How to Identify Quality Furniture
One of the main benefits of refinishing furniture is the ability to furnish your home with high-quality pieces fairly inexpensively. If you’re going to take the time and effort to refinish a piece, however, you’ll want to make sure it’s sturdy enough to last the test of time. This article describes some of the hallmarks of fine furniture.
This is your first clue. Solid wood pieces are always more durable than plywood, particleboard, or plastic versions. Steer clear of anything made with artificial veneers; these acrylic or plastic coatings won’t last long, don’t absorb stain, and don’t usually look realistic. Veneers made of real wood are better, but replacing missing pieces can be expensive. Also, if the piece has been refinished before, the veneer may be perilously thin. Pay attention to the substrate, too. Plywood is cheap and relatively lightweight, but it can absorb moisture and swell. Particleboard is incredibly hard, to the point of being brittle, and tends to fracture if jostled or dropped.
Solid wood pieces are the best option for refinishing, because they are sturdy, attractive, and can be sanded vigorously to achieve a flawless surface. Wood is divided into two basic categories: hardwood and softwood.
Hardwood pieces are, as the name suggests, denser, more durable, and more resistant to moisture than softwoods. The absolute best pieces of furniture are made from solid hardwood. Look for a tight, even grain. Unusual grain patterns could indicate an exotic hardwood- these are often very valuable and can be played up with the right finishing technique. Hardwood is more expensive than softwood, so expect to pay a premium if you’re buying new. However, you can still find good hardwood pieces cheaply if you know where to look.
Softwoods, like pine, are less durable over time than hardwoods are, but don’t rule out an item you love simply because it isn’t hardwood. The reality is, there are plenty of softwood dressers, chairs, and tables out there that are well over 100 years old and still looking great. If the piece is otherwise well constructed, it’s probably a good buy. In addition, you stain these pieces to mimic expensive or exotic finishes like cherry, walnut, or ebony.
The next most obvious indicator of a quality piece is good joinery. If glue or staples are visible, keep looking. One of the characteristics of fine furniture is joints created by interlocking pieces of wood. Dowel, mortise and tenon, and tongue and groove are all sturdy joints. Dovetails are the most commonly used type of joint, especially in drawer construction. Unevenly spaced, but sturdy joints are an indicator that the dovetails were cut by hand, rather than machine- a rare find.
Tabletops are pieced together from multiple boards; near-invisible seams are a sign of quality. Look underneath the piece; corners should be braced with corner blocks or metal braces. These reinforcements keep the legs from wiggling, and are very important.
The tabletop should be proportionate to the legs or pedestal; flimsy legs can break, and a heavy top on an insufficient pedestal is a disaster waiting to happen, especially if you have kids or pets.
Stretchers that span the space between table legs can further reinforce the piece and add aesthetic appeal. They should be securely attached to the legs, either with a mortise and tenon or dowel joint.
Case goods are designed for storage. These include dressers, armoires and the like. Perhaps the best indicator of quality on these pieces of furniture is the back panel. These are attached a variety of ways, but the implication is clear; if the craftsman took the time to attach the back panel carefully, the rest of the piece was made carefully as well. Visible staples, glue, or an inferior material (such as MDF) should make you look more carefully at the rest of the unit. On the other hand, if the back panel is made with the same solid wood as the front, and rabbeted or dadoed, you’ve found a good quality piece of furniture.
You’re unlikely to find the inside of any drawer fully finished, but it should be carefully sanded smooth to prevent snagging the contents. Look for dovetailed corner joints reinforced with corner blocks. Beware of any drawer that doesn’t have some kind of slides; the drawers are unlikely to move smoothly and fit flush. Another sign of quality is the presence of dust guides between the drawers and at the bottom of the dresser. These panels keep air flow within the unit to a minimum, protecting the contents from dust.
Chairs and Benches
As with other types of furniture, the quality of a chair can be determined by the type of wood, appropriate proportions, and secure joints. However, with these items, comfort counts, too! Try it before you buy it.