November 16th, 2012 by Peggy Farabaugh
I’ve been looking for a widely accepted definition of “solid wood furniture“. I’m finding the same thing as when I looked for a definition of “American made furniture”. Anything goes. Here’s an example of what I found on a popular reference website (About.com),
”Solid walnut wood furniture means that all exposed parts of the piece are walnut. But the frame and inner parts may be of other, less-costly wood. Thin layers of fine, decorative wood can be bonded to the face of low cost wood pieces. This is called veneering.”
Now does that sound like solid wood furniture to you? I don’t think so. If you’re shopping for high quality furniture and solid wood construction is important to you, try asking your salesperson these 5 questions to help clarify things:
When you take a look at the edge of a solid wood tabletop you can see if the graining on the top carries through on the edge – the way marbling does in a piece of steak. If this is not the case, you are looking at the “banding” on a veneered piece. Another way to tell solid wood is to look at the underside of the piece. Does the grain look like the same as the wood on the table top? If not, then it’s probably veneered.
In North America, typically the best quality solid wood furniture is made of native hardwoods, such as cherry, walnut, maple, oak, ash and birch. Although hardwood is more expensive than softwood, it has a higher density and is therefore usually harder and heavier. Hardwood grain is closed, tight and non-resinous as opposed to softwood grain that’s loose and resinous, thus it splits easy.
You can buy plenty of solid wood furniture that’s of poor quality. For example, I just searched for “solid hardwood furniture high quality” and Google shopper’s first result was a solid wood bed for $68.98. What good does it do to have solid wood construction when poor workmanship is going to limit the life of a piece to a couple years? Check for solid craftsmanship, top quality joinery and meticulous finishes in your furniture. A salesperson should be able to show and tell you about construction details such as mortise and tenon joints, dovetails, miter joints, finger joints, splines, biscuits, dowels, butts, dados, rabbets, tongue and groove and more. Durable, robust joinery is critical to the life and usefulness of a piece.
Finish is important too. Most imported furniture is finished with cheap coatings that contain VOCs (volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde and benzene) which can cause asthma and allergies especially in young children. Ask your salesperson to explain what’s in the finish and how many coats have been applied to protect the furniture over time.
Are you wondering why imported furniture is so much cheaper than American made furniture? It’s not just that Chinese wages are about 1/10 of American wages. It’s about where the raw materials come from. In the USA, wood furniture is made from sustainably harvested wood that comes from well managed American forests. With imported furniture, the wood is typically clear cut from the world’s rapidly disappearing rainforests. Although imported furniture often carries labels that it’s made of American cherry, walnut, oak or maple woods, that is rarely the case. These labels are trade names used to describe woods of suspicious origin that are stained to look like familiar American woods such as cherry and walnut.
Top quality solid wood furniture is inherently expensive, so you’ll want to be sure you’re getting the best value and price. Find a local craftsman or retailer you can trust. Try to purchase your furniture as a set, rather than piece by piece if possible. Purchasing furniture sets not only creates efficiency in the craftsman’s workshop, it also saves money in shipping and delivery.
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