Buy to keep: wooden furniture

July 29, 2015

Whether new or antique, it takes excellent materials and superb craftsmanship to create furniture that you'll be proud to hand down to your children. Here are a few pointers on differentiating between great furniture; good, serviceable furniture; and junk.

Buy to keep: wooden furniture

Type of wood

  • Most fine furniture, whether antique or new, is made of hardwoods, such as cherry, walnut, maple, oak, teak, or of mahogany.
  • However, some of the most valued antique furniture is made of old-growth pine. Cut from tall, old trees, this was a strong, durable wood with a beautiful grain.
  • Sadly, the old-growth pine is mostly gone. Plenty of serviceable furniture is built from new-growth pine, but it doesn't come close to the beauty and strength of old-growth furniture.

    Your options:

  • Excellent, extremely durable furniture can be made from plywood. "Cabinet-grade" plywood is available with fine hardwood top veneers.
  • This material is strong and won't expand and contract like solid wood. As a result, panels won't crack, and joinery is not likely to loosen due to humidity changes.
  • Low-grade furniture, especially kitchen cabinets, is often made of veneered particleboard.
  • This furniture can look great, but particleboard is weaker than plywood or solid wood and doesn't hold fasteners as well.
  • If it gets soaked, it can turn into something that resembles oatmeal.


  • Check the joinery. The best solid wood furniture relies on precisely made interlocking joints to hold it together — for example, drawers that are dovetailed together rather than nailed or screwed.
  • Narrow dovetails of varied spacing and width are the hallmark of a handmade piece. But regularly spaced and sized machine-made dovetails are just as strong.
  • Other signs of quality furniture include mortise-and-tenon or doweled joints and wooden corner blocks that have been glued and screwed in place.

Wood finish

  • Check the finish. There should be finish on all surfaces. If the bottom of a tabletop, for example, is not finished, that surface will absorb more moisture than the finished top.
  • This could cause the top to cup, split, or warp.
  • Run your hands over all the surfaces of the piece, and make sure everything is smooth to the touch.
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