8 Things You Should Know
About Hardwood Furniture
How To Tell The Difference Between Nice Furniture And Heirloom Quality
Your great grandchildren may never know you saved $450 when buying your dining room table, but they'll know whether or not you had a fine eye for detail and really appreciated quality. If you bought a merely good piece of furniture, they'll probably never see it. Long before their birth it will have succumbed to the ravages of time, weather and use. However, if you bought the best heirloom quality furniture, they will most likely prop their little elbows on it as they listen to their mother … your grandchild … tell family stories that bind generations as wisdom flows from your home to those of your children's children's children.
Fine furniture brings generations together. But how can you tell if the dining room table you buy today will have staying power to span the ages. Certainly heirloom quality furniture is not cheap. However, price is not the best indicator as many stylish pieces carry a large price-tag while cutting corners on materials and craftsmanship. Indeed, a furniture designer we know wondered aloud whether plastic now grew in forests since it is used in so much of the furniture manufactured today. With a little knowledge and a sharp eye, you can tell whether any piece of furniture is built with more than just temporary appreciation in mind. Here are some tips that will help you out when judging hardwood furniture. We will discuss upholstered furniture in a future article.
1. What are the materials telling you?
Wood has had a long run as the material of choice for fine furniture. No man-made material can match its touch, visual richness and workability. However, not all woods are created equal. In the last two decades there has been an explosion of faux, laminated and cheapened wood products. Beyond plastic imitations, you'll find veneers glued to "engineered" substrates and cheap grades of lumber gussied up like a shiny Ford Pinto at a classic car show.
The imitators are usually pretty easy to spot. If it starts life weaker than a solid plank of top grade wood, it probably won't make it through the next decade. But, separating the faux from the solid wood is just a warm-up. Now take a close look at how that solid wood furniture is put together.
2. Look at how the wood was assembled.
Any large area, like a table top should be made of planks perfectly fit together. The wider the plank the more likely the piece will warp and bow over time. You'll see cupped surfaces at any antique shop, but that just means the piece is old, not quality. To make sure your treasured furniture doesn't end up old before its time, a good rule of thumb has every plank less than 4 inches wide.
Then look even closer at how the planks are placed together. Pay particular attention to the direction of the grain, especially at the end of each plank. Remember that flat wood planks are cut from circular trees. Lumber grain results from cutting through growth rings so the grain at the end of the plank appears as curves. Since wood always cups as if moving toward the center of the tree, adjoining planks should be placed with grains running in opposite directions. In this manner, the entire surface will always be in a state of dynamic tension, forever remaining flat and smooth.
3. Get the manufacturing details.
You won't be able to see the moisture content of the wood, or how the joints were glued. However, if you are buying direct from the craftsman, they should be able to provide these details, and they are important. Properly glued joints will actually be stronger than the grain itself. In fact 99% of the time a properly glued surface will not break at the joint when flexed.
Getting such a strong joint depends on the quality of the moisture content of the lumber glue. You need kiln-dried planks with 6-8% moisture content to assure a good hold. Good glue not only bonds well with the hardwood planks, but also must not set up too fast or too slow. Fast-setting glue will not soak into the planks, while slow setting glue will not create a strong enough bond. If the joints are properly cut, glued and clamped for a full hour, the glue will actually soak an eighth of an inch into each plank virtually fusing them together for eternity. If no one can tell you how the planks were kiln dried and bonded together, simply wait two years and you'll see the difference. Of course, you might want to check the store's return policy just in case.
4. Look for sanding, sawing and routing clues.
The most expensive finish stains in the world can't cover up a bad job of sanding a wood surface. The purpose of sanding is not only to smooth the surface, but also to bring out the true grain and open pores in the surface so that the stain soaks deep. At Homestead Furniture we've found 180 grit sandpaper to be the ideal grit for hardwood surfaces. Coarser sandpaper creates blotchiness and swirls in the surface. Finer grits will almost polish the surface as pores clog making it difficult for the stain to adhere. To fine or too coarse and the true beauty of the wood will remain locked inside.
A flatter, less luxurious finish may also result from a poor choice of belt sanders. The right sander will actually cut off the grain, opening it to accept stain. The wrong sander will smash down the grain (see fig. 3) so that it can't accept stain. In these cases the stain only coats the surface rather than soaking into the wood. It will soon show signs of wear, long before the next generation gets any enjoyment from the furniture you so painstakingly selected.
Now turn your attention to how the wood was grooved, carved or routered. Cutters will react to the grain of the wood. A poor use of cutters will show up as chatter marks on Cherry wood or gouges and loose fibers in Hickory which has a stringy grain. Imperfections like these are clues to the quality of the craftsmanship and attention to detail.
5. Fascinating clues from fastening.
There's a difference between putting parts together and actually fastening one to the other. The difference is easy to spot. Just turn a chair upside down and stand on it. An heirloom quality piece will still be solid when you turn it right side up.
Most people know to look for dovetail joints on drawers. Their interlocking pattern binds drawer parts together as if made from one piece of wood. However, few people pay attention to the manner in which other construction corners are fastened. Every corner should be both glued and screw fastened.
6. Does the fit allow for natural movement?
Most furniture looks perfectly fit together on the showroom floor. Check mitered joints closely. You should barely be able to see the seam. Heirloom quality furniture is also assembled knowing wood will expand and contract as air humidity changes from day to day. You will always find an expansion space at the back of a trim piece so that movement will not take place at the mitered joint. At Homestead we actually place small spacer balls at key joints to accommodate expansion and contraction.
7. Pay attention to the surface finish.
Heirloom quality furniture is working furniture. When judging the finish of a hardwood piece, consider how many times it will be used … and abused … as it moves from generation to generation. Sooner or later someone is going to spill a glass of water on it and the water will penetrate the finish even if you have 30 coats of stain on it.
Surface finish is one area where the furniture-maker's art has advanced in modern times. Lacquers are not water proof, so at Homestead we use a catalyzed conversion product that meets or exceeds all KCMA* testing standards. It has been tested against common hazards such as tomato juice, ink, water, and even battery acid. This surface is so rugged that you do not have to put glass over it and it will not show water-marks. If the surface is scratched it can be sanded and refinished to its original luster.
Today this polymer top-coat is almost seven times more expensive than lacquer, but will last generations longer. The purpose of heirloom furniture is to look as good for future generations as it does for the first. After all, beat-up furniture can have sentimental value. Heirloom quality furniture has functional value as well as sentimental value.
8. Look at the curves.
Chair backs, table skirts, arms, legs and other curved furniture parts are tell-tale signs of quality. If a part is a single piece of solid wood that has been steam bent, it will last longer and look more graceful than pieces fashioned from thin strips of laminated wood. Check for bulges or wrinkles along the inside corner of a bend, as this indicates that the internal fibers of the wood have buckled during the bending process. Cracks along the outer edge indicate that wood fibers have been stretched which will also weaken the part.
These are eight good "tells" when it comes to judging the quality of the hardwood furniture you are buying. There's more, but let's save something for another day.