Quality Furniture and how to spot it!

What characteristics define quality furniture? 

The simplest approach to seeing the difference between high and low quality is to take a good look at an old piece of furniture and something newer. Even "junk" furniture until the mid-20th century often had machine dovetailed joints in drawers and were built of solid wood. Lesser pieces were often veneered over solid wood. (Veneer is not necessarily an indication of poor quality, however. It's a wood crafting technique that has been around for centuries and allows craftsmen to create beautifully designed grain patterns or inlays not achievable any other way.) Finer pieces were carefully custom-built by master joiners and cabinet makers out of kiln-dried, hardwood boards. What survives today is a testament to craftsmanship and the longevity of straight, old-growth wood.

Defining wood furniture quality
To get the most you can for the money, the following table should help you compare the relative differences between today's levels of wood furniture:

Quality Level - High
Construction

  • Mortise and tenon
  • Doweling
  • Mitering
  • Dovetails
  • Tongue in groove
  • Frames glued and screwed
  • Floating construction where drawer bottoms are not glued, but instead move freely as humidity changes.

Materials

  • Wood is air dried then placed in a kiln to remove as much moisture as possible. This can take months depending on the type of wood.
  • Wood matching for color and grain.
  • Wood is selected for it's merits. Frames are constructed from strong stable woods like poplar with cabinet woods like solid cherry, oak, or maple used on exterior surfaces.

Performance and other characteristics

  • The piece should look and feel solid. Try to rock or jostle the piece. It shouldn't squeak or twist.
  • Backs and unexposed parts should be sanded smooth and well fitted. This could be considered a litmus test. Only the best quality furniture does this well.
  • Dust panels between drawers.
  • Quality built-in light fixtures and lined silverware drawers in hutches, buffets, dining room, or display cabinetry.
  • Smoothly gliding drawers that close square and flush.
  • Doors that close neatly and that are square and flush with the cabinet front.
  • Highest quality hardware



Quality Level - Medium
Construction

  • Limited mitering
  • Rabbeted drawers
  • Dadoes for shelves
  • Frames glued, stapled
  • Floating construction

Materials

  • Moderate or low-cost woods such as ash, poplar, or pine
  • Pieced and glued woods like butcher block
  • Laminates
  • MDF (medium density fiberboard), particle board, or wheatboard for unexposed portions of the piece. May be veneered with real woods.

Performance and other characteristics

  • The piece should look and feel reasonably solid. It shouldn't squeak or twist.
  • Backs and unexposed parts will probably fit okay but not be sanded smooth or tightly fitted. Probably stapled to piece.
  • Open construction between drawers.
  • Smoothly gliding drawers, however, you may notice minor misalignments or gaps between drawers or doors and cabinet face.
  • Doors are square and flush with the cabinet front. Occasional, minor misalignments might be noted.
  • Stamped or cast hardware of medium quality.



Quality Level - Low
Construction

  • Engineered kit furniture that has been constructed for easy home assembly.
  • Better quality engineering may place this low-cost alternative into moderate quality category.

Materials

  • Laminates
  • Particle board or MDF
  • Low-quality woods

Performance and other characteristics

  • Build in place and don't blow on it.
  • Backs and unexposed parts are usually composed of fiberboard, or foiled compressed paper products.
  • Drawers and square doors may show obviously uneven gaps or misalignment.
  • Doesn't hold up well over time.
  • Can't be taken apart and reassembled—particle board usually breaks down.
  • Shelving may bow if overweighted with books.
  • Excess humidity or exposure to water can ruin piece.


The level of quality you choose depends on how you expect to use the piece and whether you expect to keep it for the rest of your life. Before spending large amounts of money on new furniture from retailers, do a little research on their construction methods, materials, and overall performance as well as business practices and environmental record. Remember, in this day and age price is no longer an indication of quality. Doing a little research will help you make the right decision on a piece that will bring you happiness for years to come.

 

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