Wooden Furniture: What to Look For When Buying

Dovetail Joints

by Happy Monkey via flickr
by Happy Monkey via flickr

Everybody has at least one piece of wooden furniture, most people have multiple pieces.  Wood is one of the oldest building materials, and it’s still an important material today.  You’ll notice that there’s a wide price range when you’re looking at furniture, so what makes the difference?  There’s the stuff you find in big box stores, that’s usually under $200, and then there’s the stuff you’ll find in places like Broyhill furniture, costing thousands of dollars and more.  You’ll probably notice that the more expensive pieces advertise “solid wood” but not always.  Materials do make a big difference in the quality of furniture, but they’re not the only thing.  Joinery (how it’s put together) and finish can also make a big difference.  So let’s take a look at those three things, materials, joinery, and finish, and see how they work together to create the furniture you use.

Let’s take a look at furniture materials first.  Keep in mind that “most expensive” doesn’t always mean “best” or strongest.  Let’s list the materials from most to least expensive anyway, taking a look at all the strengths and weaknesses of both. 

Furniture Materials

Solid Wood - usually furniture made out of solid wood is the most expensive. Part of the reason is desirability, people want solid wood, and will pay more for it. Cutting square pieces out of a round log is wasteful, not the whole log can be used. That’s mainly the disadvantages of wood. It is weaker than plywood, but not enough to make a difference in furniture applications. It looks good, and has been used to make furniture for thousands of years. In order to save money, manufacturers will often glue smaller boards together to make larger boards. It is less expensive and less wasteful of wood, and if done right can look just as good. Obviously certain types of wood are more expensive than others, so it’s possible that some cheap wood, will be less expensive than quality plywood, which brings us to...

Plywood - Plywood is thin sheets of wood peeled of a larger log. These are then glued together with alternating grain so it’s very strong - stronger than real wood in fact. Many times the highest quality logs go to make veneer for the top layer of plywood, so plywood can look really good. It does have to have a strip of real wood around the edges that show. You can make larger boards than you can cut from a tree (unless it’s a tremendously large tree), and it’s less wasteful of wood, since almost the whole tree can be used. Another nice property of plywood is that it can be made in curved shapes that would be difficult with real wood.

MDF - Medium Density Fiberboard is an engineered wood product made of wood fibers pressed together with a binder. It doesn’t look like wood, but it’s very strong and heavy, and is excellent for painted furniture. The edges chip and dent easily so it does need some sort of edge banding. It isn’t waterproof so shouldn’t be used in wet applications unless sealed in some way, especially if being used for bathroom or kitchen furniture.

Hardboard - similar to MDF hardboard is made in a similar way, but it’s more water resistant and the edges aren’t as delicate. It’s often used for drawer bottoms and the backs of dressers and cabinets.

Particle Board - Similar to MDF in that wood components (large chips actually) are pressed together with glue, but it’s much more delicate and subject to dents and water damage - although it’s often used in cheaper kitchen and bathroom cabinets. That’s why it’s often covered with a laminate surface to protect it, for example kitchen counters. It’s benefits are that it’s inexpensive, and that’s about it. I hate the stuff.

Mortise and Tenon Joint

by Steve.Wilson via Flickr
by Steve.Wilson via Flickr

Biscuit Joint

by Kohtzy via Flickr
by Kohtzy via Flickr

Furniture Joinery

Ok, now lets talk a little about joinery - how that furniture is put together.  For hundreds of year furniture was put together with interlocking joints that were glued or pinned.  Because these joints fit tightly like puzzle pieces, the addition of glues, pins, or nails made a very strong joint.  Today these traditional methods are still one of the strongest ways to join furniture, but they’re also the most expensive.  Machines can take care of most of the work, but it still takes a human for the final fitting.  The more human intervention the more expensive.  

Knock-down joints and fasteners are very common today.  If you’ve ever bought a piece of furniture from IKEA or a big box store, then you’re familiar with knock down furniture.  The benefits are that the furniture can be shipped flat, and put together fairly easily - and taken apart.  Knock down furniture is fairly strong, but it won’t take too much abuse, especially if it’s made of particle board - which it often is.  Knock down hardware in solid wooden furniture can be pretty strong, but it’s rare to find that, unless you’re talking about beds which by necessity need to be taken apart to be moved.  In my opinion, the hardware isn’t so much a problem with, as the cheaper materials they’re usually made of.

A step up from knockdown furniture is that made with hardware like screws and bolts.  This is usually permanent, and more sturdy than knockdown hardware.  Some of the hardware is particular to the piece and meant to replace the more traditional joints.  Clamps that hold table legs to the table skirt are a good example.

The most expensive type of furniture is that made with traditional joinery.  These types of joints are the strongest, they’re also the most labor intensive and therefore the most expensive.  You’ll find this on upper middle, to high end furniture.  Dovetails are the “Cadillac” of joinery, not only are they the strongest, they’re also the most difficult to make.  Hand dovetails are often used simply to show the skill of the builder.  Biscuit joinery is kind of a cross between mechanical fasteners and traditional, two slots are cut in pieces to be joined, with a special tool, then a small compressed piece of wood called a biscuit is covered in glue, placed in one of the slots then the other slot is fitted over it with glue.  The biscuit expands in the wet glue to help hold the pieces together, it’s sort of like a mortise and tenon joint.

Furniture Finish

The last thing to talk about are finishes. If you’re looking at particle board furniture then it’s probably got a laminate on it, you really can’t finish it any other way. This is one of the cheapest types of finish next to paint.

Paint makes a good finish, it looks good, it’s water resistant, and these days can be put on relatively inexpensively. Wood that is going to be painted doesn’t have to be pretty, in fact wood is often labeled paint grade and stain grade. Think about floor molding, it doesn’t have to have a pretty grain, it just has to be smooth, when painted it looks good and you’ll see it in every house.

Stained and varnished - This is the most expensive finish because the wood has to be of good quality, and it’s most labor intensive. The wood doesn’t have to be stained and some processes stain and varnish in one step. When I say varnish I mean a general clear hard finish, typically polyurethane, which is the most common because it’s easy to apply and make a clear, hard, water resistant finish. In a factory finish is applied with a spray gun, and the less expensive finishes will stop there. The more expensive finishes will have multiple layers that are sanded between coats and then buffed and polished by hand. Mid grade furniture will probably have multiple layers and be hand finished but without as much attention to detail. You might see some runs or drips that weren’t buffed or polished out in the areas that aren’t visible.

Drawer Joint

by rb3wreath via Flickr
by rb3wreath via Flickr

Wooden Furniture Checklist

So there’s a quick rundown of most everything that can affect furniture quality and price. Of course I could go into more detail but this Hub would be waaay to long to read easily. (If it isn’t already). It can tough to remember all those things, and even though I’ve given a description, how do you know what to look for? Well here’s a quick checklist of things you can do to check out your furniture that you’re planning on buying.

Solid wood will have a grain to it that has some depth. See if you can find the ends of boards, you should see end grain. Think about what a section of log looks like with the growth rings.

Plywood and veneer will have a large grain pattern and will probably have wide boards with no joins in them. You’ll rarely see boards wider than a foot these days, if you do it’s probably plywood, or a veneer over some type of substrate. If you can see the edges (try opening the drawers) you’ll see the plywood layers, or the veneer lines.

Laminate will be smooth and hard to the touch, it might have wood grain to simulate wood. If you can’t tell if it’s wood or not then look at the inside and outside of a drawer, door, or side. If you see two totally different wood grain patterns then it’s not solid wood. For example if there’s a pattern of thin and thick grain lines it should repeat all the way through.

Knockdown hardware - if it comes in pieces then it’s knockdown hardware.

Traditional joinery - look on the undersides of tables you should be able to see some mechanical fasteners where the legs join (screws, bolts, etc) if not then it’s probably mortise and tenon or possibly biscuit joinery. For anything with drawers open the drawers and look at the sides for dovetails, if you see them it’s a good bet that the rest of the piece will use mortise and tenon joinery. Sometimes drawers will use drawer joints, they’re not quite as strong as a dovetail, but they’re strong enough, and quicker and less expensive to make. If the piece has doors, look at the top or sides of the door and you should be able to see the slot where the tenon fits into the mortise.

Mechanical fasteners can usually be found joining table legs or skirts, or in the back of dressers or other large pieces. Sometimes drawers are joined with screws, if you see them there, then they’re probably joining the rest of the piece.

Finish - Check underneath overhangs, and inside doors or backs of pieces to see if there’s any runs or drips in the finish. Sometimes you can tell how thick it is by doing this. Midpriced furniture will usually take more care with the visible areas than the hidden ones, but if you find drips in visible places then they might have cut corners in other places. It’s hard to really tell how thick a finish is without experience but the more “depth” the thicker it usually is.

Hopefully this will give you some insight on why furniture costs what it does, and how it's put together.  Of course most pieces will use materials and processes of differing costs, some things make use of more inexpensive hardware, but a nicer finish, or vice versa.  Sometimes it's hard to tell what to look for and how to find quality furniture but maybe this can give you a little heads up in your buying process.

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saif113sb profile image

saif113sb 5 years ago

Great full hub. thanks

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