Buying dining tables and chairs

Last time we talked a bit about different things to look for when you’re shopping for case goods (dressers, chests of drawers, sideboards, etc.) to be sure you’re spending your money wisely.  I’ll echo something I said then…always buy the best furniture you can afford.  It’ll look better longer and last longer.  That’s one of the reasons I sell good used furniture.  You can get a lot more quality for your money.  This time, we’ll tackle what to look for in a dining table and chairs.

So let’s get to it.  Your basic budget table may have a man-made top (a la formica) or a paper veneer with wood grain painted on.  The leaves will not have any latches or locks to keep them tight.  There probably won’t be an apron or, if there is, it’ll be screwed directly to the table.  A better table will have corner blocks that attach the apron.

The best table will have locks to hold the leaf.  I like the ones that are like window sill locks.  One advantage is that they tighten gradually so they’re better at keeping the leaf held in tightly.  The extension guides that open to allow a leaf will be metal or operate on metal gears.  They move smoother than wood on wood slides.  As an aside, if you have wooden slides on your table, I like using either bar soap or candle wax on the wood slides to make them move easier.  If the table top is solid wood, the boards should be joined with tongue and groove although they may be joined with biscuits, or you may see boards underneath the table running across the long boards to keep the glued up top from moving out of shape with changes in moisture.  Sometimes on a rectangular table you’ll see what are called breadboard ends, boards at the end of the table running across the grain of the other boards to keep the long ones from twisting with time.

But the really important part is the chairs.  Let’s face it, in my household they’ve got a lot to hold up.  It’s not unusual for a single quality chair to be nearly the same price as an inexpensive table.  Inexpensive chairs will have the legs screwed directly into the base.  The seats won’t be removable and the cushions will be a bit thinner.

On a truly quality chair, the legs will be corner blocked, glued and screwed.  The back legs should be all one piece running up to the top of the chair.  The seat should be upholstered and removable.  One advantage of removable seats is that they’re quite easy to re-upholster.  All you need to do is remove the 4 screws that attach the seat and recover them with a new piece of fabric.  You can attach the fabric to the bottom of the seat with a staple gun.  The base of the seat will be a single piece of plywood, although sometimes that’s hard to tell if the fabric wraps all around the base.  Stretcher bars that run between the legs of the chair are a nice touch to help support thinner legs.

Naturally, hardwoods like oak or maple will be more dependable than soft woods like pine or fir.  I’ve never seen a chair made out of manufactured wood.  Someone probably makes them but they probably don’t last long enough to make it into anyone’s home.

Of course, not every table and not every chair holds all the hallmarks of better quality construction, but these are the things I look for when I’m shopping.  I hope you will too.