Definitions for Wood Furniture
Basic categories you should know about
No one wants to come home one day, place their briefcase or purse on a piece of furniture, and see it start to wobble. Nor do you want to create your own comic relief by sitting down on a chair or stool only to have it shudder and break beneath your
weight. Determining quality in furniture is sometimes tricky, but learning a little "furniture speak" goes a long way when it comes time to buy the perfect addition to your home.
There are seven basic categories of furniture you as the buyer should know about.
- Wood veneer over solid wood—This type of furniture has become more popular recently due to the scarcity of quality hardwood. Veneers often consist of a thin layer of decorative wood—meaning a more expensive, prettier wood—attached
to a less expensive underlying solid piece of wood. This is an economical and environmentally friendly choice, since veneered woods save our forests, using only 30 percent of wood instead of the 70 percent that goes into hardwood furniture. Feel the
edges of the furniture if you're getting veneer. The veneer should be so tightly fused to the substrate that you can't feel a difference. Look for pieces where the veneer is used on the larger areas such as the top and sides. The veneer grain, color matching, and overall effect should look good. Veneering is NOT an indication of lower quality, but instead should be assessed for its craftsmanship.
- Solid wood—Solid wood means that it is composed of wood with no particle board or wood fiber. It's the resulting board milled from the tree. Au naturel, if you will. Solid wood may be hard (as from walnut) or soft (like pine or fir). Typically, wood has a long lifespan and can refinished and repaired over the years, unlike other engineered wood products. For tops and sides of furniture, boards are biscuited and glued to create wide panels. Look for wider boards that have been carefully matched
with regard to grain and color to create a more consistent appearance. Smaller (scrap) boards used in this type of piece are an indication of lesser quality.
- Solid wood products—When checking construction materials, watch out for this phrase. For the unwary, it's a trap that could lead you astray because it usually indicates that it is particle board or MDF, NOT solid wood.
- Solid hardwood—The strongest, most durable of the wood furniture options, hardwood can last for hundreds of years if properly cared for. Oak, cherry, and maple are a few examples of hardwood. Run your hands along the piece.
Is the top of the furniture smooth to the touch? Well finished pieces have no rough areas when you run your hands around the edges and sides.
- Wood veneer over particle board or medium-density fiberboard—Usually more economical but less durable than wood, this type of furniture is composed of an attractive outer veneer covering fiber or particle board. One advantage to this type of construction is that fiber and particle board are engineered, so they are dimensionally stable and not subject to warping. Wood veneer provides the look of wood without the often prohibitive cost. This combination is often found in mid-range furniture.
- Laminate—Laminates can look like real wood or come in a variety of different colors. It's a durable surface material that is commonly applied over a stable substrate like particle or fiber board. Wood grain laminates are
photographs of different grains of wood that have been applied to the base material and sealed. When you look at the top and sides of this type of piece, the laminate should be smooth with no variations in color. As with veneer, check to see that the laminate
is properly attached to its base. Laminates come in various levels of quality with the better pieces less likely to chip or show wear over time. Laminates are typically inexpensive, affordable options especially for kids' furniture that needs regular washing.
- Upholstered furniture—This refers to any type of furniture with leather or fabric covers, springs, webbing, and/or padding. Look for quality materials like kiln-dried, hardwood frames. Frames should be screwed instead of
nailed or stapled. If there are springs, eight-way hand-tied coiled springs are the most desirable and considered a sign of higher quality and durability. Check out the joints of the piece: are they tight and do they fit well into each other? Back
up and take a look at the entire piece. Is the frame straight and level? Fabric patterns in higher end pieces are carefully matched as well.
The following are basic guidelines to help you select new furniture pieces:
- Finish—Look for a consistent finish, color, and grain in wood surfaces as well as being smooth to the touch. Ask the retailer what the finish will stand up to. Will it endure heat and water spills? It should. Poorer quality
furniture may be stained to camouflage imperfections in wood color or grain, whereas a better piece is more likely to have a clear finish that enables you to see the grain of the wood.
- Dressers, Chests, and Nightstands—Make sure that the drawers in these pieces feel substantial, slide easily with drawer stops, and fit evenly without gaps or misalignment. If you see staples or nails, this is most likely a sign
of lesser quality. Higher-end pieces have solid wood drawer sides and dove-tailed joints as well as dust panels between each drawer.
- Structure—Don't be afraid to ask about the construction of the piece of furniture you like. Most wood furniture is built using "floating construction," which means that it allows for expansion and contraction of wood
panels in dry or humid weather throughout the seasons. If you pick up the piece, you shouldn't hear a lot of noise due to racking because the frame should be solid. Where the sides and top come together, make sure that it's a tightly assembled
with no gaps or glue visible. The back of the piece shouldn't bulge or be out of square, nor should there be unevenness or poor fit in any of the other areas of the piece.
If you know what to look for, you can get better quality furniture for less money. By shopping around and broadening your options, you can find plenty of places like antique stores, ebay, and thrift stores that have good stuff at lower prices. The key to getting your money's worth is shopping carefully to meet your decorating goals. Sometimes it's better to get a a really superior piece, especially if you love it, than settle for a lower quality piece. And sometimes getting a practical, mid-range piece is exactly right for your needs. Once you recognize value, you'll be able to shop wisely and create the décor of your dreams.
What should you look for when determining the level of quality in furniture? Read our descriptions.