Make Sure You Buy Quality Furniture with this Simple Guide
Anyone can identify a rip, scratch, or stain, or decide whether they like a certain color, without special knowledge. But judging whether a piece is likely to last two years or twenty — just by looking at it — is harder stuff. Time to research!
Wood furniture — composition
Hardwood means ‘from a deciduous tree’ and softwood means ‘from a coniferous tree’, and some hardwoods (like aspen) are softer than some softwoods.
What you want on exposed surfaces is a wood that’s reasonably scratch-resistant. You can test this easily enough by attempting to draw a thin line with your fingernail across the wood; if it makes a visible dent (use a flashlight here if necessary) you know it won’t stand up to much use.
Structurally, any kind of solid wood or sturdy plywood will do the trick. If plywood, look for at least nine layers. Check the wood for knots, even on unexposed pieces; all knots are susceptible to cracks. Some woods, like pine, are ‘knottier’ than others, and therefore less desirable. Avoid particleboard, pressed wood, or fiberboard.
Veneers — a thin piece of premium wood covering a lower-quality piece of wood — are often used even in very high-quality furniture. As long as the base piece is solid wood or plywood, the only drawback to veneer is that it limits the number of times an item can be refinished.
Wood furniture — construction Joint construction is the main determinant of quality furniture. Anything held together with staples or nails is shoddy construction. Ditto if it’s glued and you can see the glue. Dowels (wooden pegs slotted into two opposing holes) are good, as are screws. The best joints are either dovetail (interlocking squarish ‘teeth’ — see photo) or mortise-and-tenon (narrowed end of one piece inserted into a hole in the other). Corners should have a reinforcing block attached at an angle.
Lift the piece at one corner — it should not twist or squeak. Check that all legs are touching the floor. Press on various corners to see if the piece rocks or wobbles.
Upholstered furniture — composition For a sofa or chair with removable cushions, unzip a seat cover and have a look inside. You should see a block of foam wrapped with dacron, cotton, or (for very high-end cushions) down, preferably with a protective inner cover (usually muslin). Foam-only cushions are both less durable and less comfortable. If you’re buying new furniture, inquire after the density rating of the seat foam: you’re looking for 1.8 pounds or higher.
Upholstered furniture — construction The oft-touted “eight-way hand-tied coil springs” don’t have a corner on comfort; coil, cone, sinuous, and grid springs can all work well. Best just to test the feel of the specific piece by sitting in various spots to see whether you tip or sink. If the cushions are removable, lift and press down on the deck underneath: you should feel even spacing and resistance to pressure.
Squeeze the arms and back: ideally you should not be able to feel the frame through the padding. Lined skirts and ones with weights will hold their shape better over the long run.