It is not difficult to judge quality in wood furniture, and you don't need to be an expert to do so. All that you need to do is look at the material, construction and finish and take your time. It may also help to become familiar with some wood furniture terms.
Your furniture is made of different woods that can be classified as hard, soft, or engineered. The kind of wood that is used is one of the factors that determine how long your furniture will last, and how it will fare with age.
Generally speaking, quality furniture is made out of hard wood which comes from deciduous trees such as oak, maple, mahogany, teak, walnut, cherry and birch. The wood will have been air dried and then kiln dried to remove all the moisture.
Coniferous trees such as pine, fir, redwood and cedar produce what is known as soft wood. It is possible to find good quality furniture in these woods also, but since they are more prone to scratches and dents they require more care.
Today, solid wood furniture is largely a thing of the past. You can still find it, but it is more common to find furniture that is constructed from plywood, or engineered wood. You shouldn't necessarily dismiss this material as second rate, as it provides strength, and also helps prevent splitting or warping. It can make for sturdy, long lasting and highly attractive furniture when used with high quality veneers.
The way a piece is constructed can contribute to its beauty, functionality and also how long it will last. The joinery and sturdiness of a piece will tell you a lot about its quality.
Mortise and tenon, and dovetails are two of the oldest ways of putting together furniture, and also make for the strongest and best looking joints. Good joints can also have dowels or screws, but will never be stapled. Any glue used will not show outside the joint.
Look for corner blocks which add to the strength and stability of a piece. These are not visible from the outside, but bolt to both sides of interior corners.
A good quality desk or chest of drawers may have dust panels or thin sheets of wood between drawers in the body of a chest or desk. This not only makes them stronger structurally, but keeps dust away from clothing or papers.
Back panels that face the wall are the generally attached with screws to help ensure lateral stability. Backs and unexposed parts should be sanded smooth and well fitted. This is an important feature as only well constructed furniture has these details.
Drawers should fit well and have glides to allow you to effortlessly move a drawer in and out of its station. They will also have stops to prevent a drawer from being pulled out or falling. Glides in office furniture such as desks, file cabinets and computer armoires are important to the functionality of the piece.
Doors should close neatly and be flush with the cabinet front, and the hardware should be of good quality.
Test for sturdiness by trying to rock or jostle the piece. It should not squeak, twist or wobble. Check if it is level with the floor.
Quality wood furniture will also have a good finish. Sanding, staining, and finishing are part of the process, and neglect at any of the stages can affect the overall quality of a piece.
Sanding is the first step in the finishing process, and a good piece will be smooth so that when you run your hand over it there will be no rough patches. Sanding across the wood grain will also produce unattractive results such as dark lines or scratches across the surface. Improperly sanded wood will not take the stain evenly. Inspect the finish from different angles to check for blotchiness or scratches.
A good stain enhances the natural beauty of wood and adds color and character to the wood. It can make one wood type look like another one, or make different woods look similar. High quality staining will be even, without any dark spots. All sides and the ends should be the same tone.
Finishes range from high-gloss to matte. A high quality finish is satiny smooth and free of rough spots, dust specks, or bubbles. Look for depth and richness in the finish, which comes from several light coats of finish with sanding between the coats. A high quality piece is finished on the back and on the underside as well to reduce the chances of swelling or shrinking.
Some signs of poorly finished wood are:
- A rough surface.
- A very glossy or cloudy surface that hides the wood grain.
- Splintered edges.
- Scratches, dents, or dust specks.
- Dull spots indicating missed areas or not enough coats.
- “Teardrops” around the edges and on vertical surfaces.
An exception to all of the above can be found on distressed furniture. You will find that the surface uses many of these effects to age new furniture and to heighten its rustic appeal. The wood is beaten, battered and nicked before applying the finish. However, good quality distressed furniture should be well constructed and sturdy.