Locknail Window Trim

Butted Door Casing: Where Head Meets the Side, Plus a Little Extra

  1. Cut the door casings at 45 degrees so they meet at angles; OR,
  2. Cut the door casings so they have a butted casing plus rosette design; OR,
  3. A true butted door casing style, which this article is all about.

No weird angles or expensive rosettes to buy here. Just cut the two vertical side pieces of casing so that they reach (but do not extend beyond) the top of the door opening.

Butted Door Casing

Then cut a header piece (the horizontal top piece) so that it equals the horizontal door opening + the twice the width of a side casing + plus some whatever extra amount that tickles your fancy.

Butted door casings have a utilitarian look that can look cheap.  So, use real moldings, not dimensional lumber (i.e., 1x4s).

By that last time, I’m talking about the extra amount that extends beyond the side casings. It can be anything you want, but you’ll probably not want to go crazy here. This is all for show, and gives your butted door casing a little fancy finish: a quarter-inch on each side is enough.