April 13, 2008 3:37 PM   Subscribe

Furniture shopping: How do you know what's good? What's really the difference between cedar, pine, oak, etc., and how much of a difference does it really make? Is anything plywood implicitly crap? What else do you look for?

...and for those of you who actually do know more than average about furniture, do you think about it when you're at other people's homes? Do you think, "Huh, he has a pine dresser; what a cheapskate/ignoramus"? How do you pick good deals out of an antique store that contains hundreds of items with very slight distinctions?
posted by bingo to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I'm very fortunate in that my dad opened a custom woodworking shop for 15 years during his midlife crisis, so most of my furniture is hand-built hardwood stuff.

When looking for furniture, color and grain are what set fine furniture from everything else. Softwoods like pine are usually have knots and don't have much for color, so that's why they're less desirable. Or they use paint as a finish. The standard hardwoods, such as cherry and walnut, have such rich colors that you can just use stain as a finish to really bring out the shine.

What I really look for in good furniture is high quality hardware. Good slides for drawers, smooth hinges for doors, etc.

There's nothing wrong with plywood, as long as there's a good veneer on the top. Plywood is actually relatively expensive as compared to particleboard or MDF (medium density fiberboard) which is usually lesser quality.

Given that what hasn't come from my dad comes from IKEA, I don't judge cheap furniture.
posted by hwyengr at 3:57 PM on April 13, 2008

If you can press your fingernail in it and it leaves a mark then it's a sure sign of softwood such as pine. Pine is fine for something like drawers in a low traffic area, but you don't want it as a surface (table, chairs, etc).
posted by furtive at 4:13 PM on April 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's also about how the furniture is put together. For instance, the pieces used to make a drawer shouldn't be butted up against to each other and nailed; there should instead be a nice joint like a dovetail joint. Details such as these indicate quality craftsmanship, and the piece will last longer.

I'm kind of a wood snob. I don't like veneer, or floors made of Pergo, etc. I'd notice such things in your home, but I wouldn't actually judge you. :) Unless I also didn't like you for some other reason, and then I could also say, "Bingo has such CRAP taste in furniture, too!" ;D
posted by iguanapolitico at 4:57 PM on April 13, 2008

Also, in my opinion there's nothing inherently bad about pine, but its softness can be problematic, and if you have a knotty piece then it's not so great. When building with pine, you look for "clear pine" (clear of knots, I guess). And its look usually lends more of a rustic feel.

As far as oak goes ... I don't like its grain. That's kind of a matter of individual taste, like with the rustic feel of pine. Oak looks very lodge-y to me. Nothing wrong with that, if you're in a lodge. But for a home in the city, I like the cherries and the walnuts and the maples, etc. I do like to see the grain in wood, but I like it to be more subtle.

So the wood itself (unless it's veneered particle board, etc) doesn't matter as much to me as how it is applied, and how it is put together.
posted by iguanapolitico at 5:01 PM on April 13, 2008

FWIW, the reknowned Eames Chair is made of plywood.
posted by tomwheeler at 6:39 PM on April 13, 2008

Don't buy furniture fresh off the boat. This is twice as true if there's a difference in humidity in the country of manufacture versus your new location. It'll crack and split if it's not properly dried.
posted by Phalene at 7:23 PM on April 13, 2008

When shopping, I'll check the back of dressers, desks, and bookshelves to see whether there's actually wood as a back or just hardboard (which is kind of like glorified cardboard). Sometimes it'll be hardboard with a paper coating to look like wood grain -- ugh.

Mainly, what I want is something that looks like it's solid, will last, and won't break if I stand on top of it for some reason (I'm short and do this a lot, but I think it's a good benchmark in any case).
posted by amtho at 7:56 PM on April 13, 2008

I'd say that if you know your own tastes very well and shop consistently to those tastes so that what you have doesn't just seem randomly thrown together, then you can be proud of the results. even if your tastes are "eclectic", you can have a consistent value system reflected in your choices. Even if you decide to focus your money on education or traveling, and have a house full of cardboard, if it's _intentional_ cardboard that serves your other purposes -- comfort, looking like you want it to look and comfortable in context with everything else you own -- it can be a happy place for you and your friends to be.
posted by amtho at 7:59 PM on April 13, 2008

In addition to the above (although my parents gave me a love for oak that is evidently not universal) it helps to know a little about woodworking; just watching a few PBS shows like New Yankee Workshop will give you an idea of how furniture is put together so that you can see if it is done right. Another shortcut is to look at the hidden areas of the piece; if the parts no one will see are clean, tight, and well-formed, then the furniture was probably built by a craftsman rather than an assembly line. Of course, that sort of thing doesn't come cheap. I don't particularly notice furniture, but Stickley and Thomas Moser make beautiful pieces. They are also expensive enough that I do not actually own any of them, although I am planning to.
posted by TedW at 8:05 PM on April 13, 2008

Buy antiques, old , good wood and it seldom loses value. It takes a bit of education, bot worth the effort!
posted by raildr at 10:49 PM on April 13, 2008

How do you pick good deals out of an antique store that contains hundreds of items with very slight distinctions?

Learn about the distinctions. Look at this photo. Notice that the pedestal has a ball and ring effect at the bottom. Other examples of this kind of table do not have that kind of detail and the pedestal is simple and straight. A pedestal with good proportion to the rest of the piece and nice detail is more desirable than a plain one.

This table does not have carvings on its feet. A important piece of furniture might have detailed carvings on its feet.

The photo does not show it, unfortunately, but some of these tables have a “bird cage attachment” where the pedestal meets the table. The detail and how well it is done matters.

An outstanding resource for learning about these distinctions is Fine Points of Furniture: Early American. Auction catalogs are also excellent resources for learning.

Do some reading and then go out and see lots of furniture in person.

The thing (well, one of the things) about buying furniture in a antique store or warehouse is the lighting. Often it is not well lighted. This makes it very difficult to assess the piece. Has it been repaired? Sanded? Variations in color? A piece replaced? Very difficult to tell in poor lighting. Daylight is the best lighting.

When I am looking at furniture in such settings I always have a small pocket flashlight so I can inspect the piece.

The best furniture at the most reasonable prices in the area you live in/are moving to are to be had at estate sales or sometimes being sold on Craigslist. I understand how difficult it is to purchase furniture this way without a large enough vehicle but I had to mention this.
posted by mlis at 11:01 PM on April 13, 2008

Are you talking about just wood furniture, or upholstered furniture as well? A good way to judge quality on all-wood pieces (bureaus, dressers, tables, chairs, etc.) is to see how much "hardware" is used to assemble them--using lots of nails/screws is often a sign of lower quality. It takes more time, skill and effort to do biscuit/mortise & tenon/tongue & groove joinery than to just butt a couple of pieces together and put in a screw. Glides also tell you the quality--good furniture usually has wooden glides, instead of the metal/plastic roller type. The usual assumption is that hardwood is the "best" for furniture--but it's incredibly expensive and not very environmentally friendly. A lot of furniture is now made with "engineered wood" that has a veneer surface; in this case, it can be fine quality, but you want to find a piece with a decently thick veneer (so that it can be resurfaced if necessary), and high-quality engineered wood.

Whether it's wood/upholstered, you want furniture constructed with a wood base that's been properly dried. Kiln-dried for a few months, at least, depending on the type of wood, otherwise it's more susceptible to changes and warpage as a result of residual moisture.

For upholstery, you want a sturdy, well-built frame--the mantra I've often heard is "corner-blocked, glued & screwed". Which means that you've got a support piece running diagonally to brace each corner, and every seam is sealed with both screws and glue. An easy way to tell if a piece has a good frame is to pick it up by a corner--if the whole thing lifts as a solid piece, then it's a strong frame, whereas if it bends or warps it's bad construction or low-quality wood.
Traditionally, 8-way hand-tied spring suspension is the only way to go--these are coiled springs that are (you guessed it) tied to each other at 8 different points. This gives that "grandma-furniture ride" that feels a bit like riding waves. More recent types of suspension, such as sinuous wire or the webbing stuff is pretty good as well, in addition to offering a different "ride"; downside is that it's not as easy to repair as 8-way.
There will be a variety of cushion options with higher-grade furniture as well, from squishy down cushions to incredibly firm foam-and-spring centered cushions. It depends on how soft you like your furniture and how concerned you are with appearances--down will swallow you and feel incredibly luxurious, but needs near-constant fluffing to not look misshapen and deflated. The firm cushions are lower maintenance, but, well, firm. 1.8 is the highest foam density you want--really, the ideal foam density. A lower density will pancake, and pretty much any higher density I've run across has sand added in order to "beef up" the density, which eventually causes the foam to disintegrate.
Pick your upholstery the way you pick your clothes. Do you want the $200-a-yard brocade that is gorgeous but terribly sensitive, or the denim slipcover that you can spill soda on and then toss in the washer? Both are equally appealing, but choosing your fabric based on how you intend to use your furniture will ultimately result in the best-looking, longest-wearing piece.
If you buy leather furniture, go for top-grain, as opposed to split, leather--sturdier and more attractive, as it's the outermost layer of the leather. Look for pieces that use full-aniline dyeing procedures, as well, as this immerses the leather in the dye and allows the natural scars, scuffs and wrinkles to show through, as well as saturates the leather with dye. Surface dyed leather scratches and shows another colour, but full-aniline scratches and remains the same colour (and the scratches, much like photo-negative scratches, can be masked incredibly successfully with nose grease!).

As for furniture snobbery, I tend to notice this kind of stuff, but don't necessarily judge people by it, which seems to be an important distinction. I like looking at details and sniffing out quality and the like, so I pay attention, but I don't look down on people for not being as discerning/OCD as I am.
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 5:59 AM on April 14, 2008 [4 favorites]

« Older How do you respond to a friend who's hurt you...   |   Name That Tea! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.