Many people ask me, “How do I know what to look for when buying furniture?” “How can I tell if a piece is well made?” First, you need to ask yourself some important questions:
“What am I looking for in a piece?”
“Do I need this piece to last for more than just a few years?”
“What are the differences between woods and veneers?”
Solid American hardwoods are deciduous trees that bear a fruit or nut and tend to go dormant in the winter. Some examples are Oaks, Cherry, Maples, Hickory, Ash, Elm and Walnut. Solid hardwoods, as building and furnishing materials, go against the tide of our mass-produced, throw-away society. Solid hardwood furniture can withstand more stress loads than other materials, screws and other fasteners grip tightly in their grain, nicks and scratches are easily repaired and refinished, and their lasting value is proven. Solid hardwood furniture can last for generations when well cared for.
Although every hardwood board will predictably share the characteristics of its species each board displays a grain pattern which is uniquely its own, having been formed by the environment of the individual tree from which it came. Hardwoods usually have few or no knots and distinct colors. This gives each piece of furniture its own unique look and, when chosen well, a beauty worth the time and effort.
Softwoods are conifer trees that bear a cone for seeds and have needles rather than leaves. Softwoods include Spruce, Pine, Fir, Cedar, Redwood, and Hemlock and keep their needles through the winter months. Softwoods have a greater sap flow throughout the tree and the wood tends to be softer and more flexible. The grain patterns vary, but all tend to have wider grain, varied coloration and many knots.Long prized for their rustic characteristics, softwoods are used in many types of furniture construction. There are a few drawbacks to using softwoods in furniture building, but the lower costs sometimes outweigh the negatives. Care must be taken to avoid cracking and splitting especially in knots and the soft wood does not hold up well to heavy stress loads. Due to greater sap content in the wood, the sap may tend to “bleed” in areas where the board has been wounded such as where a screw might be attached.
What is a veneer? A veneer is a thin covering over another surface. In today’s furniture this other surface is most often particle board or MDF (medium density fiber) board. The great thing about this material is it is very flat, since it is essentially sawdust and glue molded in a machine press.
The coverings can be anything from a paper thin printed film to as much as a 1/8th inch wood veneer. Unfortunately, these types of materials are not very forgiving when it comes to moisture and temperature. Moisture and heat can get under the veneer and cause the MDF/particle board to swell, causing the surface to no longer be flat. If the veneer is damaged by a deep scratch or gouge, the best remedy is to re-veneer or replace the damaged part. There are also problems with fastening boards together as these materials are not as strong as solid hardwoods and screws pull out easily.
Veneer furniture is not all bad, and can have many uses in quality furniture building. Many older veneered tables are made with a thicker veneer of an expensive wood like Quarter-Sawn Oak over something less expensive like Red Oak. This process was done to keep expenses down and still get the same look. Since the veneer is done over a hardwood, there are fewer problems with moisture and temperature and screws are securely held in place. Plywood is another type of veneer product and is made by laminating several layers of wood together.This type of product keeps its shape well and is not subject to expansion and contraction like solid wood is. Many builders use plywood on the inside panels of solid furniture to keep expansion from breaking out the joints.
If you are looking for solid wood furniture, you need to look at the back or the bottom of the piece. Most veneer or particle board furniture makers leave any edge-banding off these areas to save cost. This allows you to see what is “inside”.
Many times you can also tell about a piece based on how perfect the grain looks or how the grain pattern seems to repeat often. This is usually done with a printed film over the MDF surface. Furniture makers are getting much better at hiding how they use MDF/particle board and can often fool most people. Furniture stores advertise “Solids and veneers”, or “all wood construction”, or “oak or cherry finish” to give the illusion of solid wood. Manufacturers of upholstered furniture such as sofas, loveseats and chairs can hide a multitude of construction issues by covering it with fabric and padding. In these situations, you must rely on the integrity of the manufacturer and the store itself to tell you the truth.
When choosing furniture for the short term, softwoods are the better option. Veneered furniture can be nice if done well and on quality surfaces. However, when choosing furniture for a lifetime, or maybe more, it pays to choose wisely. Solid hardwood furniture is genuine, natural, classic, and real. Solid hardwood furniture will be pieces you can use and enjoy, then pass on to future generations with confidence.
- Larry Schnurr, Owner