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When to Buy Wooden Furniture—and When to Pass

March  9, 2016

"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!

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.”

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).

Shop the Story

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. Photo 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.

6 Comments

Aaron March 9, 2016
I should have been more clear.<br /><br />I was actually commenting on newer production pieces. I've seen some machine-cut dovetails that are terrible in their assembly, with significant gaps in the joints and heavy use of wood filler. That's not quality joinery.<br /><br />A well-executed hand-cut dovetail joint is extremely strong, and can be more attractive in appearance than a machine-cut dovetail.
 
Smaug March 9, 2016
True enough- I've found that some factory made furniture and millwork that I've had occasion to disassemble has been surprisingly lax about the fit of the joints, sometimes to the point of compromising glue joints. There's no reason the machines can't cut perfect joints, but I suppose it makes it easy to assemble things without having to think about it.
 
Smaug March 9, 2016
I could comment on this all day. but just one point: particle board is heavier than almost any kind of wood, and the exceptions are all tropical hardwoods that you're very unlikely to find solid furniture made from; certainly not unless you shop for it. The MDF (medium density fibreboard) favored for veneered furniture by modern makers is ridiculously heavy- first time I tried to move a 3/4" sheet of it I about died.
 
Author Comment
Amanda S. March 9, 2016
Tricky phrasing! Updated above for clarity.
 
Aaron March 9, 2016
A couple of quick reactions....<br /><br />I have seen furniture built with plywood drawer boxes where the drawers were dovetailed. That's a sign of false quality, something that's meant to mislead the consumer -- you dovetail solid wood, but due to its nature it's not an appropriate joinery method for plywood. Also when looking at dovetailing, you need to consider any spacing or wood filler around the dovetail joint. The cleaner and tighter the joint, the better. If you see wood filler or can see light through the joint, you should think of it as a lower quality production piece, not quality furniture.<br /><br />Stud grade pine will weigh about 450 kilograms per cubic meter, while plywood will weigh about 600 kg / cubic meter, and MDF can run 700 - 1000 kg / cubic meter. Red oak weighs about 730 kg / cubic meter. Hard maple weighs about 705 kg / cubic meter. Black cherry weighs about 560 kg / cubic meter. Poplar, commonly used in drawer boxes for case goods, weighs about 455 kg /cubic meter. Western red cedar weighs about 370 kg / cubic meter. Before you can make any assumptions about the quality of a piece based on its mass or assumed density, you have to have an idea of what it's made of -- and a piece made primarily or exclusively of MDF will often in fact be heavier than a quality, solid wood piece of similar design and style.<br /><br />It will often be difficult to tell unless the furniture has exposed, unfinished ends or surfaces. While it's not universally true, furniture assembled with cam connectors has a high chance of incorporating fiberboard. Manufactured products such as MDF tend to support less weight, and long pieces will bow to a greater degree than solid wood if lifted from one end.<br /><br />A product like MDF, if exposed to water, will suck up the water like a sponge. You've probably seen that happen in the bottom of a cheap bathroom vanity, at one time or another. Water is not good for any type of wood -- plywood can delaminate and warp, with its layers coming apart and expanding; solid wood can discolor and warp. But particleboard and MDF are much less likely to be cosmetically acceptable or reasonably repairable if water damaged.<br /><br />Be very cautious about purchasing furniture constructed with cam connectors, as that type of furniture is designed to be assembled in place and can be difficult to move without causing damage -- particularly if it incorporates particleboard or fiberboard, which it probably does. <br /><br />Sometimes "solid wood" isn't all it's cracked up to be. A poorly treated or finished piece of solid wood might not hold up well. Some woods are soft, and are thus more vulnerable to visible wear. Some Asian species may be sold under familiar-sounding wood names through domestic furniture vendors, but could potentially have a very different level of performance as compared to the domestically grown tree of a similar name.
 
Smaug March 9, 2016
Unless.... Hand cut dovetails on older pieces won't look as perfect as the airtight, machine made dovetails you see nowadays- this is not a sign of lack of quality.