While there are so many different kinds of furniture—loveseats, china cabinets, ottomans, benches, dressers—they can really be classified into two major groups: Those covered in fabric (a.k.a. upholstery) and those made of wood (what we call “casegoods” in the industry). We have a series of posts discussing upholstery furniture quality, so if you’re shopping for a sofa or chair, check out our posts on frame material and construction, springs and suspension and seat and back cushions. But if you’re shopping for wood furniture and want to make sure you’re buying something that’s high quality, you’ll need to learn about four elements: wood, veneer, joinery and finishes. First, we’re going to dive into the main material of casegoods: the wood itself. (And check out our selection of gorgeous wood furniture here.)
What kinds of wood are out there?
Shopping for wood furniture is like buying a designer bag: Watch out for counterfeits. Something may look like the real thing at first (in this case, solid wood), but you realize it’s not after you start using it and it falls apart (particle board!). Plus, a single piece may incorporate several different types of wood products of varying qualities, making it even tougher to figure out what’s going on. Let’s break down what all these labels mean:
This term describes furniture that is made from single pieces of wood or wood boards that are glued together to make panels (trees are only so wide). Don’t be fooled by something that says “Solid Wood Products,” since that’s a way of describing poor-quality engineered wood products, like MDF (more on that below). For more details on the specific types of solid wood used in furniture, visit our post on that here.
Types of solid wood
- Hardwood (oak, ash, walnut, cherry, maple) comes from slower-growing trees, resulting in denser wood that’s more resistant to dings.
- Softwood (pine, fir, poplar) comes from faster-growing trees that result in less-dense wood.
- Since hardwood trees take longer to grow, furniture made from it tends to be more expensive. (That’s why Ikea sells so much pine furniture—it’s cheap to produce!) There’s a lot more to say about each type, so head here if you’re curious.
Pros of solid wood furniture
- Usually a fail-safe way to ensure you are getting quality furniture
- Solid wood is extremely long-lasting
- Can be easily refinished and repaired through the years
Cons of solid wood furniture
- Solid wood is more susceptible to changes in climate, especially humidity
- Certain environments (high heat or low humidity) may cause solid wood to crack or warp
- More expensive
How to shop for solid wood furniture
- Purchase hardwood species over softwood species.
- Avoid furniture made from non-native wood species such as Rubberwood, Mango, Acacia or Sheesham (more on that here in our blog on imported wood).
- Don’t be fooled by “solid wood products” labels – it does NOT mean the same thing as solid wood.
- Confirm that native wood species furniture is made in the USA and not made in another country from exported North American lumber.
- Ensure the wood is certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) so that lumber sources are being managed sustainably. (All wood furniture at The Stated Home uses FSC-certified lumber)
Plywood (sometimes called engineered hardwood) is made by taking thin layers of solid wood and adhering them together. When used in furniture construction, it is covered with a veneer of nicer wood (more about that here).
Pros of plywood
- More stable in adverse climate conditions, so can be useful if you live in a really dry climate
- Less likely to warp or crack than solid wood
- Can give you the same look and sturdiness as solid wood furniture at a lower price
Cons of plywood
- The veneer can chip (sometimes easily), exposing the less expensive wood underneath
- Damage is difficult to repair since the wood underneath is a different species
- Some plywood uses chemicals with formaldehyde, but you can find formaldehyde-free plywood
How to shop for plywood furniture
- If a piece uses veneered plywood, make sure those parts don’t get a lot of wear and tear, like the sides or top of a dresser or a bookcase.
- It is common for the sides and bottoms of drawers to be constructed out of plywood since they aren’t visible. This is a perfectly acceptable construction method.
- Since drawer fronts and doors take a beating, make sure they’re solid wood so they’re easier to repair.
- Look for plywood construction that is Formaldehyde-free.
Medium-density fiberboard is made by taking wood waste products (sawdust essentially) and mixing it with resins. The mixture is then compressed to create large, flat boards. For furniture, the MDF is finished with a layer of real-wood veneer or not-real-wood laminate.
Pros of MDF
- If you are on a budget, furniture made with MDF is generally inexpensive
- It is resistant to climate conditions
Cons of MDF
- Requires a lot of chemicals to produce
- MDF is the highest formaldehyde-emitting wood product (formaldehyde causes cancer and is nasty stuff – read more about it on the EPA’s website)
- Susceptible to moisture damage: When exposed to water, MDF will swell and bubble
- The veneers used on MDF tend to not last and start to chip quickly (often within a month or two)
- Damage is difficult to repair since the MDF beneath the veneer will not stain or have the same grain as the surface veneer
- Does not hold screws as well as solid wood or plywood, running the risk of furniture loosening up
- It’s really heavy – much more than solid wood – making it tough to move
Avoid furniture made with MDF. The chemicals are harmful to your health and it will start to chip and show wear very quickly.
Particle Board is IKEA’s best friend. If you’ve ever purchased a piece of furniture from there or other bargain retailers like Target, you’ve likely assembled particle board furniture. Particle board is made from larger wood scraps – basically small chips –adhered together with glue and other chemicals. It differs from MDF in that it is lighter and less sturdy. You can actually tell that something is particle board because there are air spaces visible in the piece. It is usually covered with a not-real-wood laminate – just picture the white shoe shelves commonly available at Target and home improvement stores.
Pros of particle board
- It’s cheap
Cons of particle board
- Uses a lot of chemicals to produce
- It contains formaldehyde, a known carcinogen
- Damage is difficult to repair since the board beneath the laminate will not stain or have the same grain as the surface
- Susceptible to moisture damage: When exposed to water, particle board will swell and bubble
- Really does not hold screws well—furniture will loosen quickly and the board material around the screws will disintegrate, making it difficult to tighten up
Avoid particle board in furniture – it is best suited to things that aren’t furniture. Like shoe shelves.
Like what you read? Visit thestatedhome.com to shop our collection of made-in-America furnishings.
Kathy Greg says
Great piece. I just got a quick question. Can you suggest other wood that is great for using in floors and/or chairs? That can last for long? I have heard about parawood and sheesham and don’t really see that a lot of articles about it.
Hi Kathy, Parawood is commonly referred to as Rubberwood and Sheesham is rosewood. We cover those woods in our blog post about Domestic vs. Foreign Wood. These woods could be a good option for solid wood furniture on a budget, but we don’t recommend them since they are common in imported furniture and we encourage consumers to purchase American made furniture if possible.
Jenna Hunter says
I wasn’t aware that When plywood is used in furniture construction, it is covered with a veneer of nicer wood. We have been wanting to buy new furniture since our other furniture burned in the fire a month ago. Since I am no expert I would imagine that this material would last for a long time!
Thanks for the information
Callum Palmer says
Wow, I had no idea that so many factors had to be taken into consideration when deciding on what kind of wood furniture to buy. I particularly like that your article goes over some of the benefits of plywood. After all, considering how good it is with climates it might work great for outdoor furniture.
Wow!!!! Excellent information, thanks
I was wondering which solid wood is best to paint it white, in semi gloss finish maybe!
Glad we could help! Maple is good for painting because it has such as subtle wood grain, it won’t show through the paint.