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When to Buy Wooden Furniture—and When to Pass

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"I learned from an early age that creating a home means filling it with things that you love," Barb Blair states in the intro to her new book, Furniture Makes the Room. This might sound tough to argue with, but in a world of high-fashion design and the social media that perpetuates it, there's a temptation to feel that once you're a real adult, your furniture should be bought from trusted companies, a mélange of "antiques" and well-made newbies and pieces designed by somebody whose last name is their brand.

Barb preaches otherwise—"the value in possessions lies solely in the value that we give them"—and proves it with the furniture she picks, restores, and styles in her book. One of the most interesting, and perhaps relatable, sections is right at the start: It addresses the act of selecting a piece of furniture in the store. "Take the time to look around and pick a good quality piece," she urges, rather than springing for the first armoire that you can afford. To be an investment, a piece of furniture doesn't need to be a century-old antique—but it will need to stand the test of time!

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To guard against purchases that will later be regretted, Barb shared some added tips for furniture shopping in any store, so that you know that whatever you buy is going to last—and won't cost and arm and a leg to restore. Here are her tips:

1. Structural Condition: Is it well-made?

If you're considering a used (or "vintage" or "salvaged" or "antique") piece of furniture, it doesn't have to be in perfect condition to warrant a purchase—but do consider whether you can make the repairs yourself or if you'll need to pay for carpentry. Some checks for a sound construction:

Wiggle it.

Does the piece move back and forth when you touch it? That's an easy way to know if all the connector points are solid or if they’re going to need be taken apart and re-joined—Blair calls it “the jig test.”

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Check the drawers, if any.

The presence of wooden runners, those small projecting pieces that the drawer slides onto and off of, is a good sign that a piece was custom made. "I won't buy a piece with metal drawer runners," Blair explains as a matter of personal preference, but they do tend to be less expensive—so if you're in love with a piece that has metal runners just check to be sure they're in good condition (not rusting and not bent).

She also checks the underside of the drawers to see if there's any rubbing or wear from bowing in the drawer basin. If it's only minimal, sanding and waxing can put it back in shape.

Take a close look at the legs.

Check and be sure they haven't cracked and been put back together.

2. Construction: Is it solid wood?

As Blair puts it, "You can paint any type of surface, especially with all of the paints on the market these days," but solid wood furniture is, simply put, some of the highest quality. Here's how to check for it:

One of Barb's many incredible furniture transformations. Photos by Paige French

Return to the drawers.

See how they're constructed at the corners; dovetail joints are an indicator of solid construction.

Don't pass over veneered pieces.

"Some of the more mid-century and 40's pieces have a shiny veneer over top," Blair explains, which can sometimes deter shoppers. But if it's solid wood underneath you can always sand that off and give it a facelift.

Check the weight.

Is it surprisingly heavy? Solid wood is going to be. You might also be looking at particleboard, which is made from tiny pieces of refuse (like wood chips or sawdust) and can become flimsy or even crumble over time. They're often finished and painted to look like wood; you can also check corners to see if it's chipping away.

Look for wood grain.

Another way to be sure a piece isn't made of particleboard is to look for a wood grain. Besides cherrywood—which Blair calls a "nightmare" to paint, since the natural tannins in it somehow seep through any top coat of paint (save for one that's got a primer in it), tinting the finish with a rosy coloring—any solid wood is a good choice: oaks, maples, and pines, to name a few.

3. Age: Has the piece been cared for?

For all its merits, wood pieces can be neglected to the point of no return and still look half decent in a store window. There's one specific in-store way that Blair suggests testing for problems under the surface:

Smell it.

If a piece has mildewed, or if it smells strongly of smoke, you probably should to pass on it. Wood is porous, so the smells that seep into it are hard to remove and will likely transfer to anything that touches the piece (like your clothes or your linens or your room). "Trust me—I've fallen in love with a piece and had to break my own heart by not buying it because of the strong smell of smoke," Blair says. "It just isn't worth it in the end."

4. Style: Do you like it?

Photo by Paige French

"If I'm drawn to a piece and it's solid wood, that's enough for me," says Blair, who doesn't mind if a piece of furniture is made by a decorated designer or not. To confirm whether the price is right for a certain style, however, she'll Google the time period she thinks it falls under right then and there on her phone. "I can always come up with a huge list of images just by searching." It's an easy way to gut-check the time period or style without depending too heavily on what the tag says.

Images from Furniture Makes the Room by Barb Blair; photographs by Paige French (Chronicle Books, 2016).

Where do you source furniture, whether new or thrifted? Let us know your favorite stores in the comments.

Tags: furniture, furniture shopping, thrift, antiques