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Getting the Best Quality (Furniture)

When you're buying furniture, the most important thing to look for is the type of wood used. After that, there are a number of other quality checks you can do to make sure the furniture you're thinking of buying will still look good when it's time to hand it down to your grandchildren.

It's also very important to examine the construction of the furniture. Use Kimberly's list of specific quality checks to make sure that your furniture is solidly built. Veneers are not necessarily an indicator of poor-quality furniture. There are some cases in which veneers are used in very high quality furniture.

Types of Wood

Before you can know the true value of the furniture you are buying, you must understand the proper value of the base materials. If you are being asked to pay top dollar for a piece of furniture, you should make sure that the wood it is made from will last and remain attractive for the longest possible time. Generally, you should choose wood that is strong, hard (which makes it resistant to damage such as dents and scrapes), doesn't swell or shrink due to humidity changes, doesn't warp, and stains evenly. Solid wood is best.

The best furniture uses the few types of wood that are very durable, easy to work with, and stain evenly - cherry, mahogany, oak, teak, and walnut. Those five woods "have it all" and should be your preferred choices whenever possible.

The next best choices after that are maple and birch. These are very durable woods that stain evenly and will look good for many years. Their main flaw is that they are relatively difficult to work with. This means that they cannot be easily shaped into graceful curved lines or carved embellishments. However, if you want simple furniture with straight lines and no intricate carvings anyway, maple and birch are excellent choices that can save you money.

After that comes veneered furniture: furniture with a strong wood used in the frame and a beautiful, easily workable wood that stains evenly used for the visible decorative portions. Veneered furniture that has been well constructed is fine. In fact, there are some shapes, sizes, and types of furniture that cannot be made from solid wood. However, there are some poorly made veneers out there, so you must be careful.

Don't settle for furniture that is made from weak softwoods, such as fir or poplar. This is not a good way to cut costs. High-quality furniture can last a lifetime and is well worth the higher price. There are many other ways you can cut decorating costs without sacrificing quality.

Check out Kimberly's guide to wood types. Know which woods are worth buying, and which aren't.

Construction Details

There are a few other quality checks you should look out for on all types of furniture:

  • Sturdiness --
  • Gently lean against the side of a sofa or the footboard of a poster bed. Gently shake a chair or table. Did it move? Even worse - did you hear it move? Does it feel like it isn't held together very well, or does it feel solid and sturdy?

    All hardware should be firmly attached. Knobs, drawer pulls, and handles should be attached by a screw from the inside of the door or drawer front, instead of just being nailed or glued on. Gently tap decorative panels, made from glass or other materials, inset in cupboard doors. They should not jiggle or shift in any way. They should feel snug. Look underneath tabletops, chair seats, and sofa frames. You should see a small wooden brace in each corner, forming a triangle with the corner. This adds strength and stability to the furniture.

  • Finish --
  • Does the finish feel smooth, or does it feel rough, gritty, or bumpy? Is the color attractive and even over the entire piece? Quality furniture should have a very smooth, evenly colored finish.

  • Smooth function --
  • Do drawers open and close smoothly and easily, or do they squeak and resist moving? Large drawers that may be heavy when they are filled should be mounted on metal tracks that have rollers to move the drawer back and forth. Do doors open and close smoothly, or do they seem to be scraping against the frame? You shouldn't have to use any force to open or close the doors.
  • Joints --
  • Check the drawers. They should have dove-tailed joints at all four corners. If they are just nailed together, eventually they will pull apart. Look at where table and chair legs are attached. Make sure that there isn't any excess glue dripping out and that there are no gaps in the joints.
  • Extras --
  • Chests of drawers should have a panel between each drawer to catch dust. You don't want dust to rain down on the contents of lower drawers each time you open or close drawers above them. Entertainment centers and furniture designed to hold computer equipment should have small holes drilled in the back to allow power cords to pass through. Drawers should have stops to prevent them from being accidentally pulled out of the frame. Look at the bottom of any large piece of furniture, such as an entertainment center or armoire. Quality furniture will have small concealed casters to help you move the furniture around.
  • Veneers --
  • Unfortunately, veneers have gotten an undeserved bad reputation in some circles. Some people incorrectly believe that a veneer is a sure sign of cheap furniture. Not at all. There is cheap veneered furniture and there is quality veneered furniture, but you must know how to tell the difference. Make sure that the veneer has been applied to a good-quality base wood. Birch, maple, gum, and ash are all good choices. Fir, poplar, and particle board are commonly used, but inferior, base woods. Avoid them.

    Occasionally, veneers will be attached to their own base woods. Many manufacturers produce solid cherry furniture that is actually made of a cherry base and a cherry veneer. This allows large pieces of cherry furniture to be built, as described later in this section.

    Choose a quality manufacturer. All of the major manufacturers listed on this site are very reputable and produce quality furniture. You should not experience any problems with veneered furniture from these companies. Veneered furniture from any design center, trade center, or independent wholesale showroom should also be fine. Other than that, there's not much else you can do to check the quality of the veneer yourself. There is a certain amount of faith involved. However, if you stick with quality woods and quality manufacturers, you are unlikely to have any problems.

    Veneers are not always used as a cost-cutting measure, although this is a primary reason for their use. Veneering does allow manufacturers to make the maximum use of a small amount of very expensive decorative wood. However, veneers are also used to create attractive patterns with wood grains.

    There is also a special type of veneer called a "rotary-cut veneer". This type of veneer is made by slicing wood very thinly starting at the outside edge of the tree trunk and spiraling inward to the center. A thin sheet of veneer is peeled from the trunk, sort of like fabric being unrolled. This allows large sheets of veneer to be made for large pieces of furniture, such as a dining table top, from very small trees.

    Cherry trees, for example, are fairly small trees. Rotary-cut veneers allow large pieces of cherry furniture to be made. How else could you have large pieces of furniture made from such a tiny tree? So, don't be afraid of veneers. They are a perfectly acceptable cost-cutting measure, as long as you are dealing with quality woods and quality manufacturers, and they make many types of beautiful furniture available that would otherwise be impossible to build.

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