Identifying quality wood furniture can be difficult these days. Many pieces look great in the store, only to prove flimsy once you get them home and start to use them. Here’s what to look for, and what to avoid, when shopping for your next piece of wood furniture.
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When made with high-quality materials and solid construction, wood furniture can last for decades and sometimes even centuries. But not everything you see in stores is built to last. Buy something that’s made poorly and you’ll start to see wear and tear way too soon. How can you tell the difference? It’s harder than you might think. The first thing to pay attention to is the wood itself.
Solid wood. The highest-quality material for wood furniture is solid wood. This type of furniture will be made from single pieces of wood or wood boards that are glued together to make panels — trees are only so wide, after all. If something is described as being made with solid wood, find out if that describes the entire piece or just certain parts.
Hardwood. Solid wood can be categorized as either hardwood or softwood. Hardwood comes from slower-growing trees and the wood is denser and more resistant to dings. Common hardwoods include oak, ash, walnut, cherry and maple.
Softwood. Softwood comes from faster-growing trees and the wood is less dense. Some common softwoods are pine, fir and poplar. Since these trees grow faster, furniture made using their wood tends to be less expensive than pieces made from hardwood.
Domestic wood. Domestic wood comes from trees that are grown and processed in the United States. Common domestic wood species include oak, maple, cherry, walnut, ash, poplar and pine.
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A quick note about how wood is described: The species can describe either the material or the stain color. So something described as walnut might be stained that color but actually be made from pine. This isn’t necessarily bad — just make sure you know what you’re getting. You shouldn’t be paying walnut prices for a piece of furniture made from less-expensive wood.
Imported wood. A lot of imported furniture is made from tropical wood species such as rubberwood (sometimes known as plantation hardwood), mango, acacia or sheesham (a type of rosewood). These species can produce a sturdy piece of furniture, but they may be susceptible to cracking if they’re coming from a humid environment to a drier one.
Benefits of solid wood. Ensuring that your furniture is 100 percent solid wood is a pretty fail-safe way to know that you’re purchasing something high-quality. Solid wood construction is extremely long-lasting and can be easily refinished and repaired down the road.
Cons of solid wood. Solid wood is definitely the best choice for furniture but, as with any natural material, there can be downsides. Solid wood is more susceptible to changes in climate, which may cause it to crack or warp. It’s also more expensive than furniture made from engineered wood products.
Plywood. Plywood (sometimes called engineered hardwood) is made by gluing together thin layers of solid wood. When used in furniture construction, plywood is covered with a thin layer of stained and finished wood — a veneer.
Pros of plywood. The main benefit of plywood is that it’s stable when the climate changes and is less likely to warp or crack in dry climates. It can also give you a sturdy piece of furniture at a lower cost than solid wood.
Cons of plywood. Sometimes the quality of plywood comes down to the quality of the veneer. Poor-quality veneers can chip, revealing the lower-quality wood underneath. Damage may also be difficult to repair since the bulk of the furniture is made using a different wood species than the veneer. Also, some plywood is made using chemicals with formaldehyde, which can affect indoor air quality, although formaldehyde-free plywood is available.
MDF. Medium-density fiberboard is made from wood waste products (basically sawdust) that have been mixed with resins. The mixture is compressed to create large, flat boards. For furniture, MDF is finished with a layer of real-wood veneer or non-wood laminate.
Pros and cons of MDF. There are more cons than pros when you’re talking about MDF furniture. Pieces made from it are less expensive than those made of solid wood or plywood, which makes them budget-friendly. However, MDF requires a lot of chemicals to make and is the highest-formaldehyde-emitting wood product out there. Other downsides: It can easily be damaged by water, it’s difficult to repair, it doesn’t hold screws very well and it’s heavy.
Particle board. Made similarly to MDF, particle board uses larger wood scraps to create boards. You can differentiate particle board from MDF by spotting the pockets of air when looking at it from the side.
Pros and cons of particle board. The one thing particle board has going for it is that it’s inexpensive. And then there are the downsides: It emits formaldehyde, requires a lot of chemicals to produce, is susceptible to moisture damage and really doesn’t hold screws well. Particle board furniture tends to loosen up quickly, resulting in wobbles.
Veneers. A veneer is a thin sheet of real wood that is applied to the outside of a piece of wood furniture. It can be added to any of the wood products mentioned above. Veneers are used when you want to match up wood grain to create a design, or to cover a lower-cost piece of furniture.
Selecting veneered furniture. Veneer quality varies widely. Look for those that are thicker, have good adhesion and are glued to solid wood or plywood as opposed to MDF or particle board. Poorly done veneers can peel and chip.
Taking a little time to research your wood furniture purchase will ensure you’re buying something that will last a long time. As always, purchase the best piece you can afford. It will save you money in the long run since you won’t need to repurchase again and again.