Defining Wood Furniture Quality

Do you know what to look for when buying furniture?

If you are buying furniture today, it pays to know what the difference is between low, medium, and high quality. Even though you may not have buckets of money to spend on furniture, if you are like most folks you want to get your money's worth whether you are a college student, freshly minted couple, young family, or downsizing after the last kid leaves home.

What characteristics define quality furniture?

The simplest approach to seeing the difference between high and low quality is to take a good look at an old piece of furniture and something newer. Even "junk" furniture until the mid-20th century often had machine dovetailed joints in drawers and were built of solid wood. Lesser pieces were often veneered over solid wood. (Veneer is not necessarily an indication of poor quality, however. It's a wood crafting technique that has been around for centuries and allows craftsmen to create beautifully designed grain patterns or inlays not achievable any other way.) Finer pieces were carefully custom-built by master joiners and cabinet makers out of kiln-dried, hardwood boards. What survives today is a testament to craftsmanship and the longevity of straight, old-growth wood.

Defining wood furniture quality

To get the most you can for the money, the following table should help you compare the relative differences between today's levels of wood furniture:

Quality Level Look for ...


  • Mortise and tenon
  • Doweling
  • Mitering
  • Dovetails
  • Tongue in groove
  • Frames glued and screwed
  • Floating construction where drawer bottoms are not glued, but instead move freely as humidity changes.


  • Wood is air dried then placed in a kiln to remove as much moisture as possible. This can take months depending on the type of wood.
  • Wood matching for color and grain.
  • Wood is selected for it's merits. Frames are constructed from strong stable woods like poplar with cabinet woods like solid cherry, oak, or maple used on exterior surfaces.

Performance and other characteristics

  • The piece should look and feel solid. Try to rock or jostle the piece. It shouldn't squeak or twist.
  • Backs and unexposed parts should be sanded smooth and well fitted. This could be considered a litmus test. Only the best quality furniture does this well.
  • Dust panels between drawers.
  • Quality built-in light fixtures and lined silverware drawers in hutches, buffets, dining room, or display cabinetry.
  • Smoothly gliding drawers that close square and flush.
  • Doors that close neatly and that are square and flush with the cabinet front.
  • Highest quality hardware


  • Limited mitering
  • Rabbeted drawers
  • Dadoes for shelves
  • Frames glued, stapled
  • Floating construction


  • Moderate or low-cost woods such as ash, poplar, or pine
  • Pieced and glued woods like butcher block
  • Laminates
  • MDF (medium density fiberboard), particle board, or wheatboard for unexposed portions of the piece. May be veneered with real woods.

Performance and other characteristics

  • The piece should look and feel reasonably solid. It shouldn't squeak or twist.
  • Backs and unexposed parts will probably fit okay but not be sanded smooth or tightly fitted. Probably stapled to piece.
  • Open construction between drawers.
  • Smoothly gliding drawers, however, you may notice minor misalignments or gaps between drawers or doors and cabinet face.
  • Doors are square and flush with the cabinet front. Occasional, minor misalignments might be noted.
  • Stamped or cast hardware of medium quality.


  • Engineered kit furniture that been constructed for easy home assembly.
  • Better quality engineering may place this low-cost alternative into moderate quality category.


  • Laminates
  • Particle board or MDF
  • Low-quality woods

Performance and other characteristics

  • Build in place and don't blow on it.
  • Backs and unexposed parts are usually composed of fiberboard, or foiled compressed paper products.
  • Drawers and square doors may show obviously uneven gaps or misalignment.
  • Doesn't hold up well over time.
  • Can't be taken apart and reassembled—particle board usually breaks dow.n
  • Shelving may bow if overweighted with books.
  • Excess humidity or exposure to water can ruin piece.

The level of quality you choose depends on how much you want to spend, how you expect to use the piece, and whether you expect to keep it for the rest of your life. Sometimes it just makes sense to buy less expensive furniture and recycle it when it falls apart. IKEA, for example, sells low-end furniture with trendy designs, but also has a fairly enlightened approach to using sustainable practices and materials. On the other hand, beautiful hardwoods used in high-quality furniture may be harvested from old growth forests, which is neither environmentally friendly or sustainable. Before spending large amounts of money on new furniture from retailers, do a little research on their construction methods, materials, and overall performance as well as business practices and environmental record.

The most important aspect of furnishing your home is finding products that you love, then enjoying them as long as possible. While retailers are often the first stop for many prospective buyers, don't forget the advantages of checking antique or thrift stores, craigslist, or even freecycle. There's nothing that compares with getting a great old piece for almost nothing!

Related pages

For definitions of wood products used in furniture, refer to Wood Definitions.

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