How to Tell Quality Furniture from the Rest

Posted by James Baldwin on

A quick and easy guide to spotting quality furniture presented by Modern Bungalow Craftsman Home Store

Spotting quality furniture can be intimidating. Let us make it easier.

What makes quality furniture? It’s a common question and one we hear often at Modern Bungalow. The truth is that it’s easier than you think to identify a quality piece of furniture and it all comes down to identifying two key factors:

  1. Type of wood used
  2. Joint construction

Types of Wood for Furniture

Solid Wood

Solid wood furniture is made with whole  solid pieces of hardwood or softwood (see graphic) or wood boards that are fitted together, usually with glue, to make panels. This type of furniture construction is used to make the highest quality pieces and can last for decades (sometimes centuries!) if it is properly cared for.

Hardwood vs Softwood Comparison

Is it solid wood? Identifying solid wood can seem like a challenge with all of the attempts to recreate quality, but follow these easy steps and you’ll have a pretty good idea if the piece you’re looking at is solid wood:

  1. Lift it - solid wood will be very  heavy; while some plywood and particle board furniture can have some heft, weight is a good initial indicator of quality
  2. Look for, and feel, the grain - if a piece has a grain that you can feel and/or you can see a varying pattern in the grain, it’s likely solid wood
  3. Check backs/bottoms - when looking from the sides or from the back you will be able to see if there is a veneer attached to the front of the piece and you’ll be able to see if there is a grain or if particle board was used

 

Particle Board and Plywood


You can identify the use of particle board in steps 2 & 3 from above - if you can see a grain but the surface is smooth, it may be a veneer (see below). When looking at the back panels you will be able to see the tell-tale airy pockets of the particle board or the layers of thin wood which indicate the use of plywood (note: some manufacturers use MDF particle board which will look and feel like a solid piece of wood but will lack any identifiable grain). Made from scrap pieces of wood or sawdust mixed with resin, particle board furniture is usually more lightweight and affordable. The trade-off is lesser quality more prone to chips and breaks - not to mention the formaldehyde generally used in the veneers which cover the plywood or particle board!

 

Veneer

A veneer is sometimes a synthetic material or thinly sliced wood, also known as a laminate, used to cover the surface of an inexpensive piece of furniture to provide a solid color or the appearance of solid wood grain. Veneers can also be thin panels of higher quality wood fitted on top of cheaper wood to create the look of a higher quality piece of furniture.

You can identify a veneer with steps 2 & 3 from above.

Dovetail Joint

Now that you know how to find and identify the types of wood for furniture you can examine the joint construction to definitively determine the quality of the piece. If looking at a desk or a dresser, open one of the drawers and take a look at how the face of the drawer is attached to the side panels. Quality furniture will generally be constructed using dovetail joints. These joints are identifiable by the series of interlocking trapezoidal “pins” and “tails.”

The dovetail joint is excellent for increasing the resistance against being pulled apart, also known as tensile strength, and is the most common joint construction found in quality made furniture.

Still not sure?

If you’ve identified the type of wood used and the quality of the joint construction but still want to ensure once and for all that you have a quality piece of furniture on your hands, check to make sure all drawer interiors are well sanded, finished, and waxed. Interiors should be smooth and free of snags or burs in the wood. Additionally, dressers should have a thin layer of wood between each level to ensure that dust and moisture do not flow freely though the piece (see image). In addition to dovetail joints, quality furniture will often have a reinforcing block of wood fitted to the corners at an angle for superior stability and support.

 

Spotting Quality Furniture Overview

Well there you have it. What makes quality furniture? The type of wood used and the attention to quality joint construction are tell-tale signs that are easy to identify and will give you piece of mind knowing that you are purchasing a lasting piece of furniture that was built for generations to enjoy. Come on in or check out our inventory for some great examples of quality Craftsman style furniture.


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